Saturday 21 September 2013

Interview: Brandon Oldenburg and Limbert Fabian, Directors of The Scarecrow

You may be familiar with Moonbot Studios, the studio behind The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. If you're not, a) you should be, and b) you should now be familiar with them as the studio behind the fantastic new short film/ad for Chipotle Mexican Grill, The Scarecrow (watch it here)! Inspired by classic cinema like The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Scarecrow - which has already amassed more than 5 million views on YouTube since I started transcribing this on Wednesday, the short has passed 6 million views - is directed by Brandon Oldenburg (who helmed Morris Lessmore with fellow Moonbot co-founder, Bill Joyce) and Limbert Fabian. I recently spoke to Brandon and Limbert about the short, the accompanying app, the importance of cohesion between the film and the app, working with Chipotle and CAA, the film's music choice, what's going on at Moonbot now and next (including a feature film collaboration with Guillermo del Toro), and much more!

I'd like to express big thanks to Brandon and Limbert for taking the time to chat to me and for being such nice chaps. Thanks also to Sara Hebert at Moonbot for setting the whole thing up. As well as putting out some of the best short films on the planet and being one of the best independent animation studios on the planet, the guys and gals at the Shreveport, Louisiana also happen to be incredibly nice all round.

The interview is fully transcribed here, or if you'd rather listen to Brandon, Limbert and I discuss everything for yourself, you can check out the half-hour audio of the interview in the special new episode of the A113Animation Podcast, which will be out later today (listen here now). Episodes 6 and 7 of the podcast will be a two-part Disney Renaissance special, which will be available late this month and early next month respectively; we'll be recording those later today.
A113Animation: Okay, firstly I just want to say a big congratulations on making yet another beautifully animated, great sounding, great moralled and just generally entertaining short film. But, for my money, what this one has over The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is this one also made me hungry. So congratulations on that.
Brandon Oldenburg and Limbert Fabian: [Both laugh]
LF: How great for actual food, versus knowledge!
A113: Exactly, who needs knowledge when you can have food?
LF: Absolutely, right.

A113: Obviously you're getting a pretty great reaction to the short all over, and I think it's well deserved. So big props to you guys!
BO and LF: Thank you!

A113: One of the first things I want to comment about is the music choice. You've got kind of a slower, more depressing version, really, of "Pure Imagination," which works fabulously. So, how did that choice of music come about?
LF: The choice of music, actually, was a little bit of a journey for us. At the beginning of the film, we started with a variety of different things. The creative agenda for the featured music in the film was to do a couple of things: the first thing, it needed to drive the story, almost like a soundtrack device, if you will; then we wanted lyrics that were ironic and made the picture sort of surprising to watch. So early on we were using a song called "Isn't It Romantic?," because of its irony, but it wasn't quite working as far as the orchestration was concerned. We were looking then for something a bit more popular, there was a specific track by a band called Grizzly Bear, that we really enjoyed because it had this mechanised, sort of percussive thing, that helped the story move, as if, you know, he's on a conveyor belt, and the daily doldrums of his job and the monotony of what he's doing... It felt right. And then the song opened up in a very specific way, and it felt more orchestral. But something was still missing, because the lyrics in that song were a little bit... way off base for what we were looking for. So then we discovered the Willy Wonka track. The Willy Wonka track worked - "Pure Imagination" worked - on so several levels, and it added one more layer, which was the levels of nostalgia and this idea that there was something behind the curtain, if you will. So when we drop that in, all those pieces fell into place; it had the mechanised feel, and that idea of wonder behind the curtain, it had the lyrics that spoke to the idea of the irony that we wanted from the story, and it had this great internal sort of visual that we all loved from the film [Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory], that there's this magical place and all you have to do is look behind and find it.
BO: In the early 70s when I saw the film, you know, it was like this is awesome, amazing, the coolest factory in the world, where Charlie gets to visit. And the first thing you see in our story is the complete opposite of that, so for those who've experienced the story and know where the music is coming from, you'll immediately have some sort of reaction, emotionally, tapping into nostalgic memories. That's great, it resonates on that level, but more importantly the song's message - "want to change the world? There's nothing to it." - matched and aligned with the message that Chipotle's vision and desires has, with the slogan "Cultivate a better world." So it sort of sealed the deal for us when we were throwing the Gene Wilder track up against picture, we were like 'woah, this is working on so many levels.' Now we just had to find a way to orchestrate it to where we make that transition from irony to hopefulness by the end.
LF: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. And then of course, I'm sure you're curious how we arrived at Fiona [Apple, who sings the version of "Pure Imagination" heard in the film]. I think Fiona was something that was developing with our partnership, through CAA [Marketing, a division of Creative Artists Agency] and Chipotle, and they were helping fund that connection. Obviously with [Chipotle's previous animated ad] Back to the Start, they had done something wonderful by taking an older artist and covering a newer song, so this time around we wanted to do the opposite, take an old song and have a younger artist, or a more current artist, cover that song. What Fiona brought to the table was fantastic, she brought this haunting quality just by the effect of her voice in general, that was sort of an extra layer of icing on the entire narrative - it sort of filled in the gaps that we thought might have been missing from what the Gene Wilder track was doing.

