A self-proclaimed “partygoer” with sympathetic ties to Poland’s rave scene, Tomek Popakul crafted a visceral, hallucinatory portrait of a pivotal moment for Eastern Europe in his latest animated short, Acid Rain.
“The fall of Communism was at the same time when the rave scene exploded and came to Eastern Europe, in this wave of freedom, and colors, and very loud electric music,” Popakul explains. “Everything was very fresh, and nobody knew what it was yet; everything was much more DIY culture, based on a human network, than the scene is now, which is much more commercialized.”
Nominated for the Annie Award for Best Animated Short Subject, Acid Rain follows Young, a woman who connects with an unstable weirdo named Skinny, after running away from her depressing hometown. Joining Skinny in his van as he goes about criminal business proceedings, Young embarks on a trippy journey with no destination, experiencing the world through a trippy, new lens.
With his animated short, Popakul “wanted to depict this uneasy feeling that around two o’clock at the party, you feel like everyone is your brother and sister, and around four o’clock, everyone is turning into the worst kind of human being,” he says. At the same time, he says, he “didn’t want to portray this kind of scene or atmosphere in a negative or positive light, only.”
Colorful, loud and fast-paced, Acid Rain stood in contrast to the more contemplative black-and-white films Popakul had made in the past. Created with 3D tools, the short’s 2D aesthetic was inspired in part by the fluorescent, psychedelic paintings of Karol Suka, a pioneer in the Warsaw rave scene. For the director, other influences included Ivan Bilibin, a well-known illustrator of Russian fairy tales, as well as underground American comics and posters from the ’60s and ’70s. “I brought tons of [reference] photos of fashion from that era, surrounding this very specific kind of color palette,” Popakul adds. “Everything is a little bit rusty, rotten, and rather unpleasant.”
With Acid Rain, Popakul hoped to embrace lengthy tracking shots while capturing actors’ performances in the way one can with live-action. In part, it was mo-cap technology that allowed the director to realize his vision for the film. “The system of motion capture that we decided to use appeared to be very imperfect, and generated a lot of unexpected results and glitches in the data, but we decided at some point, ‘Actually, this looks nice,’” he recalls. “It fits this feeling of your body in this state of consciousness, when you feel that you have more limbs than you actually have, and your steps feel weird.”
For the director, the experience of bringing the film’s most immersive and trippy rave scene to life proved highly memorable. “My flatmate at the time was a choreographer,” Popakul notes. “We were going to parties together many times, and just picked out some people from the dance floor, and asked them to volunteer to provide motion-capture for that scene.”
Ultimately, the medium of animation proved the perfect fit for the story Popakul was telling, allowing him to tap into the interior experience of a person in an altered state of consciousness—a state that is difficult to describe in words. “I discovered at some point that you can apply these distortion modifiers to the camera, and you can actually distort the perspective, the way the camera sees the world. I was also bending the character models themselves, and twisting them like normal human bodies can’t,” the director shares. “Many, many crazy things are possible in animation.”
To complete Acid Rain, however, Popakul needed to gain access to music that would pair seamlessly with his visuals. “The first idea was that I would ask one person to produce original tracks for the whole soundtrack, but I was asking many people, and they are quite artistic, messy guys. They said, ‘Oh, I can’t do any commissioned work for you. You can just browse my catalogue and choose whatever you want,’” he recalls. “At the end, I gathered five very good artists—some from the ’90s, some from the current Polish scene, this one young guy from Australia who does tracks in this retro, classic sound. I’m very satisfied with the music, and very thankful that these artists agreed to participate.”