Jacob Kafka: Rough Animator and Cozy Mysteries

Posted by on May 13, 2024 in Uncategorized | No Comments

A conversation with Robby Gilbert

Jacob Kafka is one of the ‘quiet ones’ to keep an eye on. His work is thoughtful and sweet, and he embodies the spirit if the quintessential inventor/animator. Based in Brooklyn, Kafka has achieved uncommon success with the development and growing distribution of a piece of software, Rough Animator, which now counts thousands as users. Rough Animator is available through any App Store. This success has afforded Jacob the ability to plug away at his first independent feature film, Beverly Bunny. He’s hoping to raise enough money to complete the film, and a Kickstarter has raised over 30k of the 60k he is hoping to bring in.

New York independent features have been few and far between but nonetheless play an important part in the history of animation. Beverly Bunny is well-worth supporting not just because of the quality of the concept, but because the New York independent feature scene continues its important legacy in young artists like Kafka and deserves much support!

I sat down with Jacob to discuss Rough Animator, his feature, and his hopes for the Kickstarter campaign.


Hey, Jacob! Good to meet you. We’ll talk about your feature film and Kickstarter in a moment but first I wanted to talk a bit about RoughAnimator. You developed this software on your own, which Pilar Newton and others are using. I was just speaking with her, and I hear great things about it. I’m going to download that.

Thanks! I saw Pilar’s short that she animated in RoughAnimator. It was great!

How did you go about just designing a piece of software then getting it into the app store?

It was a side project that grew and grew. I had played around with programming a little bit and taken a few classes in school, but never made anything that big before. It was right around the time that the Apple Pencil first came out, there were portable tablets that you could draw on for the first time, but software hadn’t caught up to the hardware yet. There wasn’t any good animation software for it. But I thought, maybe this is a fun side project—I could try to put something together. I did, and it wasn’t very good, but I put it online anyway and I kept working on it and kept improving it over the course of years. And eventually it caught on and people are buying it.

Do you know what the new usage numbers are like? How many people have bought it?

Tens of thousands, at least? Something in that order of magnitude.

Good on you. Congratulations. That’s great.

I know I’m very lucky.

You’re obviously really brilliant. there’s Procreate— a lot of my students use it, obviously, you know. appropriate And, then they’re trying to come up with Dream Animator, which is just not ready for prime time. Do you have any comments on that?

Sure. Ha, ha. Well, I’ve got my opinions. But I’m biased though, of course. I like my app the best because I made it for myself and the way I like to animate, but I think there are a bunch of good tools out there that serve different people’s different workflows, and no one program can be everything to everybody. So I think there’s room for multiple animation apps in the market.

It’s great. I’m really impressed by all that.
Okay, so let’s talk about your film. Give me the pitch.

Okay, the elevator pitch for the story is – it’s about a sleepy bunny detective who is supposed to be solving a murder mystery, but she can’t stay focused on it, and keeps getting distracted by more mundane, lower stakes mysteries. And it’s very silly and whimsical and full of puns. And about the production…it’s been just me animating it for three years so far.

I read that. And you’re animating it in RoughAnimator.

Yep! Hand drawn frame by frame.

That’s great. And so your Kickstarter looks like you’re halfway there, which is great, but also frustrating, isn’t it?

It’s an emotional roller coaster. It’s going well so far, but like, it doesn’t happen by itself. We have to keep pushing and finding ways to get it out there and get more people’s attention, or else donations slow to a crawl. And if we don’t reach the goal that we set – $60,000 – everybody gets refunded and we don’t get to keep any of it.
The $60,000, minus fees for Kickstarter and the costs of rewards for donors, is supposed to go towards bringing on a sound designer and composer and background artist, and whatever is left over to animation assistants, to do cleanup and coloring — that stuff.

Who are you gonna use for assistants?

That depends how much money we raise, how many people I can bring on.

Is this the first time you’ve done a Kickstarter?

I was involved in a Kickstarter for the Curious George documentary, that I did animation for, but I wasn’t the director. I wasn’t in charge of the Kickstarter.
And my producer Wendy Zhao also has some Kickstarter experience from working for Signe Baumane and Bill Plympton.

So talk to me a little bit about your character. I mean, you can’t give away the whole story, I’m sure. But what’s the motivation behind a sleepy distracted bunny detective?

I always loved bunnies. And I always start with character design just because if I’m gonna be drawing the same thing over and over for years, it better be something I enjoy drawing and enjoy looking at. So that’s why I draw cute animals mostly.

Is there character of a sidekick, or is there a nemesis?

Um. So the sidekick character, like the Watson equivalent, is a puffin who’s a reporter supposed to be writing an article about the detective. And so he’s sort of that like audience surrogate character who brings us into the story.

Is this a story that you’ve had for a while?

