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Collaboration Brings Brian Wonders to Life

by Jen Clark

The Binding Edge

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Brian Wonders is a word-free children’s book illustrated by Victor Robert, a California-based artist who also works for DreamWorks Animation. The book was created for little storytellers with big imaginations.


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"The actual book production is really interesting," Victor Robert noted in his blog. "The first edition book will have a special slipcase to protect it." This prototype, shown in red, was created by a San Francisco, CA, company when Robert’s brother, Jorge Robert, was researching manufacturers. The pair later contracted with Silvanus Products, Ste. Genevieve, MO, to create the custom slipcases.


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The custom slipcases for Brian Wonders were created and foil stamped at Silvanus Products, Ste. Genevieve, MO. Houchen Bindery, Utica, NE, bound the book, foil stamped the covers and applied a specially folded dust jacket.


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In his blog, Victor Robert details his illustration process, which is a combination of acrylic paint and digital 3D modeling elements. He utilized a "big board" to keep track of the 48-page book’s progress on each page. He noted green tags meant the page was done, while pink tags indicated there still was some work to do.


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Victor Robert works on the illustration for the ending of Brian Wonders. He said the end to the story had gone through much iteration, but he finally decided it would end with a kiss.


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This cell phone image shows the slipcase prototype and long-distance collaboration between Cathy Elliott at Silvanus Products and Victor Robert.

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Over the course of the last year, Los Angeles, CA-based illustrator Victor Robert took his concept for a new children’s book from prototype to reality with the help of a yearbook printer in Minnesota and a pair of Binding Industry Association-member companies. Brian Wonders was created for little storytellers with big imaginations. The book that Robert said was "years in the making" has no words, yet empowers kids to dream up their own stories. It is the first in what will be a series of limited-edition picture books.

"Brian Wonders is a modern children’s book designed to engage kids as authors and storytellers from an early age. Since the book has no words, the sequence of illustrations becomes a sort of creative puzzle," he said. "My hope is that the open narrative inspires kids to tell dazzling stories, in their own words, or that they simply get lost within the pictures."

By day, Robert is an artist for DreamWorks Animation and is credited for work on "Shrek 4," "The Croods," "Mr. Peabody and Sherman," "B.O.O." and "South Park the Movie." He said a "completed dummy of the book sat on a shelf" at his home for years before he started showing it to his niece and nephew, who were two and four years old at the time. "Last year, my older brother (Jorge Robert) insisted I finish the illustrations and we publish it ourselves, rather than wait for a traditional publisher to pick it up, which wasn’t happening. He took the lead as the project manager," Robert explained.

While researching their options for publishing the book, the brothers found a partner in Blossom Books, a printer in Minnesota that specializes in yearbooks. "They expressed love for the challenge of working on a book like this with so many parts to it, and it was their enthusiasm for the project that we responded to when making our decision to go with them," Robert said.

Blossom (www.blossom-books.com), a division of In*Tech Integrated Marketing Services, Winona, MN, then contracted with Houchen Bindery, Utica, NE, to bind the book, foil stamp the covers and apply a specially folded dust jacket. Martin Pugh, director of development, sales and marketing at Houchen, reached out to Cathy Elliott, customer service and purchasing manager at Silvanus Products, Ste. Genevieve, MO, for help creating the book’s custom slipcase. Both Houchen Bindery and Silvanus Products are long-time BIA members.

"In*Tech (via Victor) had asked us about producing a slipcase for the books," Pugh said. "We don’t produce slipcases as our specialty here, so that is when I called Cathy to ask if she could help on that part of the project." Pugh provided Silvanus’ information to In*Tech, which in turn contacted Silvanus for a quote. Elliott said she could tell "right away that the woman I was working with was not familiar with our products or materials. I explained each piece of the puzzle, walking her through what I needed in order to be able to make our slipcase fit the book Martin had produced."

Elliott also worked closely with Robert to ensure the finished product matched his vision. "In this particular case, it was necessary for me to talk directly to him instead of talking to (In*Tech), since the company was not familiar with what I was trying to accomplish," she said. "Using photographs, sending samples and speaking to him was a pleasure."

