It’s hard to forget your first childhood crush – and the anxiety that accompanied it. That heart-pounding, sweaty-palmed infatuation is nothing new in children’s animation, but two students decided to tell the tale in a different way, creating an animated short film that is drawing the interest of big production studios.
Here, the enamoured characters are both middle-school boys. And their dove-like innocence is charming a huge audience on YouTube. Posted on Monday, the four-minute film, In a Heartbeat, has already been viewed more than 15 million times.
Celebrities have taken note. Ashton Kutcher posted an article about it on Facebook. “This speaks for itself, even without dialogue,” he wrote.
J.A. Bayona, the director of A Monster Calls and the coming movie Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom tweeted, “Is this the best animation (short) film of the year?”
Not bad for a first project.
The filmmakers, Beth David, 22, and Esteban Bravo, 24, made the short for their senior thesis while at America's Ringling College of Art and Design, where they recently graduated, in Sarasota, Florida.
It was a labour of love that took about 18 months, a Kickstarter campaign and a journey to Los Angeles, where they did a live recording of the score. They knew people were captivated by the film’s concept when donations surpassed their $3,000 goal, eventually reaching $14,000 (£11,000). (The money was used, in part, to hire composer Arturo Cardelús, whose soundtrack for the film is now on Spotify.)
Even so, they couldn’t have predicted this.
“It’s mind-blowing to me,” David says, adding that people want to see gay-themed stories “in a positive light.”
Bravo, who is from Mexico City, was similarly stunned by the response. “It’s really surreal,” he says, adding later, “I hope I give a good name to people from my country.”
The two have signed with Verve Talent and Literary Agency, which is in talks with Blue Sky Studios, Illumination Entertainment and Disney; they’ve been accepted to multiple festivals and are semifinalists for a student Academy Award.
Their animation tells the story of Sherwin, a redhead who has a crush on Jonathan, described on the film’s Tumblr page as “the most popular boy in school.” Sherwin is afraid to show his emotions, but no matter – his heart volunteers for the mission, literally jumping out of his chest and bounding toward the boy who caught his eye. The heart wants what the heart wants.
It’s a tale that is very personal to viewers, who have responded en masse, and to the filmmakers, too. Bravo is gay, and David – while she doesn’t necessarily like to label herself – says she considers herself “a member of the gay community.”
Sean McLaughlin, one of the instructors at Ringling who helped guide Bravo and David during the production of their film, said he saw the short in preliminary form during the 2015-16 school year.
“Even back then I knew it was going to be something special,” he says. “If an audience doesn’t connect with a film and its characters on a basic story level, it fails,” but this film, he said, “resonates a truth.”
Dr. Sean Griffin, a professor at the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University, says he believes it can be especially meaningful to adolescents who are figuring out their sexuality. “It turns a situation that is often fraught with extreme emotions – excitement, anxiety, fear, and potentially shame and embarrassment – into one that is ‘cartoony’ by literalising the runaway heart, thus making it a bit more amusing,” he says.
This certainly isn’t the first children’s story to include gay and lesbian characters. There’s Ruby and Sapphire on Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe, for example, and LeFou in Disney’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast.
Nick Davis, an associate professor of English at Northwestern University who has written about sexuality and gender in film, says it is gratifying to see such a variety.
“I do some programming for the LGBT film festival in Chicago, and we’re increasingly struck by how the short films submitted are animated, and sci-fi, and fantasy, and horror,” he says. “And it almost seems like there’s no genre where they don’t show up anymore.”
The release of In a Heartbeat might seem particularly timely given recent headlines. President Donald Trump has announced a ban on transgender people serving in the military, and his Justice Department has asserted that civil rights law doesn’t protect gay employees from discrimination. But the filmmakers say that their intent was not political when they posted their short online at the end of July.
“If anything we’re just glad that we’re getting to release it right now because I feel, and we both said, it’ll help change some people’s perspectives around the amount of controversy and hatred that’s been going around lately,” Bravo says. “We just hope that this helps to change, or begin changing, what people think about people in this community and try to understand them better.”
Perhaps one secret to the charm of In a Heartbeat is its simplicity: The story is told without words, just music and animation.
“I think audiences do like discovering something that’s not built to bowl you over, but just kind of unexpectedly does,” Davis says.
© The New York Times
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