Caitlin McCarthy’s sweet stories (where everything goes wrong) will have you in stitches
Despite never being her plan – she still doesn't quite have one – Caitlin McCarthy has shaken up the animation scene with her wicked sense of humour and distinctive style.
There are many reasons to fall for the works of animator Caitlin McCarthy, and Caitlin herself to be honest. Executed in a unique colour palette which shouts absolute joy and silliness, if you were to view stills of her works, you’d be forgiven for thinking she’s the sweetest gal in the world. But when their full narratives are revealed, Caitlin’s dark humour hits you – just as a slimy, gross boy might enter the frame and cause everything to go terribly wrong. There’s so much more to Caitlin than meets the eye, and what’s revealed has audiences, us included, hooked.
Caitlin is a self-described loser: “This is me! I am a loser!” she says, between laughing, in a saccharinely sweet voice she tends to put on when describing her work, often making fun of herself. It’s this quality of the animator – an ability to look at herself and laugh – which runs through her works, giving them a real honesty.
Often personal in their narrative, Caitlin’s animations are equal measures the results of illustrative talent and quick wit; developed in particular from her vast list of references, whether it’s a boy she fancies with good eyebrows, growing up hooked on Internet forums or the lighters available in a particular corner shop in Peckham Rye. To give you a sense of the work she creates, when Caitlin’s mum showed her most successful film to date to her gran – Coldsore, a Vimeo Staff Picked and, most recently, a SXSW selected short – “the one thing she said was ‘why did she have to do that?’”
Born and raised in London, becoming an animator was a bit of an accident for Caitlin. Always interested in creating some kind of visual work, she studied a foundation at Camberwell College of Art and ended up staying on at the university for a degree in illustration. At the time, “I was just doing dumb, weird shit” and “was like, cool, I’ll probably work in a cafe for the rest of my life?” That was until she had a coffee with Kitty Turley, an executive producer at Strange Beast: “You know when you email someone and you’re like ‘can you have a coffee with me and tell me how to live my life’,” and Kitty sort of did.
“I had no fucking idea what I was doing. There’s literally no reason why it should have happened to me!”Caitlin McCarthy
Introducing Caitlin to Rob Wallace, a Strange Beast signee who animates under the moniker Parallel Teeth, the pair had a burger together, “and then I just basically kept emailing him all the time,” she tells It’s Nice That. “Not even about work necessarily, but like video games, and I just wormed my way in.” Worming her way into Rob’s project I’m Easy for musician Merk, Rob essentially taught Caitlin the the tools of the animation trade (“Once, I just did literally the opposite of what he told me to do for four hours but he was so nice about it,” she recalls), creating 2D characters which popped up throughout the short.
Afterwards, Caitlin was often brought on to work on Rob’s projects and soon became signed to the agency herself. “It’s literally all down to Strange Beast,” she reflects on this jump start to her career now. “I had no fucking idea what I was doing. There’s literally no reason why it should have happened to me!” Supportive in their nature, in between commercial projects, Caitlin spent a year working on the aforementioned Coldsore, a sort of “graduate film” to introduce her to the world.
What was introduced was an animator it felt like the industry was in desperate need of. Animation as a whole is still trying (read failing) to catch up in its gender representation, and can often be consumed by over serious animations which put technical skill ahead of narrative.
Caitlin offered the antidote with a short based on teenage feelings – its narrative follows a teenage girl in search of a kiss to gain a coldsore like the coolest girl at school – but approached with adult relatability. It’s full of animated delight too, with details sneaking their way in for fans who will watch multiple times, and her transitional line work shows a creative willing to plough her own path and break the rules her contemporaries may abide by.
“It’s also kind of when you have your most intense emotions and obsessions. Everything gets a bit boring when you’re older.”Caitlin McCarthy
Followed by a series of commissions – MTV, Nike and The School of Life are all clients of Caitlin’s – then came Lite Me Up, made for Adult Swim on the theme of fire. Centred around the aforementioned inspiration of Rye Express’ “selection of sexy lady lighters – I love them,” the film continued with a teenage thematic narrative, inspired, like Coldsore, by Caitlin’s time on Internet forums. “I think it’s just stuff from being on the internet so much as a teenager,” she elaborates. “It’s also kind of when you have your most intense emotions and obsessions. Everything gets a bit boring when you’re older, you’re never interested in things as much as you are when you’re a teenager, and pre-ten-years-old all you’re doing is eating Potato Smilies.”
