Jerold Howard understood isolation. As a veteran freelance animator whose past credits include stop-motion spectaculars from the '90s and '00s (James and the Giant Peach, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit), he is accustomed to extended periods of self-imposed isolation and a certain degree of life-work uncertainty. Under ordinary circumstances, the native Portlander would have been thrilled for the opportunity to fully exploit his newly outfitted basement studio during lockdown, but the seclusion prompted by COVID-19 inspired a more complicated response that is echoed through Quarantine Kat—a seriocomic reflection on pandemic privations that he made for Oregon Public Broadcasting this past spring.
As Howard returns to finishing his long-awaited pet project Battlefield Portland, a short featuring the Kenton neighborhood's Paul Bunyan statue tromping through the city's landscape, WW spoke with him about the mixed blessings of his claymation staycation.
WW: How did Quarantine Kat begin?
Jerold Howard: Oregon Art Beat reached out to me. They were doing this series called "Postcards From the Pandemic," where they checked in with (mostly) Art Beat alumni to see how we were dealing with the quarantine and how sheltering in place affected our artwork. It was a really relaxed production. A lot of people were going to shoot their parts themselves, so I asked about doing an animated piece instead of just pointing a phone at myself.
Quarantine Kat was actually a dog to start. Deadlines were kind of nebulous, but talking to the producer really put me in gear. Since I'd have such a limited amount of time to make stuff, everything else would have to already be around the house. So, I threw out the dog and started repurposing. I made the bed and couch from scratch, but the bathroom sink came from the kitchen of a film I did called See the Truth. The trees in the very last shot were left over from The Christmas Visitor—a project I did last year with director Hasani Walker. The cat puppet was actually in a previous OPB segment.
The cat seems to add a touch of melancholy to the short.
In the beginning, we had, like, gags about social distancing during a walk. It reminded me of a cartoon from a comic strip, but eventually, I started thinking about the serious aspects. A lot of people had died, and everyone seemed to be feeling the same sort of trauma of having the rug pulled out from under them. That changed the tone of what I was going to shoot. Navigating this whole pandemic shouldn't be so jokey.
Were you working on a film when the virus hit?
Actually, I was lucky enough to be between gigs, so it didn't really affect me professionally. It's been easier for someone like me who's completely independent than for the larger productions. Hopefully, with these crazy animation outsiders, we're going to see some really fresh, really innovative, really challenging stuff bubbling to the surface.
Animators do have a certain reputation for obsessive misanthropy.
I'll be the first to admit animators are insane. I'm insane. Moving dolls tiny increments for eight to 10 hours a day is not something well-balanced people do. You need some OCD. You know, it's like sports or anything else. When you're a kid, you want to take up whatever looks fun or interesting, but by the time you get to high school or college, you probably won't make the team if you're not 6-foot-5. A lot of people try animation when they're really young and, growing older, start to ask: "What am I doing? This is nuts! I want to go outside!" Whereas, some of us are just, like, "This is great! I haven't seen the sun in a month, but I got two seconds of footage today!" Those personality types tend to be the ones that stick it out in animation.
Will the character itself survive? More shorts? A series? Quarantine Kat could be the Garfield of our era.
You know, when I was at Vinton [Studios] a million years ago, the higher-ups let some of us wild young animators go to the Emmys after the California Raisin special was nominated. We were having a blast, but when they got to our category, we lost to Garfield.
A sore subject, then?
It's a catfight, man. The fur will fly.
SEE IT: Quarantine Kat is available on YouTube.