Animator Cordell Barker recalls how his fictional yellow cat got its very first life
In February 1988, six years after he first pitched the idea of an animated short film revolving around a vexed old man and his troublesome, yellow cat to the National Film Board of Canada, Cordell Barker was at the NFB’s Main Street headquarters, where a mix of editors, writers and directors had gathered for a preliminary screening of Barker’s long-awaited work The Cat Came Back.
For weeks, Barker had been nervous about how his debut effort was going to be received. So nervous, in fact, that during the final stages of production, whenever he was forced to leave the cozy confines of his home studio to use the film board’s professional editing equipment, he would only venture there "in the middle of the night," he says, when he was certain nobody else would be around.
"The day of the screening, I remember someone yelling ‘roll it,’ and thinking to myself, ‘Oh my god, here we go,’" says Barker, seated inside his screened-in porch, which offers a spectacular view of a meandering stretch of the Red River.
"When it was over, a couple of people near me shrugged their shoulders and made this kind of meh sound. Then, after the lights came on, my executive producer turned around and said, ‘thanks, Cordell,’ and walked out of the room without saying another word.
"At that point I seriously thought, 'that’s it, my film is a bust and my grand experiment with animation is over.'"
Funny, that: not only did Barker’s seven-and-a-half-minute tour de farce go on to win a Genie Award for Best Animated Short, it was also nominated for an Oscar at the 1989 Academy Awards ceremony (more about that in a sec).
Equally impressive: The Cat Came Back was included in the 1994 publication The 50 Greatest Cartoons: As Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals, placing 32nd overall, one spot ahead of Superman.
(In case you’ve been living under a box of kitty litter for close to three decades, The Cat Came Back tells the hilarious tale of "old Mr. Johnson" and a doggedly determined feline that "just wouldn’t stay away.")
Next year will mark the 30-year-anniversary of The Cat Came Back. Fittingly, on Sept. 1 the film was released in book form as part of a new NFB venture that will soon see a slew of Canadian cinematic treasures make their way onto the printed page, including Barker’s 2009 effort, Runaway.
On Sept. 23, Barker, who has produced animated spots for the likes of Nike and Coca-Cola, and received a second Academy Award nomination in 2002 for his film Strange Invaders, will be at McNally Robinson’s Grant Avenue store reading excerpts from The Cat Came Back.
If time permits, he’ll also field a few questions. (To answer the first query on everybody’s lips, yes, the married father of three sons is the proud owner of two cats: Murphy and "the white one.")
"It is a bit crazy. If somebody at the NFB office that day had said my film was going to be turned into a book 29 years down the road, I would have been like, yeah, sure, tell me another one," he says, pausing to ask a visitor if he needs his coffee "freshened up," before he settles back in his chair and recants the story of how The Cat Came Back came to be, purr-cisely.
Barker grew up on Hazel Dell Avenue, a few blocks away from where he and his wife currently reside. When asked about his age, the father of three grown sons chuckles and says don’t believe everything you read on the internet. He was born in 1956 but for whatever reason, the person who penned his Wikipedia page shaved a year off by writing 1957, "which was kind of nice of them, I suppose."
Like most kids who grew up in the 1960s, Barker’s weekend ritual involved plunking himself down in front of his family’s console television set every Saturday morning with a big bowl of cereal, and proceeding to watch one cartoon after another.
"Especially Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck — those early ones drawn by Bob Clampett were just spectacular," he says, adding because their TV only picked up three channels, he was forever jealous of neighbours who had a choice of — hold onto your remotes, ‘net-streaming generation — four channels.
Animated Christmas specials were another thing he always looked forward to. Come December, he habitually scoured the television listings to see when time-honoured classics such as The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas were scheduled to air.
"Back then, of course, there wasn’t any way to pause or record anything," he continues. "You had one shot at it, so you had to make sure you were all set up with your snacks and pillows. There was a purity to watching TV that way I sometimes miss, I have to say."
Barker guesses he was 13 or 14 when he began contemplating a career as an animator, after becoming fascinated by behind-the-scenes clips of Walt Disney Studios illustrators hard at work during Sunday night episodes of The Wonderful World of Disney.
