Between an award-winning short film, a brilliant picture book, and now an interactive app, Mr. Morris Lessmore of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore fame has seen it all. Illustrator, animator, and all-around creator Joe Bluhm is one of the artists who created this dynamic story and helped it leap across platforms like one of the fabled books in flight.
We couldn’t wait to speak to Joe about about how films become books, how characters come to life, and the pure joy and surprise of sharing stories with children.
Your work spans genre and format, and your characters across all have such life and energy. What’s the secret to creating an effective character?
I’ll be honest, I couldn’t tell you that there is a ‘secret’, but rather a lot of things that can add up to believable and lively characters. The goal is for readers or viewers to understand, relate to, and like the characters we all create. My own process involves lots of revision and objective review. The first step is to know what you are looking for, even in an abstract manner. If you can feel a quality you wish to break through the page or screen, you are already in a good place. Then comes the craft. Drawing, observing, revising, critiquing, and more. I’ve found that a few things have helped my work:
1. Drawing caricatures was the greatest training. In capturing someone’s energy and likeness on a page in just a few minutes (quite often a stranger), there are things you learn about people’s expressions, attitude, and personality traits. These things start to become colors of energy which you might classify as archetypes of expression and personality, and the training of doing this in the public sphere for years was an amazing artistic ‘boot camp.’ I was lucky to work all over the world when I was younger, for several years, focusing on live caricature, illustration, fine art, and editorial work. This all has pushed my character design and expressions in a way that feels musical, and it is something I hope to hold onto.
2. Character design, storyboarding, and concept art work well for picture books. These processes are prevalent in animation, film, games and advertising, and other similar industries, and they are fun and rigorous. Through working in advertising, animation, and movies I’ve learned how these processes are not just a step along the way, but a real tool to find what works. And thus the same mindset can be used to create picture books and visual, literary storytelling. The process of any picture book or graphic novel I work on goes through a very similar process as an animated short film. I will work out moments, storyboards alternative possibilities, design characters and creatures, work out different poses and expressions, and play with every element separately until each one feels strongest. It is only natural that most of the time they all fit well together, and put you in a great place when assembling a visual story. One of my favorite parts of making any visual story, whether on a screen or on the page, is separating each step of the process and taking them on one at a time, making sure to build the machine the best it can be.
3. You must know the character. If you are illustrating someone or something that you cannot understand or deeply relate to on some level, it is likely that that won’t reach out of the page to the reader. And similarly, it will never resonate if you do not absolutely love what you are doing, and enjoy the process. I truly believe that love and energy flows out of one’s work. I only hope to improve on this for the rest of my time.
In your work with Moonbot Studios, you worked on a book, which you illustrated with William Joyce, based on the Moonbot short film The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. What was the inspiration behind making this particular film into a book?
This was a dream job, a perfect partnership, and a loving endeavor. The story behind ‘Morris Lessmore’ is one of absolute love and respect. William (we all call him Bill) Joyce wrote this as an homage to a great friend in publishing from his younger days, and as a love letter to books, stories, and those who create, share, and protect them. Once Bill and I met, it was destined to be a friendship and collaborative spirit which would last a long time. We set down the path of making a film for Moonbot as a ‘calling card’ of sorts, and had plenty of fun doing it. I credit that success to an amazing team of misfits who didn’t know what they could or couldn’t do. And we broke and bent every rule there is! But in the end we shared a common goal. While finishing the film, we worked on the book, and quickly found that even with a stable of talented artists, Bill and I were still speaking the same language, with the same energy, and it only felt right to work on his book and see it right to the end. The experience of knowing the meaning of the story and this character so well was a great advantage in both projects. It is hard to execute such a pure version of a story in multiple platforms/mediums in today’s industries, and that was an experience that may go unmatched… but I’ll keep searching and aiming for it!
You also worked with Moonbot Studios to create an app around The Fantastic Flying Books. How do you see interactive media playing a role in the way we bring stories to young people?
The app was great fun, and another extension of the process of working on a focused story. We were lucky that the iPad was new, and that we could aim high with our story and interactivity, knowing what was already out there. Interactivity and engagement in storytelling seems to be more and more a part of our landscape, however the hardest part for everyone is to find how it is functional, appropriate, and effective in a true sense of those words. There is clearly a lot of money in those markets, but one thing that matters to me as a storyteller is to not just put bells and whistles on something, but rather to find what either enhances the story, engages purely in the experience (puts you in the character’s shoes), or makes you think more outside of this experience. The one thing I’m excited about there is to challenge both sides of the brain, and we already see that playing any type of game enhances intelligence and cognitive skills in people. Personally, I am currently focused on the interactivity of play with my new 9 month old daughter, and that involves face-to-face play, discussion, games, and reading picture books to her. I know that people will find a way to involve true, pure narrative stories more intuitively in interactive experiences, but I think that it’s still a bit of a shiny novelty at the moment. And I hope that people break that apart and it becomes more seamless, natural, and common.
