Imagine a world populated only with numbers. Every street sign, every town and every person in it is a number. The inhabitants of this world are known as the Numberlys, and they know that something’s missing. Daily the Numberlys go to work in their factory, but what they are producing seems meaningless until they make a remarkable discovery: by happy accident, a small group of Numberlys create the beginnings of the alphabet, but the letters are not fully formed. For this, they need a little help, and this is where the magic of the Numberlys app comes in, because the assistance the Numberlys need arrives in the form of the child playing with the children’s storybook style app.
A narrative introduces the animated world of the Numberlys, which Moonbot Studios founder William Joyce describes as a “chipper dystopian society.” Inspired by early cinema classics such as King Kong, as well as the silent film masterwork Metropolis, the app uses beautifully shaded black and white to illustrate this mechanistic world. The narrator speaks with a comically high-pitched vaguely German accent, perhaps a tip of the hat to the period of German Expressionist filmmaking that inspired the app’s creators.
The narration is perhaps a bit off-beat, but this only adds to its charm. After the introduction, the interactive portion of the app unfolds: the Numberlys search for ways to turn numbers into letters of the alphabet in their factory, and through touch, the user helps make it happen. There is an option to select the interactive portion at any time, and parents of very young children might find this helpful if the children are too young to understand the introduction describing the world of the film. Older children will be drawn into this fascinating world and the Numberlys’ journey to brilliant discoveries.
Moonbot Studios has proven once again that its artists are masters of invention when it comes to creative learning for children. The Numberlys app, along with other projects such as the Oscar-winning animated short “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,” have demonstrated the Moonbot team’s passion for reading, literature, and storytelling. Children and parents alike will delight in all of Moonbot’s projects: the apps and film currently available, and those that are forthcoming in the near future. Discovering this unparalleled level of creativity in animation is a revelation. I feel that I’ve stumbled upon another Pixar in the making.
I had the privilege of interviewing two of the key members of the Moonbot team: Joe Bluhm, extraordinary lead artist, and Moonbot co-founder William Joyce, a creative force to be reckoned with in the film, digital media, and publishing industries. My conversation with them revealed the thought, humor, and passion that inspires each of Moonbot’s projects. The Numberlys app is available here.
The atmosphere of Moonbot seems to be so creative and fun, like a dream factory, and you all have an amazing sense of humor. What is it like to work there?
Joe Bluhm: We park our jet packs in the lobby, then when we go to our UFOs for lunch around 1 p.m., and then a four-hour afternoon movie session followed by scones and tea.
Not all true. What’s amazing about this place is that it’s not built like a typical company or the average studio you might run across. It’s very much hands on by the directors and founders [William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg], and they want everyone else that they choose to be around them to be on this roller coaster ride with them. The directors are ten steps away from every desk, and if they’re not already hovering over your shoulder laughing, sharing stories, talking about characters and the next book or film we’re going to do, then they’re easily accessible for that.
One thing I’ve definitely learned in working in this industry for ten years now is that personality is just as much if not more important than ability. You can find a lot of talented people in a lot of places, but finding the right attitude to be a true collaborator with the team is really hard. We’ve been so lucky to have found so many people who have that right attitude.
What’s amazing to me is that it seems like the fun atmosphere portrayed in some of the Moonbot “making of” videos available on Vimeo feed directly into the creativity you’re using to produce your films and your apps. It’s really fun to watch.
Joe: Absolutely. I think a large part of that is that William Joyce never grew up, and I think he’s teaching us to forget what it’s like to be a grownup because that makes things so much more fun. I don’t know how many times I’ll see a quote that William or Brandon have given, an interview that they’ve done or a photo they’ve had taken, and they do some silly childish stuff. My first instinct is that grownup in me to say “Oh no, that’s not professional,” but then I turn around and say, “No it was. They knew exactly what they were doing. They’re having a good time.” People see that, and that’s kind of the core of what we’re doing. If we’re not having a good time, it’s not worth doing, so we’re just trying to have fun.