A113: Yeah, and obviously it works very well. I mean, this is something you guys at Moonbot do quite well, it's something you did well with Morris Lessmore and something you do well here: You kind of bridge halfway between the cutting edge of the great animation of the short films, and the kind of nostalgic quality.
BO: [Laughs] Yes, we have an affinity for our past. Or the past that we didn't even get to live in! We also love classic cinema, and that sort of seeps into everything we do.
LF: We just consume everything that's out there; we're huge fans of anything that's animated out there, for all different merits. It sort of comes out of our pores, if you will, once we just sort of digest it all and just put it out.
BO: And I love talking about the classic cinema references that we're pulling, with younger audiences as well. My daughters, specifically, do not know why or where some of the references come from, but then I have a blast showing Wizard of Oz to them for the first time, I have a blast enlightening them to, you know, a Fritz Lang film. And that goes for the entire younger audience out there, I think, there's something about it that they don't even know, but it's beautiful and it's exciting and then - where did that come from? - we can open a dialogue about it from a visual sense, and share these hidden gems and treasures of cinematic history with people, to make sure we aren't forgetting our past as we move into exciting new stories for the future.

Concept art for The Scarecrow.

A113: Okay. When I did my write up on my website about the short, I said that I thought it was the best animated short film of the year. Which I do think, but that's kind of strange to say, because it is a short film, yes, but it's also really an advert for Chiptole, and it's a tie-in for an app of the same name. So, I suppose my question is what did Chipotle say to you when you started on the project? Had they an idea of what they wanted it to be like? Did they say 'okay, we want it to look like this, we want it to have this, we want this to be the message,' or was it kind of from you guys?
BO: Well I think it's important also to mention that CAA played the major role in the process here. When they approached us, they had conceptualised six or seven different rough treatment ideas on paper, in written form, that were getting to the heart of Chiptole's ideal message. But the thing is, it was very challenging, we were giving the task of moving towards education, versus entertainment, but it was our job all along to make sure that we didn't lose the entertainment value of it. There are deeper messages within all of this, that hopefully we're just scratching the surface of, that at least entice you to learn more, or at least open a dialogue. So, out of those six treatments, we - Limbert, ourselves here, and our entire team at Moonbot - started to play with how we could meld them together into an interesting narrative, that justified animation. It's important when you're animating that it's not like, 'oh you could've just shot that with live-action;' why are we animating it, is the question we always ask ourselves. And when we are able to zero in on a character like a scarecrow and a villain a crow, that's obviously justifying animation. Then, more so than that, there's this sort of aesthetic that we wanted to tap into, that feels a little bit like sound stages from MGM films, but then it takes it to a whole new level when we start to incorporate miniatures and matte paintings.
LF: Yeah, absolutely. Well, you know, strangely when we arrived, like Brandon said, at the story, what clicked for us was they provided us with several ideas about what the messaging should be, but they wanted us to go ahead and make a film. I think what was going on, if I could sort of guess, is they saw Morris, they saw what we were doing with the life beyond the film, and the app, and were going 'okay, these guys are thinking a different way about how to sustain a story and how to tell a story an interesting way, plus, gosh, this feels very comfortable and warm and nostalgic; it just feels right. How do we tap into that?' And we were given free rein to be Moonbot, if you will, and tell the most interesting story that we could tell. And again, we just latched onto things that made the most sense; so the scarecrow was from one concept, and the idea of sort of peeking behind the curtain and seeing what's going on with production was part of another idea. So, you know, we thought if we string these three things together here, we've got something! And they're like 'well gosh, you guys are the experts, go ahead and keep doing that.' Our intention was always just to make a film that wasn't... Brandon and I both have a history of commercial production in our past, almost fifteen years of commercial production, and early on we had our commercial art head on, if you will, and we were thinking, well, the client might make this, and we should probably do a Chipotle logo here. But they kept stripping that stuff out and kept saying, 'no, no, you guys, go with your gut, do what you think is right, and peel back where we need to be, which is to make this really beautiful piece of art that just kind of sits on its own, outside of any sort of specific branding.' And that was really liberating and fantastic and wonderful to be part of.

