Cat videos make the Web their perch

Los Angeles TimesNovember 20, 2012 


Seattle filmmaker William Braden, left, has made Henry the cat an Internet video star as Henrí, the French-speaking, ennui-filled feline.


SEATTLE — Henry is a difficult star, but filmmaker William Braden knows how to work with him.

If he needs Henry to run, Braden stands behind him and shouts to scare him into action. If he wants Henry to look annoyed, Braden blows in his face. If Henry won't cooperate, Braden bribes him with catnip and Friskies Party Mix.

During the past six years, Braden and Henry have developed a special relationship. Braden makes YouTube videos in which Henry plays a French existentialist named Henrí. The two-minute videos of the black, fluffy cat with particularly long whiskers are Internet sensations, viewed more than 10 million times.

Henrí 2: Paw de Deux, the most popular of Braden's cat videos, recently won the Golden Kitty, a people's choice award at the Internet Cat Video Film Festival. The award, a statuette of a fat golden cat, sits on a shelf next to the filmmaker's desk.

He has signed his first book deal. Henrí Le Chat Noir: The Existentialist Musings of an Angst-Filled Cat will be published by an imprint of Random House next year.

He gets about $1,000 a week in revenue from his online store, selling Henrí mouse pads, mugs and T-shirts to the existentialist cat's devoted fans.

Braden, 32, used to work as a wedding videographer, but he no longer accepts such gigs. He doesn't need to.

"These past few months I've transferred to Henrí full-time," Braden says. "I know how crazy it sounds to have this depressed French cat be my primary source of income."

Even Thomas Edison found cats worth filming.

The first cat video was created in 1894, when Edison's film studio produced a 20-second moving picture for his newly invented kinetoscope. Prof. Welton's Boxing Cats featured two cats in a miniature boxing ring wearing boxing gloves. The Library of Congress uploaded the video to You Tube in 2009, and it has been seen more than 200,000 times.

No one can say for sure why cat videos attract such enormous followings, but Emily Huh, editor in chief of Cheezburger, a website of humor blogs, has a theory.

"Dog owners have a dog park where they can show off their dogs, but cat people don't have that," she says. "The Internet is where people who love cats can go to say, 'Look how cute my cat is.'"

Henry made his Internet debut in 2006 when Braden was a student at the Seattle Film Institute. Braden was house-sitting for Henry's owner when he got a class assignment to shoot a profile. He thought it'd be funnier to do an animal. Henry, who was easygoing and had a malleable face, came to mind immediately.

"He kind of looks stoned all the time, but that face is a blank slate," Braden says.

Braden got the idea of parodying the European experimental films of the 1940s and '50s that he was watching in his film history class. His feline video Henrí earned him an A and was a big hit with his fellow students.

It racked up 300,000 page views shortly after it went up on YouTube and is still being shown in class as an example of how a good film can be made with very little money. In fact, Braden says there is no cost to make the videos except for his time and what he already had spent buying the camera and the editing software for his videography work.

Six years later, egged on by his friends and family, Braden decided to revisit the Henrí character, with another short film, Henrí 2: Paw de Deux. It features Henrí in various states of repose as a piano is played in the background. A throaty French speaker (Braden, actually) gives voice to Henrí's ennui.

"I am free to go, yet I remain," the English subtitle reads as Henrí is shown gazing sullenly out the window. Later he catches himself in a bathroom mirror and observes, "We cannot escape ourselves."

Henrí is not the most popular cat on the Internet. That distinction belongs to Maru — a kitty from Japan with an unusually large head and a deep affinity for cardboard boxes. A collection of Maru YouTube videos has been seen more than 163 million times, making him the most watched cat in the world. Maru even has his own agent.

Cat videos are so popular that they have spawned their own festival. This summer, the first ever Internet Cat Video Film Festival drew more than 10,000 people from all over the country. Some brought their cats; others wore kitty costumes.

Katie Hill, a cat lover working at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, came up with the idea for the festival. She sorted through 10,000 cat video submissions before whittling down the entries to an hourlong collage.

When she asked people around the world to vote for their favorite, Henrí 2 won, and Braden was there to collect his fat golden cat.

Braden lives alone. He doesn't have a cat, although he thinks about getting one. On his right arm is a tattoo of a black cat from a late 19th century poster advertising Le Chat Noir nightclub in Paris.

He and his muse live five minutes apart. He runs his growing Henrí empire out of a 625-square-foot studio condo in Wallingford, where his view of the Space Needle has been obstructed by construction.

The most luxurious item in the minimalist apartment is a Mac computer with an enormous screen. It was Braden's first big splurge with what he calls "cat money."

Every morning, he opens his Facebook account to concoct an existential reflection that goes out to 52,000 followers of Henrí, also known to his fans as Le Chat Noir.

"Someone asked me if I love my caretakers," he writes in Henrí's voice. "Love is a strange thing, and mostly indefinable. I sleep in their laundry basket, if that counts."

Henry is an 8-year-old tuxedo cat with a regal white chest. He was adopted as a kitten from the Seattle Municipal Shelter. He lives with his owner and three other cats in a modest two-story house. His owner, a close relative of Braden, does not want to be identified for fear someone might kidnap Henry.

Braden knows his life with Henrí won't last forever. At some point Henry will die, but even before that Braden fears he will run out of ideas.

"When I start shooting him against a green screen for a film about Henrí in space, that's when we'll know it's over," he says.

For now, though, he tries to think about the future as little as possible. If the first Henrí book sells well, he'd like to write a second one.

And if that sells well, he'd like to use some of his "cat money" to fund a different film project — either a feature-length comedy set in Seattle or perhaps a Web series, starring people.

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