Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker has experience bringing interactivity to his work. The sci-fi series’ feature-length entry Black Mirror: Bandersnatch allows viewers to influence the narrative with their decisions. His latest foray into the interactive medium, Cat Burglar, embraces a different style: classic animation. Cat Burglar openly and proudly evokes the animation and comedy styles of Tex Avery’s MGM cartoons like Red Hot Riding Hood and the Droopy Dog series of shorts.
During an exclusive interview with CBR, Cat Burglar‘s Charlie Brooker (Creator and Executive-Producer) and Mike Hollingsworth (Executive-Producer, Writer, and Supervising Director) revealed how their love for classic Tex Avery animation came to life in the new interactive Netflix short. The pair also spoke about the lessons they learned from the similarly-structured Bandersnatch and the tricks to constructing such a large-scale project during lockdown.
CBR: Starting off, I’ve got to throw some love your way for the “Eat at Joe’s” reference in one of the possible paths.
Mike Hollingsworth: It’s just how these cartoons become a part of our DNA. I don’t know what “Eat at Joe’s” means. I just know that it was a punchline in almost every one of these cartoons.
Charlie Brooker: Yeah. It seems a strange one, that. Whoever Joe is, he’s been getting free advertising for decades.
Since you’re playing with the animation medium, there are so many different avenues you could have gone down. You could have gone a little bit more like a Mickey Mouse or Dragon’s Lair or the screwball Warner Bros., but this is so firmly that specific classic Tex Avery style. What about that approach to animation and comedy appealed to both of you so much?
Brooker: For me, I think it’s that those cartoons stuck out in my head. It was one of those things where, as a child, I just noticed the name Tex Avery in the credits of the cartoons that made me laugh the most. I think there’s a sort of timeless, surreal anarchy to them that… They’re quite unforgiving as well. I quite like that they’re quite unforgiving. For me, that’s sort of what it was. They’d often break the fourth wall. They were clever. They were smart and brutal and subversive. For me, that’s what appealed to me. Then it turned out where… I met Mike at an event and it turned out he literally has named a child after Tex Avery, so he’s a bigger fan than me.
Hollingsworth: I’m such a Tex Avery fan that, years before this project even came around, my son is named Avery after Tex Avery. In his room are Tex Avery posters. So he’s growing up, lying in his bed, staring at an image of a “Red Hot Riding Hood.” We’ll see how that turns out.
These cartoons do get dark and brutal at times. That’s just what the Tex Avery cartoons were like. Was there ever any temptation or pushback to the inherent dark elements of that style of animation?
Hollingsworth: I have to say, before Charlie weighs in, that it is amazing working under the protective umbrella of a genius. I think because Charlie was signing off on stuff, we were able to get away with a lot more than we would’ve without him.
Brooker: Really? That’s good to know. [I’ve been lucky to have Mike here], coming up with stuff… Because I wouldn’t know how to write the script for a cartoon, I don’t think. I was a cartoonist, was my first job. I was a terrible one, so I kind of find it difficult to think in that visual way, I would say. I think one or two times when we sort of went… I don’t think we ever made things less violent. I remember one of my favorite sequences is where the eyeball nearly gets skewered on a spike. That’s a little Zombie Flesh Eaters tribute in the middle of it.
I think we are mindful that sometimes you can look at old cartoons and be surprised. We’ve been going through The Simpsons with my kids every night at the moment. They’re nine and seven years old. Sometimes, from the earlier episodes, I have to share a disclaimer beforehand. Certainly in a lot of these old cartoons are things you wouldn’t do now, but in terms of the sort of level of violence, I don’t think it was ever really [challenged].
Hollingsworth: I think one of your frequent notes, Charlie, was to make it more brutal.
Brooker: Yeah. I always wanted to see the impacts arrive without warning and quickly.
Hollingsworth: We made the cartoon more brutal in those different ways.
Brooker: In the sound — We have to mention the soundtrack, really, as well. That’s pretty incredible. Everything there is hopefully working in concert together because those Tex Avery cartoons sounded like Spike Jones and His City Slickers effectively, didn’t they? They have that sort of crunchy… Again, brutality is the word I would choose, a sort of anarchy to them. So hopefully these things are all working together so that it feels… It’s got the look and feel of an original vintage cartoon, but, obviously, it’s also got this high-tech layer that’s over the top of it.
Even the interface is much more sophisticated than it was when we were doing Bandersnatch. It can look more embedded into the style of the cartoon. We wanted it to feel a bit almost like it was a lost cartoon that had almost been made with some bizarre interactive format back in like 1949.
Hollingsworth: Charlie’s original headline was they found a lost cartoon from 1949 that was made at MGM. It was a pandemic miracle, in a way, because our amazing composer, Chris Willis — he’s just terrific. He just kept kind of asking for this on the down-low and eventually led to him getting a full orchestra in London. This cartoon was orchestrated the way those cartoons were orchestrated by an absolutely full orchestra — not four guys, but instead forty men and women in London, all playing real instruments.
Like Bandersnatch before it, this is an interactive feature — there’s over an hour and half of potential animation you’ll see across every 10-minute attempt. What lessons did you learn from Bandersnatch that you brought over to this production?
Brooker: The main lesson I learned from Bandersnatch was, “Don’t do it.” I wanted to try something different with this where you weren’t making choices for the character but you were influencing their fate, as it were. So it’s an experiment to see if that sort of concept carries through. Then I think, as Mike was saying, I would constantly be warning, “This is going to get really complicated.” I think… Because there’s a point where you do get kind of… You just get bewildered because you’re dealing with short chunks of something, basically. All the time, you’re dealing with short chunks of something that is going to get sewn together into a patchwork quilt by the system as it’s played.
It’s randomized for each player as well. That’s the other thing. It’s randomized on each play-through, so it won’t always start the same for different players. Joining all those things up can be a real headache, but that’s also sort of part of the fun because it does mean you get to indulge. You don’t have to just think of one gag for him going over the wall, you think of five kinds of things. So it gives with one hand while punching you in the back of the head with the other, would be my take-home on interactive entertainment.
Hollingsworth: Yeah. We were truly like Tex Avery characters because this thing was… It’s like a little mini Tex Avery movie, but it’s made of 200 individual QuickTimes. Tracking all of those and making sure all those move smoothly from one to one — it was pretty wild.
To experience the interactive cartoon for yourself, check out Cat Burglar on Netflix on Feb. 22.
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