Tag Archives: Mike Austin

On art media, sound, and teamwork

Our discussion about the making of the iPad story app “A Present for Milo” continues. . . .

Mike Austin, 1968

Mike Austin, 1968

7. What art media did you use? And what computer apps did you use yourself?

Mike Austin: I use a lot of scanned textures in my illustration, so before I began I gathered up a folder of all the things I wanted to use (different kinds of paper, cloth, banana leaves, etc.), I worked in Illustrator and Photoshop on the Mac.

8. What was the approval process or protocol between you, Rubin, Sequel Digital, and The Ruckus Media Group? Time frame?

Rubin Pfeffer: It was an iterative process — we approved it as we went along.  I touched base with Ruckus at key points along the way.

Ruckus had the same objective:  Great storytelling. They were actually more resolved to avoid gratuitous clickables that might suggest anything gimmicky.

The intent all along was to deliver a delightful reading experience that very young children would enjoy, and in turn, would be endorsed by parents and educators.

Mike Austin: It was a great collaboration between everyone.  It went very smoothly.  Sharon, Ken and I would communicate just about every day, with cc to Rubin.

We focused on one screen at a time. I would send the layered Photoshop files of the finished screens to Sharon for review. Ken would program the screen, and then send a prototype app that Rubin and I could upload to the iPad for proofing.

It was so funny, because I would get the app loaded, and then start jumping up and down, screaming “THIS IS SO COOL!!!!” The farther along we got the funnier our video Skypes became.

Joy Chu: Could you address the topic of voice-over? That is, did reading the text aloud have an effect upon who was selected to do the vocals? Who was responsible for that end of it?

Rubin Pfeffer: Mike’s reading was the most natural.  He recorded a preliminary track that we planned to use only for visual pacing.

We’d always intended to bring in a professional reader. When it was time to do the actual voice-over, we did a test with a professional.  It was very good, but it lacked the authenticity that we’d come to enjoy from Mike’s voice.


So we sent Mike back to the studio to re-read the manuscript. This time he was the voice celebrity. It just wouldn’t have been the same with someone else.

Most of the sound decisions were invented and decided between Mike and the Sequel Creative team, Sharon and Ken Streger. They had great fun “illustrating” with sound!

I got to see what a silly kid-at-heart Mike is, by listening to the many sounds that he himself is able to make up, right there on the phone.

Mike Austin today

Mike Austin today

Storyboards and collaboration

We examine the process of story-telling via the iPad and picture book paradigm, with author/illustrator Mike Austin and his agent, Rubin Pfeffer.

4. Take us through the steps in transitioning from bookmaking to iPad parlance. Did you “play” with many other apps, while creating additional sketches and ideas?

Mike Austin: It took a lot of noodling to get the pages working in a way that made sense for the iPad.

Various character studies of Milo the cat

Various character studies of Milo the cat

I had to condense most of the spreads into single pages, split some spreads into separate pages, and then think about how Milo, the mouse, and all the other little pieces were going to interact once animated.

I looked at bunch of other apps to see how they handled page structure, pacing and animation which helped a little. This is all new to me, so I had to figure it out as I went along.

It was a very complicated puzzle, and incredibly time consuming, but I think the next one will be much easier.

Rubin Pfeffer: My first app also. I always think of picture books as experiential reading. This is a story app.

Creators using the new technologies now offer readers many other ways to experience the story.

I’m not saying that digital apps replace picture books. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Digital story apps are a different medium, with different outcomes. Not better. Different.

We often said (to ourselves) “just because we can do it, doesn’t mean we should do it.” We tried to stay true to the goal.

Any “taps” and surprises should happen to further the story line, and not just to “wow” ourselves or the readers.

Assorted sketches, notes, storyboards for "Milo"

Assorted sketches, notes, storyboards for "Milo"

5.  You then worked with Sequel Digital, a digital design and development group. Would you take us through what it was like working with them? Were there many revisions along the way? How many people were in your Sequel Digital team?

Mike Austin: Rubin put me in touch with Ken and Sharon Streger at Sequel Digital. It was just the four of us:  Rubin, me, Ken and Sharon.

We had most of our meetings via Skype video.  It was really a fun way to work together. I live in Hawaii, and they’re in Connecticut. So we would set up a video chat around 8 am my time,  2 pm Eastern.

Sharon would email me pdfs of the storyboard with a list of agreed upon actions, sound effects and narration typed out for each screen.

Storyboard with lists and notes

Storyboard with lists and notes

I would print it out and use that as my guide, scribbling notes to myself as I went through each piece of the puzzle.

Rubin Pfeffer: Yes, Sharon kept the chaos in order.  She was command central, knowing what kind of additional materials, illustrations — “assets” —  would be required of Mike in order to make anything move or appear.

She is an excellent designer as well, and had an immediate affinity to Mike’s graphic style.

Sharon’s notations were the “to do lists” for Mike and for Ken Streger. Sharon mapped it out on paper. Ken built the systems that make the app perform.

Storyboard refinements for the cover image

Storyboard refinements for the cover image

Mike Austin: We’d nail down the lead-in animations (the animation that occurs when a new page loads).  Once the lead-in animation ends, then the reader can begin exploring the page.

We figured out how many “clickables” we could have on each screen, and whether or not they enhanced or supported the story.

Detail from script for title image

Detail from script for title image

I had a lot of crazy ideas like the walls flying apart, stuff spinning around, etc., all happening at the same time.  Ken had to keep reminding me that if you have too many big complex things happening at once the program will crash.

I had to think smaller, less complex sequences — although there is one screen that fills with scribbles. Ken and Sharon made it work brilliantly.

Once we decided what could be “clickable,” we had to figure out the different animations that could occur for each clickable.

For example, the sailing picture on the wall in the first screen has several possible animations. Tap and the mouse jumps up from the boat.  Tap, and the octopus pops up and shakes the boat.  Tap, and a whale pops up, and lifts the boat with his spray.

More script notes for actions and corresponding sound effects

Script notes for actions and corresponding sound effects

6. What was the time frame between presenting your book storyboard to Sequel Digital, and completing all the final pieces for Milo?

Mike Austin: We had our initial meeting around the middle of August, and were ready for final testing around the end of November.

For a few weeks I would get up at 4:30 a.m. and start drawing, and usually finished around 10 p.m.  Regardless of how busy I was, I always made time for a short surf session in the middle of the day.

More handwritten notes, post Skype conference

More handwritten notes, post Skype conference call

Joy Chu: You completed all art and animation within two months (of 2010)?

Rubin Pfeffer: Because Mike’s storyboard was so sound, and we intended to keep this beautiful and effective by its simplicity, we had a pretty clear idea of what the app would be when we began.

That, and Mike’s focus, plus Sequel Creative’s clear directives, enabled this to get to the market as quickly as it did.

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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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From book idea to iPad app. . . .

Our next Countdown Interview will feature the iPad app, “A Present for Milo,” produced by Ruckus Media.

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“A Present for Milo” started as a picture book idea. Then it was turned into an original iPad app, harnessing full use of its unique capabilities. The inspired combination of  Milo-the-cat’s perky characterization, plus many surprises for kids to tap and discover,  and dazzling color textures culminated in a 3-book contract with Blue Apple books.

We’ll chat with author/illustrator Mike Austin, meet his agent, Rubin Pfeffer, and go behind the scenes.

Have questions? Attend the interview and post them here!