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The Cat Lady’s Cat

July 14, 2017 • By

After several name changes and seven years, The Cat Lady’s Cat — the other original Fantastic Ballad — is revised, refined, and raring to go!

Origin Story

Originally called Mrs Kowolski’s Cat, then Callie the Calico Cat, the Cat Lady’s Cat is the other original Fantastic Ballad that I worked on with Josh. The story is of Callie, and how she’ll go to any lengths to keep her Cat Lady Dee from finding true love — because if she finds true love, Callie thinks, Callie and the other kittens will get kicked to the curb.

Like the Gingerbread Man’s Last Stand (the first ballad), this story has series of mishaps and a nice twist that, to me at least, have aged nicely. In tandem, these stories laid the foundation for what a Fantastic Ballad could be.

Concept Art

Concept Art by Josh Engel
Concept Art by Josh Engel

Per usual, Josh did an incredible job capturing a devious and adorable protagonist. In taking these sketches and turning them into sepia-toned illustrations, he captured the essence of an intimate story worth hanging on the wall.

To be honest, he did too good of a job. Whereas with the Gingerbread Man’s Last Stand I was comfortable separating the art from the background and adding little animated movements, it felt sacrilegious to interfere with what he worked to create.

The Ballad, Version 1.0

Our original ballad was in four parts, with five framed pictures per, all hung down a wall with a flowery wallpaper. I enjoy looking back at these pieces now because they show just how much revisions have affected the story. The character’s names were once Eleanor and Rob (a nod to my grandparents), the illustrations more directly reflect the text here, and the meter isn’t great, despite some fun turns of phrase.

Taking this ballad and animating it was a simpler process than the Gingerbread Man’s Last Stand, as I set out to capture the feeling of the original ballad, rather than transform it entirely into a cartoon. I recreated the scrolling look and feel, though I did add cat wallpaper, which, while a little on the nose, was too delightful to pass up.

Additionally, the first cut had the frames going down, one after another… but I realized (with some wifely help) that there aren’t too many homes with the space to display 20 frames vertically. I made the proper adjustments, and the piece is all the better for it.

Next Up

It’s been edifying to be able to practice with such charming characters (it certainly makes my efforts look more impressive than they actually are) as I get a better handle on the functionalities of the Adobe suite. For better or worse, none of the other original ballads have nearly as much artwork as these two, and later ballad-related collaborations and commissions resulted in four or five pieces of art, which, while they help to capture the tone, are not sufficient for a four-minute video. Going forward, I’ll be writing brand new stories and commissioning illustrations from new artists.

In several ways, this summer has felt like a reboot, both in the “reusing old source material” way and a “getting back to basics” way. As I venture ever further into writing for kids, animation, and storytelling, I love that this project has become my own personal Giving Tree, one that continues to nurture and provide as I grow.


The Gingerbread Man’s Last Stand

June 30, 2017 • By

After 12 years of revisions, three artist collaborations, lost luggage and murderthe Gingerbread Man’s Last Stand is illustrated, animated, narrated, and done.

For 12 years, I have been working on this story about the Gingerbread Man. For a so-called Last Stand, that’s a pretty long time.

In taking a moment to think about that journey, and after leafing through the e-mails documenting it, I want to share with you the story behind the story of the above animation.

In July of 2005, while working with a cartoonist on a short story I wrote about a rampaging sheep named Clarence, I soft-pitched him an idea I was working on…

I’m in the middle of a, about 20 verse ballad about “The Untimely Fall of the Gingerbread Man”… where revenge is exacted by several other kitchen characters upon him for being too successful.

– 16-year-old Alex

A few days after this e-mail, I let the cartoonist know that the story had “been edited about three times now, and I think it’s almost complete.”

(Attention, future collaborators: ‘almost complete’ is Alexspeak for ‘only 12 years left!’)

Boy, a lot can happen in 12 years. Given the tragedies and traumas that afflicted the production process of The Gingerbread Man’s Last Stand, I began to sympathize with the evil cookies… right when I felt like I’d gotten my way, something would come back and derail the plan.

