By Ivan Dixon.
A sucker for dirty puns, I originally wanted to call this article “Owl Movements,” but there is nothing remotely crude or filthy about Isobel Knowles and Cat Rabbit’s beautifully crafted new children’s book, “Owl Know How.”
The picture book is based on the duo’s 2011 short animated film of the same name:
cut-out animation has collaborated with artist and toy maker extraordinaire Cat-Rabbit.
Rubber House’s Ivan Dixon chatted to the pair about their latest project.
Ivan Dixon: Did you always intend to make the story into a picture book? Or was it a natural progression after making the animated film?
Isobel Knowles: We had no designs on the future of the animation when we made it.
Cat Rabbit: We made the animation on a whim and at the exhibition opening we were approached by a publisher and she said she’d like to turn it into a book and we didn’t really think it was for real.
IK: …But it was secretly both our dreams come true.
ID: Can you tell us a little more about the story?
IK: When we were asked to do the book the brief was to create a story based on the animation. We had this weird factory where rabbits worked to make owls as our starting point.
CR: We had no idea how we were going to make it work becausethe only way we could make this weird cloud society working was not morally correct.
IK: We started off trying to figure out a logic for the world. If the rabbits were making these owls, what were they making them for?
CR: Do the owls have feelings?
IK: We originally had this story where the owls grew into bigger owls and preyed on the rabbits.
CR: But we only had 32 pages. In the end it got paired back to the first two pages of that.
IK: So we said let’s just find a very simple dramatic reason for the factory. The factory should be a solution to something.
CR: We were a bit stuck for a while thinking “Why owls?” Then we just kind of thought “Why not?”
IK: There’s a very long history of owls being this coveted and idealised animal. A lot people collect them, a lot of things are made about them, so it’s kind of perfect in a way. We could have the main character be obsessed with owls just like a classic owl lady, so of course if she’s going to suggest anything it’s going to be owls.
ID: Isobel, you’re used to collaborating, having worked with artist Van Sowerwine on a couple of interactive animated projects, including last year’s, “It’s A Jungle In Here.” Could you both talk a little about the process of collaboration?
IK: Every collaboration works a bit differently. I like collaborations because I feel like I don’t really have to worry about the project unless I’m in the company of the person I’m working with and that frees me up in my downtime. With a collaboration you can take that step back and make sure all the work only happens between you. In the project we did everything together. We sat down and made the story and lists of all the things we needed to make. Cat does the characters but we had a giant brainstorming session to design the characters specific to the story.
CR: We made different characteristics. We wanted to make something that would be a classic character. Usually I only make one off toys and they don’t have any repercussions but with this I realised these things would be showing up everywhere so we had to give them more longevity.
ID: Were there ever any disagreements regarding creative decisions?
CR: Not really. One time I made shoes for Cornelia that Isobel told me looked like bananas. But I agreed with that I was just thinking, “Yellow shoes, great!”
ID: You’re obviously both interested in tactile qualities. It seems there’s a growing trend towards stop motion animation in Australia, particularly Melbourne, with the success of Adam Elliot’s short and feature work and Darcy Prendergast’s commercial and creative projects. Do you have any thoughts on the resurgence of hand made work?
IK: I feel like with animation, in fact probably all design, we’ve just been with a giant period of technological advances with 3D and we’ve just had a really long time of looking at synthetic generated characters and sets. Everyone likes to change it up and I think people are realising the virtues of something that’s handmade. I also think that the technology has advanced in that world to, with these cameras that are on these digitised tracks so you can achieve all the thing people are trying to do with generated stuff. I mean, stop motion used to have to be with a series of locked off shot and a fancy camera move used to be a big deal.
CR: People like to know where things come from as well. Like with food and products it’s really important to know that this person has made it and this is how the made it you can relate to it and you can probably make it yourself. Rather than something that’s been made by goodness knows who and goodness knows what.
ID: I noticed that “Jake’s Organics” was one of the few stores in the cloud town.
CR: Yeah! That’s been a big hit. We were just trying to think of a good name, “Jake’s Grocer” didn’t work because it sounds “gross.”
ID: With the advent of e-books and iPads, a lot of people feel that the printed medium is dead. Is it a risky move to release a picture book in the current climate?
CR: That wasn’t really our prerogative.
IK: The book publisher came to us with “32 pages, hardcover, 22cm square, you choose the finish.” Deal. I think people still like to hold something real.
CR: I think that’s why they took the angle they did. They wanted an artist book that was also a children’s book. This is Thames and Hudson and first foray into childen’s books.
IK: For this kind of book which focuses on the art side of it, with lush photographs, having those photographs downsized to a tiny little phone seems like a waste.
ID: Cat, I’ve heard you mention Richard Scarry as one of the inspirations for Owl Know How. What do you think is so appealing about Scarry’s work (which, incidentally, has also been adapted to animation)?
CR: I love his characters, the pickle car, the really vibrant colours and the way everything was labelled. And it was quite funny, there was a pig butcher cutting up bits of pigs, and little racoon fireman. All these animals going about their business. And, you know, the watercolour going over the lines.
IK: Can I tell you a funny Scarry story? You and I were walking past Hill of Content and we looked in the window and there was a Richard Scarry book and it had carrots all over the cover. Cat and I had a meeting the next day and I was like “You know what, carrots and rabbits are SO over done. We can’t put a carrot in this book.” And Cat said the best quote I’ve ever heard her say, “That’s true! I’ve been doing rabbits for more than ten years and I’ve NEVER done a carrot!”
CR: I was very indignant about it, but it was true!
ID: Maybe if they were organic carrots…
CR: There weren’t even any carrots in Jake’s Organics!
IK: A carrot free rabbit book.
ID: Isobel, as well as being a talented animator, you’re also a skilled musician, having played in Architecture In Helsinki and your current band The Icypoles. How does working with a music label compare to working with a publisher?
IK: Well you see, this is interesting. I have the music industry as a basis for my understanding of what’s going to happen with the book label. So a lot of this process feels sort of normal to me. There are similarities; advances are sort of like shows, a tour is sort of similar to a band tour but there’s also a different way of going about it. You have this idea of things being on the radio, these are the avenues for music, but with a book I just don’t know those avenues as well, but maybe they feel a little less set.
ID: And how does it compare working on a book with a publisher to working on regular creative projects that are more personal?
CR: Well the thing I almost didn’t realise, and am only just realising is that usually a project is over and done and it doesn’t have this continuing thing like this book has. I was getting a little bit confused trying to tell people about the book because I’m so familiar with it, but then I realised that nobody actually knew the story because it only came out two weeks ago, but I was like, “It’s kind of old news now.” I’m not used to something carrying on.
IK: I guess that’s where I feel this is normal because that’s what happens with music. Because I’m thinking of it like that rather than like an art project. The difference is the book is a product and it’s something people want and that’s quite different! You do an art project and you kind of have to shake people, “Come and see my show!”, and there’s nothing in it for them other than supporting you and maybe finding something interesting.
CR: Stuff for kids good because everyone’s interested in it and everyone knows someone with kids-
IK: -Everyone keeps popping them out!
ID: Almost like owls out of an owl factory. Finally what’s next for both of you?
IK: Something more low key. Although Cat’s business is booming after all the press from the book.
CR: Yeah, it’s good. Just through my Etsy store, so it’s still quite low key. With the book in the background it’s nice to just have little things that I can complete.
IK: But we have been talking about doing new artwork together and we will be having some sort of an exhibition later down the track.