Since leaving Moonbot in 2016, you’ve started Sweet Cloud Studios with your wife (Mary Bluhm), illustrated the fantastic The Magician’s Secret (2018), and have become a parent! What stories are you most excited about sharing with your daughter? Has becoming a parent changed your perspective or approach to children’s media at all (either creating or consuming)?
Oh goodness… where to start. While it’s worth mentioning that I’ve done MUCH more than that (yet cannot share projects which have not yet been released), NOTHING is as amazing and brilliant as my family. Our daughter, Betty Bluhm, is the most incredible thing to happen to us.
Seeing her respond to different elements of what I do and what I admire – art, music, puppets, films, instruments, tools, books, and the like – has absolutely affected where my wife and I wish to go with our talents in the future. Something as simple as watching her interact with different stories, and seeing what she responds to or ignores, has helped me investigate and even just ‘store away’ these nuances and golden bits of observation. I appreciate color and simplicity more, and I’m seeing universal truths and anecdotes in children which I’ve not seen before. Mary and I have already been inspired to write a picture book together, based on experiences with Betty!
But more importantly, the experience of becoming a father to a beautiful girl has given me a stronger duty and thoughtful goal of how to effectively be a good influence, offer a wealth of creativity, knowledge, access, and perspective to the world, all while being the best person I can be, and being the strongest, most compassionate man I can be. We live in a time where we need good examples, and there is no bigger test at the moment than being the father of a little girl. I suspect my true answer to the question lies in the coming decades.d
What’s been your favorite interaction with a child about your work?
Oh my goodness. EVERY INTERACTION is incredible. I feel most grateful to be alive and thankful to be doing what I can, every time I hear or see any feedback from a child or supporter. This past year I’ve had the privilege of being a guest at schools, sharing my work and interacting with children of varying ages. To hear thoughtful ideas about something that I put into the world is incredible. And seeing how insightful, creative, bright, and enthusiastic so many children are is inspiring and heartwarming.
I do recall one particular boy who, while I was signing my latest book for him (Dear Sister, written by Alison McGhee), he proudly informed me that this was “the second time he’s had an artist he admires sign a book for him … and it happens to be the same person.” Seeing my confusion, he recalled his visit to the local bookstore at the release of Morris Lessmore (over 6 years ago), and how he remembers me, and asked me to do a drawing for him then, as well. As possible as it sounds, I would never have expected this. And I am grateful for every time anyone feels good about anything I was a part of.
Lastly, and perhaps a bit too personally driven, my daughter Betty saw a copy of The Magician’s Secret (one which I was asked to sign for a friend) on our coffee table just yesterday, as I write this. For the first time (as she’s surely seen this book laying around since her first day at home), she cooed with delight as she stretched and bent over, reaching for it. When I moved along to get her dinner ready, she reached back. So I took the moment to sit down, and (even though it’s beyond her comprehension as a reading level) share the book with her, page by page. Her response and delight to the illustrations was one of objective critique… she is no easy sell! And she was delighted, reaching out and touching each face, each detail. I’ve seen her like, love, dislike, and be ambivalent about picture books. And while it’s a bit ‘daddy-ish’, it was special to me. >blush<
What, in your opinion, is the work of a picture book?
I believe very strongly that this is a simple answer. There are two functions of a picture book, and they are:
1. To entertain or occupy the mind of a young person. Having a new daughter has helped me truly realize this.
2. (most importantly to me) – To tell a moral and universal truth to a developing mind, or to share an important idea with another human. I believe that picture books are not only for children, and this means there is a responsibility in storytelling as any genre has. I do not work in art and entertainment for the sake of making a living or wowing an individual. I do it to have an impact by sharing a positive idea and perspective with others. We see a big effect in this arena through young people, so I take that as a responsibility.
If you could give one piece of advice to a young aspiring illustrator or animator, what would it be?
This is the hardest question to answer, because everyone’s talent, goals, style, values, and interests are different. The most important thing I can impart to anyone is that there are no rules. If you follow your instincts, you will be happy. I dropped out of art school to do theme park caricatures, because it is what most excited me. From there, quitting a community which embraced me to do editorial work was not easy. And then immediately leaving for advertising via CG animation. After I realized that achievement, I left New York city for a small city in Louisiana. That work led to all that I do today. And it all looks odd – I realize that. But it is an example which can show that each person must follow their instincts. Everything else is noise.
What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?
As anyone like me, I am doing many things. I’m currently finishing a film about identity and confidence as a child. This project is a passion and important message for me ad the studio I am working with. I’m also writing several picture books — some with friends, and some with my wife — which should be out in the next year or two. On top of all of that I am designing and working out story on feature films which you may see animated in the next few years. What we do takes time, but I am more than happy to be doing it.
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