There was one flaw in his plan, however: he wasn’t particularly adroit when it came to art class.
"I almost got kicked out of art in high school, as a matter of fact, because instead of doing my assignments, I was always drawing cartoons and whatever," says the Miles Macdonnell Collegiate alumnus.
"I remember my Grade 12 teacher, Mrs. Thompson, giving me an F and telling me I was never going to go anywhere in art. I didn’t hold it against her, though. Back then I was a — what’s a good word for it — pretty casual student."
Undeterred, the moment Barker heard a professional cartoonist by the name of Kenneth Perkins had opened an animation studio on Portage Avenue, the then-17-year-old headed there with a hastily-prepared portfolio of sketches, to apply for a job.
Barker’s initial responsibility at Kenn Perkins Animation was painting movie celluloids, an undertaking he downplays by stating, "even a monkey can do that." He continued working for Perkins after graduating high school and by age 19, had switched over to the animation-side-of-things.
When he wasn’t preparing short cartoons for the Canadian edition of Sesame Street ("in between showing the Muppets, there were hand-drawn letters or numbers that would flash across the screen… that’s one of the things we did"), Barker honed his craft illustrating television commercials for K-Tel albums such as 22 Dynamic Hits or 24 Golden Greats.
"On a regular basis, K-Tel would send over whichever one of their records was coming out next, and the animators — there were three or four of us — would pick which songs we wanted to do the most," Barker says, listing the Trashmen’s Surfin’ Bird and Loudon Wainwright III’s Dead Skunk (the one about the deceased mammal in the middle of the road, "stinking to high heaven,") as a pair of tunes he handled, for sure.
"Making commercials for K-Tel was a great way to learn (animation) because first of all, the quality demand wasn’t particularly high. Secondly, Kenn basically left it up to us to do whatever we wanted, no matter how bizarre or weird the finished product sometimes turned out to be."
Barker remained at Perkins’s studio for three years. Following that, he toiled as a freelance illustrator while tending bar at night in order to make ends meet.
He says it was during a months-long backpacking trip across Europe in the early 1980s when he realized what he really wanted to do was write, draw and create his own animated films.
In January 1982, Barker was living in a "little home" on Leighton Avenue. On a particularly frigid morning, he was trying hard to stay warm — his furnace was faulty, at best — by lying on the floor, as close to a kitchen heating vent as humanly possible.
At some point, he began thinking how he’d often seen cats doing the identical thing. Inspired, he retrieved a grease pencil from a nearby junk drawer and began sketching a balled-up cat on the wall. Before long, he added the image of an elderly man to the mix.
"I liked the idea of an old guy and his unflappable cat — that seemed like a pretty good contrast — but the story I came up with, which mainly had to do with the heat in the house, was really lame," Barker says.
"But because I’d heard the film board wanted to get some animation projects going and was open to ideas, I put together a bunch of thumbnail storyboards and headed there to make my presentation."
Barker chooses the word "serendipity" to describe what occurred next.
"The person I pitched my idea to wasn’t that crazy about the story I’d come up with. But he said it was funny I’d included an old man and a cat because, at the time, they were seriously thinking about doing something involving the song The Cat Came Back, because of Fred Penner," Barker says, referring to Penner’s 1979 rendition of the near-century-old folk song, which by then had become the Winnipeg entertainer’s signature tune.
"To make a long story short, they offered me the opportunity to animate the song. I immediately said OK, figuring I was in no position to stand my ground on an idea for a film I knew was flawed. So yeah, that was the launch of everything."
(At the beginning, the NFB proposed the notion of Barker and Penner working together. But because Barker viewed The Cat Came Back as "ostensibly a kids’ film, but with a darker underbelly," that partnership never really took off, he says.)
Richard Condie, the award-winning director of The Big Snit, was the co-producer of Barker’s The Cat Came Back. Condie became involved in the project in 1983, he guesses, after the film’s original producer moved to Toronto.
"Sort of consulting…Cordell would have questions once in a while and I’d do my best to answer them," Condie says over the phone, when asked about his role.
