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UCLA grad student’s feline short film wins first place

Simon Savelyev’s grand prize-winning film at the Fresh Step Catdance Film Festival, “Ricky,” follows the friendship between his large dog, Romy, and newly adopted kitten, Ricky. He plans to donate a portion of his $50,000 winnings to animal shelters like the one Ricky came from.

(Joseph Chan/Daily Bruin)

By Amy Char

April 17, 2014 12:00 a.m.

The main character in Simon Savelyev’s short film won the heart of his co-star – and later the hearts of America – with a meow.

Savelyev, a graduate student in the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, won first prize in the Fresh Step Catdance Film Festival, a contest for cat-inspired films. “Ricky” documents the unlikely and slow-to-start relationship between a recently adopted, flea-infested cat and Romy the dog. Savelyev plans to donate a portion of his $50,000 winnings to two animal shelters and his neighbors’ college funds.

Five individuals on the Feline Arts Council, comprised of members ranging from an American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals employee to a Fresh Step brand manager, selected five cat-inspired films as finalists. Viewers in the United States subsequently voted for their favorite film.

Savelyev knew about the festival while he was filming, but his primary goal was to capture memories of his newly adopted kitten.

“A new kitten’s discoveries (that) they make only happen once,” Savelyev said.

Savelyev said he thought of Ricky as a friend for Romy, who is terrified of other dogs. Savelyev’s original idea was to capture the immediate bond that formed between Ricky and Romy, but he quickly realized Romy is camera shy. She became very uncomfortable when she noticed the camera was on, so the film initially portrays Romy as distant from Ricky.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Savelyev said. “It starts with Ricky in a cage, and you hope he finds a home, but that’s the start of his problems. You think it’ll be easy, but he has some work to do to win Romy’s love.”


However, in reality, Savelyev said it was love at first sight for his two pets when he brought 8-week-old Ricky home from the shelter last June.


“As soon as Romy saw Ricky, she got low to the ground, started wagging her tail and inched up to him,” Savelyev said. “He was filthy – he was covered with dead fleas and smelled bad. She licked him clean.”

One distinguishing characteristic of “Ricky” is its simple approach to storytelling. Savelyev combines a faux-documentary filming technique with an almost entirely unscripted voiceover recorded by Savelyev’s then-7-year-old neighbor, Willa Ross. Her younger sister, Annie, recorded the voiceover for the alternate version of the film.

Savelyev chose to primarily film from low-to-the-ground camera angles to help the viewer imagine the scene from the the pets’ points of view.

Savelyev said he walked around his apartment with his camera around his neck for two weeks last summer. Twelve hours of footage were filmed with a simple cinematic approach.


“I’m trying to tell a story from the heart, with no embellishment or anything extravagant with the camera,” Savelyev said.

Steven Huffaker, also a graduate student in the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, who has worked with Savelyev on past projects, said he thinks Savelyev’s creativity allows him to use his constraints to his advantage.

“He doesn’t require expensive equipment or fancy cinematography,” Huffaker said.

Savelyev said Willa Ross’ voiceover and fresh perspective on the world, similar to a newborn kitten’s, complement the visuals well.


“She has sniffles and a cough,” Savelyev said. “It seems appropriate because Ricky was flea-infested. Technically, it’s an imperfection that you might want to clean up in the voiceover track, but it’s endearing.”

The day before the film was due, Savelyev asked Ross to watch a cut of the project and simply narrate what was happening. He only asked her to read one line he had written, the final line: “I knew things would be different from then on, and they were.” Aside from that line, Savelyev said Ross brought more honesty and a perspective that he couldn’t have come up with on his own.

“If I had gotten Morgan Freeman to narrate, it would’ve been clever, but it wouldn’t have the power that it does now,” Savelyev said.

Shekinah Eliassen, the current Fresh Step brand manager, said the council looked for films inspired by the smart and quirky natures of cats. Eliassen was not involved in the voting process.


“‘Ricky’ shows the lovable, endearing and quirky characteristics (of a) cat … and the relationship between a cat and another animal, and showcases that shelter pets – specifically in this case, cats – are lovable and adoptable and deserve a home,” Eliassen said.

Savelyev volunteers at No-Kill Los Angeles, an organization that aims to end the killing of healthy and treatable pets in L.A. shelters by 2017. He said he has heard shelter kittens are euthanized more than any other animals because there are so many of them.

In particular, he said Los Angeles has a huge homeless pet problem. Savelyev said he thinks people often have the idea that adopting a shelter animal may be equivalent to adopting a problem pet. Both Romy and Ricky were adopted from a shelter.


“They’re not at all wild,” Savelyev said. “They’re ready for a home. It’s heartbreaking that they really just want a companion.”

While Savelyev said many filmmakers usually think of animals and children as the most difficult to work with as it is hard for them to follow instructions, animals and a child were both heavily involved in the production of “Ricky.” Their roles, in fact, make the film distinctive from a standard, planned production.

“I truly can’t take credit for anything that happened,” Savelyev said. “I didn’t plan any of it. It was only in retrospect and in editing that I could see a story taking shape. I get it’s not always a rule that kids and animals have to be difficult to work with. Maybe it’s the directors.”

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Amy Char
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