Emily Sheskin is the chief cat lady. Suzanna Schumacher is the chief dog lady. And, together, they produce The Sidekick Series, documentary shorts rolling out on YouTube that tell the stories of rescue animals and the people who love them.
The goal is to show people that they can find amazing pets at shelters. "There is so much value in pets that come from rescues or shelters, and they should not be discounted because of their unknown or sad past," says Schumacher, who knows this from personal experience. As we see in a video centered on her pooch Hans "Hansy" Gruber, he has a horrific backstory—the poor pup was found on the side of a road in Georgia, where he was left to die after being shot twice. But you’d never know what this dog went through seeing how happy this resilient little guy is now.
Sheskin’s stunningly good-looking and playful feline B.K. is also featured in the series. "I have an adopted cat named B.K. that came into my life after someone I know purchased a cat from a breeder and then decided having a cat wasn’t for him. B.K. happens to be a fancy British Shorthair and is really great on camera. I hope you’ll watch his episode if only to enjoy how ridiculously he likes to sit," Sheskin says. "With that said, because I have a purebred cat, I think a lot of people assume I bought him from a breeder. While I’m an equal-opportunity cat lover who doesn’t discriminate by breed, I know some folks are partial to a particular type of cat or dog. It was important for me to show in the series the range of animals up for adoption, so if someone is looking to have a particular breed, they’ll realize adoption is still the way to go."
Another one of The Sidekick Series videos shares the story of Ella, a sweet cat who had lived all of her life in shelters until she was finally adopted. She has cancer, and her dad Stephen has created a kitty bucket list for her that includes walks outside on a leash so she can feel the grass beneath her feet, and she is enjoying every moment of their adventures together. The Sidekick Series shot an additional video on Ella with a health update.
Thus far, Sheskin and Schumacher, who are both based in New York City, have made 12 episodes of The Sidekick Series, with a 13th to be produced in April. They have found most of their subjects through family and friends. The most recent video features a dog named Harriet and her dad Caldwell Tanner, head illustrator at CollegeHumor.com. Given his occupation, it should come as no surprise that Tanner draws lots of pictures of his emotive canine.
While the animals are generally comfortable being filmed, a one-eyed cat named Nelson, whose short premieres on April 2, has been the shyest animal so far. "I’ve known Nelson since college—well, more his human Merrill," Sheskin says, "and when I arrived he literally looked at me from Merrill’s room, and shut the door with his paw."
Sheskin, who directs and edits the episodes, while Schumacher produces, would never want to stress an animal out for the sake of the series, so in some cases, she will do the human interview first, hoping the animal warms up to the idea of being filmed, and if he or she doesn’t, creative means, including animation and archival pictures and videos, are employed to bring the pet’s story to life.
Sheskin and Schumacher are hearing so many inspiring rescue stories from people all over the world that they recently created a Sidekick Stories Tumblr so they can share those tales, too, through text and photos. "My hope for the Tumblr is that it will become a mosaic of stories that are individually unique and moving, but as a whole, a testament to the power of adopting pets," Schumacher says.
And they would like to do a season two of The Sidekick Series videos featuring adoption stories beyond New York City. They funded season one entirely on their own and will likely launch a crowdfunding campaign to support a second season. In addition to dedicating their own talents to the project, they’ve relied on help from cinematographer Serena Kuo, who shot some of the episodes; audio engineer Mike Jansson; and motion designer/animator Sarah Cortese, who did the graphics treatment. "Without these people, these videos would not look nearly as polished as they do," Sheskin says.
Working on The Sidekick Series is practically a full-time job, which is challenging given that both Sheskin and Schumacher already have full-time jobs. Schumacher is a digital strategist at BBMG, a brand innovation agency in Brooklyn—the company is dog-friendly, by the way, and she brings Hans Gruber to work two days a week. He actually holds the title of BBMG’s chief creative canine. That said, he spends most of his time on the job sleeping.
Sheskin, who recently joined New York City digital agency Firstborn as a senior editor, was freelance when The Sidekick Series first went into production, but she was working a standard workweek, so time management has been key since the outset. "I cut back on social obligations during the week so I could write and plan the episodes and what I thought the general story arc would be, shoot for three to five hours on a Saturday or Sunday, come home and try to get a rough cut together," Sheskin says, adding, "I will say, when you have a project you like and are really excited about, it doesn’t seem like work. I often came home and started editing because I couldn’t wait to put the episode together and was excited to see what it was going to look like."
"I get up early each morning and stay up late making sure we’re on track and getting our message out there," Schumacher says. "It’s so much fun, though. When you realize people are responding, it’s all worth it."