Cyriak Harris learned hand-drawn animation at school, but it's his bag of self-taught digital tricks that power the insane cavalcade of worm-shaped cats and madly multiplying lambs that make this 37-year-old Brit one of YouTube’s most popular filmmakers.
His last eight clips have racked up roughly 28 million page views by putting cattle, sheep, teddy bears, and cats through preposterous paces. They’ve also earned the filmmaker commercial work and some devoted fans; BoingBoing’s Rob Beschizza has said of Harris’ work, "Sometimes, I suspect that he is the Internet, trying to communicate with us in a language it thinks we understand."
In his latest opus, Welcome to Kitty City, Harris stays true to charming, nutso form: adorable animal escalates into a mind-melting multiplication of body parts to the sound of a hypnotic electronic soundtrack.
Given his fondness for beast-based subject matter, it's not surprising to learn that Harris crafts his pieces far from the madding crowd. "At the moment," he says, "I live in the middle of nowhere near a field of cows."
All those hours of bucolic solitude have clearly taken a unique toll. In a Q&A with Fast Company, Harris expounded on dear departed cats, software, all-nighters, and the creative importance of staring into space.
Let's start with the star of Welcome to Kitty City. The cat's got charisma! I'm guessing it belongs to you?
The star of Kitty City also had a guest appearance in Meow Mix. He is sadly dead now, though he had a long and carefree life. This video was something of a tribute to his memory.
Welcome to Kitty City snagged more than 1.4 million views in two weeks, which speaks to the unique qualities of your work. Who are the filmmakers that put you on the path to YouTube? Terry Gilliam, during his Monty Python surrealist animation phase, seems to have informed some of your work.
Terry Gilliam has certainly played a large part, but I would also mention artists like Jan Svankmajer, Raoul Servais, and Zbig Rybczynski. The animations that most inspired me growing up were obscure artistic films that were usually shown late at night.
Your videos display a fluid, stream-of-consciousness dream logic that feels totally spontaneous. Of course you've got to micro-manage every single transition. Can you walk us through how you put Welcome to Kitty City together?
The process could be described as improvisation on a glacial timescale. For Welcome to Kitty City I started with a simple video clip of a cat but had no idea what to do with it. The first thing I did was to cut him out from the background. Then it's a case of playing around with it and seeing what happens. Over time, the experiments coalesce into a possible sequence and I structure the video around them.
You use Adobe After Effects software. How do you work with the program to build your shots?
After Effects uses imported video and photographs, so each element is placed on its own layer in a timeline. There it can be manipulated in various ways. You can end up with hundreds of layers, so it’s a good idea to try and group them together and label them well. The fun begins when layers have to move in front and behind other layers simultaneously. There is a great deal of masking involved.
Your music plays a big role in setting the mood for these pieces. How do you record the tracks?
I make the music using an old version of Fruity Loops (now called FL studio). The music for my animations is usually made months before I have any thoughts about the visuals. I find it is easier to hang an animation on the framework of a music track than the other way around.
Since you have such a huge following, have the YouTube videos turned into a money-making venture, or do you see it strictly as a creative outlet?
I've recently begun to make advertising revenue from my videos on YouTube. I was reluctant to put adverts on them at first because I find them so intrusive, but after seeing that people in general don't seem to care, I figured why the hell not? It's a nice source of supplementary income but I am not quite prolific enough to make a living entirely because it takes too long to make my animations to churn them out regularly.
You do a lot of work for TV commercials. Do your YouTube videos generate paying gigs from advertising people who discover your work online?
Most of my commissions have come through my YouTube videos. I've never gone to much effort to seek out the work myself, which makes me realize that before the advent of the Internet and streaming video, I would be struggling to get anywhere.
Time management question: How long does it take to complete a Cyriak Harris YouTube short?
Kitty City was made over a couple of weeks, though much of the time was spent in quiet contemplation of what to do next. As the finishing line approaches, the number of hours spent each day rises. On the final day for Kitty City I was up until 4 a.m. trying to finish it off, although I had to spend the next day correcting mistakes that I'd missed. I was limited by the amount of free time I had to work on Kitty City, so I couldn't do anything too ambitious story wise.
Taking Kitty City as an example of your creative process, how on earth did you get the idea of a large hairball-like cat that would then be joined by a second hairball, which would then change shapes as they bounce down the highway?
In one of my experiments, I made a simple bouncing cat-worm creature. I wondered where he was going and where came from. The rest of the film evolved from that thought.
Did you learn to make animated shorts in school or are you self-taught?
I got a degree in animation back in 1998 but it took several years before I discovered computers and the Internet. Without those I'd probably still be working in an office somewhere. Much of what I learned about animation is self-taught. It really is the best way to learn. I find that the skill of animating is half observation and half trial and error.
Any words of advice for other filmmakers who are keen to make an online impact with their work?
I would recommend doing whatever you want creatively and hope that it becomes really popular. It does take a lot of dedication though, especially with animation. When you start a project, you know it's going to take a month of work before you can stand back and see what it looks like. It's like climbing a mountain. I would also recommend having lots of free time.