Shreveport’s man of the moon

By  |  February 18, 2015
The Man in the Moon by William Joyce was published in 2011. Joyce's Moonbot Studios is in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Man in the Moon by William Joyce was published in 2011. Joyce's Moonbot Studios is in Shreveport, Louisiana.

The walls of Cush’s Grocery in Shreveport, Louisiana, are covered in snowmen, bugs, animals, aliens, and sundry holiday-themed inanimate objects, each with a face (and the occasional food stain) and displayed within its own pastel wooden frame. It’s all the art of William Joyce, who comes in two or three times a week, my waitress tells me, usually for lunch. He draws on the grocery’s paper tablecloths.

“If he signs it, we put it up,” she says. “We had an appraiser come in once. They’re worth a lot.”

Joyce is well known for his children’s books (The Guardians of Childhood series, the Rolie Polie Olie series), and in 2012 he won an Oscar for The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, a short film. His latest picture book, The Numberlys, has held prime real estate in bookstore children’s sections. In a small community like Shreveport, where everyone calls him Bill, such accomplishments equate to celebrity.

I’m in Shreveport to visit Moonbot Studios, which Bill cofounded in 2009 with partners Brandon Oldenburg and Lampton Enochs. It’s been twenty years since the last time Bill was interviewed for the Oxford American. At that time he was earning literary-artistic clout for children’s books like A Day with Wilbur Robinson, Dinosaur Bob, and Santa Calls. Back then he was passionate about films, but he was only just dipping his toes in those waters. Notably, he was a concept artist for Toy Story, which in 1995 he rightly claimed would “change the world of animation.”

 

Moonbot Studios is tucked into a corner of a biomedical science park. When I visit, a woman named Sara, who has dark, bobbed hair with a subtle purple streak tucked behind each ear, shows me around. Eye-catching, overlarge furniture decorates Moonbot’s lobby; on one wall, a television screen plays Turner Classic Movies above a row of maybe twenty Morris Lessmore picture books—one in each available translation. Sara shows me the conference room (“Probably the most underused space in the studio”); the kitchen (“The team always has cereal”); and a corner of the lobby that she calls the awards hall (“We had so many awards there that the shelves were crumbling”). There’s the artists’ pit, the hub of the studio where red cubicles are clustered in threes and young artists with noise-cancelling headphones hunch over computer screens. There’s the interactive division, a separate wing that feels like a different institution entirely, smaller and intimate with its dim, ambient lamp lighting. There’s an in-house theatre with huge red beanbag chairs, where the animators can review their creations. Dispersed along the studio’s walls are uniformly sized, black bulletin boards, each featuring concept art for a different project. There are more boards than I can count; the story room alone has thirteen.

Despite the pops of color, the playhouse furniture, and the walls and walls of artwork—or maybe because of these things—I find that I am most compelled by the rendering room. This is a dark, glassed-in corner of the studio suite, unbeautiful and concealed by a hallway. Behind the glass, massive black computers—think less of your desktop Mac and more of the supercomputer in John Badham’s WarGames—blink mysterious control-panel lights and hum a soft, low note. The technology of rendering sails over my head, but Sara sums it up as the computer graphics process that turns “a series of still images into the actual video.” Everything Moonbot Studios creates must pass through this room, or another like it (sometimes they outsource). It is, in a way, the beating heart of the place.

 

Before I meet him, I imagine Bill Joyce as you would imagine any children’s book creator: excited as Santa Claus, and as jolly, bathed in the warm glow of innocence. The real Mr. Joyce is more perfunctory than Santa Claus, though he’s jolly enough, considering that he also works in the film industry. (And the game industry. And the app industry. And, if you want to get technical, the furniture industry—he helped design many of the studio’s tables and chairs.) He has a bristle of white-gray hair and glasses with black rims thick enough to resemble goggles. When we talk in his office, he leans far back on one elbow in his chair, cantilevering his legs to the floor; for the most part he focuses his eyes on the wall to my left as though his words are written there. He has a loud laugh that jumps out exactly when you don’t think a joke is coming.

He tells me the story of Moonbot’s birth, which begins as the story of his disillusionment with major animation studios. He worked with them as a writer, producer, production designer, and occasionally as a director for years, but as he watched those studios turn his own books into feature films, the experience soured. “The more money they spent, the more it felt like some of the magic of the stories got kind of leeched out.” He admits, “Several of those movies I don’t like at all.” He won’t tell me which ones—only that he’s “very pleased with Rise of the Guardians.”

Couple this sinking disappointment with his fortuitous friendships with Enochs and Oldenberg, and suddenly Bill Joyce has a studio. In a mere three years, they had their first Oscar. In Bill’s narrative, the process sounds fun and effortless. I ask him if owning his own studio is the fulfillment of a dream.

“I had always hoped to someday win an Oscar,” he said. “I had never really wanted to have a studio, and now I do. But I’ve always wanted to have a team of fantastic artists to work with all the time.”

The studio has just started work on their first feature film, based on British author Veronica Cossanteli’s The Extincts. Bill has also bought back the rights to Dinosaur Bob, which he says will probably be “at least a feature film.”

However, Bill says, “We don’t want to just be a movie studio. We want to be an idea place.” As a result, the creative energy of Bill and his team pours into a wide spectrum of miscellany, ranging from non-narrative interactive apps for toddlers, to an educational film companion for Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” On top of this, of course, Bill still writes books. Billy’s Booger, which he was just starting at the time of his 1995 OA appearance, is almost finished.

