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Making the “Best Cat Video on the Internet”
#catvidfest Curator Will Braden on the State of Feline Film

By Kristina Fong

Will Braden is the first to admit that the overnight success of his “Henri, Le Chat Noir” videos only partly had to do with his skill as a filmmaker. He credits fortuitous timing: He had just finished the third Henri video when nominations opened for the inaugural Internet Cat Video Festival in 2012, and he’d recently discovered the power of social media in bringing enthusiastic cat video fans together. Then, at the wildly popular #catvidfest, he took home the first ever Golden Kitty, the festival’s People’s Choice award. This made Henri 2: Paw de Deux, as far as the hundreds of media reports on the festival were concerned, the “Best Cat Video on the Internet,” catapulting Braden and the black-and-white feline to fame.

That acknowledgement of good luck and serendipity, of course, is the antithesis to his star’s existential outlook on life. Braden is as enthusiastic about cat videos and where he is today as Henri is convinced that we are all trapped in a meaningless march toward nothingness. That’s why, over the past two years, Braden has been increasingly involved with #catvidfest, from granting interviews about his historic win to hosting the festival in other cities, all of which has led him to taking the reins as the curator for the 2014 edition.

Braden differs from other well-known cat video creators in a major way: his videos do not feature his own cat. In fact, he only just adopted a cat from a local shelter a few months ago, a step toward adulthood that began with the acquisition of a car and a condo. So, although Henry (the cat who unwittingly portrays Henri) does not make public appearances, he has been able to carve out a niche spot in the world of Internet cats through the character Braden has created for him. Henri has, despite his disdain for cuddles and snuggles, found his way into the hearts of hundreds of thousands of people.

A few weeks before the reveal of nominees for the 2014 Golden Kitty Award, a distinction that has been bestowed upon Grumpy Cat, Maru, Nyan Cat, and others, Braden spoke on the phone from Seattle, where he lives, taking a break from the hard work of whittling down a list of hundreds upon hundreds of videos for possible inclusion in the festival.

Kristina Fong

I wanted to know a little bit about your background with cats and cat videos. So, first off, what was your first experience with a cat?

Will Braden

I was probably nine or ten, and I came home to find these two kittens. My mom and dad had gone and surprised me, and I got to name them. That’s my first real, specific memory of a cat. I named them terribly, but they were very nice cats. I called them Maggie and Emily. Like, those aren’t cat names. I don’t know what I was thinking.

Fong

And what was your first experience with a cat video? What’s the very first one you remember watching, back in the day?

Braden

I remember cat videos that people were sharing with one another even before YouTube. There was a site called stupidvideos.com or funnyvideos.com, where people would upload all these funny cat videos, many of which were digitized from America’s Funniest Home Videos. The first one I really remember, that made me laugh so much—it actually ended up in the first #catvidfest reel—was this little kitten standing next to a huge orange cat, and the kitten is up on its back paws and has its front paws up like it’s ready to fight, waving them. The huge cat is completely disinterested in the whole playtime thing. Then something switches and the huge cat just dives and tackles the little kitten and knocks it four feet behind it. It’s very funny, and it’s one of those old videos where it’s been copied from 18 different things so it’s got Japanese writing all over it and a logo that’s fuzzed out; it’s just ridiculous. Watching #catvidfest in Minneapolis in 2012, when that video came on I was like, “Oh yes! That’s my fave!” I’m kind of a nerd about the cat videos.

Fong

You’re a nerd about the cat videos?

Braden

Yeah, I mean, some people like comic books or The Lord of the Rings or whatever. For me, it’s cat videos.

Fong

Were you the person always sharing cat videos with other people?

Braden

Oh yeah. I was unashamed about it. I didn’t wait until the 2012 boom where all of a sudden the stigma lifted and it was cool to love cat videos. I was sharing those things, as a nerd, 10 years before that. I was emailing all my friends cat videos and being made fun of and enduring the jokes about being a crazy cat lady for a long, long time. Now I’m a proud crazy cat video lady… trapped in a man’s body.

Fong

I don’t think I knew that about you.

Braden

I also don’t think you should use that line.

Fong

When did you make your first cat videos? Were there any before Henri?

Braden

No, that was the first time. I started film school in 2005, and I was kind of rare in that before going to film school I’d never made anything on film. I didn’t even have a camera. I went to the Seattle Film Institute. The first Henri video was probably the fourth or fifth video I ever made, in terms of an actual, completed short film. That was in 2006. So Henri was my first cat video, but, to be honest, it was one of my first videos ever.