It’s being able to think like a child intuitively that makes Moonbot’s apps and films so successful. How did your team come up with the idea of the Numberlys?
William Joyce: I’d been talking to this designer I really admire named Chip Kidd — he’s one of the best book designers in the history of book design — about how much we love fonts, alphabets. All of a sudden it hit me: what if it was a world where we didn’t have fonts? We have to have an alphabet to have fonts, so I was like, “I would be sad if it was a world without an alphabet. Then there wouldn’t be books, there wouldn’t be stories.”
That’s how you get a dystopian society: you don’t have an alphabet yet. You want more. If all you have is numbers — numbers are cool — but you’ll need more than that, and so these little [Numberly] guys make the alphabet. That’s where it started. You need language. You need description. You need words. Numbers are great, but if you just had numbers then things would be, well, Numberly.
Joe: William had this idea literally on a few pieces of lined paper that he had in his desk somewhere. It was just one of those fun ideas that he kept thinking about. We did [“The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore”] film, and then turned it into an app and then we thought, once William decided we were going to do another app: why don’t we try turning that on its head? Let’s do an app, and then try to turn it into a film afterwards.
Where did your team search for visual inspiration?
Joe: We definitely looked at a lot of old cinema like King Kong and [the silent film] Metropolis. That was very heavy inspiration, and there were some old animated cartoons too that defined the characters with the way they move. We tried to keep our inspiration simple and just have a good story and stick with it.
I was so intrigued that part of the inspiration for Numberlys came from the 1939 World’s Fair. How did that play into it?
Joe: This is something that a few of us really enjoy here. There was so much hope and promise [at the World’s Fair], and everything was of such large scale; everything was so new. Seeing it now you realize that it still has that newness and grandness that it had at the time.
It’s this visual imagery that people couldn’t really understand or take in, and they were just in awe of it. The first robot, I think, was one big attraction there. The simple aesthetic and the grunge of the old photographs: we look at things that we just think are really, really cool, and we try to pull from them as much as we can.
You describe a dystopian society in Numberlys, and there is a dark side to a film like Metropolis with its dystopian society or Les Miserables, where human beings are assigned a number instead of instead of a name. The Numberlys are like cogs in a wheel, and they have to break out on their own. That in itself is an interesting message for grownups as well as kids.
William: Good, because that’s who we always do our stories for. I never think of them as kids’ stories. I just think of them as stories that happen to appeal to kids and to me and my team.
We’ve gotten some reviews that the Numberlys is “kind of dark”, but all fairy tales are dark. That’s why kids will like them. It’s like, things were bad, and then these guys had to be smart and make them good. That’s the point of the [Numberlys] story, so that kids will get involved. If it’s all ponies and sunshine and unicorns, there’s no story. You have to start somewhere, and actually I think in Numberlys we present the world as not particularly dark. It’s ingenious, but it needs more, and that’s what letters give you.
I think it’s really interesting you touched on the dark side of fairy tales, because that’s something that’s come up frequently lately on my blog and with some of the films I’m reviewing, like The Hunger Games. Certainly The Hunger Games is a very different kind of movie than what you’re working on, but I think it does have that dark side that young people are interested in exploring, just like the Harry Potter films. I think it’s an element that children can handle to a certain extent within a safe environment.
William: That’s the kind of stories children actually ache for because they’re trying to figure the world out, and they know that there’s dark stuff out there. Stories, fairy tales and things, help them see that you can get through that by being smart, by being clever, by keeping your head, by depending on others, by love, and the hero triumphs. Even the littlest kid needs some drama in their story.
I feel like we’ve got a pretty chipper dystopian society [in Numberlys]. When we first started animating Numberlys, we were like, “They need to look really depressed.” Then I changed my mind, because then this gets depressing, and I don’t want it to be depressing.
It’s just a fine line. You sit there and you think, where is the tone to this taking you? Getting it too dark is bad, and what we often wrestle with is just how far to take that, when it becomes too scary or too sad. We’re always cognizant of that, but we don’t ever want to leave it out entirely because if you do then nothing’s at stake.
