Q & A with Joe Bluhm, lead artist on the Morris Lessmore iPad app

Q & A with Joe Bluhm, lead artist on the Morris Lessmore iPad app

If you aren't familiar with The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore iPad app, I highly recommend you download it. The developers Moonbot Studios based in LA have 'blurred the line between picture book and animation' in one of the most visually stunning iPad apps. Joe Bluhm, lead artist at Moonbot gives us the story behind the huge success of this app:

What made you launch a book app?

We were in production on our animated short film, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore”, when the iPad came out.  Learning about this wonderful device, being avid iPhone users, and getting excited about the capability of technology being utilized for a new approach to storytelling, it seemed natural to try to elevate the plan of a children’s book to a new level.  Morris was (and is!) slated to be a printed, physical, illustrated book, and it just seemed wonderfully and deliciously appropriate to try something new to us, new to the world, and program an iPad storybook App.

What was your background?

Personally, my background is in art and illustration.  I worked as a fine artist and illustrator for years, where I really got into anything involving living creatures and characters.  Through my illustration work, I was contacted by a New York City animation studio, so I worked in CG animation through freelance and advertising, with clients like Virgin Media, Playhouse Disney, Bette Midler, and others.  From there I was naturally drawn to more artful storytelling and entertaining approaches, much like we have here at Moonbot Studios.  My current role at Moonbot is Lead Artist, but we wear many hats, and I had the privilege and joy of being the lead Creative Designer on the Morris Lessmore iPad app.

What were your aims and objectives with Morris?

Our goals with the Morris Lessmore App were simple: story is king.  Every decision, every bit of interaction, every game, and every functionality had to be something that kept the reader in the story, or moved the story forward.  There are so many distraction in other storybook apps… bells and whistles that don’t serve the story, and in fact often pull you out of the story.  We did not want that, so everything had to be as intuitive as possible, appropriate, and pull you further into Morris’ world and experience. 

Any details on the development process, collaboration etc?

For this project, we had not yet gotten Moonbot Interactive (a division of Moonbot Studios) off the ground, so we relied upon the genius and skills of a talented team of programmers at Twin Engine Labs. They are a twin-brother founded team of iOS programmers here in Shreveport, LA who worked for major groundbreaking and top-tier companies all over the US, but decided to start their own magic.  They truly stepped up to the plate and did a great job programming our crazy ideas and detail-oriented eyes. 

What were the development costs?

We were in a unique position, having created a 14 minute short film, of access to very lush, full assets as a starting point.  It was fairly easy to repurpose these assets, scenes, animations and elements to fit the storybook form on the iPad.  Because of this setup, it is hard to estimate costs on the project.  It’s definitely tied to the production of our award-winning short film.

How did you create so much buzz about the app?

Marketing has changed so much.  I hate to use the word ‘viral’, but we truly allowed people to discover Morris Lessmore on their own.  A few things definitely helped: we were showing our film at festivals all over the world, and it was getting some very good reviews, awards, and press.  We also are all admittedly tech junkies, so we are on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other arenas, sharing with our families our proud work.  This led to a lot of the new “mommy-bloggers” reviewing it, as well as a few other sites with a huge tech and creative reader-base, like WIRED and FAST CO.design .  After that, it was like a force of its own, we barely needed to ever manage.  We truly believe that if you get a quality product and good story out there, people will see it and they will share it with others and that is what we saw with Morris Lessmore.

What are your general views on the challenges of marketing apps.

There is no doubt that Apple’s App Store promotions help.  Our sales went up when we were featured, and I guaranteed that is a consistent thing.  I also think that marketing Apps is a fairly new and unpredictable thing.  Morris Lessmore was popular in the US and UK, then after a couple months Australia outsold both locations.  It is unpredictable.  We were featured on the front page of the Tech section of the New York Times (print and online), and yet certain blog write-ups bumped sales far more.  Were we to bet on one or the other, we would have been wrong, but we are learning this new market with everyone else.  Technology is moving fast.

How did you decide on the price of the app?

We initially felt we could sell it for more, but we want to be a fair price for everyone, considering other Storybook Apps on the App Store.  I feel that pricing philosophy and customers will evolve and pricing will change, but for not it’s still fairly low.  A printed picture book may sell for $20 or more, but people are hesitant to spend $2.99 for a rich App that does much more and offers a unique, rich experience (even after spending $800 on the device!).  I find this, again, to be something that will change, but that is only my guess.  But for now, we want our stories to be priced for everyone.

How many have you sold?

Our sales obviously change daily, but I know that we have already passed 75,000 Apps sold.

Any geographical breakdown?

Morris Lessmore is currently very popular in the US, UK, and Australia.

What do you think about the ipad book market in general?

It is growing.  Digital books are one thing, but the interactive tablet storybooks and apps are something which is still being pioneered and tested.  The prices don’t quite seem to be figured out, ideas are still being explored, and this form of storytelling is in its infancy.  It is wonderful, and I see a bright future, but the printed book will always be around, and treasured.

Do you have future plans in this area?

We will have a new storybook App available this winter.  There will be more games and interactivity, and it will appeal to a very young audience, as well as adults and parents.  We are in production now and are very excited about how it’s going.  This one is also another original story from the mind of William Joyce and will be a blast.