One particular obsession of Caitlin’s as a teenager was incels, “which stands for involuntarily celibate” she explains, “just extremely depressed, usually quite horrible, young men who hate women because they won’t sex with them.” An arguably unlikely source of inspiration for an animation, it was a Vice documentary from a few years back which provided a surprise main character for Caitlin. “It’s about one particular incel and I really fancied him,” she says with a little cackle. “It’s based on him because I fancy him. I don’t think he’d care, because he is a terrible person, he just has nice eyebrows and smokes loads of cigarettes. That’s where that came from.” This character then provided a possible narrative where the boy falls in love with the lady gracing this lighter’s wrapper: “I thought it was quite an incel-y thing to do,” she points out, “to fall in love with a woman who doesn’t exist.”
“The easter eggs I hide in films are just from like a feeling of oh god, is this funny enough.”Caitlin McCarthy
With these two films in particular, stylistically, Caitlin has displayed a signature. Obviously her dark humour begins this, where hints of what makes the animator laugh are shown on pop ups of a character’s computer screen, for instance, explaining that “the easter eggs I hide in films are just from like a feeling of oh god, is this funny enough.” But in terms of aesthetics, it’s a colour palette, always made up of green, blue, yellow, pink and red, which identifies work as hers instantaneously.
“I just think those are the best colours,” she states enthusiastically when we enquire as to why. Explaining then how they are also inspired by a collection of secondhand objects Caitlin keeps on a mantelpiece, and a period of time where she and her university friends would naturally dress in those colours, she adds: “I just think they’re fun. I always worry and try to make palettes for new jobs and I’m like, but, I have the perfect one right here!” True fans of Caitlin’s may also notice that she will never use black in any of her works, “and it’s for a really arbitrary reason,” she admits. When working on Mr Jukes’ Grant Green music video with Rob and Anna Ginsburg, “I overheard them chatting in the preproduction and they were like ‘what if we do a line that isn’t black’,” the animator explains. “I heard that and thought, cool, they’re professional, I’ll never use a black line again” – and she hasn’t.
Caitlin’s process, too, is pretty unconventional considering she’s self-taught – an element of her work she’s finding hard to replicate when it comes to directing: “To be honest, I do prefer doing things myself,” she admits. “It’s great when people can animate with me, because I’m not actually a very good animator. I do things in specific, weird or wrong ways, and it’s really hard to communicate that with people who are actually really good at what they do. It’s often me saying ‘can you make it a bit shitter’.”
With a tone of voice now fully defined, it’s funny to think that Caitlin really had no plans to enter this industry which appears to suit her so well. Animation is not an easy one to get your teeth stuck into, it’s undeniably one of the technically hardest creative skills to finesse to a high standard, and each project takes a long, long time. But for Caitlin, “sometimes the repetitiveness is quite nice… I think that having a pragmatic task at all times, for me at least, works,” she explains. “Once you’ve done a really simple animation, you just colour in for a few days. But none of the process is enjoyable,” she points out before the conversation gets too serious. “No, okay, a lot of animators will agree that the process is not that enjoyable, but it is when you finish something and you get a bit of a high. It’s a race to having something there. It is boring. I do love it though.”
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Looking towards the future, keen viewers can expect much of the brilliant same from Caitlin and her introspective, hilarious works. In her own words: “It’s always along the theme of something vaguely romantic, and then it ends badly,” she explains. “All my films follow the same basic premise that there is an obsession, and it all ends terribly, terribly wrong.” This is the same for the future films the animator has written, but not fully made yet. For instance, “I’ve written a whole bowling film,” she says as our conversation draws to a close. “Well, it’s only partly about bowling, it’s mainly about boys being boring. It’s about a girl who works in a bowling alley and she gets obsessed with one of the boys who comes into bowl. It all ends badly! She makes a voodoo sex doll of him. Yes. Then gets upset for one reason or another…”
“All my films follow the same basic premise that there is an obsession, and it all ends terribly, terribly wrong.”Caitlin McCarthy
Always self deprecating in the descriptions of her work, but in a way that is heartwarmingly affable, even when describing the insane achievement of getting Coldsore into SXSW she downplays it: “I’m gonna go on a big holiday to Texas,” she tells us excitingly, and boy does she deserve it.
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About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.
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