Internet Cat Video Film Festival purrs into Minnesota
Katie Glovatsky lives the glamorous life of a breakout reality-show star. She and her fellow cast members Zoey, Hakeem, and Callie spend most nights traveling by limo, swilling martinis, dancing on tables, and dodging the paparazzi. She knows the bouncers at the hottest clubs, including the Glitter Box, and she always receives VIP bottle service, though she secretly would rather drink milk than Moet.
Her days are spent getting her beauty rest, soaking in the sun, and grooming her jet-black hair — truly her crowning glory. Every so often, she'll go for a run or chase a ball around, but mostly she tries to save her energy for the nightlife.
What most of her fans don't know, however, is that Katie Glovatsky is painfully shy. In fact, when people come over, she scurries under the sofa.
"Katie is not a very social cat," says Debbie Glovatsky, a Minneapolis-based blogger who created a series of stop-motion YouTube videos called "The Real Housecats of the Blogosphere."
In 2009, Glovatsky was curious about social media, though she had very little experience with it. She wanted to start a blog, but wasn't quite sure how to begin until her husband said, "Why don't you have Katie introduce you?"
Glovatsky began writing in what she imagined was Katie's voice — sarcastic and sassy. She quickly discovered that the internet was teeming with people similarly inspired by their own cats. Soon, Glovatsky began creating videos using photos of Katie accompanied by an entourage of her online friends' cats. Before long, Glovatsky was attending cat-blogger conventions.
Glovatsky is self-aware enough to realize that this all might make her sound a little odd.
"I had no idea when I started to write in the voice of my cat that there were others."
On the other side of Minneapolis, another Katie — this one human — looks exhausted. Katie Czarniecki Hill has been up all night, not partying at the Glitter Box, but organizing the world's first cat-video film festival.
Ever since Hill, a self-described "cat lady" and cat-video aficionado, began working at the Walker Art Center as a MNartists.org fellow nearly two years ago, she'd been hinting to her colleagues of her secret wish to create the Cannes of cat videos. Hill was, however, aware of the stigma attached to cat lovers (the "crazy cat lady" stereotype), so she was cautious at first. Still, she felt it was important for cat-video lovers to shed their stigma and LOL in public for at least one night.
The longer she worked at the Walker, the bolder Hill's hints became until she finally got the attention of the team in charge of Open Field. Open Field is, physically, a sprawling lawn next to the Walker, but conceptually, it's much, much more. The Walker regards it as a "community commons," according to Scott Stulen, director of the MNartists.org program at the Walker and an organizer for the Open Field program.
"It's meant to foster collaboration, openness, and a spirit of making things together," Stulen says. "Most of the activities aren't prescribed; they're what the public brings to us."
Depending on the time and day, the field is used for informal drawing classes, making giant cat's cradles with yards upon yards of yarn, live-action role playing games, small concerts — it was even once used for a class that taught children how to hotwire cars. A tool shed housing musical instruments, art supplies, and building materials sits next to the field and remains unlocked during the day to encourage spontaneous creation.
"The element of play is really important," Stulen explains.
When Hill first conceived of the cat-video festival, the Open Field team approached it in their usual relaxed way. First they would put out a call for submissions on the Open Field blog. Then they'd choose some of the best videos. The plan was for Hill to sit out on the lawn and project the videos onto a screen from her laptop. A hundred or so people might show up with food and blankets.
But then word of the cat-video festival exploded all over the internet, and suddenly the Walker's press office was getting calls from across the world. The international media wanted to know if they'd need credentials to attend. The entertainment media wanted to know if there would be a red carpet. Celebrities offered to host.
At the end of that first week in mid-July, there were already 1.2 million news articles written about the first-ever Internet Cat Video Film Festival. As for the videos themselves, there were already more than 5,000 submissions (more than 10,000 would pour in by the official deadline only a couple of weeks later).
"I never thought I would be talking to a radio station in Ireland this morning," Hill marvels.
Despite their shock and exhaustion, Hill and Stulen are ecstatic. There's something very meta about a cat-video film festival going viral, and art people love meta.
"In the era of social media and the internet, what does curation mean?" Stulen asks. "Who is an artist and who is a spectator? Also, the idea of the commons: YouTube is the commons — it's kind of like Open Field on steroids."
Hill nods. "Putting this all out there is like a performance piece — a group performance piece," she says. "The social interaction is just as interesting as the cat videos themselves."
"We've done this at a critical moment," Stulen continues. "The cat video is so ubiquitous that it's become a joke. But it's not a joke, because people have very strong opinions about it and take it very seriously."