A113: Well that was something that struck me when I was watching it, as well. I kept expecting the logo to pop up every thirty seconds or something. Like you say, it works so much better that it kind of exists on its own, and then you've kind of got just the logo at the very end.
LF: Yeah. Chipotle as a client, they don't want any of that stuff in there, they saw the power in that, and wanted to hold on to it. It was wonderful to have that.

An example of some of the miniatures used in The Scarecrow.

A113: How long had you been working on the project then? How long ago was it that you started it?
BO: Over two years now, I think, is sort of the rough timeline on this. We weren't even nominated for an Oscar when the dialogue had started. Our short film Flying Books had been in film festivals, and the app had recently come out and started to receive some attention in the App Store. And that's when CAA called us up and said 'hey, we like what you're doing in all these mediums and your desire to tell stories in innovative ways; we think we have the perfect project to collaborate on,' they broke the ice that way and we were hooked.
LF: And we were huge fans of what was done the first time around with Back to the Start.
BO: Yeah.
LF: And there was a part of us that... Brandon and I both knew that, gosh, that project and what it was doing and the idea of advertising in general, for a brand, was very unique, and it stood out for us. And we were like, 'woah, gosh, to be part of that machine and that thing... What would we do in that arena?'
BO: We also loved the challenge of it.
LF: Absolutely.
BO: Well, the bar's set pretty high with Back to the Start [laughs] It can't get much higher. How are we going to jump that? So when you're building a small company like what we've built here at Moonbot, one of our mission statements was that, if we were to take on a work-for-hire job, let's make sure it's best of the best, let's make sure that we're taking on the most challenging, exciting projects. And there it was, right there, right for the taking. We're like, 'this is exactly what we were talking about! Now it's like right in front of us, we've got to do this!'
LF: Yeah.

A113: What's the budget like on a short film like this then, compared to what you were having for Morris Lessmore, or what you might've had for a feature, say?
BO: Well, we are unable to disclose digits. However, let's just say that the amount of money that would go into a thirty second spot to sell a hamburger, and the ad buy that goes along with that budget, are comparable. But the difference here is that there wasn't any ad buy, it was literally just, you know, getting it onto YouTube.
LF: I think it was a pretty smart use of funds. That allowed time to explore and develop the work as opposed to, you know, you have a set budget for a 30 second spot, and then there's a media buy... And a specific sort of time to work with - this needs to be a 30 second spot, or this needs to be a 45, or whatever it needs to be. This was a little bit more organic, and there was some flexibility from the client, so that they were able to afford that to us and say 'go and do what you need to do.'
BO: And keep in mind that the game component of this is equally as important; it's not necessarily just a spin-off of the short film. Both were built in tandem; we knew we were going to have both projects happening. It wasn't like 'oh you're making a short? How about we do a game too,' it was all about making that narrative experience happen in the short film and then segue into the game, so you pick up where the short leaves off.

A screenshot of the Scarecrow iOS app.

