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"We're treating the video creators like any artist we would be working with," Stulen explains.
Sarah Schultz, director of the Walker's education program and one of the cat-video jurors, walks in to the basement studio in the Walker as Hill and Stulen are critiquing some of the submissions. Mostly unacquainted with cat videos before this process, Schultz says that she watched the 50 videos Hill gave her, then probably 50 more.
"I was surprised by the range of approaches and degrees of earnestness that people take to the subject," Schultz says. "I also learned that I like less produced, more raw videos — the ones that seem spontaneous. I don't like documentary film except when it comes to cat videos."
Some of the elements that the team at the Walker has been examining in each video:
Production value: Do the form and content work well together? "Some videos need to be very produced, and others are captured with a cell phone camera and are all the better for it," Hill says. "It all depends if the form matches the content."
Editing: Is the film too long, do the frames fit seamlessly? "Some need some serious editing, but we still like them," Hill says.
Narrative: What's the arc? "What's happening and what's not happening?" Hill says.
Inventiveness: "What's happening that you haven't seen before?" Stulen says. "Is there an element of the unexpected?"
Stulen plays "Boots and Cats," a sleek, heavily produced music video involving beats and the repeated words "boots" and "cats," accompanied by photos of boots and cats. The overall result is surprisingly genius.
"It's very intentional," Stulen says. "And it's also random and unexpected."
Next, they play "Standing Cat," which features an orange cat standing straight up on his hind legs, looking completely nonchalant, while a whimsical French ditty plays in the background. It looks like it was filmed spontaneously with an inexpensive camera.
"It doesn't feel staged," Hill says.
"You can tell it just sort of happens every day at 2 p.m.," Stulen says. "This is a very good example of this type of genre — under a minute, good soundtrack use."
Then comes "Camouflage Cat — The Translation," in which one cat, covered in grass, pops up and scares the dickens out of another cat strolling past. The video is dubbed, with both cats speaking in what sound like Jamaican accents.
"Jesus mon!" the scared cat says.
"It's me, mon — Dave," the other cat says, and a hilarious conversation ensues.
"It's funny with just the straight footage," Hill says. "But modifying it with the dubbing makes it even more creative."
The next challenge is to place the winners into categories — for example, Documentary, Foreign Film, Animated Film.
One category the team at the Walker won't have to worry about is the People's Choice, which fans are voting for on the Open Field blog. Maru is on there, as are several other stars and one-hit wonders. Most if not all of the videos have long gone viral, and some have led to their creators' financial success.
Stulen points out another component to some of these cat videos. "This is marketing. This is your ad. Then you go and sell all of your other stuff."
A black cat walks on its front legs, its butt and hind legs high in the air. In the next frame, an orange cat waves its front legs frantically, "boxing" along with fighters on a TV in front of him. In yet another clip, two gray cats sit on a desk in front of a computer playing pattycake. In the next scene, a man sits behind a desk in a corporate-looking office.
"We're seeing a shift in consumer habits: Everything is moving toward cat videos," the man says, deadpan. "And the agencies that don't realize that will get left behind."
This YouTube video, titled "Catvertising," is a spoof on the typical internal ad agency video highlighting a trend in the industry. With more than a million views, the video is another one of those things in the world of internet cats that could easily be called meta.
Cat videos are indeed an important trend in the advertising industry, not to mention a potentially huge source of profit for both advertisers and cat-video creators. Just a couple of months ago, Bloomberg Businessweek ran a story titled "The Growing Power of the Meme." The accompanying art? A LOLcat with the caption "Pay Me! I is a Spokes-Kitteh!"
Nyan Cat is the perfect example of just how well a "spokes-kitteh" can get paid. Nyan Cat was the brainchild of Chris Torres, a comic artist and internet aficionado. Bored one day last April, Torres created the gray cat with the breakfast-pastry body and a rainbow trailing behind it as a silly piece of animation for his Twitter account.
But then a YouTube user, Sara Reihani, found Nyan Cat and put it to music — a song consisting only of the repeated word "nyan," which is Japanese for "meow." YouTube users went crazy.
Fans modified the video, creating Lady Gaga Nyan Cats, cowboy Nyan Cats, and Nyan Cats as mascots for every country around the globe. Today, the original video boasts 82 million views, though there are many more millions when you factor in all of Nyan Cat's various incarnations.