Animation, Kafka, cats or dogs & identity — A chat with Jon Frickey, director of Cat Days
I caught up with German-American animator Jon Frickey to chat a bit about film-making, photographic and animation technique, animation, Kafka, the eternal question of cats or dogs and identity in his new animated short Cat Days, which has been making the film festival rounds recently.
Frickey has been a filmmaker and an illustrator since 2006. Previously, he was an art director in advertising before following his true passion in filmmaking. His previous films include Don’t Fear the Atom, Financial Crisis, Mr. Iiuu & the Nasty Bird and Michelle’s Sacrifice. A trip to Japan inspired Frickey to create Cat Days.
In Cat Days, Jiro, a little boy, feels sick. His father takes him to see the doctor. She diagnoses a harmless condition, but it shakes the boy’s identity. What results is an interesting Kafkaesque exploration of identity, exploring some rather profound facets of identity in the process.
The voiceovers of the characters were created by Japanese actors based in Germany and some students from the Japanese School of Hamburg. 8-year-old Kanon Yamato plays Jiro and Yusuke Yamasaki Jiro’s father.
Cat Days has been selected in competition for Berlin International Film Festival, New York Children’s International Film Festival, Dresden International Film Festival, Stuttgart International Film Festival, Anifilm Trebon, Goldener Spatz Film Festival, International Kurzfilm Festival Hamburg, Athens Animfest and now Aspen Shortsfest.
Hello Jon and welcome! I wanted to start by getting a better idea of your history, what got you into film?
I was studying illustration at the time. I realized that music, and sound in general, are extremely helpful in telling a story and creating an atmosphere. The step from illustration to animation felt very natural to me. Also, my first animations were incredibly crude and basic. Actually very close to dropping illustrations in an editing application!
I would absolutely agree on music, sound and atmosphere. Although some of my favorite animated work has absolutely been called “basic”: I’m a huge fan of South Park’s satirical power. So, I don’t consider “basic and crude” to be necessarily a bad thing.
Favorite films and directors? Which would you consider most influential on you as an artist, animator, and filmmaker?
Well, I’m afraid to say that my favorite film is Groundhog Day. I can watch it over and over. Which makes sense, of course.
As an animator, I am intrigued by Japanese animation. Not so much the characters, it’s the actual frame by frame animation by studios like Ghibli that is quite fascinating. They do a running animation that looks beautiful, and then, when you look at it frame by frame, the feet are always touching the ground. WTF.
[Laughs] nice. Not unlike “Sally Gardner at a Gallop” and “The Horse in Motion” by Eadweard Muybridge circa 1878 and 1886, when he set to settle the question of the horses feet leaving the ground when it galloped. Pioneering stuff for photography and indeed the first motion picture.
I don’t think I’ve ever really talked with an animator who went into the processes behind their influences. Absolutely fascinated here. What makes a great film (animated or otherwise)?
Oh, if only I knew. Characters and story likewise, at least that’s what Pixar says. And Pixar is usually right about everything.
Getting into Cat Days I have to ask, where did your inspiration for the story come from, as this is a movie that made me ask, where would someone get this idea for this narrative (in a good way)?
It started out as a joke. The premise is actually very silly, right? But if you take it seriously, it can turn into a nice little story with some depth perhaps, or so I hope. It seemed to me like a typical Kafka premise, but I’m sure it’s okay to simulate Kafka.
Yeah. It really made me think of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” sans the character actually morphing into a bug or animal. And yeah, it is silly, but often the profound can be found there too.
Personally: cats or dogs? I couldn’t help but wonder with the scene where Jiro is in the woods and the bird comes along. What do you think that question says about humanity when it’s asked and pondered?
Thank you! This question took a surprising turn. Wow. So, it’s dogs. Dogs love humans, they just LOVE humans. They want to be part of the family, maybe even part of the species. Cats, on the other hand, have an unpredictable wild streak. There may be some sort of human understanding towards cats, but it doesn’t go both ways. I can’t help but think that every sane person should actually prefer dogs. I guess I am partisan on this issue.
[Laughs] I am too: also in the dog camp for that reason.
The film has a good deal to say about identity too. What do you hope audiences will take with them from Cat Days?
I’m fine with exactly that, feeling what self-identity truly is. If someone watches the film and feels with Jiro and his Dad, in spite of the absurd premise, then that’s wonderful.
I think that sort of Kafkaesque absurdity has a funny way of bringing out empathy in people. Last, what is next for you?
Right now, I want to make some really, really short animations. Maybe 10 second gifs. Just playing around with the medium of animation.
Wess A. Haubrich is the contributing editor of the film section of The Nu Romantics and London’s award-winning culture website The 405. He is also a “top writer in movies” on Medium.com. He can be reached on Twitter or via email: email@example.com as he is always looking for cutting edge undiscovered cinema especially and innovative forms of all kinds of art to bring to his readers by probing the minds of their creators in interviews and features.