I remember the ticker tape parade celebrating Moonbot Studios’ Oscar win like it was yesterday. It was a bright Sunday afternoon — March 2, 2012 — and there was color and sound everywhere along Texas Street in downtown Shreveport, a wild synesthesia of marching bands, drifting clouds of confetti, Mardi Gras floats and a crowd buzzing with pride and excitement. A couple of local boys (well, one local boy and one recent transplant – more on that later), Moonbot Studios co-founders William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg, had just won an Academy Award. Shreveport was damn sure going to celebrate.
I walked down Texas Street with my camera around my neck, shooting photos along the parade route, hoping to maybe – just maybe – get a photo of the Academy Award. I turned north onto Marshall Street at the downtown branch of Shreve Memorial Library, past an adorable gaggle of librarians holding handmade signs celebrating the triumph of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which only days before had won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
The next person I saw was Brandon Oldenburg. I’d met Brandon a few times while I was working for Robinson Film Center, but I wouldn’t say that we knew one another well. With a smile, he pushed something heavy into my hands, slapped me on the back and bounded aboard a nearby Mardi Gras float loaded with Moonbot Studios employees.
I looked down to see that he’d just handed me the Academy Award. I did what anyone would do in that situation: I took the best selfie that I could take.
Brandon Oldenburg grew up as a preacher’s kid in Fort Worth, Texas. The youngest of four children, he was separated in age from his nearest sibling by a decade. His father, a Baptist youth pastor and composer, was one of the earliest pastors to introduce contemporary folk and rock music in a church setting.
“If you think about what contemporary Christian music is today, he was one of the people who dared to take it there,” Oldenburg said. “He was influenced by Bob Dylan and the like, but he wanted to bring that to the youth in the church. That was really different for the Baptist church, which was super conservative. He was always pushing the boundaries.”
Some of Oldenburg’s earliest memories of creating art take place in the context of the church. He would draw sketches during sermons, and vividly recalls “the specific angles and vantage point” of being nine years old, sitting next to his father on the organ bench. His older brother had attended art school and dropped out, but Brandon’s mother “saw a glimmer of possibility” in his artistic inclinations, and he soon found himself on the path to a career in art. He took dance lessons – tap, jazz, even break dancing – and modeling classes. He was cast in a children’s television show called Sunshine Factory.
“Being on set and seeing how television production worked at a very young age was influential on me,” Oldenburg said.
The filmmaking bug bit in earnest when his father took him to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. Something about the movie swept Brandon off of his feet in a way that nothing ever had. As they left the theater, he recalls saying: “That’s what I want to be when I grow up.” His dad, confused, responded: “An archaeologist?”
From that point on, it was off to the races for Oldenburg, who was constantly creating some form of media throughout his middle school and high school years. He graduated from stop-motion animated short films created with a borrowed Super 8 camera to an 11–episode variety show called Mind Speak — complete with a set, host and musical guests — that he produced with high school friends. Oldenburg describes himself as “painfully shy” in high school, and it is easy to imagine the comforting effect that being behind a camera must have had on a quiet teenager who was unable to directly interact with others.
By senior year, he’d dated girls, but those girls had always been the ones to initiate the date. The first girl who he ever mustered up the courage to call and ask out — on a date to Senior Prom — is now his wife of nearly 20 years, Shannon. Brandon remembers their first phone conversation lasting until 3 a.m.
“Shannon and I were both the quietest kids in our circle of friends,” Oldenburg said. “I remember seeing her around and thinking ‘Wow, she’s really cool, but she’d never talk to me. She’s probably already dating some hip college dude.’”
Their courtship began on prom night and soon became a long-distance relationship, as high school came to an end and Brandon left Texas to attend the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, where he is currently a member of the school’s Board of Trustees. Today, Brandon describes a suitcase filled with the mixtapes and letters that he and Shannon exchanged during their college years as “one of his most prized possessions.”
