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Red Star’s Ben Smith Talks Years of Cat-Tastic Animation

The co-founder discusses the loss of his business partner, Jan Rogowski, and the studio’s transition from theme park films to feature films centered around an interesting creative niche: animated cats.

In 2004, Ben Smith and his late business partner Jan Rogowski started their production company, Red Star, with, in Smith’s words, “a combination of naivety and stupidity”... and a really specific niche. 

“We ended up making films for theme parks,” shares Smith. “We must have done 20 of those 10-minute-long animated films that they call ‘4D experiences.’ They splash water in your face and the seats move. There’s the occasional puff of aromatic air. We did films about pirates, Robin Hood, Dracula, and the most successful one was about dinosaurs. The whole time, we kept telling ourselves we should develop an actual feature film. And we did.”

Three, in fact. Along with their Magic Light-inspired BBC1 Christmas idents, Red Star has become known for their features StarDog and TurboCat, The Amazing Maurice, and, most recently, Tabby McTat. Unfortunately, Rogowski passed away from leukemia six months before production began on Tabby McTat. But Smith credits his Terry Pratchett-loving friend and co-founder with “championing” The Amazing Maurice production and whose work helped them land their latest Magic Light project. 

“The recognition of these projects has been massive and it’s wonderful because Jan bent himself over to do that second film,” says Smith. “We both worked really hard to do what we wanted to do and now it’s pushed us into new territory.”

And in these three films, the team found a new niche: animated cats. 

“We came up with this idea of a film about superhero pets, which was produced entirely in-house on a tiny budget,” explains Smith. “And on the back of that was when we then got offered projects like The Amazing Maurice and Tabby McTat. It's just a coincidence that they've got cats in them. For us, it was about stepping away from the world of theme parks and into features. Who knew we’d have cats for breakfast, cats for lunch, and cats for dinner?”

StarDog and TurboCat was the kickoff as Red Star’s first feature film and was arguably the simpler cat to design and animate, being, as Smith says, “just a person with a cat head and tail.”

Produced by Red Star, supported by Screen Yorkshire and Head Gear Films, and sold worldwide by Kaleidoscope Film Distribution, StarDog and TurboCat follows superhero pet duo Buddy (StarDog) and Felix (TurboCat). Set in 1969, Buddy is launched into space with a backpack in a space capsule by his owner, David. However, soon after leaving Earth, the capsule malfunctions, and shocks Buddy, mutating his DNA and giving him superpowers before flying out of orbit, leaving Buddy frozen and floating in space. 50 years later, the capsule reenters Earth's atmosphere, causing Buddy to crash land back on Earth in the fictional town of Glenfield, where he meets a tuxedo cat named Felix who reveals to Buddy that humans hate animals in Glenfield, and that Officer Peck is responsible for putting stray animals in the pound, where they are never seen again.

“TurboCat was part of this wacky, comic book-like world that is a parody of superheroes, specifically Batman and Superman,” says Smith. “Really, he’s barely a cat. He’s mostly a short, furry human. He even had a biped rig, same as a human. He sits up in a chair, types on a keyboard and occasionally would do something very cat-like, such as curling up in a ball to go to sleep like a cat. That’s sufficiently bonkers. But, in a cartoon, that’s ok.”

Tabby McTat, the company’s most recent film project, had a main cat character that was the complete opposite. Produced by Magic Light with Red Star brought in for animation, Tabby McTat is based on the beloved picture book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler where, in the streets of London, a musical cat and a gifted busker named Fred strike up a warm, amazing friendship.

Tabby McTat takes place in this Magic-Light-meets-Julia Donaldson world, and that brings along its own set of rules,” shares Smith. “Although it's all CG, it's designed to look like it has been made with clay puppets in stop-motion. But it's also quite a real world where cats behave like cats. They don't do people stuff.”

The film is all animated on twos, with no motion blur, and everything was art directed with the touchstone idea that Tabby McTat, Fred, and the rest of London are clay models. 