“I’m not surprised the cat film has such legs. It was very well-done, with great timing and gags and great design.” -Richard Condie
Condie, who voiced the Mr. Johnson character and sang on the soundtrack (Barker also sang), chuckles when a reporter wonders aloud whether the six years it took Barker to complete the film exhausted his and his NFB cohorts’ patience.
"No, that’s just how long these things take, sometimes," he states matter-of-factly, adding it makes perfect sense the film board chose to turn The Cat Came Back into a kids’ book, all these years later.
"I’m not surprised the cat film has such legs. It was very well-done, with great timing and gags and great design."
For his part, Barker says it wasn’t until he attended the highly regarded World Festival of Animated Film in Zagreb in June 1988, where The Cat Came Back was an official entry, that he began to realize he might have something special on his hands, after all.
"It got a huge reaction during the screening, with tons of people in the crowd laughing and cheering. I remember feeling overwhelmed, and going out into the lobby afterwards and immediately being approached by one of the members of the jury. With a big grin on his face, he punched me in the arm and said, ‘Hey, terrific film.’"
Oh, the name of that jury member? Jim Henson. Yes, that Jim Henson, the puppeteer, cartoonist and creator of the Muppets.
"To go from complete pessimism to a moment like that, well..." Barker says, his voice trailing off. "For the longest time I couldn’t see Cat for anything other than the six years of labour I’d put into it... just constant work. But after Zagreb, it took off."
Perhaps Barker’s only regret from that period was how he didn’t allow himself the opportunity to enjoy Oscar night, when he and his wife attended the 61st Academy Awards ceremony at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium on March 29, 1989.
Because he suffers from stage fright, and because every newspaper he read the morning of the awards predicted his film was going to win, he spent the entire day and early evening thinking, "I guess it’s official; I’m actually going to have to get up there and say something, with all these millions of eyeballs around the world staring back at me."
He says the "adrenalin dump" he experienced that night after hearing Tin Toy announced as Best Animated Short Film was "severe."
"I remember the fatigue that hit me as I was leaving the theatre... just whomp. Carly Simon (winner of the 1988 Academy Award for best original song) was right beside me and where today I’d probably go ‘hey, congratulations,’ I just trudged out of there, super-tired.
"There was a party the Sutherlands – Donald and Kiefer – were hosting and my poor wife, she really wanted to go. But I said ‘I can’t do it. I just need to go fall down somewhere.’"
The Cat Came Back was one of two animated short films chosen to launch Firefly Books’ National Film Board of Canada Collection, the other being Torill Kove’s My Grandmother Ironed the King’s Shirt, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2000.
In a prepared statement, Claude Joli-Coeur, NFB Chairperson, said, "It’s tremendously exciting to see these adaptations of great NFB works. We look forward to partnering with Firefly to bring new and classic NFB works – capturing the richness, uniqueness and diversity of Canada – to new formats and even wider audiences."
Barker, who once turned down an opportunity to work on a "little" movie called Toy Story because he was just starting work on a new film of his own, says it was around this time last year when he found out about the children’s book, after receiving a call from the NFB marketing department.
(Barker dismisses the idea a bedtime story about an old man trying to drown/blow up/obliterate his pesky puss doesn’t exactly scream, "Sweet dreams." "What kid doesn’t see a million horrific things by the time he’s five?" he says with a wide grin.)
The original plan was to scan his existing artwork but because much of it was missing or had deteriorated, Barker ended up having to redraw certain panels, as well as illustrate and colour entirely new ones to encapsulate different scenes from the film.
The 10 or so months it took to put the picture book together was a bit like getting reacquainted with an old friend he hadn’t seen in a long time, he says.
"I didn’t watch (The Cat Came Back) for years, and even now when I watch it, I do spot flaws in the artwork," he says, describing the film project he’s currently working on as "one of those Google 360 things where the action’s taking place right in front of you."
"But of all my films, Cat is the only one I can watch where I don’t perceive any flaws in the timing of the jokes. Not one. I’m still very proud of that."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.