A still from In a Heartbeat.

Today, Beth David and Esteban Bravo work at Blue Sky Studios as an animator and a story artist, respectively. However, just a year ago, the two were completely engrossed in their Computer Animation Senior Thesis project at Ringling College. Their film, In A Heartbeat, follows the (literal!) heart of Sherwin, a shy middle-schooler with a crush on his classmate Jonathan and beautifully captures all of the nerves, anxieties, courage, and, ultimately, acceptance of coming out with his feelings. It was endearing, scary, heartbreaking, and then life-affirming. And it was just four minutes long.

Early in development, Beth and Esteban wanted to tell a love story, specifically, one about same-sex attraction, which is rarely seen in animation. “The theme of it being an LGBTQ story was important to us. And, when we started exploring the story from that perspective, it was something we could identify with and we hadn’t seen it elsewhere,” explains Beth. “Growing up, it was the kind of story we would have liked to see.”

According to the duo, the basic elements of In A Heartbeat were mapped out and didn’t change much since the project began in January 2016. Over a year and a half, they wrote the story, watched countless LGBTQ films, put together a playlist to work to, got critique and encouragement from classmates and faculty, and collaborated with professional composer Arturo Cardelús to create the music for the short—a sound that has become synonymous with the film itself.

On July 31, 2017, they released their film publicly. And the reaction was extraordinary. Within a week, In A Heartbeat had garnered 13 million views on YouTube. By the end of August, that number rose to over 30 million.

Fans across the globe shared the story, along with hundreds of pieces of fan art and thousands of messages of support, which caught the attention of traditional media outlets, including heavy hitters such as The New York Times, Huffington Post, The Advocate, and the Associated Press.

With respect to the reception of the film, both graduates were surprised. “We thought it might speak to some people—a small community—because when we first pitched it, we got positive feedback and realized we had a different kind of story here. But we definitely didn’t expect the reaction it received,” Esteban explains.

It’s clear the world had been waiting for such a story. It became clearer when Beth and Esteban won a gold Student Academy Award and were even shortlisted for a professional Oscar. “That was really, really exciting. Going to the Student Academy Awards was probably the coolest thing I have ever done. Being shortlisted for a professional Academy Award wasn’t even on my radar,” says Beth.

Esteban adds, “The experience was great. You go for a week, hang out with other filmmakers, and meet so many different and inspiring people.” That wasn’t the end of it—in December, TIME magazine named In A Heartbeat among the year’s most viral videos.

“As President, I could not be more proud of what Beth and Esteban have created. In A Heartbeat is such an incredible piece of art and storytelling that resonates with everyone who sees it. I believe it serves to unite people and gain understanding. Congratulations to you and thank you for being such stellar examples of the quality of Ringling College.”

So why did these four minutes resonate so powerfully?

According to Jim McCampbell, head of the Computer Animation department, “In A Heartbeat has incredibly appealing character design, highly-refined animation, beautiful lighting, and a poignant story.” Altogether, the resulting film was insightful and brilliant in its simplicity, and delivered the long-called-for representation for the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ culture no longer exists at the fringes of society, but the fight for acceptance and visibility in the mainstream media continues. Beth and Esteban understood this need and the important role that animation and the media have in shaping and furthering these values. “It’s insanely important that people see themselves—and people different from themselves—in the media. Especially for kids growing up. For those who don’t identify as LGBTQ, just to be exposed to it in a positive way is really important to building a path to learning, acceptance, and tolerance,” explains Beth.

Esteban suggests it is “because people are trying to find out who they are, and people who hadn’t previously seen themselves in the media or animation could now identify with a character on the screen. It wasn’t just a love story. It became a validation for people with feelings or crushes like this. It said, ‘It’s ok. It’s normal.’”

Worldwide support for In A Heartbeat has sustained—a phenomenon for viral content that tends to burn bright and then fade. Beth and Esteban still interact with fans and would like to one day bring the characters or the story back in another form.

Looking back on their time at Ringling College, the two fondly remember the freedom, support, and comradery involved with creating student films in the Computer Animation department. Esteban advises students to “find a message that’s important to you and take the special opportunity to make your own animated film as a student.” For Beth, “The key is finding work that is creatively fulfilling on its own. I try to think of why making art itself is important to me, and I work from there.” Finding the impetus, whether it’s a story that needs to be told or the self-fulfillment it delivers, is critical. Success rarely occurs overnight, but the right piece of art can touch lives around the globe in a heartbeat.

By Stephanie Lederer | Stills from the film, In A Heartbeat: Courtesy of Esteban and Beth
Stephanie Lederer is the Editor of CONTXT magazine and the Editorial & Public Relations Manager for Ringling College.