'Numberlys': Fritz Lang Comes To Sesame Street

If the new “Numberlys” interactive story and game on the iPad looks and feels like a German Expressionist movie poster that somehow found its way onto “Sesame Street,” you aren’t far from the mark. In this follow-up to the hugely successful “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,” the creators at Moonbot admit that Fritz Lang had more than a little to do with the monochrome modernist aesthetic. A series of drone-like bots in a world of numbers tries to build a new consciousness by discovering an alphabet. Mixing highly filmic sequences right out of Lang’s “Metropolis” and straightforward game mechanics that help build each letter of the alphabet, Moonbot here excels at immersion.

One of the first things you notice about this experience is that unlike other interactive books and games, the app does not force you into landscape mode, and it all takes place in a portrait orientation that feels like a poster come to life. “The vertical format is an exciting aspect ratio to play with,” says Lampton Enochs, managing director at the Shreveport, La. studio and producer of countless film and TV projects. “The more we played with it, the more we fell in love with it.” Like Morris Lessmore, “Numberlys” is being created across platforms and so will take the form of a short film as well. Enochs says that the film version in theaters will be shown in a vertical letterbox to preserve the aesthetic of the app.

This level of design care seems to be part of all that Moonbot does. “We are storytellers first,” says Brandon Oldenburg, partner and VP of creative at Moonbot and a co-founder of Reel FX. “We have gifted and talented people who have lived in the interactive era, gaming and playing in that realm ever since being children. I think ‘Pong’ hit the shelves the day I was born.”

“Morris Lessmore” originally started as a short film designed to get the team’s talents and characters out there. The iPad came along in midstream, and Moonbot directed the team’s efforts in bringing the story to the device. “We had been waiting for a device like this,” says Enochs. “By creating a boutique-sized company [now with 35 employees] we wanted to change with the technology and make sure that we are just telling stories.” The model here is to be truly platform-agnostic and crafts assets that can take different forms across film, book, games and apps. 

While the first project most obviously took its cues from classic children’s storybooks and originated on another platform,  “Numberlys” was conceived for the iPad experience. The team was determined to do something new and different from their first project. Oldenburg says they learned not to be sidetracked by the technology and keep their eye on the narrative flow. “Just because you have all of this cool technology doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep you in the story,” he says. They also tried to get beyond the book metaphor and page-like navigation by making the app into a machine-like interface. You manipulate a gear to move freely to any section of the story. “When you jump to the index you feel like a part of the works,” says Enochs.

While the Moonbot team relies on what Oldenburg calls their “childlike instincts of kid logic and thinking” for direction, “Numberlys” will give them reporting tools to understand how the app/game/book actually is being used. The metrics could prove especially valuable given the Moonbot business model, which is centered more on developing multiplatform intellectual property than focusing on any one medium.

But Enochs notes that “The iPad is a good business model for us.” The original plan for “Morris Lessmore” was to slow-grow the property at film festivals around the world, but the iPad is a direct-to-consumer platform that gives the studio a much greater reach than art house crowds, allowing the company “to introduce characters and stories in a less expensive fashion,” says Enochs. “When the iPad came along, it opened up an avenue for creating short films but also having a revenue stream from them.”

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