I had a chance to catch up with Bill Joyce about his Oscar nomination for The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which has turned out to be the front runner. We discussed the similarities to The Artist and Hugo and some of his latest projects.
You’ve really captured the zeitgeist with your retro short, considering the similarities with The Artist and Hugo. Have you given this much thought?
Yeah, I guess the first dose I got of it was when Hugo came out and I love Méliès. In fact Brian Selznick [the author] and I are good friends. We had the same editor at Harper Collins back in the day and we love the same stuff, and one of the things we talked about was Méliès and automatons. And I knew all the stuff that had gone on with bringing Hugo to the screen — my friend, Chris Wedge, worked on it. And then the movie comes out, and they did the Méliès stuff so beautifully and that’s when I realized that we were on the same wavelength in revering the past and revering the filmmaking of the past with using miniatures and the Fleischer brothers and the way they did their miniature work on their Popeye cartoons.
You were all going back to the roots of this and making it relevant.
There’s something pure and innocent and hand-crafted about that that seems so direct and strong. It’s just so strange how it’s all come together this same year. And then The Artist comes out of nowhere. When I saw it — Brandon [Oldenburg, his Moonbot Studios partner] and I had studied the silent films when working on Morris so intensely and really learned the language of the pantomime and the camera setups and all that stuff. And, my god, these guys have absorbed all the same stuff and it just felt strange like the zeitgeist had this undercurrent for everybody.
But it makes sense considering the times we live in and what we’re grappling with.
It’s so hard and complicated to make a silent film like that. And the artistry that’s in place to make The Artist is astonishing. And, actually, when I heard about it, I thought it sounded cool but I couldn’t imagine it working. Usually when you try and resurrect an old way of storytelling, especially an old cinematic way of storytelling, it ends up feeling not pure and like a stunt and not emotionally true. It just feels like an exercise in style. And for both Hugo and The Artist, I thought they totally tapped into the thing that made them brilliant and emotional to begin with. And so form became function in a way, but it was completely true to the storytelling experience and that’s rare. And it amplified the content. I think shot for shot, The Artist is probably the most thoroughly and thought out film I’ve seen in a really long time.
We just wanted to make it feel hand-made again, that somehow that felt important, and with books being more a tactile thing, it seemed to go very strongly with the story we were grappling with. And then the more we got into it, Bill, there’s this character that’s in a book, this Humpty character, he should be animated two-dimensionally — he’s a flat illustration. It actually doesn’t make sense to make a 3D model of him, it makes more sense to make a 2D model. We sat around asking ourselves: Can we really do that? Are we just giving in to our fetishist love of 2D? No, this really is the best way to tell this story. It was just really neat to come up with a framework to indulge all our enthusiasms.
Tell me about The Numberlys.
It’s a reworking of Metropolis for kids. It’s in black and white and turns to color because in that world there’s only numbers and its inhabitants, the Numberlys, and five of them go, “We need something else besides numbers,” so they make up the alphabet; having made up the alphabet, that brings about color. We still get into this whole surreal instance of storytelling but we didn’t go miniatures again because it doesn’t help our theme. It’s pretty much silent except when they finally get words. It’s an app first and we’re finishing the short now and then it’ll be a book. It’s like the landscape’s changing so fast: Do we make a short first or an app first? It didn’t seem to make much difference. And then we’re going to start our next one after that, which is Mr. Spam Gets a New Hat. I don’t know why he’s called that but it’s all going to be in color. But it’s a musical.
What’s the style?
It’s early Ernst Lubitsch.
Me too. And they’re incredibly charming: Love Me Tonight. And so we want to explore making a musical matter again. Or somehow translate that crazy leap of faith that musicals make. It seems not ridiculous that you would burst into songs. It’ll be Lubitsch-like with a really early Technicolor look. Again, very much a parable…
It’s amazing: Bill Plympton’s here and and he’s been working on a restoration of Winsor McCay’s The Flying House, and he showed it to us a few minutes ago and it’s amazing. I think it was the last animated piece that Winsor McCay did and it was almost unwatchable. It had degraded so badly. And Plympton took the position: What would McCay do now? It’s in color and has sound and a musical score, which didn’t exist when he did the original short. And it sounds like sacrilege but it’s actually one of the most charming things I’ve seen in a very long time. The color in it looks exactly like the Nemo comic strips looked at the time. He did this amazing job of matching the style of the color with the bold animation of McCay’s. And then he got rid of the title cards and McCay had actually animated lip sync for the characters that matched what the title cards were saying, though he didn’t need to. So once Bill discovered that, he had Patricia Clarkson and Matthew Modine do the dialogue and it matches up beautifully.
Oh, man. We’re less than a year out and it’s really coming together. It’s true to what I wanted it to be. It’s beautiful and the 3-D’s really nice. I wasn’t that keen on 3-D at the start, but, after seeing Hugo and what we’re doing here, I’m becoming more and more of a convert. And, actually, Tintin was very good in 3-D.
You’re reinvigorating the superhero genre with an infusion of fairy tales: Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Jack Frost.
When you think about the fact that most the original comic writers were Jewish and were tapping folklore like The Golem, I’m just bringing it back around again.