A113: Yeah, because that again makes Moonbot very unique, in that you guys are not really constricted to one medium: you've got your films, you've got your apps, you've your books... Can you talk us a bit through the thinking of setting out to do that business model? What is it that particularly draws you to wanting to make apps and books as well as the short films?
BO: I'd like to state that we were really methodical and smart with how we approached this, it was really that we just do what we like to do; we love books, we love games, we love movies, we also love yet uncharted mediums, like augmented reality and other things like that. It's important when you have a small little start-up like Moonbot that you're attentive to the way the wind's blowing, and we were. When we were in the middle of production on Flying Books, Steve Jobs announced the iPad and we were like 'wow, this is a game-changer, it feels different, it feels like an exciting new medium,' it felt like someone talking about radio and like, 'wow, what can we do with radio?!'
A113: [Laughs]
BO: Or, 'what can we do with film and making movies?' It felt like the new medium, really, to dive into. So we dove into that. We had no idea where we were going with it, it just felt right and exciting and fun. There's that, and I'd love to say there was this wisdom and methodical planning behind the business model, but we just like to dabble in all mediums.
LF: Yeah, you know, I think one thing that's important to the studio is that, with every project, we are looking for a way to sort of dive into an area that we haven't really lived in before, just for the part of the challenge and the excitement of developing something interesting. Specifically on this project, we wanted to embrace more of an arcade game experience, which is a little different than what we had done with Morris and its app. So we dove in head first and our idea was that it was going to be a fun game to play, a game that just had this visceral sort of arcade experience, if you will, and that was something that we wanted to play around and live in; it drove us creatively, to figure out what would be the best thing to do there. Again, I think that's part of Moonbot's DNA, this idea to go explore and tinker with things that are new to us.

A113: Yeah. I tweeted out just before we were going to do this interview, asking if any of my followers had any questions.
BO: Oh that's cool!
A113: @Obby_oss asks "to you guys, what are the story differences between when you're making an app vs when you're making a movie vs when you're making a book. And how do you approach each?" Like, do you have different processes?
BO: Well you know, the story's the most important thing, it's important not to go, when you're in the story zone and you've got your story mojo going and you're just playing with story, it's important not to put the brakes on and go 'wait a second, what's the game gonna do?!' But when you're in that story zone, you go 'oh, this idea of being up in the city hanging from one of those chairs you would plaster your billboards with, that's a great little mechanic and dynamic to navigate a city. Let's put a pin in that and when we start to get into the video game, maybe that can be a mechanic for gaming.' But it wasn't like trying to stop and look at the other thing and then, 'what are we gonna do here?,' when we're approaching the story in general, we try to maintain this sort of childlike perspective of it; what does my seven year old self say about this? Because I remember experiencing Star Wars, or E.T. for that matter, and going "wow, the picture book that came out with this film sucks!"
A113: [Laughs]
BO: It's just merchandise. They're just regurgitating the same thing, it's not giving me a deeper sense of this world. Or it was made in tandem by the company that also produces the bedsheets and so they didn't get to see the production art, so that's why Chewbacca doesn't look consistently the same as Chewbacca in the film, and that's why I'm frustrated. And that's like an emotional reaction to an IP that we couldn't verbalise when we were seven years old, we just felt weird about it, and now we're able to tap into that memory and go, 'yeah that's why I didn't like that lightsaber toy they made. Because it was like an inflatable piece of crap and it flopped around and didn't actually have any sort of girth to it.' You remember the lightsaber that came out after Star Wars? They were horrible! They were like inflatable noodles. You were better off playing with a broomstick, that was a better lightsaber toy-like experience. Anyway, you got me going.
LF and A113: [Both laugh]

More concept art for the short.

A113: I've got another question from Twitter here: @TomBancroft1 says "How many burritos were eaten in the making of this short film?"
BO and LF: [Both laugh]
LF: You know what, I want to say I wish there was one eaten every day during the production process over the year and a half or two that we were worked on it. But the truth is, there wasn't a, and we still don't have, a Chipotle in Shreveport here. So the burritos were very limited. We would have to drive another city over to go get them whenever we wanted them, and that was a special treat. But yeah, we're finally getting a Chipotle here in town, we haven't had one at all. So, not too many burritos!
A113: [Laughs]
Sara Hebert: Our office manager actually drove to Tyler [Texas], which is an hour and a half away to buy us burritos one day, and I think there were probably a little over 50 burritos that she bought that day - she like wiped out the store! Then she trucked them back to Shreveport.
A113: [Laughs] Well if making the advert for their campaign doesn't guarantee you a shop, I don't know what will!
[All laugh]
BO: Exactly! Good point.

