Each year Pixar reminds us how well feature animation sells.
Then there is the younger sibling, who typically only finds a home at film festivals, competitions and Awards:
the animated short.
Cherie Lee went to talk to writer/director Eddie White about his much celebrated ‘The Cat Piano’ and about writing for animation.
(Scroll down to watch the whole film)
What was the starting point for ‘The Cat Piano’?
I saw an etching online from the 1700s of an actual cat piano. This was an instrument designed for the amusement of a depraved German prince.
I thought it was really twisted and disturbing but also kind of funny so I wanted to write a poem based on that image. Then I would take it further and give it a story.
Was that a different approach to your other work?
I’m not generally inspired by something I’ve seen, I usually just get crazy ideas in my head. One of the films we made before was also a poem started from a dream, so it was sparked by some visuals in my head.
‘Cat Piano’ was an external thing, a new kind of approach. I like trying different things with each short film that we make.
Were do you get your inspiration from?
With ‘Cat Piano’, I was really inspired by Japanese animation. Ari, the co-director of the film, is inspired by comics like Batman with that Dark Gotham city kind of look. When you get two people’s artistic influences drawn together you can create something that looks different and unique.
So they were our main visual influences. For my other stuff it depends: I’ll see a short film at a festival or I’ll see a live action film and be influenced.
What is it in animation that grabs your attention?
First off it would be visual elements because animation is such a visual medium. After that, character and atmosphere. If a film is character driven and has a strong atmosphere that you get drawn into, it really appeals to me.
Short films have got to be so simple and efficient with doing that as all you have is 5-10 minutes.
So the quicker you can get people in with visuals or music or sound the better. You have to get people in the first few seconds otherwise you can lose them.
I do watch a lot of short films and work out what things an audience responds to and what kind of things I respond to and try and incorporate that into the films we make.
What was the most challenging aspect of its production?
Making all of the elements work together is probably the most challenging. We didn’t know at first what we wanted for music in the . Eventually we gave Ben, our composer the brief, ‘Arabic Jazz’.
Ben knew this was about atmosphere, and not an easy thing to pull off. So he did a few versions of the score and the first couple were good but they just didn’t fit so we worked on that a bit.
The sound design only fell into place in the last few weeks. Coming up with the cat piano sound was challenging because we didn’t want it to sound ‘good’. It was the jewel in the crown, the centrepiece.
We wanted the cat squeals to pierce people’s ears at that point of the film and make people go ‘God that’s a terrible sound that I would hate to hear if I was a cat’.
How would you describe your writing process?
I collect ideas that are inspired by other things or just pop up and I write everything down. I like to document as much stuff as I can.
Usually something will stick with me. Sometimes it’s visually, sometimes it’s story-wise or emotionally that keeps coming back and resonates and I’ll keep coming up with ideas on that one.
I usually have three or four ideas and then it comes down to one that screams out to be made. ‘The Cat Piano’ became that.
Do you always have animation in mind when you start writing?
It’s almost like I’m wearing these special goggles that allow me to translate everything into animation. There’s a sense of magic to it. People will forgive cartoon characters whereas with live action it’s a bit harder.
The film that we’re working on now is a combination of live action and animation, so I’ve had to start thinking in live action terms as well.
What advice could you give to screenwriters who might be interested in animation?
I’d love it if there were more people writing animation stuff in this country. I think it would mean that better stuff would come out. There would be a really good cross-pollination of ideas and thoughts.
I think people need to realise that if you’re a writer then you’re not limited to any particular medium.
Do you think there’s a place for short films in mainstream cinema?
I’d like to see shorts before features in the cinema. I think it would be a great idea. I’ve talked to a couple of people in that sort of distribution realm and a lot of them agree. Because they’re digestible I think people like it.
I’ve been finishing the draft for a feature film I’ve been working on for a couple of years now. It’s called the ‘Popovich Five’ and is about these teenagers whose father is a great Russian astronaut. He blows up in a rocket and they’re left in the space centre as orphans.It’s in the 1980s in the Soviet Union and they decide to run away and perform in something like the Eurovision song contest.
It’s been a lot of fun writing and getting into these characters heads.
Eddie White is a co-founder and creative director of ‘The People’s Republic of Animation’. He is a writer, director and designer whose films with the PRA include the AFI nominated, ‘Fritz Gets Rich’ and ‘Carnivore Reflux’. ‘The Cat Piano’ continues to collect accolades around the world including an AFI nomination and selection at Annecy International Film Festival in France, the Raindance film festival in the UK and many more.