I think there is an issue right now of things becoming very sanitized. I don’t know if you’ve been aware, but I notice many of the nursery rhymes have been re-written so that they’re much less threatening.
William: No I hadn’t. That’s the stupidest thing. I hate that! No more Hansel and Gretel. The three blind mice: what are they: the three near-sighted mice?
In one version of the “Rockabye Baby” song, instead of “When the bow breaks the cradle fall, and down will come baby cradle and all,” it’s “When the bough breaks the cradle will fly, and up will drift baby into the sky.”
William: That’s awful! That’s a total lie! The whole point of that rhyme, and why it haunts you as a kid, is that things can go wrong. You think about the baby when you’re a kid, and you think: maybe the baby will be all right; maybe the cradle will break. You go through these scenarios in your head. But if you say that the cradle will fly, then you’ve totally lied to the kids. If you’re up in the tree and then the limb breaks, you’re not going to sprout wings. That’s horrible! That’s turning something basic and perfect that’s lasted a few hundred years, and totally destroying it.
With The Three Stooges, they pull each other’s hair out, and they hit each other in the head all the time, and they do all this stupid stuff. Grownups are like, “They should never show The Three Stooges again. It’s terrible imitative behavior. Children will be poking each other’s eyes out everywhere you go.” And I’m like, no! Don’t you remember when you were a kid watching The Three Stooges? You’re like, “Oh, I’m not a stooge. I’m smart.” The Three Stooges are fun because you’re smarter than they are. You don’t do the stupid things that the Stooges — they’re called that for a reason — do all day.
What are some of the other apps and projects Moonbot is working on right now?
Joe: The [“Morris Lessmore”] children’s book is coming out in June, and we just got the test prints. We’re checking out the folded and gathered unbound pages.
Right now we’re working on an app you can use when you have the printed book open in front of you. You hold up your iPad or iPhone [to the book], and there are three-dimensional character-generated interactions going on in and around the book while you’re reading it that you can’t experience any other way.
William: They’re all things that enhance the story or enhance the visuals in ways that we weren’t able to do either in the short film or in any of the other ways that we’ve been exploring the story, so it’s really quite cool. When you point the iPad at the cover of the book then all of a sudden it will sprout the book itself with arms and legs, and it’ll be beckoning you to open it up and read it. It’s really fun because we like to explore these new technologies and new ways of making these things come alive.
There have so many articles about movies being in trouble and people moving away from paper books. Do you think that apps with a cinematic flair could be a new favorite medium for visual story telling?
Joe: There’s something wonderful about going to the theater and sitting with a crowd and experiencing it, and there’s something wonderful about sitting down with a book, and there’s something wonderful about playing a video game. I think that all these things will find their paths, because just experiencing these things with other people and enjoying these different mediums and experiences — I think people will want that always. I think the key is to try to find a way to combine them in an interesting way and let them live in harmony, like the [“Morris Lessmore”] book companion app. You can’t have this app and play it without owning the book, and you can’t experience [how the app enhances the book] without the app, so they’re totally connected. You need both, and I think that might start happening a little more too.
I definitely personally do not think that [digital media] is going to kill entertainment or books or children’s books or literature of that kind. There’s something wonderful about a book. Like I said, we got our first copies of the “Morris Lessmore” picture book into the studio, and the first thing people started doing was smelling it. It’s this wonderful connection you have when you hold this printed material in your hand, and then it can age with you, and you can share it. It’s a tangible thing. You can’t accidentally delete a file or drop your phone and ruin it. It’s actually a piece of material that you can love. I don’t think that will ever go away entirely, but I do think that people are forging ahead and trying to create new experiences with digital media.
We’re trying to create cinematic games and experiences that are like books, and they’re for children and adults, I think they’re all going to live in harmony. We have one foot in the future while holding on to the beauty of the past. Neither of them are going to go away. We’re trying to embrace all of it.
Special thanks to Casey Zacharias and Core Care for loaning the iPad used for this review.