From an outsider’s perspective, things appear to have progressed very rapidly for Oldenburg after he graduated from Ringling in 1995. At age 23, he co-founded a Dallas-based animation company called ReelFX. With Oldenburg as creative director, the small company began to pick up work from clients like Coca-Cola, Hasbro and Chuck E. Cheese. The staff grew from 27 to more than 200.
“We were just constantly churning out commercials, and I felt that we could do what Pixar was doing. We could build our own studio, we could make animated features.”
Like the hurricane that vacuums up the title character in The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, Oldenburg’s dream to make animated films would pluck him and his family out of Dallas and whisk them 200 miles to the east, where Brandon had struck up a friendship and a business partnership with successful author and illustrator William Joyce.
“I didn’t know much about Shreveport,” Oldenburg said of the weeks immediately following his move in 2009. “I saw a lot of Cush’s Grocery, a lot of Bill’s house and a little bit of Kings Highway. I didn’t know the lay of the land.”
But there was something about the city – particularly neighborhoods like Highland, South Highlands and Broadmoor – that felt familiar. The style and aesthetics of the houses, the tree-lined streets and the tall, grand doors illuminated by gas lamps “felt like something out of a picture book” to Oldenburg. Specifically, they felt like something out of a William Joyce picture book.
“I started to realize that specific streets like Elmwood, Wilder and Slattery had inspired the streets from Dinosaur Bob (Dinosaur Bob and His Adventures with the Family Lazardo, a 1988 picture book by Joyce) and all of these picture books that I loved, like A Day with Wilbur Robinson (also by Joyce, published in 1990). Driving around the neighborhood during that first week, I fell in love with those streets. Now, they’re the streets that we like to walk our dogs on.”
The Oldenburg residence is a cool, welcoming two-story home on Linden Street. Three white Adirondack chairs sit on the front lawn; Brandon enjoys stealing a quiet hour or two here on weekend mornings, reading The New York Times. Inside the home, walking from room to room is like reading the story of the last six years of their lives. Marks on the wall in a doorway chart the growth of their daughters, Riley and Zoé. A dog named “Oscar” patrols through the halls (something tells me that he may have joined the family in 2012), halfheartedly sniffing newcomers. There are framed photos and drawings by the girls everywhere.
“I’m still pretty much the nerdy dad,” Oldenburg said, dismissing my suggestion that an Oscar win and an animation studio might earn him some cool points with his daughters. “But our daughters do understand that I get to do something really special at work every day.”
For a person who spends the bulk of his time each day imagining and creating digital content – Moonbot Studios is now heavily invested in the creation of mobile games, apps, and innovative multi-platform storytelling technologies, in addition to animated content for commercials, video games and short films – I get the feeling that Oldenburg is someone who has decided to live a less mediated life. During our interviews and my visit to his home, I never saw his phone.
Sitting in a corner booth at Herby-K’s on an uncommonly busy Tuesday night, Brandon Oldenburg tells me that he still feels like he is “learning how to be a Shreveporter.” He gets the Herby-K’s part right, ordering a frosty schooner of Amber Bock and the gumbo and etouffee sampler plate.
Before we go, I try one more time to ask him how this all came to be: how did a Texan preacher’s kid who wandered into a Raiders of the Lost Ark screening in 1981 end up here, in Shreveport, running one of the most talked-about entertainment industry companies in the South? I love Shreveport, but even I marvel at the fact that animators, coders and game developers – more than 50 of them now – have moved here to join the growing ranks of Moonbot Studios. Many of the Moonbot team members are young. They are putting down roots, starting families and buying homes in Shreveport.
“It doesn’t really make sense, what we’ve done here,” Oldenburg said. “But it goes to show that you’ve just got to do what you love and not let anyone tell you otherwise. And if the job that you want doesn’t exist, make it exist. Be so passionate about it that you will it into being.”
To see what Brandon is currently working on, check out moonbotstudios.com