Poe Mystery Revisited – In Animated Form

J.W. RINZLER EDITOR/AUTHOR – (Photo by Tina Mills)


I was a teenage Poe nerd. For my bar mitzvah I was given a two-volume complete works, and read them cover to cover, enthralled by his command of horror and storytelling, his inventiveness. As an adult, I read many of his short stories several times. While painting and teaching in Paris, I had to lecture on “The Black Cat” and decided to really take the story apart word by word. In doing so, I realized that there was an intriguing game being played within the tale.

Years later, having transitioned from painting to writing, it occurred to me that this game might be illustrated as an animated short. On vacation in the Yucatan, I adapted his story into a rough script and storyboarded out the shots in crude thumbnail sketches. It was fun to, nearly everyday, visit the fantastic pyramids in the jungle and then, back at our rental, to write and draw. I’d call it Riddle of the Black Cat.

Artwork by Greg Knight

Back in the Bay Area, I felt that the artwork could be done with a number of key frame drawings—perhaps 50—enough to convey the mood and action without getting into cost prohibitive digital animation. The trick would be to find an exceptional artist who would be interested.

It turned out the artist I sought was taking the bus with me to work everyday. We both were commuting to Lucasfilm in San Francisco. Greg Knight was crazy enough to immediately share my vision. As he started, I asked Greg to be uninhibited—we weren’t making a photo-real film after all. We could do strange things. I gave Greg reference images from Murnau, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Doré, and others. Greg was also inspired by Käthe Schmidt Kollwitz, for her passion and accuracy; more German expressionism; Van Gogh, for the environments, “twisting perspectives from an unstable mind,” as Greg says; as well as Frank Brangwyn and Edward Gorey.

I felt that we would be following in the footstep’s of UPA’s great animated short that adapted Poe’s  “A Tell Tale Heart.” I’d seen it in high school, back when we used to lug 16mm projectors to classrooms, and I’d been impressed. Of course I grew up heavily influenced by the great Warner Bros. cartoons directed by Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Clampett, Mckimson, and others. We didn’t do Disney in my family when I was a kid, but as an adult I marveled at the work of that studio’s masters, particularly Ub Iwerks’ early Silly Symphonies. I also love the work of Fleischer Studios: Some of their Superman cartoons are masterpieces—and the Betty Boop shorts with Cab Calloway are inspired lunacy and high art.

Artwork by Greg Knight
As the months went by, the hardest part of making Riddle of the Black Cat was waiting for Greg to have the time to work on our project—as 50 drawings became 250 shots—and it wasn’t exactly a paying venture. For a while, he went to work at ImageMovers Digital on A Christmas Carol and Mars Needs Moms, while I was writing The Making of the Empire Strikes Back and a couple of TV screenplays. But every now and then, for about two years, a wonderful thing would happen—I’d get an email with a zip file, which meant a batch of new, really exciting drawings.

Slowly I pieced them together into a rough cut using iMovie as we revised and revised and brainstormed. It was creeping forward, but at a certain point I realized I had to finish this thing or go insane.

I took what was left from a writing project fee (I was putting my oldest through college, so…) and Greg somehow found the time to finish the artwork. I recently heard about kickstarter.com and immediately checked out their site, where we are now actively seeking support. Kickstarter is a great concept and I hope to be successfully crowdfunded. If not, I’ll find a way. I have to.

In the final stretch I hope to compensate for our lack of digitally rendered, pricey animation with good-old-fashioned storytelling, creative sound design, a few After Effects, and inspired voice work. Instead of dozens of crew, we have five besides Greg and myself: Chris Vibberts is doing the sound design, Foley, and score; Dave Sidley is the editor; and three voice actors. A talented and all local crew.

Artwork by Greg Knight
So far, a number of people have told me that the short is similar in conceit to La jetée, Chris Marker’s haunting short film made primarily with still photographs. We’ll see… My hope is that by re-interpreting Poe’s “The Black Cat” we’ll spark another generation to take a renewed interest in his writing. Someone once said that when a new artwork pays homage to an old one, it revives the whole lineage. I think that’s true and I think our short will send people back to view the UPA animation and all the artwork mentioned above.

And I hope we find an audience. If our work meets with our vision, we’ll see you at the Festivals…

J. W. Rinzler is executive editor at Lucasfilm. He is the author of The Making of Star Wars and The Complete Making of Indiana Jones.