Combining digital animation with traditional ink-on-film techniques, Dan Castro’s impressive Royal College of Art short, Herman Brown is Feeling Down, is a film about life, anxiety, and learning to accept both. Tackling some serious themes with a fun aesthetic and tone, Castro’s film may have a retro feel but its narrative and approach means it’s a modern fable that feels both accessible and relatable.
As someone who struggled with anxiety for periods of my “adult” life, the one thing that really impressed me about Castro’s film is how perfectly it portrays the overbearing unease that comes with this feeling. Represented as sudden bursts of colour and noise, these attacks of agitation on the titular Herman Brown really help you understanding how suffocating the experience can be.
“For quite a confident person, I’m also quite anxious”, Castro explains when discussing the inspiration behind his short. “Often something relatively small and unimportant can cause me to lose weeks of sleep, and work myself up into a right state. I wanted to take the feelings of anxiety I was having and try and deal with them in a bright and colourful way, a way that kind of embraced them for what they are, and what they really felt like to me.”
Visually, Herman Brown is Feeling Down reminded me of some of the childhood animations I grew up watching on the BBC and Castro admits children’s TV from the 70s and 80s was a large inspiration on his film. As was work from the 50s and 60s – UPA shorts, Ernest Pintoff-era stuff. Attracted to this style because of its “charm and personality”, the director admits he found the idea of “trying to deal with grownup problems through work that looks like it’s made for kids, even if it isn’t” appealing.
Created at the Royal College of Art, an establishment where it feels like experimentation is always championed, Castro adopted quite an organic approach when it came to creating and structuring his short. “I wanted to experiment a lot with the project”, he reveals “so whilst I had a storyboard at the beginning, I began to work very instinctively scene-by-scene, almost making it up as I went”.
“As the film was animated primarily in After Effects in a sort of unrigged, cut-up style, it meant I could work very quickly and test things out and see how I felt about them. But this process took a long time to develop a structure, and when I was stressing out about it I decided to blow off some steam and try something new, experimenting with traditional 35mm scratch animation – painting inks directly onto 35mm film, using bleach to remove the chemicals on it, all sorts.
“This required very little planning – I allowed myself to just roll with it and see what happened. That’s how the stress-jazzy bits were made – it was actually the most relaxing and fun part of the process! Scanning these film strips in at very high resolution was also where the textures for the world came from – I loved them so much, I didn’t want to hide them by putting them over a coloured background, so I left them on harsh white. Like paper! Or a Lightbox to look at film slides on”.
I first stumbled upon Dan’s work about four years ago, when his film Things I Should Stop Thinking About Thinking, a film about boobs, sex and boys being happy – or not, really spoke to me. Since joining the RCA it feels like his work has really flourished and his first year film for the MA Animation course Big Finds A Trumpet feels like it played an important role in shaping his most recent short.
Now taking a short break, before going back to work on “some interactive fun stuff” and the project (a film about old people in hospital) that stressed him out and caused him to make Herman Brown is Feeling Down, Dan has also been sharing some valuable insight into his process recently. Publishing articles entitled ‘Thinking of doing a creative MA?’ and ‘Thinking of putting your short film online?’ on Medium, they’re well worth 10-minutes of your time if those are questions you’ve been asking yourself.