Pushing boundaries? That’s nothing new for three-time Caldecott winner David Wiesner, author and illustrator of stunningly original picture books. Lately he’s been busy working on an app for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt that offers viewers intriguing imaginary worlds to explore. The title is Spot, and it’s due to release on February 19th. We had a chance to view a demo of the app and talk with Wiesner about the fruition of a story he describes as “long simmering.”
Congratulations on the upcoming release of Spot. Was it your idea to produce an app or did someone twist your arm?
I’ve been exploring this idea of worlds-within-worlds since I was in a class taught by David Macaulay at the Rhode Island School of Design. David urged me to “do more with it”, and I have continued to do that ever since.
In the mid-nineties I had a contract for a book version, called Spot, but I put that aside when the story didn’t resolve satisfactorily.
I still thought there might be a chance to explore this idea of transitions on a bigger scale. It all came together the first time I looked at an iPad. When I saw how you could pinch your fingers apart to make something larger, I wanted to keep going farther, and I knew this would be a really interesting way to explore my idea. The app format offered a solution.
The demo for the app references “Five fantastical worlds. One unique adventure.” Tell us about them.
The premise is that there are a series of worlds, all contained within the spot on the back of a bug. As you pinch and enlarge the bug, the tiny spot is revealed to be an island. Zooming in further, are mountains, then a lake in the mountains and another island in the lake and finally, a house on that island. The last pinch takes you into another world.
There are transitions like this between each of the worlds. What was intriguing to me was basing the transitions on graphic ideas like shape, color, and positive/negative space—not just making a small thing larger. For example, as you move into the dot-screen pattern of a newspaper photo the dots become umbrellas as seen from above.
Each world has its own little set of stories, containing images that suggest relationships and interactions rather than presenting definitive story lines. I’m working with a loose definition of the word “narrative,” but it is consistent with how I make my books—using images rather than words to set up characters, situations, and environments. Each viewer will infer different things about this universe and create their own ideas about it.
Some of the motifs and characteristics of earlier stories emerge here–visual adventures to other worlds (Free Fall, etc.), the atypical perspectives (Flotsam, etc.), and I’m fairly certain I recognized a few creatures from Mr. Wuffles. Was this intentional or are they pictorial challenges and themes that continue to intrigue you?
As I started to conceive what would be in the various worlds, I thought it would be fun to take themes that I’ve used in my books and develop variations on them for some of the settings. Some are specifically related and some only peripherally.
The black-and-white cat who appears in a couple of worlds, and the tiny aliens lifting a sandwich in the space terminal appear in Mr. Wuffles. There is a hint of the airborne world of Sector 7 in one of the photos found in the world under the armchair. In the underwater world of Flotsam, and in others of my books, fish are reoccurring images; that’s a visual I like exploring.
Bugs appear in Mr. Wuffles—but long before that, they were in my first attempts to make Spot into a book. So I guess they’ve come full circle!
Did you work with the developers to see how the storytelling could be enhanced or had you seen enough apps to know where you wanted to go with this story?
I knew what I wanted Spot to be from the start. I found that most of the apps were book-based or game-based, and even the book apps tended to have games and puzzles in them. I wanted to make something that was all narrative without any gaming aspect—no keeping score, no winning or losing. I didn’t want anything to interrupt the narrative flow.
The little of the art that I’ve seen is gorgeous—your trademark luminous colors appear even more so on the screen. Did your approach to creating art for an app vs a book differ?
I designed, drew, and painted all the art, with the exception of some architectural elements that were made digitally to save space—there is, in fact, a limited amount of digital space available. That space issue was the biggest challenge. Wherever I could I worked in a modular way. Background elements were often created from smaller pieces that could be repeated and combined in different ways. A specific world would contain a small library of “parts” that some of the environment would be built from. Only the original piece takes up space—each repetition does not. Really.
The developer, Smashing Ideas, was great about explaining all the technical stuff. They also brought a sound designer. The aural part of the experience added a whole other dimension.
Any more plans to create in this format?
If the app format seems right for another story idea then I would consider it again. The story’s needs determine the form. I’m working on a graphic novel right now and then another picture book. So, you never know.
A trailer of Spot is now available.
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