I started writing it in 2020. Just as trying to take my mind off all the things that were happening in 2020 and draw something that made me happy.

And, like I said, started with the character design, and then, like tried to build a story around it.

Have you finished the script? Did you finish the story?

I mean, nothing’s finished until the movie’s finished. But, I’ve boarded and edited the animatic of the whole movie. And I’m going in with animation now, and still tweaking things—but hopefully smaller and smaller tweaks as the process goes along.

What about a feature speaks to you versus doing several shorts?

I think, there’s that thing about climbing Everest, “because it’s there”… just for the challenge. But one reason is just that I don’t have that many story ideas. It’s easier for me to spend a long time working on the same thing than have to come up with a new idea. And I can explore the concept in more depth. And like, the actual workload is the same as if I made several shorts, yeah?

What’s the, what’s the animation’s run time?

72 minutes.

Where you going to release it? Online or in theaters?

Oh, I don’t know yet. That depends who wants it? And, um, I mean, it’s, I’m trying not to think about that too much yet…if only because the industry is changing so fast right now. I don’t know what film distribution is gonna even look like in a few years. So, if I tried to have a plan right now, it might not mean anything.

What do you think the future of distribution is going to look like? Just out of curiosity.

I wouldn’t wanna predict. But, I mean, as it stands right now, I feel like the traditional model of selling a movie to a distributor is not as necessary or helpful to a filmmaker as it used to be. You know, unless they want to throw me a really big pile of money for the film, and also put a lot of money into marketing it. But I don’t think they do that very much anymore. If all a distributor is going to do is upload my video file to the internet, I could just do that myself and have more control.

Tell us a little bit about your company.

It’s just me, really.

Are you doing freelance work? You taking on other jobs and things like that these days?

Not recently. These past few years, I’ve been making a living from the app, which is how I’ve had time to be animating my own film. And that’s been really nice. I don’t know how long it’ll last, but so far so good. Um, before that, yes, I was doing a lot of freelance.

That’s awesome that you’re, that you’re able to live off that app. I want to download that right after we get off the phone. Is it easy to learn? Are there tutorials online or anything like that?

Well, that’s the idea. I mean, your mileage may vary, but yeah you can find lots of people who make tutorials. My goal with it is to make it as intuitive and self explanatory as possible, just so that I don’t personally have to spend time explaining it to people. I haven’t fully achieved that but, I’m working toward it always — software is never finished.

So you get feedback from your users and then update it and debug it.

There’s always more bugs to fix, and people always want more features, and I want more features because I’m using it to make the film.

That’s a really important point. How long is it going to take you to finish this feature?

So my estimate, without any help, is another three years. So, hopefully with help, depending on the fundraising, more like one or two.

Who, who your influences as far as animators are concerned?

Well, off the top of my head, not an animator, really, but Jim Henson. You know, it’s kind of a related art form— you know—the illusion of life from inanimate objects.

Are you a puppeteer as well?

No. My brain works too slowly for live performance. That’s why I’m an animator. I mean, I went to film school thinking I wanted to do live action and animation both. But live action was too stressful.

What’s so stressful about it?

Just like— you have to organize everyone to be in the same place at the same time, and then you have a limited amount of time to get what you need before you have to leave. And if you don’t get it, it’s too late, you’re stuck with whatever you filmed. Animation is mostly a desk job, and you have time to think, and there’s an undo button, right?

Who did you have for animation? You went to NYU—so you had Dean Lennert, right?

Yep. He’s great!

And John Canemaker? Or was or is he gone by then?

He was there. Great also!

Great! So, you’ve had some great teachers for sure.


So this film’s going be a murder mystery— but it’s for children. Or is it for the adult market?

I wouldn’t say it’s for children, but I wouldn’t say it’s not for children either. Hopefully everybody can enjoy it. You know, the, the murder aspect of it is not really taken seriously. Like I said, the idea is that she’s not focused on the murder mystery. That’s kind of in the background as what she’s supposed to be doing, and it ends up being more character based and having her solving smaller mysteries, and it’s just very silly and cute. You know, I’m making this movie cause it’s the kind of thing that I enjoy. I hope that other people will too. I don’t know if you know the genre cozy mysteries?
I don’t.

It’s a whole subgenre of murder mysteries, where it’s like, structured around solving a murder, but it’s not really about murder. It’s more focused on the characters and the puzzle, and it’s meant to be pleasant and you don’t see any violence.
Got it.

So, when is the Kickstarter over?

The deadline is— eleven days left— May 24. If we don’t reach $60,000 by then we get nothing!
Okay! I will include the Kickstarter link.

Cool. Thank you very much!

Thank you. It’s really nice to meet you. I’m in Brooklyn a lot, but also, I’m gonna follow your career, and hopefully we can meet up sometime.

Great. All right, thank you!