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Trippy, Edgy and Reptilian: The Wonderful Melancholia of ‘Acid Rain’

Polish director Tomek Popakul’s Annie Award-nominated short film is a jagged, hypnotic Eastern European road trip viewed through a depressing but entrancing cartoon shaded daze. 

In Polish director Tomek Popakul’s gloomily riveting Annie Award-nominated short film, Acid Rain, a woman named Young, running away from her depressing, Eastern European town, finds herself hitch-hiking, with no specific destination, into a series of seemingly more and more dicey situations. Early enthusiasm about the adventure dissipates when she finds herself at the city outskirts in the middle of the night. That’s when she meets Skinny, a kind of unstable weirdo, who lives in a van that he uses for his job running not-so-legal errands. As they aimlessly travel and party together, a peculiar affection grows between them.

Acid Rain is an expression of my personal interest in rave culture,” the director says, “I like electronic music. I like going into the crowd, looking at people, their personalities, the way they dance, the way they dress. I like the feeling of a spontaneous, temporal community. But I didn’t just want to make a tribute; I also wanted to show the darker side.”

“I aimed to depict when you’re on the dance floor around 2:00 am and you feel like everyone is your brother and sister… and then at around 4:00 am when everybody turns into a reptile,” he adds.

Popakul set out to make a spiritual movie; one of the film’s working titles was Heaven and Hell, “where heaven and hell are not physical spaces, but states of the human mind and soul.” According to the director, the film mixes events from his own life as well as from the lives of friends and people he met online. “The film is a patchwork of my own experiences, the experiences of my friends, people from the past and people from the Internet,” he explains. “Free techno parties on former military compounds; Goa trance parties in forests; research about the acid house scene in the UK; stories heard from people that started the rave movement in Poland; and pure imagination. Some scenes are quite accurate reconstructions of memories or hallucinations. Of course, its mixed with much fantasy. I often say that the two main characters represent two sides of myself: one naive and positive, the other embittered and negative. I wanted to show the story from those two perspectives. And the soundtrack is made by artists that I respect very much: Escape From Warsaw, Chino, Ceephax, Reptant/Lou Karsh and Jerome Hill.”

The film has a unique, jagged CG look, with a rather flat, almost muted color scheme and striking line work, set against blocky character and set designs; emphasized colors, textures and elements within various scenes feel random yet important, eliciting a trippy, often uncomfortable feeling that perfectly matches the inherently risky behavior the story depicts. “I’m big fan of graphic design related to music and hippie-era posters,” Popakul shares. “I wanted the movie to feel a little ‘bleached,’ like unclear ghosts from the past… like a comic book found in the attic or a VHS watched too many times.”

One of the director’s biggest challenges was determining, and then taming, his color scheme. “I wanted the movie to be very colorful, to use all the colors of the rainbow,” he states. “But very quickly, the results appeared as an unwatchable mess in the frame. I started studying old printing techniques, like Japanese woodcuts, where the amount of color is limited by the technique. Then, I narrowed the number of colors and set some rules, like, ‘There is no red. What is usually red must be pink.’ In the final film, I used two palettes: Eastern European post-communist melancholia - pale sky, rotten gray concrete and brown rustiness - and early 90s fluorescence and UV rave colors.”

Acid Rain took three years to make: one year in pre-production, two in production, with a team of 15 people all told.  Popakul chose 3ds max and Cebas finalToon for animation as well as Adobe Premiere Pro and After Effects for editing and compositing. “A big part of my narrative storytelling involves elaborate camera movements, which is what I love about 3D,” he continues. “But I don’t like the smooth, shiny 3D animation look. So, my film is a compromise between 3D techniques and a 2D look. We used 3ds max and a cartoon renderer called Cebas finalToon that has many detailed options for customizing the way it turns 3D objects into contours. I used my expressive drawing style on paper for the character designs, then scanned and tried to recreate them with rigid 3D modelling. I like the naturality of mocap movements; mocap lets me connect with the story more like a live-action movie. I enjoyed working with actors and welcomed their own unexpected input of small gestures and ticks into the characters’ personalities.”

“Developing the technique to transfer expressive, hand-drawn shapes directly into a 3D camera took some time,” Popakul concedes. “And, working with motion capture was very problematic; we used a kind of beta-tested home motion capture system that experienced a lot of unexpected errors and glitches. Cleaning frames was taking ages, and there were not enough hands to do that work. In the end, we looked at the material again and felt that these crooked movements give a good, trippy feeling, a good depiction of what your body experiences in different states of consciousness.”

At 26 minutes, Acid Rain is a long short. “My stories always tend to lean towards longer structure,” the director describes. “I like to give characters more exposure and opportunity for people to spend some time with them.  Originally, the film was supposed to be 18 minutes long; it ended up at 26 minutes. Because the story is quite action-packed, with many characters and motifs, changing locations and a soundtrack with heavy, moving beats, it’s almost like a feature film squeezed into a short film format. I’m also putting a twist on the structure of popular film genres, like teen movies or road movies, adding some cracks and second bottom depth to it.”

But, ultimately, Popakul’s biggest challenge was finding, and sticking with, a compelling story. “My big challenge was to create a convincing story,” he concludes. “Toward the end of production, I felt that after almost three years, I was a different person than the one that wrote this script. So, we threw out around 1/3 of the scenes that were not working and created many new ones at the very end. I was struggling with a decision regarding who was my main character. We ended up with a ‘main’ character and ‘central’ character construction: tell the story of one character from the point of view of another. I think I found quite a good balance between the two of them, making judgement of the characters less easy for the viewer.”

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.