Winston sits calmly on the bed. A red dot from a laser pointer undulates over the bedspread, pulsating with increasing insistence. Winston gazes around the room nonchalantly, looking everywhere but at the dot. Yellow text scrolls over the screen. "Wikipedia lists a paragraph's worth of Exotic Shorthair characteristics. Almost none apply to Winston."
Winston isn't normal. That's the thesis of Rich Juzwiak, a longtime blogger in New York who now works for Gawker. Winston would meow without making a sound, he loved to eat bananas (so much that his stage name became Winston Bananas), and he was totally nonplussed by things most other cats were crazy about (laser pointers, for example). Juzwiak was sure that other people would be just as perplexed and entranced by Winston as he was.
"It was like, 'I live with this alien and look at what he does,'" Juzwiak says. "I find the way Winston looks at the world fascinating."
In addition to being weird, Winston was great on camera, although he wasn't particularly cuddly with Juzwiak off-camera. Juzwiak was closer to the couple's other cat, Rudy, while Winston favored Juzwiak's then-boyfriend.
"It was almost like Winston knew he had this task to carry out," Juzwiak says. "We had a great working relationship."
Juzwiak started a blog in 2005, writing about anything that caught his attention — mostly pop culture, but also Winston and his weirdness. In 2006, Juzwiak began posting Winston Bananas videos to his blog. His readers went, well, bananas.
Now on YouTube, Winston Bananas videos have, collectively, received millions of views and remain popular even today. At the time, however, Winston wasn't a total star like some of today's YouTube cats.
"I would say cat videos were a thing back then, but definitely not the thing that they would become," Juzwiak says.
What was more of a thing was LOLcats, images that combined a photo of a feline with a grammatically incorrect caption. For example, a photo of a cat playing with a sock is accompanied by a caption that reads, "Lookit dat! I has a sok!" (This type of kitty grammar became known as "LOLspeak.")
According to Wikipedia, the first recorded use of the term "LOLcat" appeared on 4chan, the anonymous internet image forum. By June 2006, "LOLcats" was popular enough that is was registered as a domain name.
Though humans have been anthropomorphizing cats for centuries, people on the internet did it in a new, quirkily funny, and oddly cohesive way. Still, most of the people who knew about LOLcats were tech geeks — internet cat culture wasn't discussed on talk shows or around the dinner table.
In January 2007, Eric Nakagawa, a software developer in Honolulu, had a bad day. He was feeling so dejected that he immediately contacted his friend Kari Unebasami, a web editor who had an extensive collection of LOLcats saved on her computer.
"Can you send me one of those funny pictures?" he begged. "I need a pick-me-up."
Unebasami sent him a picture of a fat, gray British shorthair looking pensive, his head tilted and mouth slightly open. "I Can Has Cheezburger?" read the caption.
It was so random and ridiculous and weird that Nakagawa had no choice but to laugh. His day immediately got better after this little "cute hit."
Back then, it was hard to find LOLcats if you didn't know where to look. "They already existed, but they weren't really organized," explains Nakagawa.
He and Unebasami bought the domain name I Can Has Cheezburger, and began curating (his word) their favorites. Very soon after it launched, I Can Has Cheezburger attracted the attention of the popular group blog Boing Boing. Then the mass media started paying attention. Almost instantly, the site went wildly viral, attracting 500,000 views daily.
The two friends soon quit their jobs in order to maintain the site. They slept very little, working what Nakagawa describes as "23-hour days."
That lasted for nine months. At the end of 2007, the two friends sold the site for a whopping $2 million to Ben and Emily Huh, who now run the Cheezburger network, which receives 400 million views a month across its 50 humor sites.
According to Nakagawa, the LOLcat pictures were a precursor to the cat video phenomenon.
"YouTube has grown dramatically since then," he says. "The same kind of quirky, weird, eccentric humor of the LOLcats lives on in the YouTube videos."
"I am Maru. The strangest cat on the planet!" the headline above the video announces. Ukulele music plays as a chubby Scottish Fold gets his head stuck in a variety of receptacles — a paper bag, a tube of bubble wrap, a plastic cup — while walking dispassionately around a sprawling apartment decorated sparsely with modern white furniture.
With more than 170 million views on his channel, Maru is the most popular non-animated cat on YouTube, according to Jessica Mason, YouTube's "cat expert" who also works in the company's communications department.
"It seems that there are actually more dog videos than cat videos, but overall I think cat videos are viewed more frequently," Mason says. "I think one of the reasons pets do really well on YouTube is the same reason babies are popular on YouTube. You don't need a translator or a certain global point of view. Pets are a unifier."
Jack Shepherd begs to differ. The community manager and animals editor at Buzzfeed, a site that detects viral content on the internet and reports on that content editorially, Shepherd argues that there is an ineffable magic to cats, or at least the ones who become stars.