The BIA connection

Since 1935, Houchen Bindery has provided book binding and preservation services for universities, public libraries, schools, printers, publishers and individuals all over the country. It specializes in short-run binding projects ranging from a single book to thousands. Pugh was comfortable suggesting Silvanus as a partner in the Brian Wonders project because he had seen its high-quality work first hand during a tour of its facility during the 2012 BIA Annual Conference. The BIA began offering plant tours as part of its conference in 2010, providing attendees an inside look at member companies in or near the conference’s host-city. "We got to see exactly what type of work Silvanus specializes in," said Pugh. "When this project came up, I thought of no one better than Silvanus."

Located 60 miles south of St. Louis, MO, Silvanus has been providing innovative custom products since 1929. It manufactures vinyl specialty items, loose leaf binders, checkbook covers, portfolios, custom-made indexes and turned edge binders, as well as bank passbooks and more. The company and its employees have become known across the country for providing high-quality decorating techniques and service.

"This was my first project involving Martin," Elliott said. "Martin had remembered, from the 2012 plant tour, that we had the capabilities to produce slipcases and thought we’d be a good fit for the project. I felt we had a very good connection right away, as we both understood what was expected of each other. We were both willing to make a high-quality product. Since this project, I have referred people to his business, and he does the same for Silvanus."

During the plant tour, Pugh said it was made clear that Silvanus prefers to work with others in the trade. "I always try to collaborate with others throughout the industry as opposed to viewing them as competitors," explained Elliott. "Our shops don’t have the same exact machinery and don’t turn out the exact same products, so we really complement each other."

It was important for the two to exchange prototypes throughout the process. "Cathy was a pleasure to work with," Pugh said. "I think she was working with some tight deadlines. I know, for us, it was a little bit tight on the timing once we finally got all the components from the printer."

While Houchen tries to keep most of its work under its own roof because it is easier to control, Pugh acknowledged outsourcing projects like the Brian Wonders book is something they’ll do, "if I have the knowledge of where to get it done. I certainly will try to help with an outsourcing situation." Keeping friendly, open lines of communication is paramount, he said. "I have yet to meet two binderies that really have all the same capabilities. This is true even among the case binderies I am aware of. Most of us have our own distinct niche, even if there are a few similarities. The BIA has been a great source of meeting others in our industry for this type of thing."

Pugh added the book was a great job to put on Houchen’s list of accomplishments. "The project had a lot of ‘moving parts,’ so to speak. We had to make sure to always communicate well through rapid prototyping, iPhone pictures, diagrams and phone conversations to make sure the meaning was clear," he said.

Robert didn’t have any reservations about having different companies working on the project. He’s even planning on working with the companies on future projects. "It was such a pleasure to work with Cathy and, when we spoke on the phone for the first time, I knew I was in good hands – she totally got it and understood that although the final slipcase would be simple in look, it would be deceptively tricky to get all its pieces lining up and working together."

Technical aspects

Robert detailed the making of Brian Wonders over the past year in a blog at www.brianwonders.com. "The Making Of" section details his illustration process, which is a combination of acrylic paint and digital 3D modeling elements. The blog documents his inspirations and shows the book’s progression through time-lapse video and journal entries.

He utilized a "big board" to keep track of the 48-page book’s progress on each page. "The spreads get printed out and posted up so I can stand back and get a look at the big picture at once," he wrote in the blog. "It’s incredibly helpful. This also helps me get a sense for the pacing of the images and how they flow from one page to another." He noted green tags meant the page was done, while pink tags indicated there was still some work to do.

"From the moment my brother jumped on board, it took about one full year," Robert said. "He drew up a timeline for the illustrations and began interviewing printers. Once Blossom came on board and the illustrations were wrapping up, we began sampling an array of paper stocks and book finishing details, and we started the color proofing process."

