Numberlys is the second story app from Louisiana-based Moonbot Studios – a digital animation and development company founded in 2010 by William Joyce, Brandon Oldenburg and Lampton Enochs. These are the folks who brought us the award-winning and now Oscar-nominated The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. As books were blown around the screen, the minds of those watching blew in a more metaphorical sense.
Meet the Numberlys – small martian-like creatures who speak gobbledygook because the alphabet, words and language have yet to be invented. Theirs is a world ordered by numbers and that’s what the Numberlys produce – day in, day out. The production line provides the backdrop for the story: highly-industrialised, monochrome, repetitive.
The animation is interspersed with quirky alliterative text that fills the page in a big, blocky type and is read aloud by a germanic-sounding narrator.
The story gathers momentum when we meet our breakaway group of Numberlys – numbers 1-5 – who begin to ask questions and express a desire for something ‘different’. Together, these 5 small beings start to manually create letters. And this is where the interactive games begin. Users are encouraged to spin pedestals, fire canons, bounce a trampoline, hammer metal to help craft each individual letter. In this stark black and white landscape, single red lights are prompts inviting us to take part.
As the alphabet takes shape so this inspirational tale progresses. This app isn’t a quick hit, it’s a slow-burner, one in which you invest some time. It’s aimed at children but the market is really wide open. Not least because so many of the cultural references will be lost on the younger ones whereas adults will be both intrigued and amused.
Visually the app harks back to the 1930s – an era of great innovation and experimentation as defined by Charles Ebbets’ iconic photograph ‘Lunchtime atop a Skyscraper’ (the one of the construction workers sitting on a girder above a developing New York city), and films such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or the original 1933 version of King Kong. And the stark black and white landscape broken towards the end by brightly coloured letters reminded me of the more recent William H.Macy film Pleasantville.
Is it no coincidence that the app’s visual identity is cradled in this bygone era of filmmaking? Can we draw parrallels between those industry creatives and today’s publishers and developers embracing another new medium for telling and sharing stories? Are we, like early 20th century filmmakers, entering a ‘golden era’ of storytelling? As Moonbot’s founding partner William Joyce says: ‘We’re getting to explore a whole new avenue of storytelling, but at the same time, it’s the same pragmatic ideas about plot, just mixed with all the new toys that keep showing up.’
Moonbot is a small, agile and highly-creative studio prepared to take on the big players. The fact that Mr. Morris Lessmore is now an Oscar nominated project is a telltale sign of their capabilities. Having these creative minds let loose on something that can easily be described as a children’s book app is something that the publishing industry should be excited about. These are the people who can really show us what happens when storytellers, animators, film-makers, and new technologies collide.