Interview: How Do You Launch An Animation Studio? How About Winning An Oscar?

When Brandon Oldenburg, co-founder of Deep Ellum-based Reel FX studios, and author and illustrator William Joyce opened their new Moonbot Studios, they knew they needed to launch the creative company with a short film. It would be a calling card, a way of illustrating just what the business partners and friends wanted to do with their new company. And they knew to get the attention they wanted, their short would have to be good enough to win an Oscar.

Sound presumptuous? Maybe, but this Sunday Moonbot’s short, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,” is one of five animated shorts nominated for an Academy Award. The film (you can read FrontRow’s review here) tells the story of a book lover who is displaced by a storm, and, finding the words blown right off the pages of his books, he retreats, only to discover and take refuge in a magical house full of animated, flying books.

We caught up with Oldenburg and Joyce ahead of the ceremony to chat about the making of their movie.

FrontRow: Brandon, this is your first directorial project. Was it something you wanted to do for sometime?

Brandon Oldenburg: On a larger scale, this is a directorial thing and it is really cool, to take something from the original idea and take it all the way through to completion. It is such a treacherous path. And Bill and I had been dreaming about a collaborative process since 1998. That story is multi-layered, but the beginning of our relationship happened in 1998.

William Joyce: Come on, you have to tell it right.

BO: Okay, well you tell it.

WJ: I had been working on children’s books for a while. And so, one day, Brandon starts sending these crazy boxes full of stuff that explodes. And there was always a message: come and work with us at Reel FX. It was a little alarming, but kind of charming. I finally got on the phone to see how pathological he was. And after that I thought there is something here that sounds cool, and it reminded me of when Pixar got started. I told myself, Bill, you don’t have time for that. But I had a felling.

So went to Dallas, and pulling into Downtown Dallas, I called Brandon and asked him, “How do you get to your place?” And he was not really sure. I was on my way to Waco, TX. So I turn around, and he said, “I don’t know the street names very well, but we are next to the Hooters downtown.”

BO: laughs.

WJ: Then I find Reel FX, and this kid walks in. I ask, “Are you Brandon? And he says, “Yeah.” But they are all look like they’re 16. I’m thinking, this is an afterschool program. If we go out, they are going to think Brandon is my son. They won’t card my son, but they’ll card Brandon. But I just started working with them. We worked on a short film, Rise of the Guardians, and I have had several books in that series that have come out with Simon and Schuster. And then, later on, I wanted to start my own company, and I thought, I got this guy who knows how to do money. So we started our company. And then we said, let’s do this short film that we thought about doing at Reel FX. You have to do a short film to show what you can do. And we had mortgage our houses to pay for our short, but then we found an investor.

FR: You really took out new mortgages for this movie?

BO: We had to move quickly, so the first house we picked [in Shreveport, LA] we had to rent.

WJ: It was right after he bought a new house.

BO: In 2009. And we said in our first initial meetings, what’s the point of doing this short? The goal is lets get nominated for the Oscar.

WJ: We are also going to change physics and gravity. Laughs

BO: So we submitted it to the USA Film Festival but didn’t get in.

FR: What do you make of that?

BO: I don’t know. I guess they were going for something else.

WJ: Then we won twelve other ones.

BO: At that moment, though, we didn’t win anything yet.

WJ: To take the nice approach to this, we just thought, well, they are not seeing it. But we trusted it in our hearts.

BO: There were a bunch we didn’t get into. We didn’t get into South By Southwest. Those are hard pills to swallow.

WJ: More like rusty nails.

FR: What lends the story its color – and thematic context to a certain extent – is its New Orleans setting. Why did you decide to set the film there?

BO: There’s one really incredible personality that used to work in the French Quarter, Coleen Salley, who I was introduced to in a log cabin during a book swap – and I think we were all wearing tuxedos and playing kazoos. But we had to go down to New Orleans on multiple occasions for film shoots. And one time we brought her a piece of chocolate cake. She read me a story while I was eating the cake. She was a professor of children’s literature, and a supporter of all things children’s illustrated literature. She would also have artists and illustrators come to her house and she would give them a Sharpie and have them draw on her walls. It was incredible. And she knows all our partners at Moonbot. She was an important influence.

Right after Katrina we lost her. Before that, though, she said, “I don’t know how many years I can do this.” She was called Queen Coleen. And she said, “When I die, you’ll going to have to make an effigy of me or I’m going to haunt ya’ll.” So Bill did a drawing; I made a puppet. I loaded up a shopping cart in a park. And we took all these trips to New Orleans. Bill came up with ideas for lots of children’s books standing in his favorite bars, the Napoleon House. So Morris represents all the artists at Moonbot; we all have these moments in our lives that rips these pages from the book. You find yourself in a situation with nothing, and you wonder, how am I going to get out of this mess?

FR: So you were thinking very much about Katrina.

BO: This is something we witnessed happen with all the people who would come up from New Orleans to Texas and Shreveport, staying in the arenas. We thought reading is fundamental, so we organized a donation of millions of books to these people. And we would see what would happen: the children would open a book, and they would be totally immersed in this story. And it was something they could hold onto, that was there. So there is a power of story, not only in the way people share their experiences, but also through observation. And then you would see these photographs of books that floated out into the street with no words on them, and it felt like the perfect analogy. But it wasn’t just Katrina. It was the kind disaster that could happen anywhere, and after the tsunami in Japan, it became bigger for me. This story has a global relevance, and that we told it without words made it even more universal.

WJ: Also, we were worried about books. The publishing industry is in a tumultuous time, and books feel a little threatened. I’ve been publishing books since 1981, and we wanted to stake our claim and say “books matter.” It really is the first way people get stories, through books, and it seemed like an apt story to try to cover. And we are engaged in this kind of magical thinking all the time.

BO: So this love of story plays into what our company is about, and it made sense to show this to the world.


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