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Simon Tofield's success comes in a Flash

The creator of 'Simon's Cat' says he never expected to have a YouTube sensation -- he was only trying to teach himself to use an animation platform.

November 27, 2009|By Charles Solomon

His ability at depicting the actions and thoughts of a cat in a few well-chosen lines has brought Simon Tofield a new kind of success available only through the Web. An animator and director at the London commercial studio Tandem, Tofield is the creator of "Simon's Cat," arguably the most popular feline in cyberspace.

His five short films -- "Cat Man Do," "Let Me In," "TV Dinner," "Hot Spot" and "Fly Guy" -- depicting the misadventures of a demanding cat and his befuddled owner have scored more than 36 million hits. The first film, "Cat Man Do," in which the cat resorts to somewhat unorthodox methods to wake his master and get his breakfast, won best comedy in the British Animation Awards in 2008.

Tofield wasn't planning on making a series or even releasing "Cat Man Do" when he made the cartoon. It was just an exercise to teach himself Flash, an animation program widely used in commercials.

"As I was making up a project to help me learn, a kitten I'd just gotten named Hugh was jumping on my head and batting at my nose," Tofield said in a recent telephone interview from London. "I thought, 'I'll just animate that. I'll base it on cat movements and mannerisms with a gag at the end.' It was just a little exercise to learn the program."

While he was in film school, Tofield largely taught himself animation by drawing flip books. He uses Flash to replicate the feel of traditionally drawn animation, although the component drawings are done with a digital tablet and pen.

When a Tandem client asked to post "Cat Man Do" on its website to test its Internet service in the U.S., the client was stunned to get 60,000 hits over two nights -- which nearly crashed the server. More than 50 people posted the film on YouTube under various titles.

Tofield seems a bit surprised by the success of the films that began as a simple technical exercise. He attributes a lot of the popularity to the believable personality of his feline character, which is based on firsthand observation. "I have three cats -- Hugh, Maisie and Jess -- and they've all contributed to the films and the book," he says. "The good thing about having three cats is that if one is sleeping all day, there are two more to watch and they're always doing funny things."

The popularity of the films led to offers to do a book, something Tofield had dreamed of since he was a boy in Bedfordshire.

"From an early age, I've dreamed of having a cartoon book: Even before I started to animate, I drew cartoons," he recalls. "I never thought that dream would actually come to anything. But with the success of the films, suddenly people were coming to me, saying, 'This is perfect for a book.' "

When it came time to draw further adventures for Simon's Cat, Tofield wondered if he should try for a more polished style than the rough, lively sketches in his films.

"I took a bit of a scary leap, because I've worked mostly in Flash for the films. For a book, my first thought was, 'I've got to sketch it in pencil first, then ink it, so it's lovely and the lines are pristine,' " he continues. "But I prefer to work with a pen straight onto paper. Once I work out how I'm going to do a drawing in my head, I jump at it and start scribbling. When you work directly in pen, you get a lot of energy into the line, although it's kind of wobbly and sometimes lines don't meet. But I prefer those drawings to ones I started in pencil: They lost their spontaneity. I like the drawings to look fluid and immediate: When you overwork a piece, it loses that immediacy."

Like the films, the cartoons in the book mix everyday occurrences with the fantasy world people imagine for their pets. "A lot of the ideas came from things that happen on a weekly basis, like pulling the clothes off the drying rack," Tofield says ruefully. "That's Maisie. She plays with the clothes first: When she bats them, they swing around; when the clothes fall off, she goes to sleep on them."

Two recurring themes in the book -- the cat teasing a hedgehog and pursuing a friendship with a garden gnome -- reflect Tofield's imagination and sense of character. "I drew the cat sticking a leaf on the hedgehog's back, and I liked it so much it became a kind of running joke," he says. "I like those cartoons because they show the character of the cat -- he's being a bit nasty, but in a boyish way. He's not evil, but he's a bit mischievous."

The book's depiction of the cat is also different in other ways.

"In the films, the cat always gets his way and comes across as being quite malicious, but when you see him with the gnome, you feel a kind of affinity for him, because you know the gnome's not alive," he explains. "It gives him a softer edge and rounds out his character. The films have been very successful, but the book enables the audience to see more of his character."

In addition to his duties at Tandem, Tofield will be keeping very busy with Simon's Cat for the next several months. "I want to do another film for Christmas, just because it's a great time to have a film come out on YouTube," he says. "I really enjoyed making 'Fly Guy,' but it was a lot of work. I might do something a bit less manic. I'm also going to do another book. I always carry around a notebook now. I jot down ideas whenever I think of them, and I sketch a lot while I'm sitting on the train. There's an iPhone app in production as well."

But the success of his cat character has brought unexpected personal rewards.

"I get some lovely message via e-mails, including ones from people who have been very ill and my films have made them smile," Tofield concludes. "You make a little film or do a book and you don't think of how it's going to affect people, but it's quite touching when stories like that come through to you."

Solomon is a frequent contributor to The Times.

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