S4 Studios, the Hollywood-based design, branding and animation studio, has completed its first independent short animated film. The Adobe Flash animation "Fraidy Cat," written by Larry Le Francis and directed by Geoffrey Kater, is planned as the first in a series of horror-genre shorts to be produced and marketed by the studio, which last year created the entire branding campaign for NBC Universal's "Chiller" Channel. "Fraidy Cat" also celebrates the re-launch of the S4 Studios website and is part of the "Theatre S4" area that showcases the studio's original work.
"Fraidy Cat" takes place in a shabby, rundown urban tenement apartment where "Claire," a poor but seemingly serene elderly woman, is opening a can of cat food. She is set upon by her bullying landlord, who loudly and violently bangs on her door, demanding rent money. Claire tries to ignore the badgering, but quietly begins to get more and more angry. She then begins to go through some major changes, and her landlord is in for a big, horrific and well-deserved surprise. And was that cat food really for the cat?
S4 Studios embarked on the project encouraged by the huge viral success the studio enjoyed with the series of graphic horror Flash webisodes they created and animated for Sony Playstation's "Twisted Metal: Black" game. Though now six years old, the webisodes continue to be long-running net favorites, and that convinced S4 partners Le Francis and Kater of the genre's viability. "We knew the fan interest was out there, and we were looking to become a bit of a cartoon studio again," says Le Francis, who produced the original "Spongebob Squarepants" and "CatDog" pilots for Nickelodeon.
Writer Le Francis drew his key inspiration from the brilliant Richard Matheson's work on "The Twilight Zone" in the early 1960's, along with a disturbing hint of Stephen King crossed with vintage DC Comics and EC "Tales From the Crypt" horror comics of the 1950s. "The idea of a seemingly normal situation that isn't really normal at all is what appealed to me. This landlord just messed with the wrong sweet old lady," Le Francis says. That sense of outward normalcy masking something horrible also motivated Kater and his animation team, which included storyboard artist Dell Barras. "We gave a lot of care to the mood," says Kater. "That included the seedy ambience of Claire's apartment, the muted, monochromatic colors, the secondary shadows, and the lighting. All were designed to keep the viewer from suspecting what was about to happen."
Kater was an early convert to Flash as a full-on animation medium. "Originally, Flash was intended solely as a quick vector-frame medium for the web because of its very small file size, but as we discovered for ourselves with the TM:B stuff, Flash lends itself very nicely to traditional-looking animation. It gives someone who is primarily a designer the opportunity to animate and fully realize his or her designs. With the way Adobe has been integrating all its graphics and animation tools, primarily After Effects, Photoshop, and Premiere, Flash has emerged as a primary cross-platform animation tool. It's great because of the way you can tweak individual frames. At one point, we needed to add a can of cat food to a scene, so I just drew it and dropped it into the shot. You're using your training and experience as an animator, but you don't have to reboard and reshoot entire scenes."
For Le Francis, the story of "Fraidy Cat" could serve as a metaphor for America's vanishing middle class. "A lot of elderly live like Claire; that's a sad fact. I see them on the streets of Hollywood every day. They're not necessarily living on cans of cat food, and they don't all get the same opportunity for retribution that Claire gets," he says. "Her retribution is very feline in nature; she doesn't go out and attack the landlord, but simply lashes out when she's had enough. She has a very sweet nature, but it's her inner animal that responds. She gives a whole new meaning to the term 'cat lady!'"
Sound was by David Baron of Lightpost, Inc. in Los Angeles, Micha Lieberman composed the score, and Keith Ferguson was the voice talent.