We had an assignment to do a video profile of someone. That was the genesis of the Henri videos. Everyone else in class did “My uncle was in Vietnam” or “This guy owns a restaurant in my neighborhood” videos, and they made them basically like a short segment from the local news. I had done a project like that just before, so I was thinking about doing something a bit more outside the box, and then I just procrastinated for too long. I was running out of time and thought, okay, I really need to get this done. I was house-sitting for a family member, and Henry, the cat who portrays Henri, was there. I decided, “Oh, I could do a profile of a cat. That’d be funny.” And then I started thinking, “What do cats even do?” I’d have to make up something.

We’d been watching a lot of old French New Wave films in class, and I thought: if I can parody one of those, and if I can make it funny enough, maybe they won’t notice I didn’t really follow the assignment. And it worked! So I shot the whole thing in a couple hours and edited it together pretty quickly. I made a note to myself that nobody in my class spoke French so I could just butcher the fake French and it wouldn’t matter, which came back to haunt me later, after 15 million views of people complaining about my French.

Fong

Was Henri a character that you made up entirely, or was it inspired by the personality of this family member’s cat?

Braden

Somewhat. Some cats just have a look where they’re kind of blank and stupid, some have a look where they’re awesomely worried and scared and skittish, like something’s going to get after them, and some cats have this look that I would describe as imperious. They know they’re king of the castle, they know they’re safe, and they have this calm, Zen look to them. Henry has that look. Because of that, and because he’s black and white and such a good-looking cat, I knew he’d look great on camera. I could project anything that I wanted onto the character and people would buy it, because he has that blank canvas of a face. It wouldn’t have worked with another cat, but in terms of the character, it’s hard for me to say that much of it is inspired by him, except the look is made possible because of how calm and stoic he is. But I don’t believe he’s suffering from existential crisis. At least I hope not.

Fong

I think one place where Henri stands out now, in the vast landscape of cat videos, is that you’re not trying to make him a celebrity cat, a celebricat.

Braden

He’s sort of anti-celebrity.

Fong

Is that because of the character you created for him, or are you just not interested in that?

Braden

Partly it’s due to the fact that I don’t travel with him. Unlike some of the other cats that are small and mobile and like traveling around, he would freak out and I’d feel bad. So that limits what you can do, because any media that wants to do anything with him would have to come to Seattle. That’s part of it. The bigger part of it is that his character is sort of a curmudgeon. He suffers from ennui and speaks nihilistically about a lot of things, so the idea that he’d be pursuing fame and celebrity is antithetical to the character. I resisted Twitter for a long time because I thought, “Why would this character ever use Twitter; why would he care?” And then I realized all this is just in service of making people laugh. That’s the whole point of it. If I can do it in a way that seems funny, then why would I miss it? I can use Twitter, but use it incorrectly. Twitter is very bright and social and “we’re all in this together” and “isn’t this fun?” and “let’s share this and support each other.” Henri is the opposite. He’s dark and solitary and antisocial.

Fong

I like that, and the fact that you’ve created this character you’re staying very true to.

Braden

What’s interesting, too, is that if you’re not really into cats, then you’re just never going to care about Lil Bub or Grumpy Cat; you’re just going to roll your eyes. But I have a lot of people who write me going, “I don’t have any cats, I don’t particularly even like cats, but I love these videos.” There was even an article in Forbes, where they called the Henri videos “the cat videos for people who hate cat videos.” If you have cats, there are a bunch of jokes that will resonate a little more, but some people just like the jokes about the philosophy and don’t really care that there’s a cat. That works too.

Fong

We’ve all been asked the question about why cat videos and not dog videos, but what makes a good cat video? Are there any trends you’re seeing?

Braden

It’s hard not to notice that there are some universal things that are going to make a cat video really popular. One is it can’t be too long, and it shouldn’t rely too much on something that’s particular to one culture, so it can be spread to anybody. But the biggest thing is something that people don’t really think about too much: the very funniest bit, or most interesting bit, if it comes right at the end of the video, that increases the chance of everyone sharing it so much. It’s like that band that strums the last chord and the curtains come down and everyone’s still cheering and wanting more.

Beyond that, there’s a trend in that people are trying to make cat videos more often now, so there’s more produced content. A few years ago it was much more of the accidental, some-funny-thing-happened videos. There’s still a lot of that, but now people are seeing the potential with #catvidfest and with other contests and YouTube monetization and whatnot. People are now brainstorming, “How can I make a great cat video?” So there’s a lot more directed content. Some of it’s great and some of it’s terrible. But it’s hard to tell what’s going to be popular or not. I’ve definitely seen some really well-produced things, where I can see a lot of money and time went into it, but they just don’t have that spark that’ll make it go viral. It’s one thing if you just shot a little video on your phone of your cat doing something and if it doesn’t go viral you’re not really out much, but if you spent a couple grand to make a short film about a cat and nothing comes of it, that’s a little more disappointing.

