The Oscar-nominated founders of Moonbot Studios weigh in on managing talent, running a studio like a start-up, and why CEOs should take more business trips.
Moonbot Studios, a digital animation and development company based in Shreveport, Louisiana, describes itself as "an interplanetary creative expedition of story and art." If that sounds vague—even a bit nebulous—that's because its founders like to keep things fluid. They're artists first, and businessmen second—they're filmmakers, painters, drawers, and writers—and they've come to embrace the iPad as the vehicle to to tell their stories.
Founded by William Joyce, Brandon Oldenburg, and Lampton Enochs in 2010 the company is best known for creating The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, a visually stunning iPad-only children's app that blurs the lines between traditional e-book and short film. When it debuted in early 2011, the app shot to the top of iTunes charts within a week—and is now one of five animated short films up for an Academy Award this year. The Atlantic, in its expansive profile of Moonbot, pointed out that "at one point or another, it has been the top book app in 21 countries."
At 35 employees, Moonbot operates at just a fraction of the budget and manpower of production studios such as Warner Brothers or Pixar, which also produced shorts that landed on the Academy's list. And it's almost 1,500 miles from Hollywood. Inc.com's Eric Markowitz spoke with the studio's co-founders about what it takes to compete with industry stalwarts, tapping the creativity of your employees, and why spending time away from the office might inspire your workers.
You've said before that you want to keep Moonbot small. What's the advantage of being scrappy?
Brandon Oldenburg: We want to be able to take what's great about the boutique size businesses, and apply it to great ideas, like publishing programs or feature films. Maybe we're naive enough to think we can pull it off, and that's half of the reason we're doing it. We've seen how it doesn't work the other way. We're trying a new way to tell our stories in new venues and be flexible enough to change the mediums for them at the change of the wind.
Bill Joyce: For instance, the app we have coming out, The Numberlys. It's the kind of thing that would never get going at a major studio in a timely fashion—if it would get going at all. It's basically a remake of Metropolis, but for kids, involving the making of the alphabet. If we took that idea to Dreamworks or anywhere like that, they probably wouldn't want anything to do with it. So we just went with it. We started doing production design and character design that day, and we had figured out the basic structure of the story, and we had the thing written, and we were building it within a week. We've been working on it for three months. Granted, it's not a feature film, it's basically a 10-minute short film interspersed with different interactive games: nine minutes of animation and 20 minutes of game play. But we did it at a fraction of the cost, at a fraction of the manpower, but with all this exuberance, all this bliss, that would never happen under the old way of doing things.
How do you inspire that "bliss" and "exuberance?"
Joyce: First, we're very particular about the recruiting process. We wanted to find people that don't want to specialize in just one part of the animation machinery. We wanted people who could draw, people who could program, people who could think in narrative terms, people who could build rigs. We weren't interested in people that were narrowly focused. Then we throw them into the deep end of the pool, immediately. We give them very clear direction on what we're looking for and we push them very hard from the beginning so they learn to think on their own and on their feet. We guide them as much as we can, but then it's all about sending them over the top. It's just saying, "Go!" It gives them confidence, and it makes them go a lot faster.
Do you think this type of management style is possible at bigger companies?
What I see at bigger companies a lot of times is that you're given an assignment and you're barely given any direction. You work 16 weeks on something and 12 people are working on it with you and you present it to whoever is in charge and you get 30 seconds of feedback. Maybe you've been on the wrong track for 16 weeks or however long, and you start over. It's all about getting a little bit of feedback from the guy in charge every couple of months. When our guys have questions they don't have to go through layers of management. They come directly to us, and bingo, we're right there. That's the kind of shop we want to have.
What happens when you leave, though? Does this management style create a dependence on you?
When Brandon and I have to go out of town every now and then, what happens when we're gone is almost more exciting than when we're here. Those guys take creative risks while we're gone. We come back and they've done brilliant work on their own—sometimes it's because it's what we've told them to do, and sometimes it's because they just saw something needed to be done. Invariably, they come up with brilliant stuff that they would not have come up with had we not given them the responsibility from the beginning. They had recently done some editing and voice over stuff on their own that we had not even asked for, and it made us so happy, because it was like, if we do our job well enough, our employees do not need us.
What kind of culture have you created to facilitate this kind of excitement?
Oldenburg: For the majority of our employees, work doesn't stop at the end of the day. It moves on throughout the evening into the weekend. Bill mentioned that we're sort of at their beck and call—that continues into the evening—texting, meeting at bars, or sitting in front of a fire pit at my house, etc. The work that we do is not work. We're thinking about it all the time.
Joyce: It's rewarding. 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. For a lot of the guys, it's the first time they're seeing classic stuff. In a weird way, we're teaching classic cinema techniques. And while they're learning from us, we're also learning from them. Sometimes there's technological tricks that they know that we weren't even remotely aware of. They have freshness, but also great instincts. You end up with this great intergenerational mix. We paint, we write, we sculpt, we edit, we score. Fifty percent of the company has their finger on every aspect of everything they make. Everybody feels totally part of it, and they're on board with it, and so they're proud of it.
(This article has been updated to include Moonbot's Academy Award nomination. This interview has been condensed and edited.)