“In actuality, the film started out as a silly joke,” says Hamburg-based animator Jon Frickey about his sweet and dryly funny animated short Cat Days, which follows a father as he discovers that his visibly human son is actually a cat. Unwell, the child Jiro is taken to the doctors by his doting dad, where he’s diagnosed with cat flu and is subsequently reclassified as feline. “I soon realised that the idea could be turned into something somewhat deep if I stuck to the Kafkaesque element of everyone accepting the doctor’s unreal diagnosis,” Jon tells It’s Nice That, after we spotted the film at Pictoplasma. “To me it was clear, this is about gender. But I am very fine with people not seeing it that way.”
What is so endearing about Cat Days aside from its surreal and touching plot, is Jon’s labour-intensive painterly style – an approach quite different to anything Jon had worked on before. “I felt that I needed to live up to the standard that the plot set,” says Jon. “It’s a sincere story, so I wanted nothing pretentious or deflecting on the visual level. I think the ambiguous nature of the plot calls for a somewhat naive, bold and simple look. Otherwise the whole thing becomes too wobbly. That said, as usual (and to be completely honest) I didn’t exactly overthink it.”
The idea for the film came to Jon while he and his girlfriend were staying in Kyoto for a couple of months, and much of the film’s feel is inspired by the city. “Most buildings are beige and brown. Even the McDonald’s is required to have a beige sign,” says the animator. As Jon’s main task was to keep the style simple, he chose very distinct colour schemes for each setting – green for the doctor’s office and bright red-and-yellow for the animal shelter. “I wouldn’t call it classic eye-candy, but at least the colours are friendly on the eye. If anything, you don’t want to look away.”
Taking over a year to produce the film with a “frighteningly structured” schedule, Jon started by writing the script and honed it right down until only the essence was left. Next he storyboarded every single shot and embarked on the huge animating task. The tone of the film is very calm, so Jon opted for an understated animation style, which brought about its own challenges. “If you want to go cartoonish, you’ve got a bigger toolbox to work with,” says Jon. “But if you keep it real, there is not much wiggle room. You can really see if something is off. If you’re too realistic, it looks rotoscoped. If you’re too static, it looks lazy.”
The most fun part of the project was animating the abstract, dream-like sequences. While everything else about the film was strictly storyboarded, the dark, frame-by-frame sequences came to Jon as he was animating. “I knew the first and the last frame, and took it from there. You get up in the morning and want to keep working on the sequence, and deep down, you just hope that you won’t mess everything up. It’s fun and exciting, whereas professional animation is oftentimes just avoiding mistakes.”
Originally Jon had intended to produce English and German versions but when his friend Mississippi from Kyoto came to stay with him in Hamburg, Jon seized the opportunity to translate the script into Japanese and brought in Mississippi to voice direct in the studio. The pair found voice actors Kanon, Iroha and Yuna through an audition at the Japanese School in Hamburg. “Suddenly everything felt right,” says Jon.
Jon was a new father himself when he started making the film, and coincidentally his son loves pink, bright fingernails and wearing dresses. “He was just a baby when I started making the film and now, as a father, I am very wary about giving any comments on parenting,” he laughs. “But I want the takeaway of the film to be a certain feeling. It’s not terribly easy to describe, but I would put it like this: the feeling that everyone tells you what you are and to you it becomes clear, deep down inside, ‘Nope, that’s really not what I am’.”