A113: Brandon, when you made Morris Lessmore, that got nominated for, and then eventually won, the Oscar. Are you hoping you can get there again with The Scarecrow?
BO: Well, I don't... I really... You know, I feel like we've already won. And it's kinda crazy, because it's a two-year long project, and the whole goal is just to get a dialogue started about where the food comes from in the culture that we live in, and as far as how we consume and create food. That happened, within 48 hours of releasing it onto the Internet. That was the goal. When we made Flying Books, the goal was to have people pay attention to this little studio in Shreveport and give us a shot, and also hopefully tell a meaningful story that inspires audiences throughout the world. And that happened there. So when you're able to get an Oscar, that helps open doors, and then that opened the door obviously to this project. I don't really know if we can actually even apply for an Oscar through this film, we'll see. But, either way, we're just thrilled by the fact that we have over 5 million views now on YouTube! It's exciting. And that's enough.

Diggs Nightcrawler, available now in the UK on PS3. Order here.

A113: Okay. And what've you got lined up next then at Moonbot? What have you two guys in particular got? Are there any new short films on the horizon for you all?
LF: Absolutely.
BO: Definitely. Short films and feature films and larger format video games - and more specifically, one that's about to come out through PlayStation in the Sates. But you being a European publication, you can already talk about this one, because it's already come out over there, and it's called Diggs Nightcrawler [more on that project here] and it's for the PlayStation, and it uses a new technology, Augmented Reality, on a platform called Wonderbook. You sit in front of your camera, you use your [PlayStation] Move, you use this book that it comes with, and it tracks all of the narrative storytelling gameplay on the book that's in your hands, and when you look at the screen, it's as if you're holding a magical book. And you use the book itself, which is in your physical hand, as a way to navigate the story and push it forward through gameplay.
A113: Mm, very interesting.
BO: It's a noir detective tale that's approachable for kids and parents alike, and that goes back to our cinematic sort of love, which is that we're tapping into things like  The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca with all of our references, but the character is a bookworm, who looks sort of like Humphrey Bogart.
LF: And his best friend is Humpty Dumpty, and he needs to figure out who bumped him off the wall.
BO: Yeah, how did Humpty get bumped? And who did it?
LF: It's a fun little project, and the animation in it is the best that we aspire to do. It's wonderful work, and it shows off what we can do here.
BO: It's almost a feature length amount of animated content. So that project was happening in tandem while we were working on the Chipotle project.

A113: Can you speak at all about any of the upcoming short films? Or you mentioned there something about a feature? Or is that all very hush-hush?
BO: No, I mean, I think it's kind of out there that we've been working closely on a game and feature for the story of the Golem, a retelling of the ancient Jewish folk-tale The Golem, set in Prague. And we've been working on the game for some time, but more importantly we've been working on the narrative, and making sure that the game takes us down a path that the film doesn't, and that they work together. Guillermo del Toro [director of Pan's Labyrinth and Pacific Rim] is a writer on the project.
A113: Oh wow.
BO: And an executive producer on it.
A113: It seems like Guillermo del Toro's an executive producer of everything at the moment.
BO and LF: [Both laugh]
BO: Yeah, that's why I feel safe to say it, because, you know, he's producing everything at the moment. But no, there's a lot of like-minded sensibilities, if you look, because he comes from a sketchbook mentality, and our company's rooted in sort of a sketchbook sort of culture.
LF: Yeah.
BO: You know, draw it, write about it, and keep strengthening that muscle. And his journals, and if you've seen some of the artwork that he's done in his sketchbooks, they eventually come to life one day. And the same goes for what we do. If you watch our little intro video about Moonbot Studios on our website, you see us and you see our sketchbooks, and you can see our blog every Tuesday, you can see our latest sketches in our sketchbooks. So you can see how we get along.

