Animated Picture Books and Low Barriers to Entry

There are an awful lot of tablet books for children out there.

You don’t notice at first, with the layout of the App store being what it is, but the more you dig the more you find. And this is early days. Of all the problems that we’ll face in the 21st Century, a shortage of interactive picture book apps is not going to be one. There are tonnes of the buggers.

Why is this?  Well, picture books are well suited to the woozy and undefined form of tablet books.  They are short, for one thing, and have a strong visual element, so on those levels this flood of production makes sense.

But there are other reasons why they are so common. There is a common misperception that writing children’s books is easy – or, at the very least, easier than writing a proper adult book with a formidable word count. Traditionally, the job of filtering all the crud has fallen on the shoulders of children’s publishers. This is a highly specialised skill. It takes many years of experience to gain enough insight to understand why one particular story about a lost bear, for example, is qualitatively better than the previous forty stories about lost bears.

If you can forgive me generalising for a moment – and gereralising is useful, generally speaking – writers of young children’s books seldom have this strange insight.  They often take the view that all the publishers who rejected their creations are damned fools who are throwing away a fortune.

Those of a determined frame of mind then experiment with self-publishing or try to sell their ideas to animation companies. As someone at an animation company who reads their letters, I feel I can say with some authority that there is a lot of half-arsed guff around.  As a general rule, the worst ideas feature a group of five household objects – buckets, for example, or clothes pegs – that have had faces drawn on them and will somehow get into hilarious adventures. It is also striking how many different people push exactly the same idea. How many people have dreamt up a school for superheroes? It is impossible to count. It is even more, if that is possible, than those who came up with a team of vegetable-based characters who promote healthy eating by battling fatty foods.

With tablet book apps though, there are no gatekeepers who will prevent all these picture books from reaching the market. As an economist would put it, the barriers to entry are low, which leads to low profit margins and lower-quality products.  There will be a lot of crap out there, in other words, and this will dilute the market and make it harder to sell anything.  And the barriers to entry will only get lower, as off-the-peg software emerges to make creating apps get easier.

What are the implications of this? Well, it means that tablet books shouldn’t be seen as a brave new frontier, where the old rules don’t apply and the new rules have yet to be written. Tablet books suffer from all the same problems that are terrorising all the existing forms of media.  They are competing on a global stage, attempting to attract an audience who are so time-poor and bombarded with choice that they increasingly retreat to the safety of old, established brands and characters.

This is not really a context that you can safely ignore, so I’ll be keeping it in mind when I look at a few examples of these picture book apps soon.

(Creative Commons image by Wayan Vota)

Writers, Animators and Morris Lessmore

One of the few certainties in life is that, when an animator is left alone to do their own thing, they will immediately set to work on a dialogue-free short about a lonely man in a room.

It’s not easy to say why this is. Animators have a reputation as solitary creatures, but the ones I know are social butterflies compared to writers and programmers. It may well be that animation is hard, so melancholic pathos seems more appealing when all that is needed is a second of stillness followed by a droop of the eyes.  Whatever the reason, a dialogue-free animation about loneliness can still be a perfectly valid thing.  The opening sections of Up and Wall-E are both variations on this theme, and for me they are my favourite part of those films.

Yet the fact remains that animators’ fondness for this form is noticeably greater than that of audiences. If in doubt, ask a commissiong editor how they react when they hear the phrase “animator’s passion project”.

Which brings us back to The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. As I mentioned in this post here, this animated storybook is let down by a story which I believe I described as “hokey old arse”. It goes like this: Morris Lessmore is a young man who likes order.  Some vague unnamed event happens which turns his life upside down, so he finds solace in reading a book about Humpty Dumpty. He then moves into a library, spends his entire life with books, grows old and dies. The twist at the end is that he had been writing a book himself, about his life, which a little girl finds at the end.  All this is smothered in the message “books are magic” and “everyone is special”, but as each entry in Morris’ book presumably reads “sat alone and read books again today”, it’s possible that the whole thing is essentially sarcastic.

It’s not a story that seems aimed at picture book-age children. There is no antagonist, other than the process of ageing, and the main character is an entirely reactive protagonist that it is hard to care about. There are no jokes. The emotional core, a bitter-sweet meditation on ageing and death, is not something that five-year olds will relate to. The sections about caring and repairing books will reinforce, to a young mind, the idea that books are hard work. There is something to be said for stressing the value of books to that age group, but that is best done by exposing children to good stories rather than bad ones.

So, why was so much work put into bringing that particular story to fruition?  It’s entirely possible that developers Moonbot were being very clever, and that the target audience was never intended to be children. It’s possible that the book exists to make as big a splash for the studio as possible, and that the target audience was always animation lecturers, Apple early-adopters and excitable journalists.

Then again, they may have made the fatal mistake of showing the story to their 5 year old children, asking them what they think, and hence genuinely believe that it’s a story children love.  Children at this age always give the answer that adults want to hear, and it is to the childs great credit how accurately they can deduce what this is. (Rather awkwardly, the only real way you can tell whether a children’s story is a success is to wait thirty years and ask the now-grown reader if they remember it, then watch to see if their face lights up.)