“We’re not trying to trick people, but it’s a stylistic choice and I think the way you make something CG stand out these days is by making it look interesting,” says Smith. “The design sheets would say, ‘That thing is made out of modeling clay. That other thing is a piece of wire that's been bent into shape,’ and things like that. There was no fur and no blur so no room for cheating. You could clearly see every pose. It was challenging and took a lot of mucking around. But what's pleasing about it for me is that you end up with a world that feels tactile, and it feels like something you could reach out and touch. And it also feels small and unknowable and kind of cute at the same time, which played a lot into McTat’s character.”

Maurice, in all his big and bold glory, in more ways than one, sat right in the middle of Tabby McTat and TurboCat. 

The Amazing Maurice was the most interesting because this cat lives in a world where cats are expected to be cats. But the whole point of the story is that he is an intelligent cat who can really think. And so, he does cat stuff and behaves like a cat. But then he will also behave like a person who can use his arms to express himself and speak and will occasionally walk around on two legs.”

In the film, produced by Sky Cinema, Cantilever Media, and Ulysses Filmproduktion, a cat named Maurice works with a human named Keith to pull cons on townsfolk by enlisting help from a group of sentient, literate rats. When Maurice and Keith and their literal rat pack head to the town of Bad Blintz, they notice it suffers from both a lack of food and a lack of rats who would typically be responsible for such disappearances. It’s up to Maurice, Keith, the rats the mayor's daughter, Malicia, to solve the mystery. 

Red Star created all the film’s characters and environments, as well all layout, and supervised and co-produced the character animation alongside Studio Rakete in Germany.

“Our initial approach to Maurice was that he was just a cat who could talk, and only when we got a little bit into it did we realize that the directors envisioned the way he would move would be more human,” explains Smith. “So, there was a big switch when it came to rigging him so that he could switch between this kind of cat look and human look.”

TurboCat, along with Maurice and Tabby McTat, was modeled, rigged, and animated in Maya and rendered in Arnold. Both having fluffy, textured hair, Maurice and TurboCat’s fur was developed with Yeti. And that fur, in Maurice’s case, turned out to be a lifesaver when it came to transitioning from cat movements to human ones. 

“Maurice had a hybrid rig,” notes Smith. “If we’d had more money, we might have built separate rigs for doing different parts of the film, but we didn't have that budget. So, we had this one rig for everything. And what that meant is that he was a cat from the chest down but had arms like a human. And then there were switches that enabled us to swap between Maurice using his front legs to walk or answer the phone and he's got controls in his hands that they can do that. And there's a lot of fiddling to switch between those two poses. The saving grace was that Maurice’s fur was hiding a multitude of sins. There was all this complex stuff going on with his geometry but because of that fur, you didn’t see any of it.”

It was like Red Star was pulling off a con of their own. Despite the tedious time it took to render and simulate Maurice’s fur, it made big parts of the animation job a lot easier. 

“One of these days, I will sit down and write a book called Computer Animation for Dummies,” shares Smith. “Because when you actually think about the mathematics and the details of it, you realize just how mind-bogglingly complex even the simplest thing actually is.”

It’s also why they chose to make Maurice’s tail into a large balloon-like shape, rather than the typical thin and agile cat tail. 

“It looks a bit funny, but it sets his character apart and makes him different,” says Smith. “What you see in CG animation a lot is this default and received-wisdom of what CG looks like. And you see a lot of projects where they don't really art direct it. It's like they say, ‘There's a cartoon dog,’ and it's almost like an AI-generated thing where you type in Pixar animated dog, and you get this default look. But here's something where the look is completely different, and it's considered quite closely.”

Moving forward, Smith says he’d like to a project not focused on cats. He actually has a personal project in the works now which involves robots. “I love the idea of characters that are just really simple but that audiences can relate to despite their simplicity,” he says. “At the end of the day, we’re a filmmaking company. We’re not too bothered about what techniques we’re using or the cleverness of the graphics. We’re just trying to figure out how to tell the story and get the audience to follow along.”

Though Smith says it’s still strange to be moving forward on projects without Rogowski at his side, he looks forward to what the future holds for Red Star and the characters they have yet to create, both feline and otherwise. 

“Jan wouldn't have wanted us to just sit around and sulk,” says Smith. “All of us in the company were sulking a few days after this happened wondering, ‘What do we do now?’ But all we can do is get back to work and make him proud.”

Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at