Robert’s goal with printing was to maintain the large dimensions of the illustrations, "so that in the hands of a little kid, the images would completely fill their view," he said. Fully opened, the book has 12x24" spreads and there is an extra-large page in the center – a double-gatefold measuring 12x48". It showcases a fold-out map revealing the inner workings of the Ship Monster, Robert explained. There’s a glowing boiler room; a churning, roaring furnace and soon-to-be digested captives, along with lost treasure. "When pitching this to traditional publishers, this was always the first thing they wanted gone. ‘Books need to be small so they can fit on the shelf,’ " Robert recalled them saying. "I also wanted the book to have the feel of an art book, meaning true, bright colors printed on a heavy stock. Lastly, I wanted the book to be fully crafted in the US."

In*Tech, Pugh explained, had been a customer of Houchen Bindery for about five years. This project entailed a 12x12" full-color, hard cover children’s book with a denim-color Arrestox B cloth bound cover material and foil stamping on the front and sides. "The binding method was side sewn," he said. "There also were two separate gatefold spreads within the book for us to be aware of and printed end sheets, all of which required some special handling and planning."

Robert said the slipcase was the final piece of the puzzle and when In*Tech inquired about creating a custom slipcase, Pugh knew Silvanus would be the perfect match. Elliott sourced the materials and supervised the slipcase construction, which included diecutting and foil stamping. "Martin sent over a book so that we could make the slipcase the correct size to fit the book," Elliott explained. "We produced a sample slipcase for the customer to see and then began to tweak the material, decoration and diecut window."

Since neither In*Tech nor Robert were familiar with the materials available, Elliot asked Robert to describe his vision for the slipcase and then she began researching materials that Silvanus could work with – and that Robert would like. "I called my representative at Ecological Fibers (Glen Schelich) to ask his advice on what materials might work for our application that also would satisfy the soft feel that the customer was looking for," Elliott recalled. "He suggested a new material, Ultima Revell, and sent us material to make proofs and show the customer."

Robert said he knew nothing about creating slipcovers. "Conceptually, I wanted the slipcover to echo a recurring motif in the book – the telescope vignette," he said. "The cover artwork features the title character, Brian Wonders, front and center, and I thought it would be cool for the slipcover to frame his face. I came up with the idea of cutting out a circular window in the slipcase, so that Brian’s face would peek through when the book was inserted. The slipcase had the additional detail of a foil-stamped pinstripe and stars. This little detail would add a bit of sparkle against the matte black."

Elliott said the diecut hole needed to be positioned in such a way that if someone who purchased the book removed its jacket, the title would still show through the window. "Fortunately, Martin did not have the covers of the book foil stamped with the title yet," she said. "Since I already had a book with the paper jacket, we could make the diecut circle match, but I needed to make a template and show Martin exactly where the foil stamping should be placed so that it was centered inside the circle. Our slipcase also had a foil stamping that went around the perimeter of the diecut window. Foil stamping it in the correct position was easy, but we took extra time to make sure that the diecutter was right on target with each case."

Robert couldn’t be more pleased with the results. "It took about three months, working over the holidays. We went through several rounds of prototypes before landing on the final material and specs, but the final product was spot on," he said. When the storybook is inserted, Brian’s face ‘locks’ into place through the circular window. The book also can be inserted in reverse so the back cover, featuring a string of colorful balloons, shows through the window. When the jacket is removed completely, the Brian Wonders foil stamp on the hardcover also locks into place, perfectly. All of these elements had to be aligned and work in unison with each other without much margin of error. I credit Cathy and her team for coordinating all these pieces."

Robert also noted that each slipcase has a perfect fit. The book slides in and "is held snugly inside. A gentle push releases the book and it slides into your hands," he said, adding 250 copies were printed.

Brian Wonders currently is for sale at www.brianwonders.com. "Each copy comes inside its own custom slipcase, is signed and numbered and has the option of being dedicated," Robert said. "I feel very proud of the book, its finish and its presentation. I feel fortunate to have collaborated with Blossom, Houchen and Silvanus – all of whom lifted the book to a higher degree of polish and craftsmanship."