But while Morris Lessmore claims to be a celebration of the magic of stories, it is a celebration of the magic of images. And that is no bad thing. It is an “animator’s narrative”, where a string of lovely, striking, memorable images are strung together and called a story. Look at the care and craftsmanship that has gone into the visual side of Morris Lessmore:

The Making Of Morris: Part 2 (Animation We Cherish) from Moonbot Studios on Vimeo.

Now – all this raises an interesting point about the current state of tablet books.

If you look at who is working in the medium of tablet books, then you’ll see that illustrators and animators are doing themselves proud.  Also present and correct are coders, digital developers and eager start-up businessmen. All these people have stepped up, experiemented and are trying new things.  What you won’t find are that many established writers. Indeed, looking at most of the tablet books I’ll be talking about over the next few weeks, the majority are adaptations of existing printed text.

Why is this? Writers are usually quick to sniff out a chance of an audience.  They have been quick to embrace Kindle self publishing and experiment with Twitter novels, but there is a noticeable lack of writers writing specifically for tablet books.  In part, this may be due to a lack of contacts or programming skills. Digital developers tend to work more closely with illustrators than writers.

But it may also be because writers do not yet see any potential in the format, or see how a tablet book could be a better narrative than a normal one. And if this is the case, then it could be a serious issue.

Because if tablet books are to prosper, they will need writers to take the lead.

Aside

Have a watch of this, it’s the most visually impressive tablet book at the moment: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by Moonbot Studios.

Amazing, wouldn’t you say?  Certainly there are no shortage of people reaching for the hyperboles.  Here’s Ben Machell in The Times:

“It is not inconceivable that, at some point in the future, a short children’s story called The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore will be regarded as one of the most influential titles of the early 21st century.”

That’s quite some claim.

I’m going to have to start by mentioning the elephant in the room here.  As a story, and assuming that it’s a story aimed at children, this is a load of hokey old arse. I’m going to do a separate post later to talk more about that, as the problems here shed wider light on tablet books as a whole. I do recognise that the user review section on iTunes is full of gushing 5-star reviews and I’m not trying to be deliberately contrary, but the disconnect between audience and storyteller does need to be looked at.

So, that significant problem aside, what have we got? It’s a short story, one with 27 “pages” that takes about 15 minutes to go through, so a good length for a bedtime story.  Each page has a few lines of text, which by default are read aloud to you, and an animated picture that you can interact with to produce a surprising result.

What this is, essentially, is the ‘lift-the-flap book’ model of tablet books.  You read a page, and then look around the picture for something to ‘do’, and once that’s done you move on to the next page.  It’s a good model to work to; lift-the-flap books are always a hit with pre-schoolers, who like both the element of surprise as to what they will find, plus the element of control in that it was they who lifted the flap and caused the picture to change.  And here is a model that allows tablet books to be an improvement on physical books, as triggering an animation can be far more spectacular and page-changing that going from one image to the image hidden underneath.

So how does this work in practice?  There’s an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ feel to the interactive elements.  On most of the pages, you blindly stab about at parts of the image to see if they will do anything.  On some pages, the parts that will trigger an event glow briefly to highlight what to touch, but this isn’t consistent throughout. There are many times you find yourself accidentally turning to the previous or next page as you attempt to trigger actions in the part of the screen reserved for page turns.  Some items just need to be touched, others need specific swipe motions. Some images ‘reset’ after the triggered animation, others don’t. It doesn’t have that consistent logic that pleases preschoolers, especially boys. Having watch a number of people try it out, there is definitely a ‘stumbling blindly’ problem with the interaction.

Then there are triggerable events that are more like ‘mini games’ – a book opens to reveal a ripped picture that you must reassemble, a tune needs to be played on a piano, you can fly Morris around the page by tilting the pad and so on. There’s an admirable sense of trying everything out here, although by and large they do seem unconnected to the story – random diversions rather than necessary progressions.  The triggered animations are the same every time, incidentally.

The music, as you can hear in the clip above, it fantastic.  The voiceover made me cringe, although this may just be cultural, and it can be turned off.  (The issue of tablet books that read themselves to you will need to be a separate post, incidentally.  It is by-and-large the norm for children’s tablet books, but I wonder if it is has a negative impact on the experience.)  The app seems sensibly priced, at £2.99.

And it is beautiful.  The craft on display is unarguable (even if cruel-hearted animation folk like myself will take a certain pleasure in pointing out when it is less than perfect, such as when Morris’ arm glitches as he leaves the room of books – I know, I know.  We can’t help ourselves).  Visually there is a strong echo of 1930s Hollywood, of a romanticised, simpler world devoid of such modern horrors as iPads and tablet books. The visuals keep the ‘chuck everything in’ approach of the interactive stuff, and mix CG, models, and hand-drawn animation, but they all hang together very well.  The visual side is led by William Joyce, and it is a wonderful thing that artists of his calibre are working in this genre. It promises great things for the future.

The result is one of those ‘buy to show people’ apps, one which you use to show off your new iPad rather than read for pleasure. The Medium overwhelms the Message, but it does have the air of something new emerging, of something that will trouble the dreams of more conservative publishers.  In many ways The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is a triumph but, unfortunately, not in every aspect, and arguably not in the most important aspects.  Which I will talk about soon in a new post.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.