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Interview with “Catherine” director Britt Raes

// Featured, Independent Animation, Interviews

Growing up in Flanders, Belgium on a diet of cartoons and US television, animator and illustrator Britt Raes has since gone on to make serious waves over the past year with her short film Catherine. Produced by Belgium’s Creative Conspiracy (whose body of work includes The Tie and Three Little Ninjas Delivery Service), the film tells the tragically comical life story of Catherine, a cat-lady-in-waiting whose love for animals is at odds with her being something of a jinx; pets don’t last long in her care, until an affectionate (and, most importantly, durable) blue cat enters her life. With its blend of dark, bizarre humour and genuine heart the film has been cleaning up at festivals, picking up awards at the Dublin Animation Film Festival, Animakom, Womanimation, Star Film Festival, San Sebastian Horror and Fantasy Film Festival, Zabut International Animation Film Festival, Lago Film Festival and the Leeds International Film Festival among others. With upcoming screenings including Etudia & Anima, Norwich Film Festival, Les Nuits Magiques and our own special Skwigly Screening at this year’s Manchester Animation Festival, we’re delighted to share some insights into the making of this unique and charming piece from director Britt Raes herself.

To start with it would be great to hear about your personal background and how that led to your current work as an animator.

Growing up, and transitioning from a kid into a teenager, I just kept watching cartoons. At the time I didn’t realise other people around me stopped doing that 😀 – and that other girls at age 15-16 weren’t getting as excited as I was because there was a feature length movie of The Powerpuff Girls! So, looking back, the love for animation has been there for a long time, but I didn’t really realise it.
At age 18 I started studying art and, having no idea what was out there, started studying graphic design and illustration. After three years I graduated, having only developed on a basic level as an artist. I was very aware that I still had a long way to go if I really wanted to work in the creative industry in some way. It was only at the age of 21 that I discovered you could actually study animation. What appealed to me the most in animation was the fact that you do a bit of everything as it contains so many different aspects: drawing, movement, music, sound, storytelling…
I’ve never seen myself as someone good at one certain thing, and I would get bored if I had to do the same thing, day-in, day-out. With animation, I didn’t have to choose for one specific thing and can do a bit of everything!

Can you tell us a bit about the circumstances of how the film got started?

On a practical level it went like this:
The project started with me and a story idea that I pitched to the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF) for a development workshop. It’s an initiative with which they want to encourage young directors to create their own projects. I graduated in 2011, and I pitched it for the first time in 2012. It got rejected, so I worked on it taking in their feedback, and pitched it again. During a period of 6 months in 2013 I developed it and had workshops and a mentor. And in 2014 I pitched it to Creative Conspiracy, and together we applied for production funding with the VAF. We also got Belgian Tax Shelter to complete the budget. In 2015 we started with the real production, and in 2016 the film had its premiere!
On a personal level:
It all started out with me thinking about what the feeling of ‘home’ means to someone. In 2012 I was looking for a house together with my boyfriend. We had stayed at my mom’s house before that and the cat there was mine, so she moved to the new house together with me and my boyfriend. It made me think about the importance of a pet, how it influenced me as a young girl. I found it a fascinating subject as it was very personal, but at the same time tapped into a universal feeling. With a lot of directors your personal life seeps into your films one way or another!

What can you tell me about Creative Conspiracy and their involvement with the film – or your involvement with their work?

When I just started out in animation as a student at age 21, I wanted to absorb as much as possible about animation. So immediately during my studies I started an internship at Creative Conspiracy during the summer, even though I did not know much yet. And I was welcome to go back there each summer! They have played a big part in my love for animation, and after graduating it felt natural to pitch my idea to them! Even though their focus before was mostly on commercials, series and features, they were interested in going on the adventure of creating a short film together with me. They had worked on short films in the past, but only as co-productions. I am very grateful that I was able to create my first professional short in a very professional and familiar environment.
When the production of Catherine finished, I stuck around at the studio as a production assistant for the shorts and series they are developing. It was a different way to work in animation, and I learned a lot! But I could feel that this was not the road I wanted to continue on. I wanted to focus on directing and developing my own content, which proved hard to combine with being a production assistant. So I am currently working for myself, and writing new projects.
I am not working on any project for them at the moment, but in the future our paths could cross again 🙂

Catherine boasts a small but clearly dedicated crew, can you talk through how you crewed up for the film and who some of the key crew members were (and what they were able to bring to the production)?

