With close to 3,000,000 hits on Youtube at last count, An Engineer’s Guide to Cats (video posted below) became an overnight internet phenomenon in mid 2008. “Guide to Cats” creator Paul Klusman documents his devotion to his three cats, Zoe, Ginger and Oscar, using a video camera and a little bit of humor. Since then, Klusman has expanded the cats’ video oeuvre with the addition of An Engineer’s Guide to Voting: Ginger for President, and others. In October, he was quoted in the New York Times for an article about men and cats, and below, Klusman was kind enough to answer my questions about the unexpected success of his “Guide to Cats.”
Animal Inventory: First of all, how are Zoe, Ginger and Oscar?
Paul Klusman: They are doing just fine. Their recent fame has not gone to their furry heads and they are still “kitties from the block.”
PK: “An Engineer’s Guide to Cats” is a derivative of an earlier film called “Oscar: The Artist Cat” and was made specifically for a short film festival in Australia called Sony Tropfest. This film festival requires all entries to be new films so I used some of the footage from “Oscar: The Artist Cat” combined with new footage and a new story to create “An Engineer’s Guide to Cats.” Sony Tropfest rejected the film so I put it on YouTube thinking that my friends and family could at least enjoy what I assumed to be a mediocre film. It did very little on YouTube for about the first two months and then exploded all over the internet in early April of this year. According to a website called viralvideochart.com, on Sunday, April 13, 2008 “An Engineer’s Guide to Cats” became the #1 viral video on the entire internet that day and repeated its #1 rating again the following weekend.
The decision to use my cats in my films is partially out of an affection I have for cats plus the fact that they are available 24/7 for filming. Also there is a unique challenge in extracting a story from cat behavior. It is simply impossible to make a cat do what it does not want to do, so you have to observe the cat’s behavior, capture it on video, and then build a story around the cat behavior. This often takes tremendous patience. I have hours and hours of boring cat video footage.
AI: Early on in the film you talk about “that guy … who has all those cats…” This description seems to reference a cultural stereotype that your audience is familiar with — and the indication is that nobody wants to be “that guy.” Can you explain who “that guy” is, and if people have accused you of being him? Do you think the film helps to transform the stereotype of “that guy?”
PK: I think “that guy” is characterized by a personality that allows him to interact with animals as well as humans. He may be more comfortable with his cats than humans and because of this some people can’t easily relate to him. The fact that my character is also a stereotypical engineer adds to this.
People don’t accuse me of being “that guy” as much as I claim it for myself. I don’t mind being seen as someone who counters the “macho” male stereotype that insists “real men” cannot like cats. I don’t know if the film transforms “that guy” but hopefully it demonstrates that it is ok to be “that guy.” The fact that TJ and I have both received many romantic inquiries from ladies all around the world indicates that it is not such a bad thing to be “that guy!”
AI: It is easy to find instances of humor being used in media when animals are involved. But usually, the artist is either making fun of the animal, or making fun of human affection for animals. You’ve managed to create an hysterically funny video that does neither. Was this a specific goal of yours? How did you achieve this?
PK: Humor was the primary goal, but I do believe in having respect for animals so I was very careful to make sure this was apparent in the film. I was particularly worried that people would view the “corporal cuddling” and “static electricity” scenes as mistreating the cats, so I made sure to include elements that demonstrated the cats were possibly annoyed but not harmed.
AI: I think that there has long been an impression that when something is funny, it’s not smart. For instance, comedies never win a Best Picture Academy Award. But I believe that comedians like Jon Stewart have introduced a kind of humor is easily identifiable as smart humor. “Guide to Cats” follows in this tradition, but with a twist. This is smart humor about human-animal relationships. Beyond making people laugh, did you hope to reveal a new perspective on the friendships between people and cats? Did anyone (aside from your cats) inspire you in the making of the film?
PK: I just liked the idea of showing single guys who like cats in a positive light and I suppose this is a bit of a new thing. Film has many examples of “a boy and his dog” or “the cowboy and his trusty horse” but “a guy and his cats” is unusual.
As for the humor, I do enjoy having many levels of humor including some that is obvious to all members of the audience and some that is harder to catch. From the comments posted about the video, many people are mystified by my character always wearing the same red shirt. One person commented that this is on purpose as a stereotypical characteristic of an engineer. At least one person gets the joke that is the red shirt and I think that is cool.
My interest in making films started when a buddy of mine quit his engineering job to attend film school. He showed me a short film he had made and it looked like so much fun I decided to try it, myself. I started experimenting with a video camera and computer editing and I found that it was not that difficult get a story from brain to video. At some point I stumbled across the films of Robert Rodriguez and researched his path to film making. I read his book “Rebel Without a Crew” where he emphasized making inexpensive films quickly and making many of them to learn the craft. I followed this philosophy and I am continuing to learn today.
AI: Why do you think this story resonated so strongly for viewers?
PK: It has cats.
…ok, seriously, aside from the humor I think it also has an innocence that people enjoy. I appreciate films that have “innocent” main characters like “O Brother, Where art Thou?” and “Napoleon Dynamite” and I am surprised there are not more of them in the market given the success of these films.
AI: Since the success of “Guide to Cats,” most of the videos you’ve posted on Youtube have been about your cats. Do you expect that your cats will continue to be your inspiration?
PK: I’ve got a series of “Engineer’s Guide” videos planned that will feature the cats in some minor role at least. It is fun to portray the cats as having human motivations and characteristics and once you get the hang of it this is not terribly difficult to do. Humans themselves are also fascinating creatures so I will expand to include more of them as well.
AI: What do you hope the trajectory of your career will be, and will animals continue to play a significant role?
PK: I would like to write and direct feature films as well as publish music and books. I’ve also thought about doing fun and educational videos about science and engineering. I think our country is starting to lose its competitive edge in science and engineering, and too many kids want to go for an MBA or become lawyers in my opinion. I’d like to use film to illustrate how much fun it is to understand how things work and how enjoyable the creative process of technical problem solving can be.
I will continue to have animals in my films but they may not always have a central role. My films will always advocate kindness and respect towards animals.