  • In August of 2005, it was set to be illustrated by an Irish guy I’d met online. I received an e-mail update that his cousin had been ‘stabbed and killed’ and from that point on, his priorities shifted away from colorful cartoons.
  • In June of 2007, my friend Rachael embarked on the illustration journey. Over the next nine months, she sketched, and illustrated, and then painted Gingerbread with watercolors. In this precious time before smartphones became ubiquitous, she didn’t take any progress pictures. Then, she was flying back to LA with the paintings in her luggage when… they airlines lost her luggage, and the paintings.
  • Then, in January of 2009, I met Josh while interning at Nickelodeon. In 2010 we got together, tossed some ideas back and forth on how to collaborate, and The Untimely Fall of the Gingerbread Man was given another life. In September of 2010, we had ourselves an illustrated ballad. But, as was the case so far, things did not go as well as expected.

We kept refining the ballad and futzing with the proper way to show it to the world. At one point, we released a page at a time like a serialized webcomic. Then, I built a website where the ballad ‘hung’ on a fridge, in five parts.

By September of 2011, I had renamed the story The Gingerbread Man’s Last Stand and it was part of a larger series called Fantastic Ballads, which were fantastical rhyming stories that I wrote and Josh illustrated. As an aside, this was an energizing time in my life, as we’d meet regularly to talk about story, create together, give each other feedback, and push each other. I’m not sure I’ve tapped into that same level of creative fulfillment since.

Then came the disagreements: about how much time we should be expected to pour into this, what we wanted to get out of this, and how we should move forward. After two finished ballads, we decided to end the partnership.

Still, I kept writing them. Time past. I would occasionally repurpose the ballads, like I did in the spring of 2014, when I wrote a weekly story and my friends narrated them. Though intended to be a podcast, I stuck it up on SoundCloud. I knew they were more fun to hear read aloud than to just be read online, and felt I was onto something, but the pace of writing those weekly stories while working at a late-night show wore me down.

Around that time, a coworker suggested it’d be easy for him to animate the illustrations, though his offer came as our show got the axe. I never followed up on it.

I kept writing. Occasionally, I’d commission an artist to do a few illustrations per ballad. The four or five pieces of art were not enough to complete the ballad, but they did help to give a sense of the characters and the story (those live at Fantastic Ballads). Now I knew the stories were more fun with art and they were more fun with narration… I just didn’t put the two together.

Maybe I thought it wasn’t possible to do, or that I couldn’t figure it out. Whatever the case may be, I didn’t pursue it.

Until this summer. With the time I have off in between talk show seasons, I decided to learn an animation software, instead of waiting for someone else to offer up their time and skill. Taking Josh’s gorgeous cookie cartoons, I dragged them through Adobe Photoshop, Animate and Premiere, until I had pieced together the animation you see above.

Giving this cookie chase a new lease on life was important to me because of how deeply I care for animation. It’s a medium I’ve always loved, and studied, and enjoyed. Seeing the cookies dance and cavort, as herky-jerky as the finished product may be, is endlessly delightful. While I won’t say all 12 years of waiting to see this story come to fruition have fueled me with that same delight, it must have been necessary. Surely the story has benefitted from the revisions (though I did feel like George Lucas at some point, thinking I should just leave it alone).

So, the Gingerbread Man’s Last Stand is finally done. It’s in the format that best suits it (until I figure out VR!!!). Now, I can move forward. Just like Ginger is left to Rest in Pieces, I can let the Gingerbread story rest. Other stories are coming, along with other illustrations. I’m glad I hung onto this story for so long; I’m also glad to be moving on from it.

For those of you who’ve been watching this since the beginning, I thank you for your patience and support. If this is your first time seeing or hearing about the Gingerbread Man’s Last Stand, I look forward to hearing your thoughts. I owe this story a lot. It’s the story that comes to mind when I think back to identifying as a writer. To know that it had merits and qualities worth salvaging, revising, and embellishing on throughout the years is frankly astonishing.

And to Josh, without whom this would not have been possible, I am endlessly appreciative. You’ve seen me at my worst, and you still delivered the goodies.