The heart and passion of a Disney animator

Dan Lund wants to crack the App Store with knock-knock jokes 

iPhones, iPods and iPads have proven to be the best emergency distraction for children. I've seen kids asking parents to kill some time with apps and games over and over — they know we take our iOS gadgets with us everywhere. It hasn't taken us too long to allow their little fingers to swipe, touch and laugh with apps and games. There is, however, a growing sentiment that free-to-play formats and in-app-purchases are spoiling the App Store as safe environment for children. Leaving your iTunes account unsupervised could have consequences of "Smurfberry" dimensions. You wouldn't give your credit card to your four-year old, right?

Today I have the fortune to explore this niche market with an app developer with unusual credentials. Disney animator Dan Lund has been working on his personal project aiming to give the old knock-knock joke an app twist. Something, of course, that is safe for the little ones, that encourages interaction and gives parents a much-needed rest. Here's my chat with the creator of Knock Knock and the Who's There Doors.

Hi Dan, why don't you start introducing yourself and your app to the readers?

Well, my name is Dan Lund and I have been an Effects animator at The Walt Disney studios since 1989. I've had the pleasure of working on classics such as Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, Aladdin, Tarzan and almost every "tent pole" animated feature since the 90's. Currently I am excited about introducing kids to my personal project, Knock Knock and the Who's There Doors app. It's an animated voice interactive app that I am so proud of.

So you're a Disney animator by day and work on this project in your spare time, right? What does your job involve?

I LOVE my job and am thankful every day for it, I realize I am very lucky to be there and NEVER take it for day to day job is to collaborate with my fellow filmmakers in bringing something to the screen that, Hopefully audiences will treasure and want to share with future generations. My part of that process is as an EFFECTS animator. 

Everyday is different, one day could be animating lava chasing Aladdin and the next I could be prepping designs for how leaves will accent Pocahontas's emotional arch. Currently I am designing awesome magic for Disney's next feature Frozen. I show up to work every day expected to look at a blank piece of paper or sit in a room with a very ruff story point and try to bring it to life through a cool new effect that supports the film, its style, tone and schedule. 

How has your experience at Disney helped you to create this app?

When I started to make the "Knock Knock" app, I treated it like a Disney product in that my goal was to invite kids and adults into a world with characters they will take to heart and want to re visit over and over. I don't know if I can work any other way, I do ALOT of independent projects but they only get into production if its something that I want to share with others. I am not an app person or a gamer in any way... It's the characters and how I believed kids would feel they were making new friends that made me try and crack this "app nut"! 

I'm sure you realise many of our readers must be extremely jealous right now. Working in the film industry and now having a taste of the App Store… What is the most satisfying part of it?

There is always this point when working on a Disney film that you feel (usually after the wrap party) it's no longer about the amount of overtime you did or what scene you animated but it's owned by the world and kids treat it as a living breathing thing that has nothing to do with us and has everything to do with them choosing to make it they're a favorite film. I now feel that same way with the Knock Knock and the Who's There Doors app...I see kids playing it, doing the knock knock call backs to the doors in each of their characters voices and having very definite opinions on which ones to joke with. It's magic to see this happen.

Knock knock jokes are a little silly for grown-ups but children seem to love them. What made you explore this for an interactive game?

My niece and nephew were the sole inspiration for this app. When home on a two week Christmas break, Carson and Mason Racich told me knock knock jokes non stop. Trying to be the coolest uncle in the world, I was the only adult that never didn't say "who's there" and as we all know, once you do that your trapped. They would tell them wrong but non the less, they cracked themselves up every time. I realized this must be a childhood touchstone, they learn what a joke is, they don't care if they work or not... They just like sucking you in with them. This app I thought, would give a kid that constant friend to do these jokes with and its always charming to do and watch.

Whenever I talk to indie developers they praise the tools available to develop for iOS but somehow criticised Apple's restrictions. How has the experience of developing and releasing the app been for you? 

I am still in shock regarding the fact that I actually have an app that works and is part of such an iconic store but I must admit my app programer and producer has a few other opinions regarding the process and what went on behind the scenes. I will let him tell you his thoughts on this but for me, it's been an amazing journey and I try very hard to keep those rose colored glasses on. 

"This app has proved there is a way to engage in a piece of technology and still keep it a social and all inclusive experience"

Apps designed for children tend to be overlooked by many App Store users. Just by playing some minutes with the app I can see all the work that has gone into it. What was the most challenging aspect creating this app? 

I didn't know that until you just said it (good thing or I might have chickened out)... I didn't let other children's apps and their success or lack of , effect the way I went into this project. I LOVE bringing something from concept to completion and so when smarter people than me said not to do it... Well that's all I needed to hear. I was off to the races, driven by proving them wrong. For me creating something is what I do for pleasure, my dream date on a Fri night is a good idea, a way to put it into motion and maybe a big Martini! 

A lot of effort has gone into the voice acting. How did you manage to organise this?

I make sure to ALWAYS work with friends, I am lucky to have very talented people around me that can't wait to play in my sandbox. I am good at letting people try something they always wanted to try and us my projects as a vehicle for that... As far as voice talent. My dear friend John Tucker, a Disney veteran (worked with Walt himself and was there the day he died) and long time creative collaborator was the first voice I cast. It was him that, giving our host door his signature voice, convinced me these could be real characters that live past an app game. As far as organizing this, I leap before I look and then clean up the mess after. I had a great producer, Arno Kroner who kept this all very professional while I was just playing in my animation sandbox.

I can see that this project is something very close to you. What makes you specially proud when you show it to your friends and family?

I am the last person to brag about my Disney credits or the perks that come with that job but I am so proud of his app that it's easy for me to brag about it. I just feel like it works!!! It creates the vibe I imagined when someone is playing it. It's like magic every time I see someone turn it on, I step back, smile and know they just made a cool new friend and it has nothing to do with me. It's all about something tapping into the young at heart. 

Considering the amount of sub-par apps for children on the App Store, do you think some developers don't take this market seriously? 

I am also aware of how bad some of the animation is on children's apps and how they are sold as educational... I really wanted to give bang for your buck, keep it social-not educational and push the animation to support characters that could live well outside of the app. I want them on b-day cakes, mugs, back packs... Let these doors take over the world.

"We totally used children's input and one of the best features was born out of kids testing and then sending in their notes"

You mention that you wanted to involve children during the development and in future updates. How has this worked so far and what advice would you give to other developers that are considering the idea?

Yes, since this app was inspired by kids I felt it was such a cool idea to let kids be our testers. It was really Arno, the programer that wrangled all the kids and made sure they went  through the apple process to become official testers. We totally used their input and one of the best features (the tap twice with knocking sound) was born out of kids testing and then sending in their notes.

For some readers, this might be the first time they hear about the app. What would you tell them to persuade them to give it a go?

I think the voice interaction is very cool and kids love to be in control as they swipe up and down a hall to choose who to do jokes with but on a more lofty note, I think everyone these days is so plugged in and tuned out. This app has proved there is a way to engage in a piece of technology and still keep it a social and all inclusive experience. And after all the world is a better place when there are a few good knock knock jokes around! 

Thanks for your time Dan. I found really inspiring to hear your views on developing apps for children. If you want to try the end result Knock Knock and the Who's There Doors is available now on the App Store in two episodes. Enjoy!