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Cordell Barker's perfect timing 

Animator Cordell Barker is best known for that cat who came back, but his new film Runaway has satirical bite.

Cordell Barker created a monster called The Cat Came Back. His 1988 animated short, which he made at the National Film Board, haunted him.

"Oh yeah, I just lived under the shadow of that thing forever," Barker admits on the phone from San Francisco, where later that day, he will present to Pixar. "In a way it's sort of a curse, when your..." Barker stops, gathers his thoughts and starts over. After The Cat Came Back came out, he thought, "Oh my god, how do I make my second film? That one hit too big."

Barker eventually made a second animated short. Strange Invaders came out in 2001. His first two films both received Oscar nominations and 16 other awards, states a short NFB biography. It also states Barker "returned to advertising" and directed commercials for big brands, such as Bell Canada and Nike.

The animator now accepts the notoriety of his first film about the futility of challenging feline power. On this current tour with the NFB, which celebrates its 70th anniversary and International Animation Day, Barker is introduced by a moderator, who asks, "How many of you have seen The Cat Came Back?"

"Almost invariably I hear this, 'Oh,' and all these hands go up," Barker says, laughing.

He's made peace with the fame. Barker's also made a departure, he says, with his third film, Runaway: "Visually, and thematically, it's quite different. It's a much deeper film than the other two."

In thematic terms, Runaway, which follows a steam-train on a collision course with a cow, satirizes this society's need to consume at all costs. Set against recent climate talks in Copenhagen, the timing is perfect. "I just have this foreboding feeling," says Barker, who's warily observed urban sprawl throughout North America while on tour.

In Runaway, the locomotive rumbles along with a bumbling engineer in charge. His diminutive assistant is charged with stoking the engine's fire, an increasingly desperate job as raw materials run out. "He had to have a tentative quality," says the animator of the fireman, voiced by Leonard Waldner. "He's the hopeful everyman," a voice of reason that's small, easily shouted down or ignored but one that, Barker adds, "might nag at you."

One railcar carries the common rabble. Aristocratic passengers occupy another. For these figures as well as their surroundings, Barker's drawing style calls to mind classic New Yorker illustrations.

"That's exactly what I was after," he says. "And another thing I was really influenced by was the old Masterpiece Theatre opening, based on the illustrator Edward Gorey. It had such a stately quality but they were very sort of dark observations of society."

Barker went for a "storybook" look for Runaway. "I timed it out so it had just the right amount of flattish, side-to-side feel to keep that remove. But I would, of course, judiciously break that so I'd have certain things coming forward, like when you zoomed through the centre of that train car."

Writing, directing and drawing the film himself (with some scenery help from an assistant), the Winnipeg born-and-based Barker took several years to make Runaway. During the process, he created, then trashed whole parts of the story, working hard at getting the film's "internal timing" right, so the action didn't seem chaotic and sensationalist, but graceful and, again, satirical---showing "the determination to go down a disastrous path but have a happy time going down it."

There's also "global timing." "I was very lucky with the timing for the release of the film, you know, on the heels of Bernie Madoff and the whole meltdown and the blind Wall Street greed," says Barker, adding, "It was perverse luck."

Barker's presentation in San Francisco was a dry run for his appearance in Halifax and other Canadian cities. "I recognized where I went a bit long and I have to be more concise," he says. "I gotta really work out my timing of how I'm presenting the thing."

He's speaking about, appropriately, "animation timing."

The making of Runaway

The Cat Came Back

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