A short film about a middle schooler whose heart literally leaps from his chest over a crush on another boy captivated the world last week, racking up more than 10 million views on YouTube in less than 72 hours. It’s been a wild few days for filmmakers Beth David and Esteban Bravo, who brought the idea from pitch to viral sensation over a span of 18 months. Both believe this sudden success stems from the personal significance of the story to each of the out creators’ lives.
In a Heartbeat resulted from the collaboration of two Catholic school graduates, one a lesbian from Ohio and the other a gay man from Mexico City, who ended up studying at the same Florida digital animation program. “It’s the kind of story we wish we had seen growing up,” says David. “A lot of the underlying feelings of fear and guilt that our main character goes through, it’s a very personal story.”
It’s also a significant amount of ground to cover over four minutes of cartoon video, but rave reviews from around the globe show David and Bravo managed to convey the complex sentiments into a condensed number of frames. Since being posted, as of this writing, the video has had more than 21 million plays. The filmmakers talked to The Advocate about the process of making the micro-masterpiece.
The seed of an idea came in 2015 as the filmmakers prepared thesis pitches while studying digital animation at the Ringling College of Art & Design. The two at that point were still working with another student, Hannah Lee, who came up with idea of a young boy with a crush whose heart literally leaps out of his chest. The filmmaking team presented a pitch, initially involving the boy chasing after a girl he liked, but advisers rejected the concept. Lee set out on her own with a different concept (which turned out fine, by the way) but David and Bravo still saw potential in the uncontrollable heart.
The two suddenly found a new direction to the story with a simple tweak. What if the main character pined for the most popular kid in school — another boy. Suddenly, protagonist Sherwin would feel a yearning he didn’t understand for handsome Jonathan, a boy who offered no promise of reciprocation. This time, the pitch got a green light from advisers.
This angle made the story much more personal to the filmmakers, who mined their own feelings and personal experiences to flesh out Sherwin’s character. “We would open up to each other and talk about what it was like to be gay,” Bravo recalls. “There wasn’t any situation for me, thank God, where I would be exposed before I was able to accept being gay even to myself, which is what the main character faces, but I know the terror I would have felt.”
The filmmakers sketched the characters, establishing ages of 13 and 14 for Sherwin and Jonathan, a time in life when crushes grow the most intense, David says. The two would wear uniforms reminiscent of those that filled the classrooms at the Catholic schools Bravo and David attended in their youth. The filmmakers traveled to Mother of Mercy High School in Cincinnati, which David attended, taking pictures to reference while developing the setting. “The front entryway in the film is more or less the front entryway of my high school,” David says.
Bravo says for the school building, the Gothic structure needed to appear especially classic and daunting. “We wanted to school to feel like it came from an older era, to represent a past thinking,” he says. This wouldn’t be a welcoming environment for a gay kid. Bravo didn’t want the film to read like a condemnation of private Catholic schools and never recalled outright homophobia taught in the classroom when he grew up. Rather, he recalls homosexuality being so taboo no one discussed it at all. In a film with no dialogue, the regressive atmosphere would inform Sherwin’s confusion.
With characters and a setting in place, the pair storyboarded the project, earning periodic approval from faculty advisers. They developed beat boards to show the major emotional points of the film. The two completed a rough animatic in May 2016 that first brought the characters into motion.
By the time the film needed a score, David and Bravo knew they had something special on their hands. While Ringling undergrads often work with a group of available composers used to collaborating with student filmmakers, Bravo and David elected to hire a veteran with experience on much larger projects. The two became enamored of the music of Arturo Cardelús, who scored the Netflix series Call Me Francis. David says she contacted the composer in Los Angeles and sent the animatic. “We didn’t think we’d get a hold of him,” David recalls. “No one at Ringling had approached him before, but we got in touch with him and he was excited about the film.” He agreed to take the job.
David and Bravo set up a Kickstarter page to raise the money to hire the composer and a sound designer. If they met a $3,000 goal, they could cover the $2,200 fee for Cardelús with another $800 to pay for a sound designer. In a video for the crowdsourcing effort, they announced a lofty stretch goal of $5,000, which would cover the cost of a live studio ensemble. In less than 30 days, the campaign raised $14,191.
With Cardelús officially hired around December, the two students devoted virtually every waking hour to completing In a Heartbeat, now conscious that at least 104 Kickstarter backers anticipated the final product. The filmmakers and composer sent notes and video back and forth. Bravo says the short doubled in length as it evolved from animatic to fully formed film. “We needed more character moments to humanize the characters,” he says. “We need to give as much time as the film needed to breathe in the right moments.”
Bravo won’t even guess the number of manhours that went into the film, which clocks in at four minutes and five seconds with credits. Ultimately, the students submitted the final film for approval in April. Faculty accepted the thesis, and the film was included in a Best of Ringling showcase for 2017.
David and Bravo graduated from the school in May and now live on opposite coasts. David took a job in Los Angeles at JibJab Bros. Studios, where she works on the children’s show Ask the Storybots. Bravo isn’t sure what his own future holds. As an international worker, he still needs to figure out his visa situation before plotting his future in the United States.
But both filmmakers say In a Heartbeat won’t be their last collaboration. “We enjoyed working on this project and would like to take things further,” David says. And Bravo jokes that surviving the intense filmmaking processes validates their creative synergy. “We lived in the same apartment, went to eat at the same places, worked together on something for a year and a half,” he says, “and we didn’t want to kill each other.”
For a moment right now, they relish the attention heaped on In a Heartbeat. “The two of us do think one of the reasons why a lot of people in the LGBT community are responding and connecting to it is because of our perspective, and that we really draw from a personal place and portray it in a genuine way,” David says.
Bravo relishes that the film has found an audience among gay and straight viewers alike. “For those LGBT people who see it, we just want them to know they are not alone,” Bravo says, “and that other people feel the same way, and we just want people to love themselves for who they are. For people who are not LGBT, hopefully it will help them understand a little better that just as you don’t have control over who you have a crush on, that’s exactly the way somebody else who is LGBT would feel.”