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Courtesy of Ryan Woodward
A page from Ryan Woodward's graphic novel app "Bottom of the Ninth."

Not many professors work on big-time movies like "The Avengers," "Spider Man 3" or "Where the Wild Things Are."

BYU animation professor Ryan Woodward — a storyboard artist on several Hollywood productions, including the three movies listed above — isn't your typical buttoned-down university academic.

When Woodward released his cutting-edge iPhone and iPad app "Bottom of the Ninth" in June, he left behind conventional notions of "what professors do" for the umpteenth time. But with "Bottom of the Ninth," Woodward ventured further outside the box than ever before: He essentially left behind the confines of conventional media to forge his own path to potentially groundbreaking innovation that has Apple's support and has won the praise of baseball columnists.

One of a kind

"Bottom of the Ninth," set in fictional Tao City in the year 2172, is the first-ever animated comic book.

"By definition, animation means 'the illusion of life,'" Woodward said. "So when I say it's the first animated comic book, it is the first one where you can actually touch the panels and get full 24-frames-per-second animation and characters talking, moving (and) running through a 3D world.

"It's not just sliding artwork — it's actual, full-blown animation like if you were to go watch a Pixar movie. And that hasn't been done before."

The concept that would become "Bottom of the Ninth" started with a short story Woodward wrote in 2005. The next year he molded that story into a four-minute cartoon — but thereafter the story and cartoon both ended up on the proverbial shelf, and there they remained for several years.

It was only after Woodward realized in 2011 just how much the quality of smartphone and tablet apps had progressed that he seriously considered undertaking production of the "Bottom of the Ninth" app.

"I thought to myself that it's not going to be long before studios start making these super high production-quality apps, and they start charging more for them — but the experience is much, much richer," he said. "I always knew how to create the (visual) content, so as soon as that dawned on me, that's when I decided that I wanted to do this app. "

Daddy-daughter story

The plot of "Bottom of the Ninth" centers on New Baseball, a sport that largely resembles present-day baseball. The primary protagonist is Candy Cunningham, an 18-year-old pitcher who is the first female to play for the New Baseball team in Tao City. Candy's father, Gordy, is also a prominent character in the comic book.

Woodward's decision to cast the main character in "Bottom of the Ninth" as a female athlete is no coincidence; instead, it's a deliberate outgrowth from his own life experience of raising three daughters — one of whom is a competitive gymnast.

"Being around my (gymnast) daughter during all of the high-anxiety moments — the training work with coaches, being at the meets when she's competing — there's a lot that goes on in a kid's mind and in the parent's mind that I tried to incorporate into this script. I think that helps me quite a bit to connect to this particular storyline, because it is actually a part of my own life — but just put into a fictional context."

Boom or bust

By virtue of being the first animated comic book, "Bottom of the Ninth" faces a catch-22 marketing dilemma: How can Woodward convey to consumers the nature of a product, the likes of which they've never before seen, before they plunk down their money?

"Apple is fully supportive of this app — they've been working with me on the tail end because they see that this could really start a unique storytelling movement that is in their interests," Woodward said. "So we're putting our heads together wondering, 'How do we explain to people what this is without giving it away for free?'"

The version of "Bottom of the Ninth" available in Apple's App Store is actually only a prologue, the first installment of a 10-part story Woodward has already planned out in detail. Whether the subsequent nine chapters ever materialize depends in large part upon how well the prologue sells.

"I have a plan that I'd like to employ, but that all depends on the success of the prologue," he said. "The (prologue) was 100 percent independently produced and funded, and that can only happen once. There's got to be a measurable success to it so that I can invest that success into the following issues."

The app started selling for $3.99, but the price quickly fell — first to 99 cents, and now to "Free." It's likely the price drops were in reaction to disappointing sales figures, but because Woodward repeatedly declined to disclose sales figures for "Bottom of the Ninth," it's impossible to know for certain whether slow sales prompted the price drops.

One factor working in favor of "Bottom of the Ninth" is that the app has elicited overwhelmingly positive praise from a wide breadth of media outlets. For example, on Monday the respected sports website Baseball Prospectus showered uncharacteristically effusive praise on Woodward's creation.

"'Bottom of the Ninth' is a work of art that all baseball-loving tablet owners should download immediately," Larry Granillo wrote. "At its most basic level … Woodward's 'Bottom of the Ninth' takes (the graphic novel) concept and improves upon it to an amazing degree. … This is George Lucas turning Saturday-morning pulp into a laser-popping wonder, Georges Melies showing the world what film can do with the right imagination. Best of all, Woodward does it all with baseball."

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To be sure, positive press helps — but it remains to be seen whether that can be a catalyst for bumping the app's balance sheet into the black. Indeed, in reflecting about the boom-or-bust potential of "Bottom of the Ninth," Woodward noted that the success of his app he spent six months designing might ultimately have no correlation with the product's quality.

"I completely understood the risks when I started with this thing," he said. "Whenever something totally different or new comes out, it either succeeds wonderfully or it fails miserably. … But the thing that I take a lot of confidence in is that I do feel like I created something very, very unique — and even if it doesn't take off right now, I still feel like it will set the stage for a lot of future stuff that comes out."

Emaill: jaskar@desnews.com