Shepherd has watched hundreds upon thousands of cat videos, and has spent a lot of time and energy trying to figure out why cats are so sticky on the web.
"I think some of it is an accident," he says. "The LOLcats became so popular and cats have sort of had this edge since 2007. But as a cat partisan, I think there's more to it than that."
Shepherd cites the tendency for most cat videos to be cute, soothing, and short in duration, giving viewers a quick and efficient break from their hectic modern lives. (Much like Eric Nakagawa needed on that fateful crappy day before he wound up launching I Can Has Cheezburger).
Shepherd also asks the age-old question: Why cats and not dogs? Then he supplies the age-old cat-partisan answer that dogs are desperate and try too hard, while cats are cool and aloof and therefore more mysterious and interesting to watch.
All of this is true in general, he says, but it all comes down to the stars.
"Maru is a triumph — he's a legend and a genius," Shepherd says. "There's an ease of anthropomorphizing that makes successful cat videos fascinating. There's an intelligence to Maru and other cat celebrities. When they're doing something un-catlike and much more human, that's what's fascinating."
According to Shepherd, the best internet cat videos are coming out of Japan and Russia. Maru lives in Japan, and Maru's biggest contender is a Japanese cat called Shiro Neko.
While Maru is quirky and energetic and appears solo in his videos, Shiro Neko is very Buddha-like and has an entourage of similarly chilled-out cats who surround him.
The Americans also boast several respectable cat-video stars, Shepherd says. Winston Bananas is a master of the art, a classic, according to Shepherd, and Lil Bub of Bloomington, Indiana, is a breakout star, mainly because of her unique look.
Still only a kitten, Lil Bub was born with several deformities — no teeth, a shortened lower jaw that causes her tongue to permanently hang out, dwarfism, an abnormally long body, very short limbs, and an extra toe on each paw. But by some quirk of nature the combination of these deformities adds up to an extremely adorable appearance.
Mike Bridavsky, who took in Lil Bub when she was only two months old, began posting her photos on a blog, LilBub.com, and posted videos to YouTube almost as an afterthought. The blog and the videos instantly became famous, though Bridavsky thinks Lil Bub's popularity is more the result of her personality than her looks.
"She's very self-unaware," Bridavsky says. "She has these deformities, but she doesn't let it get to her. She's very confident, and it gives people a sense of pride and hope. I get a lot of emails from people telling me Bub has made a huge difference in their lives."
Shepherd says that a cat video's success also has a lot to do with the person behind the camera. He talks about how Mugumogu, the YouTube handle of the person behind the Maru videos, knows how to play to Maru's strengths.
"The best cat videos have an arc to them — there's a payoff in the end," he says. "There's a craft that goes into it that has legitimacy."
A crudely animated woman LOLspeaks to her cat while driving.
"What's do yous wants to eats?" she asks breathily.
The cat meows, a thought bubble appearing above his head: "I don't know. What do you want to eat?"
The woman's mouth, big and red, moves slowly and rather spookily: "We's coulds get fish tacos. Yous likes those."
The conversation goes back and forth without much variation for several more seconds.
Katie Czarniecki Hill clicks it off. "It's a little too creepy for me," she says. "It's a little too harsh."
"It's not funny," Scott Stulen says, adding that the genre requires videos to be funny, or at least cute in that they're playful or anthropomorphic.
Over the past couple of weeks, Hill and Stulen have been working tirelessly along with a jury of artists and curators to select the best cat-video submissions to be shown during the hour-long film festival. This jury model is something MNartists.org, a joint project of the McKnight Foundation and the Walker, typically employs when seeking submissions for shows.
"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.
On the day he created Nyan Cat, Torres had an interview for a job as an assistant at an insurance company. Though he landed the job, he didn't work there for long. Torres had to quit to manage all the deals — and cash — flowing in from Nyan Cat. (He says he splits the money with Reihani and also donates quite a bit to cat-related charities.)
Nyan Cat has appeared in ads for Nike, Sprint and, most recently, Vitamin Water. Hot Topic sells shirts emblazoned with the colorful cat, and Toys 'R' Us will soon offer a line of Nyan Cat plush toys, manufactured by JAKKS Pacific.
There have been so many opportunities that Torres has had to hire Ben Lashes, a former Portland, Oregon, musician who is possibly the first-ever meme manager (he also represents the famous Keyboard Cat). Torres also hired a Los Angeles-based entertainment lawyer.
YouTube ads have also brought in money for Mike Bridavsky, creator of the Lil Bub videos. In addition to the ad income, Bridavsky has a thriving online store filled with Lil Bub merchandise like tote bags and T-shirts. Bridavsky says the store brings in between 100 and 150 orders per week. He hasn't quit his job as owner of a recording studio, but mostly because he loves the work.
