Tomek Popakul’s animated short Acid Rain has been storming the festival circuit, turning heads with its noisy animation style, spot-on observations and powerful use of an original (and pretty eerie) score. In many ways it’s a classic coming of age film, but in many ways it’s really not. We meet our protagonist as she’s running away from home and takes a shine to a bad boy – a guy with cool trainers and a sleazy pencil moustache who she finds playing chicken on some railings above a motorway. An innocuous-seeming visit to his granny’s house turns out to be a magic mushroom picking session, and in no time at all, he’s given her an undercut, they’re breaking into abandoned houses to set stuff on fire, smuggling drugs across borders in his rave-mobile, and heading to free parties in the woods complete with some proper rave goblins and a lot of psychedelic puke. It’s all whirlwind, heat and flash and (avoiding spoilers) things do not end well.
Based in Poland, Tomek is big into his music and started making the film to explore this passion while experimenting with colour. “My two previous films were black and white and rather grim, so I decided to do something that expresses my love for vivid colour despite some people’s impressions,” Tomek tells It’s Nice That. The grungy purple and green palette breaks for psychedelic moments where ordinary things like the window wipers of the van or the pouring rain become shards of light and rainbows. “Very fast I realised that managing so many colours in a frame is very tricky so it took some time to compose the right palette,” says Tomek. “The palette is a mix of Eastern European landscape melancholy plus the UV and new age colours of early raves from the 90s and maybe more contemporary Goa trance parties too.” Tomek’s love for dance music provided ideal source material to transform this colour palette into an exciting exploration of movement. “I’m not a sport person, and dancing is actually the only movement I enjoy. I like to mix into the crowd and watch various personalities, watching the way people dance as well as their fashion.”
Acid Rain’s animation style was inspired by artists Seiichi Hayashi, Yokoo Tadanori and old Ukiyo-e Japanese woodcuts, but with a great deal of noise on the colours that gives the impression of TV static. “There’s a term in Polish ‘duchologia’ (close to the English ‘hauntology’) which is about feeling nostalgia for times that you actually didn’t experience, but they are like ghosts from the past appearing in your life somehow,” explains Tomek. “The noise effect makes the film look ‘retro’ although it’s very hard to pinpoint what specific past technique or material it’s trying to mimic. It’s not VHS, not polaroid. It’s made in 3D and rendered in HD, so technically it’s contemporary but I wanted it to look like some bleached out illustrated book, or a comic found in the attic.”
In terms of narrative, Tomek is often inspired by “cosy” character set-ups in limited spaces, with a special relish for teen movies. “I wanted two characters that are meeting each other in a moment in life where they are both very lonely,” he says. “They are both very different but need each other in some imprecise way.” Building up a Bonnie and Clyde or Heathers-style vibe, Tomek started researching different morality set-ups. “I was astonished that in many Christian depictions of heaven and hell, hell looked much more ‘fun’ and interesting,” says Tomek. “At some point I was also inspired by biblical concept of ‘forbidden fruit’ – the promise it gives, but also consequences it brings. Was it worth it? Maybe yes, maybe no, everything is experience. I started reading some really weird stuff, for example books by polish painter Waldemar Borowski that claims that the body of a Christ is actually amanita muscaria mushroom.”
These psychedelic references are perhaps most obvious in the film’s free party scene – a masterful study in the atmosphere and character that captures how fun and awful raves can be, warts and all. There, our protagonist finds a gang of drug-addled crusties, some sporting gas masks, others clad in onesies. It’s about as unglamorous as you can imagine and so well observed. These scenes, Tomek tells us, were inspired by his own experiences of Poland’s ‘freetekno’ raves where kids would party in abandoned military compounds, break bones from falling from bunkers, but return to the party the next day fresh from hospital. “I like the feeling of ‘Where the hell am I? Who are these people?’,” says Tomek. “I like the community and the connection with the crowd, but there is also alienation and disconnection. At some point, you feel like family and then two hours later you’re surrounded by reptile-people.” An experience many clubbers will recognise.
For these sections of the film, Tomek interviewed members of various techno collectives as well as Karol Suka, a punk, musician and painter who was involved in starting Warsaw’s rave scene in the early 1990s, nailing the atmosphere and building up detail. A stickler for accuracy, Tomek also decided to use motion capture for the dance scenes, working with choreographer Mary Szydłowska who assembled a squad of dancers who sweated it out in motion capture costumes for two hours while a DJ played a live set. “I’m a big fan of motion capture and working with actors, which is rare in animation,” say Tomek. “I couldn’t come up with such moves by animating them by hand.” He also roped in some big names for the film’s soundtrack, including UK acid house veteran Jerome Hill, Ceephax and Polish producer Chino. Alongside Michał Fojcik’s intense sound design, it makes for heady watching. Nuanced and tender, Acid Rain is a spot-on portrayal of young love gone rotten. Just don’t expect to want to go out dancing afterwards.