I’m anxious to know why Bill and his partners have opted to start a studio in the South—Shreveport, Louisiana, after all, is not the first town that comes to mind when one considers networking in the entertainment industry. Secretly, I am hoping he will wax romantic about his hometown. Maybe he has memories of a grandmother who looked suspiciously like the grandmother in The Leaf Men, or an eccentric next-door neighbor who inspired lovable mad scientist Dr. Maximillian Zooper in The Mischievians.

If he has such anecdotes, he doesn’t tell them. Instead he says sensibly, “Our quality of life here is so much less expensive and so much better than if we lived in Los Angeles and San Francisco and New York.”

And there’s artistic benefit to living frugally: “I’ve always kept my—as they say—nut, low. So I would have the freedom to take the chances that seem to be the backbone of whatever success I have. I take risks that don’t seem like risks, but I make adventurous creative decisions that are fearful of second-guessing. And it seems to me like every time I go out on what people perceive as a limb, that’s when things succeed the most.”

 

The story of Moonbot Studios has another major character: Hurricane Katrina. After the storm, a lot of film production moved from New Orleans to Shreveport; all of a sudden there were “like fifteen movies” being made in the city, Bill tells me. One such film-industry evacuee was Lampton Enochs, now the studio’s managing partner, who first approached Bill with the idea of starting Moonbot.

“And so it was an experiment to see if we could try that, and we did our short film, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, based on a book I hadn’t finished yet. Then we won the Oscar, and that put us on the map. It proved that we could do what we had set out to do, and that we had built a team that was reliable. We’ve been busy ever since.”

Bill calls the story of Morris Lessmore “a simple parable.” When I tell him that I like the movie, he says, “thank you very much,” in a way that sounds almost surprised, even as his Oscar watches us from the corner of his desk.

After Katrina, Bill joined a team of artists commissioned by the Shreveport Regional Arts council. A crew of photographers and oral historians went to shelters in Shreveport and New Orleans to listen and tell people’ stories.

During that time, he says, “One thing I saw that really struck me was that everything in New Orleans for a while was gray, just covered with this kind of powdery mud. You’d walk around after the water had receded, and there was just all the flotsam and jetsam of everyone’s houses, everyone’s lives, that filled the streets,” he says. “You’d come upon these dune-sized drifts of books: books that had been in everybody’s houses and libraries—because most of the libraries had flooded—were just frozen, like this bas-relief sculpture, in these heaps. It reminded me of the people we were talking to, who were almost like blank books when we began to talk to them.”

This scene also constitutes the first several minutes of the Morris Lessmore film, when a Wizard of Oz-esque, blustery storm blows the little suspender-clad man off his book-piled patio and into an ashen world where uprooted houses have fallen out of the sky and landed upside-down. Mr. Morris Lessmore, like the Katrina victims Bill met—“some of them were still in shock, some were still wearing the clothes that they wore as they ran for their lives”—is also ashen, a blank gray page. What the aftermath of the storm taught Bill, and what he tried to convey in the film, was that “someone’s life could be as a book that they had written, and had been washed clean, and now they’re having to start over.” Or more succinctly, “Everybody’s story mattered.”

In the film, Morris Lessmore is ushered back into a world of color by a library full of living books, chief among them a blue hardbound Humpty Dumpty, which stays perched near Morris’s elbow throughout and guides the hero back into a world of books. Humpty Dumpty is a recurring character in Joyce’s work. In the noir story of Diggs Nightcrawler (available for PlayStation Wonderbook), he is the victim of a malicious shattering. Back in ’95, Bill thought about writing the story of a snowman who helps put Humpty together again, out of a feeling of solidarity born of their mutual roundness and whiteness. When I ask Bill about this pattern, he says that eggs are “an incredibly pleasing shape,” and I worry that I have once again read too much into an aspect of Mr. Joyce’s career, seeing visions of theme and backstory where there is only cold, hard aesthetics to be found.

But he continues: “I think that he was the first character I felt an emotion for, because he fell off a wall and he broke. And he looks so damn happy, you know? He’s up there on the wall, and he’s doing great, and all of a sudden he’s this pile of yolk and shards. Then there are all these people trying to put him back together again, and they’re extremely mournful in their inability to do so, and it’s like, Well, that’s not fair!” He laughs. “So he sort of introduced me to the unfairness of life. I think I’ve always been trying to put him back together again.”

 

I leave Moonbot Studios thinking of prepositions that relate “man” to “moon.” The phrase “man on the moon” could refer to any of the twelve men who walked the moon’s surface during the Apollo missions. “Man in the moon” represents a long and multicultural lore by which we earthlings read a human face in the moon’s pattern of dark craters; it’s also the title of the Bill Joyce book (my favorite) that gives his studio its name. In Bill’s hands, The Man in the Moon is the story of a solitary man, bereaved of his parents in infancy and raised on the moon by a brigade of moonbots and other friendly lunar creatures. He listens to the wishes of children that have been carried up to his home by lost balloons and, unable to cure children’s inevitable fear of the dark, devises a way to make the moon shine at night.

This, to me, is similar to the role of a children’s book creator—or, depending on your generation, a children’s film creator. Spinning a story to fall asleep by. A prevention of fear in the dark. Which makes Bill Joyce, I guess, a man of the moon. Not a permanent resident (he’s too down-to-earth, so to speak), but an ambassador, a conveyor of its hopeful stories. And it’s fine that he’s thoroughly an earthling. As he says, “Where you are is becoming less and less of an issue. What you do is what matters.”

Meg Mendenhall is from Jackson, Mississippi.

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