"I've been doing this since I was 14," he says. "I'm not going to quit my job just because my cat got famous."
Still, even though it's becoming much more common, this type of success is so new that, right now, it's hard to come up with even a rough formula for how to achieve it. According to Torres, it's a bizarre combination of luck, hard work, and whimsy.
"I think the most important thing to know is that it can never be forced," he says. "Whatever you're making has to be spontaneous and random and fun."
A ginger cat wearing a pale blue shirt sits in front of a keyboard, his arms outstretched dramatically. He begins playing a jaunty little tune, throwing his head back and closing his eyes. He presses down on the keys, letting the sound reverberate for a few seconds. He raises his arms high above the instrument, and the camera fades.
The cat is soon back, this time with an electronic drumbeat playing in the background. He pushes down on the keyboard, which makes a familiar, though tinny, sound: "Meow, meow, meow."
This is Charlie Schmidt's famous "Keyboard Cat," recorded on beta film in 1984 and added to YouTube in 2007 when Schmidt digitized all of his old videos before they fell apart.
"I thought, 'Hey, what about that YouTube I've been hearing about?'" says Schmidt, now age 61. "So I uploaded a bunch of my weirdo videos."
Out of all the cat-video creators, perhaps no one more than Schmidt embodies both the old concept of art and the new concept of commerce that's emerging as a result of the internet.
Schmidt is an established artist, the kind the Walker has been dealing with for decades. According to his LinkedIn profile, Schmidt studied fine arts at Nihon Dai Gakku in Tokyo in the 1970s. He has a videotaped performance-art piece called LOVE BOAT in the permanent collection at the prestigious Centre Pompidou in Paris. Schmidt refers to himself on his personal website as a "multimedia artist, creator, designer, actor, character."
"One of his weird performance-art things got famous and he was once on Jay Leno," says his manager, Ben Lashes, who knew Schmidt while growing up because the artist was a friend of his father, Doug Clark, a Spokane news columnist. "In Spokane, Charlie is known as this Renaissance artist/actor/genius/painter/pop artist."
When Schmidt recorded Keyboard Cat, however, he was still young and struggling.
"I didn't have a job, but I had a video camera and a cat, so I got to work on my portfolio," Schmidt says.
Keyboard Cat was one of the first videos he recorded. He took his cat Fatso, dressed her in a shirt (yes, Fatso was a girl), and manipulated her like a puppet to create the illusion that she was playing the keyboard.
The video was on Schmidt's acting reel for years without much fanfare. When he finally uploaded it to YouTube, it didn't instantly go viral.
But in August 2009, an influential blogger and internet tastemaker named Brad O'Farrell found Keyboard Cat and combined it with footage of a man tumbling down an escalator to create what he called a "fail video." That video went seriously viral. Within days, Schmidt's website went from 300 hits per day to 200,000. O'Farrell had credited Schmidt, and YouTube users were curious.
By that point, Schmidt had for several years been a successful graphic artist and video producer and had his own freelance outfit. Suddenly, the offers came rolling in, and Keyboard Cat eventually landed licensing deals with the likes of Nokia, Samsung, 20th Century Fox, and Wonderful Pistachios. Money also came pouring in from YouTube ads.
Schmidt quit freelancing and began to manage Keyboard Cat full time. He hired Lashes, who had by then achieved his own major-label success with his band the Lashes and had quite a bit of entertainment-industry wisdom to impart. Still, this meme fame was and still is in many ways an entirely different animal than Hollywood fame.
"When I was starting out with Charlie, it was sort of like, 'No one else is doing this and treating it the way we'd want to do it.' I can't think of another cat-video commercial that was going on then," Lashes says. "And the other concern was, how do you keep it cool and not sell out?"
They ended up being very careful about the brands they chose to work with, making sure each company thoroughly understood the essence of Keyboard Cat.
Schmidt has continued on with the Keyboard Cat theme, making a video called "Keyboard Cat Reincarnated" with his new cat Bento (Fatso died in the early '90s) and creating a website called Keyboard Cat Church, which features messages from Keyboard Cat in heaven. Both projects have attracted their own attention, with Microsoft featuring Keyboard Cat Reincarnated in one of its promotions.
Despite his success, Schmidt is still a bit freaked out by internet fame, particularly the seeming randomness of it.
"It's like wildflowers," he says. "If you're planting, you don't know exactly when something will come up. It's spooky. Sometimes I think, 'Why do I try?'"
But he's convinced that cat videos are indeed art.
"It's folk art. It's visual, it's controversial, it's compelling," he says. "Art makes people feel better. It makes life a little bit easier, if only for a few seconds."
Internet Cat Video Film Festival
Thursday, August 30, 8:30–9:30 p.m.
Walker Art Center, Open Field
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