Home The Numberlys Invent the Alphabet In a World Run By Numbers

The Numberlys Invent the Alphabet In a World Run By Numbers

Moonbot Studios has released The Numberlys, its second story app for iOS. It’s an interactive tale with a massive visual scope appropriate for people of all sizes. Its stark, soaring black-and-white aesthetic draws on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to tell the story of five characters’ quest to create the alphabet in a world run by numbers.

The story plays out as a hybrid of a film, a book and an interactive game. Kids can just watch it unfold the first time, skip around with the page arrows, or crank a mighty gear to jump to their favorite parts. Moonbot co-founders Brandon Oldenburg and Lampton Enoch described the process by which they, along with co-founder William Joyce, create their stories, and its as charming a story as The Numberlys itself.

Stirring the Pot of Stories

Moonbot works off a slate of stories, choosing a medium to start with and then expanding the story to different platforms. The first story app, The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore, was a short film first, which Moonbot then extended to be an iPad app, and a printed book is coming this fall. For The Numberlys, the iPad version came first, and the film version is now in production. “We approach all of these stories this way,” Enochs says. “The Numberlys will also be a book at some point.” Moonbot’s process revolves around the stories themselves, bringing them to the media that make the most sense for the audience and the particular story.

“We take all the things we love, stir it up into a pot, and hopefully it takes,” Oldenburg says. “With Morris Lessmore, it was Singing In the Rain meets Buster Keaton with a little bit of The Wizard of Oz.” This formula helps Moonbot’s stories appeal to all ages. “For an older user, there’s a nostalgic quality,” Oldenburg says. “For a younger user, it’s just pointing them towards this wonderful reference and inspiration that they might not experience nowadays.”

Creating The Numberlys

The follow-up project began with the concept for an alphabet book staring these five characters, the Numberlys. The creators asked themselves whimsical questions like, “Who came up with the letter G?” The story would invent answers to such questions. As a side effect, Moonbot would get the chance to make an alphabet book.

“Alphabet books are a right of passage for a lot of children’s book illustrators,” Oldenburg says. “One of the things on our checklist is always to do an alphabet book.” For Moonbot, entertaining, engaging stories are the priority, but educational themes manage to sneak into them.

“We didn’t really jive well with school,” Oldenburg says. “The teachers we got along with were the art teachers.” As Oldenburg spoke, the lyrics of part 2 of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” jumped to my mind. The opening sequences of The Numberlys, with its strange automatons marching in lockstep, evoke scenes from the 1982 film based on the album, The Wall.

With the Numberlys idea already cooking, there was a screening of Fritz Lang’s landmark 1927 sci-fi film Metropolis in Moonbot’s home town of Shreveport, Louisiana. The look and scope of the film became the inspiration for the soaring, black-and-white urban dystopia in which The Numberlys is set. Throw in some Marx Brothers and sprinkle some Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, and that’s The Numberlys’ gritty, charming universe.

Oldenburg says the iPad was an ideal place to start with this story. The Moonbot team draws on a mixture of experience from computer-generated animation, television and film. The iPad’s approachable nature adds the potential of interactivity, allowing The Numberlys to draw in its users with 18 little games interspersed within the story.

Oldenburg and Joyce also decided to frame the story in the iPad’s vertical orientation, a more book-shaped than screen-shaped window into the world. “It’s a fun aspect ratio to work in,” says Oldenburg. “It really helps make it look grand and tall. It helps accentuate the scale.”

“It was very fun but also very challenging,” Oldenburg says. “Now, taking it out as a short film, what we’re going to have to do is vertical letterboxing. We’re calling it ‘the world’s tallest short.'”

Blurring The Line

After Morris Lessmore, people tried to define Moonbot’s genre. Moonbot has to choose a category in iTunes, and the best fit is the “Books” category. But as Oldenburg says, this is a bit of a hack. “There are two book categories in iTunes. There are the ones that cost a lot of money, which are basically PDFs, and there are the ones that don’t cost a lot – which are really hard to make – which are the interactive ones.”

The Moonbot team’s set of skills does not fit in these constraints. The creators have settled on “story app” as the best way to describe the versions of their stories that run on Apple’s iOS. But as a result of Moonbot’s process, these stories stretch outside the confines of one medium. As Oldenburg told me, “It feels like we’re doing something right when we start to blur lines.”

The Numberlys is available for $5.99 in the iTunes App Store.

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