Decoding Dragon Brush

Most children’s apps have the ability to retain user entrancement for at least a couple of minutes, and thank goodness for that. But it’s not every day that an app experience upsurges mere interest to full-on immersion, and Dragon Brush—an interactive storybook recently released by Small Planet Digital (and designed by the team at Spike Press)—does just that.

Currently available for iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch (and listed at a mere $0.99), Dragon Brush is, if nothing else, a testament to thoughtful and holistic functionality. Users propel forth the narrative by acquring paint and helping the protagonist, Bing-Wen, create things at the demand of the emperor. From the cinematic animation to the tappable “hotspots” to every chime and beep, the experience runs on details and fluidity. The musical score (composed by indie-rock band The National) works well with the rich color palette, and the textured, parchment-like background is a charming, perhaps ironic nod to analog paper.  Needless to say, we were thrilled to pick the brains of illustrator John Solimine and Small Planet CEO Gavin Fraser—once back in the real world. —Lucie Alig

In your mind, what sets Dragon Brush apart from other storybook apps?

Gavin Fraser: What sets it apart isn’t necessarily a particular interactivity, but the holistic approach and sensibility, which comes across in a million little details across the story. There’s a certain charm and delight in the interactions—all made possible by our small, passionate team with a singular vision. It was also important to us to base the central interactivity of the story on the acts of painting and creation.

I love that the story is based on a Chinese folktale. Can you speak to the research and cultural knowledge that went into this app?

John Solimine: After my partner, Andy Hullinger, and I decided to use a traditional folktale, we did a lot of research to find one that made sense for touch screen interaction. When we found Dragon Brush (also known as Magic Brush), we knew that the painting aspect of the story would translate perfectly. For the artwork, I checked out stacks of library books about ancient China (and watched Kung Fu Panda more than a few times). Researching a subject that’s so visually rich was a lot of fun for me. As we were finishing up, I asked a friend—whose parents emigrated from China—to review it, too, just to make sure I wasn’t stepping on any cultural toes! The result, I hope, is a thoughtful take on a traditional folktale, as filtered through the sensibilities of a midwestern kid raised on comic books and Bugs Bunny.

What are some of the challenges of telling stories on the iPad?

GF: Well, I think we all tend to forget that the device is still in its infancy—only two-years-old in April! So how to create for a new medium that people are using and understanding in still-evolving ways? One of the main challenges is showing users how to get the most of Dragon Brush without spoiling the discovery, on one hand, or becoming too opaque.

Music (original scores by The National) plays such a big role in this app. Can you talk about how that collaboration worked? 

GF: Like much of what we do, it was a collaborative, iterative process with a lot of back and forth. The National wouldn’t necessarily be the first band to come to mind for an app like Dragon Brush, but Aaron and Bryce Dessner are eclectic geniuses with seriously far-ranging interests. So when they said they were interested in the project, we were thrilled.

Any other exciting projects on the horizon for Small Planet?

GF: We’re working on several storybook apps for clients, but we love working on our own titles, too—including exciting work in educational curriculum and gaming. We’re also considering a few follow-up ideas for Dragon Brush, so stay tuned.