It began with a story idea…

Mike Austin is both author and illustrator of “A Present for Milo,” the first iPad app by the Ruckus Media Group created from an original story.

Mike was a full time illustrator/graphic designer for many years. We’ll look at how the seed for “Milo” was planted and grew, from its beginnings as a traditional book dummy, to interactive iPad app.

We will also meet his agent, Rubin Pfeffer of East/West Literary Agency, who subsequently sold a 3-book deal for “Milo” and Mike Austin to Blue Apple books.


Milo, the original inspiration of "A Present for Milo"

Milo, the original inspiration of "A Present for Milo"

1. According to the Ruckus Media Group blog, the idea for Milo actually began 15 years ago, when your daughter was two. Has the story changed very much over that time?

Mike Austin: The concept behind the story really didn’t change all that much from the original idea of a cat/mouse chase around the house.

We (my daughter and I) were wondering what the heck Milo did all day besides eat and sleep! We thought maybe he’s actually running around all day, and that’s why he’s so tired all the time.

Milo the muse. . . .

Milo the muse. . . .

It’s funny because it wasn’t really thought out very much. I just sat down and started doodling and writing a very simple story, with the only intention being to draw funny pictures with my daughter before bed.

Rubin Pfeffer: It’s the simplicity of the story that yields all the charm!

2. How did you meet your agent, Rubin Pfeffer? Did he help you realize your vision for Milo?

Mike Austin: I hadn’t been actively seeking an agent, so when I received an email from Rubin (last March or April), I was thrilled!

Rubin had seen portfolio samples of my work on one of the illustration portfolio sites. He was interested in seeing more, and possibly collaborating on some projects. The feedback and insight I got from Rubin was invaluable. I think he’s a Jedi.

Rubin Pfeffer: Truth be told, his wife Jing Jing Tsong‘s work first struck me and going through her portfolio, I came upon Mike. They are both marvelous talents and I am eager to shepherd Jing into the world of children’s content. Both Mike and Jing are developing very young, playful stories.

3. You fleshed out Milo using traditional bookmaking methods:  Storyboard; character studies of Milo; a schematic of his domain etc. before moving on to the book dummy, yes?

Mike Austin: Well… for the most part, although I didn’t really know the right way to go about it at the time.

My illustration style and approach to design is completely different from what it was 15 years ago. After digging around some boxes on a shelf under the house, I found my original dummy. It was cringe-worthy.

I spent about a month redrawing everything in my current style, and laid out the book the right way, with a lot of helpful feedback from my wife, illustrator Jing Jing Tsong .

Cover from the 1995 book dummy for "Milo"

Cover from a 1995 book dummy for "Milo"

I sent a pdf to Rubin. He suggested I tweak some things, which I did and then it was basically ready to show potential publishers.

Current cover/iPad design

Current iPad version of cover design

Double-page spread from 1995 book dummy

Double-page spread from a 1995 book dummy

Corresponding iPad version of opening scene

Corresponding iPad version of opening scene

1995 version another double-page dummy spread

1995 version of another double-page dummy spread

Current iPad version of tunnel scene

Current iPad version of tunnel scene

Rubin Pfeffer: Mike, I didn’t see that (version of the) Milo style — hmmm, pretty cool.

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25 responses to “It began with a story idea…

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention It began with a story idea… | got story countdown --

  2. Did you have to change much to fit the IPad app? The story is so cute and I think any young child would want to be in Milo’s world.:)

  3. I love all the textures, patterns and colors that appear in the current Milo. It’s visual magic. In the 1995 version, the colors are all solid. Quite a difference overall.

  4. The updated Milo is dramatic, vivid, rich, vibrant. The original is great but I think the difference between the two reflects, in addition to your evolution as an artist, but also the evolution of our visual culture. We expect more in our visual stimuli. The caveat is that some productions become frenetic. Yours has a pleasing balance.

    • Hi Mike!
      I suspect that Milo was maturing, like a fine wine, over the years.

    • The story is all about a topsy turvy, frenetic world that Milo and mouse have created for themselves so I had to reflect that in the stronger colors, bold shapes and energetic juxtaposition of elements as opposed to the original which was more subdued, flat. It definitely evolved and matured after so many years. I wish I still had my sketches because it would show how I was heading towards this solution.

  5. Really looking forward to this, I just downloaded
    Sketchbook Pro on my iPad. An artist can create tracing and layers! YES!

  6. Hi, Mike,
    What did the manuscript/dummy look like that you ended up with? For example, did it have sound effects and animation notes along with the text?

  7. Hi Denise!
    Yes, it’s cool how applying the right effect breathes life into that character.

  8. I’m hooked by the mischievous eyebrows (in the app).

    Looking forward to this countdown!

  9. Seeing the cat yawn made me yawn!

  10. This looks most appealing! Since I don’t have an i-pad as yet, I’m not able to run the app. But I’m very curious as to whether you were limited to the traditional print 32page format?

    • Hi Anne!
      Great seeing you here.

      I imagine it could be as many or as few pages as the story allows. And that the traditional 32-page format gives a “framework” to work out the storyboards from.

      In my most recent illustrator workshop, one student looked forward to not having to figure out the 32-page sequencing “schtick.” However, she still had to think in cinematic terms, so there was no escaping working out the “beats,” or pacing the story, albeit in a different format.

      I’m sure Mike will have some thoughts about that.

    • That’s what was so tricky and time consuming. The book was in a traditional 32 page format and I had to condense to 16 pages (plus an intro page with Ruckus Logo, info page and About the Author).

      I can’t remember if we ended up with 16 pages because of budget or some other technical reason. I’ll ask the developer and post again.

      • On the other hand, you had to create many additional drawings — items you wouldn’t have had to do within the 32-page standard format, yes?

        For example, the typical 32-page picture book has an average of 14 illustrations.

        You had to create material to “animate”, I reckon. Stuff like that. I wonder how many pieces of spot-art you wound up with in the end. That is, one background, with separate moveable elements.


      • Once I condensed the spread into a single screen I had to draw and addition 20 -30 images for the animation sequences (4 or 5 clickable elements each with 4-5 states) . That adds up to around 400 individual images! Not including the stuff I drew that didn’t work. At one point I thought I would never be able to finish.

      • Mike wrote:

        “Once I condensed the spread into a single screen, I had to draw an additional 20 -30 images for the animation sequences (4 or 5 clickable elements each with 4-5 states) . That adds up to around 400 individual images! Not including the stuff I drew that didn’t work.

        Yikes! This is where knowing your way around Illustrator and Photoshop (and tools like the rubber stamp et al) really comes in handy, I reckon.


  11. Hi Mike,
    I really like your work. It was nice to see the dummy. I like both the little black Milo as well as the finished blue Milo. Why did you change his look?
    Lori Mitchell

    • Hi Lori,
      Thanks for your kind words! I like the little black Milo too but I wanted the current Milo to be softer and more textural, kind of fuzzy looking, so I played around with a bunch of different color from dark blue to orange and settled on a fuzzy blue/grey (like an old worn out teddy bear). Also when I was playing around with the texture I wanted for the black fur it started to look like a printing error.


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