My producer Karim Rhellam, of Creative Conspiracy was the perfect person to ping-pong my ideas with and he really helped me get the best out of myself and the story! Creating a short film in an animation studio means there were people around me all the time, so when I was stuck, I was able to go over and talk to the people working there. So all the people there, even if they didn’t clearly produce something specific for the film, had some influence. The key crew members for the visuals and the music were all Belgian talents. I did the layout for the backgrounds myself, but the final designs were made by Bram Algoed, a talented illustrator who I studied animation with but is now focused on illustration and comics.
For the animation we rounded up a team of young animators. There were three character animators and, because of the structure of the film, we were able to give each animator a different age and thus a different part of the film. This allowed them to put their own style into the character! There were two assistant animators to help out with in-betweening and cleaning, but they ended up doing some animation as well. Only the animation of the backgrounds/the transitions was something I was involved in myself, as this was hard to explain and I needed to experiment with this to make sure it carried the right emotion.
The musician, Pieter Van Dessel, is the driving force behind the Belgian band Marble Sounds. Creative Conspiracy had worked with him before, so they knew his skill set. His music really lifts the film to a higher level!
The sound designer, Gregory Caron, had worked with Pieter Van Dessel before so they were a great match. The biggest challenge for Gregory was finding the right animal sounds. While searching on YouTube, he stumbled upon a video called “One man does 30 animal sounds”. Rudi Rok is that one man! He lives in Finland, so we flew him over to Belgium for one day to bark and meow in the sound studio, one of the most fun days of the production for sure!
And the voice actors are two American actors. Just before the production of the short film started, my boyfriend and I planned a road trip through the USA for three months. I had put a goal for myself to record the voices in the USA, as I really wanted to have the original voices in English. Since short films are mostly shown internationally at festivals, this was important to me. So a few days before flying back to Belgium, I spent one day in LA in Burbank in a sound studio with two amazing actors (one woman and one man) who did all the characters and all the different ages! And with the recordings on my hard drive, I flew back to Belgium, ready to start the animation!

The film dips into moments of hallucinatory surrealism – were these intended strictly as a visual/transitional device or an insight into the main character’s state of mind?

I wanted to use these visual transitions to emphasise the emotions of the character. While developing the story, I had this workshop by Paul Wells about scriptwriting. One of the questions he asked everyone was “Why do you want to tell this story in animation instead of in live-action?” So it made me think about the power and strength of animation to me; in what way can you create something with animation that has an added value compared to what you can do in live-action? I wanted to use this strength as a tool to enhance the story, so I chose the moments of the transitions and surrealism very consciously, using them to connect with the story and intensify its turning points.

The voice acting gives the film a distinctly American sensibility, was there a specific reason you went with this, and was it always conceived as an English-language film?

I developed and wrote the script and project in English. It was a conscious choice, it just felt natural to do so. Even though English is not my mother-tongue, English feels very natural as a film language. As a kid I watched a lot of television, A LOT. When I was 9 or 10, I had a television in my bedroom.
Back then, in Flanders, most shows on television were subtitled in English. So I learned English by watching The Simpsons, Full House, Family Matters, Friends, Gilmore Girls and MTV!
To me a film in Dutch, my mother-tongue, often sounds very forced and unnatural. In general, I don’t really like dubbing…It’s not an easy task and I have a lot of respect for people doing it, but it’s inevitable that some subtleties get lost in the process. Add to that the fact that the main distribution platforms for short films are international festivals where English is a more common language than Dutch.

Julia Pott is credited as ‘Mentor Development’ – can you elaborate on how/why she was brought in and what that role entailed?

In 2013 I got this development workshop funding from the Flemish Audiovisual Fund (VAF), and part of their support is offering you a mentor of your choosing. I asked them to contact Julia Pott and was over the moon when she agreed to come on board! She was my sounding board during development, giving feedback on the story, the storyboard and the character designs. She helped me to figure out the direction I wanted the story to go in, asking me the right questions to discover my own point of view. She also helped me find the voice actors!

Pets and animals in general seem to be a big part of your illustration and animation work – is it safe to say that you consider yourself a cat lady or just an all-around animal enthusiast?

I’m mostly a cat lady myself! But I am fascinated by the importance of ‘pets’ on a universal level, and the significance they have in peoples personal life. It’s so interesting how people humanize their pets, and reflects their own thoughts and emotions on an animal.

What current and/or future projects do you have on the horizon?

I have an idea for a series of which I would first make a short film to get in touch with the concept. It’s all about pets and petowners! I’m also writing some stories for children, I would like to make a book with these and create a short film based on one of the stories. All of those are currently in development, so I am looking for residencies to take the time to focus on the stories and also looking for producers to team up! Tips are always welcome 🙂

Check out the work of Britt Raes on Tumblr, Vimeo and Twitter
Festival passholders can catch
Catherine as part of the Skwigly Screening at Manchester Animation Festival next week (4:10pm, Thursday November 16th at HOME)
For more info and future screening updates on the film be sure to follow its Tumblr and Facebook pages

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