A113: Okay. There's an issue I want to get your opinions on. Obviously you two are animation directors, and this year, a lot of big publications like Forbes and the L.A. Times have written about a supposed "glut" of animated films. I mean, clearly that's not accurate, because there's hundreds of live-action films a year and, what, a dozen animated films, half that again mainstream ones. But it's kind of written off a lot of the time as kiddie films; mistaken as a genre rather than a medium. As a studio that has made now too almost adult short films, does that get under your skin, that kind of thing?
LF: We are fans of animation, that's one thing, and you're right. I think, we try to do what we want to do, what makes us happy, which is to tell interesting stories and not take the audience for granted. I think that's the biggest... If I had a personal beef with what the Hollywood machine, perhaps, may be doing, it's that they take the audience for granted, and they sort of bottle up the formula, this thing that's 'let's do this, let's do this and let's do that,' and then if that doesn't hit the mark, then it's a failure. We try to steer a way from that a bit if we can. And again, operating - maybe we've just been super lucky at this point - under the things that motivate us, and the things that we responded to as fans of animation and film, and try to find those things that make those connections for us and to put them out and see if people respond to them. So far we've been really lucky with that.
BO: I think, as we look toward the future and what we do in longer format narrative storytelling, it's important that we stay frugal, so we have greater creative control and a higher variable potential for success. Once you take an animated feature film into over $80 million, up into the $130 million budget range, you are forced to do all these things that market analysis is telling you, because it's too much of a risk not to. And if we can keep the lump number lower, we have greater freedom, and we also have higher potential for success. So, by being in Shreveport, by staying lean and mean as far as how large our crew is, and also just being more methodical in making sure the story's right and not being forced to release because of a deadline, all of those things - I may be hypocritical in saying these things - but so far, we've been able to actually pull this off. Don't get me wrong, we see the realities of the world and how it works in the entertainment realm, and we're going to constantly be aware of it, and I think that's the most important thing, when we're out there working on this stuff, we've got to keep our heads up and be attentive to what's happening around us, and make sure we're not losing sight of the vision and what's pure and what's true and not take - like Limbert said - the audience for granted.
LF: Yeah, we constantly are looking at things, and we're asking this one question, I think a lot of this comes from William Joyce: Is it appealing? You know when you see something and it just feels right and it looks right and it sort of strikes a nerve. Sometimes that thing isn't, something that's sort of, 'that's your version of this story,' or 'that's your version of that thing,' we just really look at things and say 'Is it appealing? Does it feel... feels good to me.' Then you share that with the rest of the world, and hopefully they'll catch onto it.

A113: Well you're saying then, obviously, that you're big fans of animation. Have you particularly liked any animated films so far this year?
BO: I've really loved Ghost Stories, which should be an animated film.
LF: Have you seen that? The Ghost Stories short? It was a compilation of animation shorts that were strung together.
BO: Look them up, you'll see it. It's awesome!
LF: Look it up, there's some really, really great stuff there! Brandon and I are both really big fans of that project.
BO: But from a big budget perspective on animated features... that's a whole other thing. It's hard to say, I'm not necessarily excited about what's on the slate and horizon on the animated feature realm. But I am very excited about all these small studios collaborating and working towards something different, and that's exciting.

A113: Okay. I'll ask you now the question that I ask everyone I interview, which is, to both of you, which is your favourite animated film of all time?
BO and LF: [Both laugh]
LF: All time?
BO: I would say Pinocchio.
A113: Everyone always says Pinocchio.
BO: Sorry! [Laughs]
LF: It's just too good! Pinocchio's good.
A113: It's understandable!
BO: You want something a bit more obscure? I certainly have an affinity for more live-action films, but that are fantasy. You know, I grew up watching Spielberg films, so that's really what gets me excited. And when I think of animated, I'm like, E.T. could've been animated! I don't care, I would've still loved the story.
LF: If there's one movie that I can watch and go, 'I can't find anything to pick at,' I think Iron Giant still stands up for me. It has a lot of things that just clicked. It came out of a place, where... 'gosh, there's all this really great stuff out there, but something's missing...' And then when that came out it was just... And it's probably, I think, because they were just left alone to do their thing, to tell that story and have fun with it, and that translated. So that one really sticks out a bunch for me. And I think The Incredibles is one of my favourites.
BO: Definitely.
A113: So you're a big Brad Bird fan then?
LF: Oh yeah, that's right! I don't want to say a lot, but I am a Brad Bird fan.
BO: [Laughs] I don't disagree with anything Limbert said, it's a great film.

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