It’s not every day that a wordless, four-minute animated short about two young boys falling in love goes viral. But back in July, when recent college graduates Esteban Bravo and Beth David posted their senior thesis film on YouTube, that’s exactly what happened.
The short, called In a Heartbeat, is a simple yet enduring story, a heartwarming fable of young love and all the irrepressible butterflies that come with it. It also just happens to be about two boys, which despite the ascent of LGBT characters in film and television is still rarefied in animated or children’s cinema.
Although Pixar hasn’t yet shown a gay character in a feature film, there’s evidence of progress – albeit very slow progress – in this year’s Beauty and the Beast reboot. The film has what director Bill Condon hyped up as a “nice, exclusively gay moment”: Josh Gad’s character, LeFou, shares a few-second dance with another man – which, for the optimist anticipating great strides from Disney, was a pretty insufficient form of progress. In a Heartbeat, though, unmoored from the prudence of Hollywood studios, is far more explicit.
In just about as long as it takes to microwave a cup of ramen noodles, Bravo and David’s film tells the sweet, intimate story of a boy named Sherwin, who has a crush on his classmate, Jonathan. His heart is, literally, jumping out of his chest when the object of his affection walks by, spinning an apple on his fingertips like a basketball, so Sherwin dashes behind a tree to try to contain it. Of course, Sherwin’s reluctance is about so much more than being nervous to profess young love; he’s also, as the film’s description says it, “at risk of being outed by his own heart”.
When Bravo and David, both computer animation majors at Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida, started work on the film in January 2016, it wasn’t a gay romance. “A friend of ours was pitching ideas to us for potential projects,” David, 21, told me over the phone. “It was her idea to show a person with their heart popping out of their chest, chasing down a crush. But initially it was about a boy and a girl. It wasn’t until Esteban and I decided to switch it to a same-sex crush that the film started to feel like a personal story that we were invested in. It was the kind of story we wish we had seen as kids."Bravo, who’s 24 and now an animation intern at Blue Sky Studios (the company behind the Ice Age franchise), added: “It still makes sense when it’s a boy and a girl because that doesn’t mean someone wouldn’t be afraid to disclose their feelings. But when it’s put in the context of LGBT characters, there were so many more layers to explore, and we could infuse the story with our own backgrounds.”
The two announced a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the project last November, more than quadrupling their initial goal of $3,000 by raising over $14,000.
Now, it’s already amassed over 30m views on YouTube. The two young film-makers, who grew up on the animated movies of Brad Bird, along with other turn-of-the-century classics like Finding Nemo, A Bug’s Life and Cat’s Don’t Dance, have been overwhelmed by the rapturous reception.
“It’s been insane!” Bravo said. “For two people making our first film, Beth and I are really excited that people have so deeply responded to it emotionally.” The pair have been equally taken aback by the messages, both curious and congratulatory, they’ve had to field.
“We’ve been answering emails and messages and phone calls both from people we’ve never met and also our friends and family,” said David, somewhat dumbfounded that an independently made short, conceived of at the small Sarasota college where they cut their film-making teeth, has found such an audience. “And big-name people are contacting us! That’s so crazy.”
As for why the internet has lifted In a Heartbeat to viral status, the two surmise it has something to do with the dearth of same-sex love stories in animated films.
“From a business standpoint, it makes sense why studios are afraid to portray LGBT characters, just because there’s still part of the population that’s not accepting,” Bravo said. “But as leaders of children’s content, it’s really important for them to represent these people because not showing LGBT characters leads to a lot of internalized confusion as kids grow up.”
“We do want our films to be universal, but we know that because it’s animation it’s assumed that it’s for children. And we want that to be OK,” David said.
While developing the film in their senior year, Bravo and David had the luxury of total creative autonomy, from the characters’ furrowed brows to the lovely score, by Spanish composer Arturo Cardelús, that accompanies the film. They had a vague idea, when anticipation for the short grew after they released a teaser, that it might attract a considerable following on the web; but they weren’t expecting this much viewership, and they certainly couldn’t have imagined that, just three days after it was uploaded to YouTube, there’d be Heartbeat fan-fiction and memorabilia with their characters’ faces on it.
“There was a part of us that was aware this could potentially be a baby-step towards normalizing LGBT romance and, hopefully, toward larger productions and studios doing something like this,” David, who currently works at LA-based digital entertainment studio JibJab, said. “I do think this kind of entertainment is wanted on a pretty broad scale.”
The two have entertained the idea of expanding In a Heartbeat into a series of shorts or a longer feature. But right now, they’re simply enjoying what a meteoric success the passion project has become.
“We’ve had people reach out and ask in vague ways if they could talk to us about our futures,” David said. “But as of now, we don’t know what any of it means.”
Article originally published on The Guardian