Fong

Some videos have such a strong human hand, it’s like they’re almost trying to pose the cats to fit the script. Those have a lot of room to fail.

Braden

The genesis of it has to be a cat. If you start out with a cat that does something interesting, you have a much better chance of success than if you just write out this brilliant script and then say, “Alright, how am I going to fit this cat into it and make it do what I want?” Cats don’t work like that. I’ve found that in terms of making the Henri videos, I have to be much more passive as a director than I could ever be with people. So much of filmmaking is just logistics: can you take a step forward here, can you turn this light a little here, adjust this audio level? That’s 90 percent of it before you can get into the creativity of it, the actual story. And with shooting a cat, you can’t do any of that. You can’t be like, “Hey, can you turn just a little bit to your right?” They don’t speak English. So you have to take this passive role where you set something up and wait for it to happen, or you have to see something happening and say, “How can I integrate this into what I was already planning?” People that can do that can make really cool cat videos, but if you try to just treat the cat like a person, you’re going to be frustrated. Even if you do have something in the end, it’s going to feel too forced. It’s not going to feel like there’s something organic about it, which is what a lot of people who really like cat videos enjoy.

Fong

During the first year of the Internet Cat Video Festival, there was obviously the entire Internet to mine from for the finalists for the Golden Kitty, and the final five that were chosen were gold standards already. Henri won that year. And then last year was a mix of very produced videos, like that Catalogue video, and then the totally random, like the cat with a vacuum cleaner.

Braden

And that shark with the Roomba thing, it’s very cute and everything, but people loved that and I don’t know why. I’ve asked so many people what it is about that one, and they say, “Uh, it’s great.” Nobody can explain to me what the actual appeal of that video is. I’m not saying I don’t like it, but it’s crazy to me how everyone screams with laughter every time that comes on.

Fong

I think it could have been a lot more powerful if it was a ten-second video. As it is, there’s no climax; the first visual is the only impact. Nothing crazy ever happens.

Braden

I kind of agree. I feel like if it had just started off with just the duck walking for, say, five seconds and then it panned out to see the duck being chased by this thing. Big laugh. And then maybe you see a dog coming in with a thing and people are like, “Wait a minute, what’s going on?”—BOOM!—then it cuts off. Then everyone is just like, “Holy crap, what did I just watch?”

Fong

Then there’s Grumpy Cat, whose video won. I don’t even remember what happens in it.

Braden

Grumpy Cat gets scratched and goes, “Eee! Err!”

Fong

Do you think Grumpy Cat won last year just on account of her celebrity?

Braden

I think so. The first year there were kind of cat celebrities in the videos: there was a Bub video, but Bub was just starting to get really popular. Nyan Cat was popular. You could argue that Maru was kind of a cat celebrity. But there weren’t the crazy levels of celebrity that there are now for cats. Grumpy Cat won because everybody loves Grumpy Cat. Was it that great of a video? Who’s to say? It got the most votes. The people have spoken. But it is interesting to see that the second place one, “Catalogue,” was a super-produced, very slick, well-directed short film. It came in a very close second to a video of just Grumpy Cat getting petted.

Fong

You obviously love #catvidfest, but what do you think the response to this year’s festival will be? Do you think the love for cat videos is still just as strong as it was a few years ago?

Braden

I definitely think cat videos and celebrity cat culture are still huge. If [celebrity cat culture] is not at its zenith, it’s on its way, but this is now the third year we’ve done this. Anytime something lasts for a few years, the novelty kind of wears off and there’s no way to tell if it’s still on its way up and it’s still going to be just as huge, or if it’s settled into a position where it’s just part of the whole culture. It’s hard to say, but I know the event is still going to be huge in August. We still have so many tour dates booked going on from there, so I don’t see it slowing much, at least not yet.

Fong

Great, I’m glad you think so.


Kristina Fong is a designer, writer, and the Walker Art Center’s former social media manager. Currently she’s event producer of the 2014 Internet Cat Video Festival.

“Some people like comic books or The Lord of the Rings or whatever. For me, it’s cat videos. I’m a proud crazy cat video lady… trapped in a man’s body.” —Will Braden

Still from Will Braden’s Henri 8: Artiste

Will Braden at the 2013 Internet Cat Video Festival book-signing

Internet Cat Video Festival 2012

Still from The Original Grumpy Cat by RealGrumpyCat

“Celebricat” Lil Bub at the 2013 Internet Cat Video Festival book-signing

Internet Cat Video Festival 2012

2013 Internet Cat Video Festival at the Minnesota State Fair

A Grumpy Cat fan at the 2013 edition of #catvidfest

In 2013, Braden was inducted into the #catvidfest hall of fame