The Latino Animator Who’s Captivated Charlie Kaufman and Dua Lipa—and Pissed Off One Direction Fans
Simón Wilches-Castro has animated sequences for Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” Dua Lipa, and “Euphoria.” He opens up to Carlos Aguilar about his hot streak.
A long-standing obsession with clowns has led Simón Wilches-Castro, a Colombian animator working on special projects at L.A.-based animation studio Titmouse, to some of the most rewarding credits in his rapidly-rising career, including Charlie Kaufman’s new critically acclaimed, narratively abstract Netflix film I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
“Everybody is interested in scary clowns, but I think there’s a side to them that’s a little bit more tragic than scary because they have to pretend to be somebody that is happy all the time, when life is not always happy,” Wilches-Castro told The Daily Beast.
Raised in the rural town of Popayán until violence pushed his family to move to the capital, Wilches-Castro studied visual arts in the early aughts and later taught himself Flash animation. Resourceful and politically minded, the artist found success at home with a self-produced, satirical animated web series titled The Little Tyrant (“El pequeño tirano”), which eventually earned him a scholarship in the United States to formally learn the craft.
It was only once in Los Angeles that making a living in animation began to seem feasible. In 2013, his student short Semáforo (Stoplight), a visual allegory inspirited by the war-induced displacement of people from the Colombian countryside to begging for money in the cities, received a slew of awards and became a door-opener into the industry. Aside from being his most personal work to date, the short also, inevitably, featured clowns.
For Kaufman’s movie adaption of Iain Reid’s novel, Wilches-Castro created the fictional commercial seen in the final act as an older man remembers it, presumably from his youth. In the brief, black-and-white animated sequence a clown queen sings a jingle about Tulsey Town, where ice cream grows on trees, while a group children dance around her. Harmless on its own, the retro creation rings eerie in the larger context of the psychological drama.
His previous work for Starburns Industries—the studio behind Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa—on the HBO’s children’s show The Emperor’s Newest Clothes put him on producer Rosa Tran’s radar when I’m Thinking of Ending Things was taking shape. Plus, since clowns were involved, he was a prime candidate to take it on.
As an animation artist, Wilches-Castro is unaccustomed to dealing directly with the directors of the projects for which he lends his talents. Feedback and specifications often come down the chain of command, but in this case, when he thought he was only meeting producers, Kaufman himself was also present to explain first-hand what he was after.
“I was expecting this huge personality and to be directed to the minutia, but the nicest thing was that he was very supportive of the auteur approach,” said the animator. “He had very clear ideas, but he stopped where I began.” Kaufman didn’t micromanage the animation process, allowing Wilches-Castro to interpret the task with great creative freedom even if his grasp of the mind-bending project in full was limited.
“I was very confused about the overall film, but what I wasn’t confused about was the look he wanted and the feeling he wanted to evoke in this piece,” he explained. Kaufman requested the animated sequence call to mind the weird innocence of hand-drawn cartoons from the 1930s and ‘40s, with the main reference being an old Dairy Queen ad. “I spent months watching Disney’s Silly Symphonies, especially The Goddess of Spring and The Cookie Carnival shorts, as well as other early cartoons like Betty Boop trying to figure how I could make this digitally.”
Wilches-Castro’s Tulsey Town sequence was entirely drawn in Photoshop and then painted frame by frame with a digital oil-texture brush to resemble watercolors on paper. Although there was a back and forth regarding the depiction of the main clown character, the process was surprisingly collaborative. “It was a dialogue between what I can do and what Charlie wanted,” added the artist.
Alternative versions of the scene were created, but Wilches-Castro admits they were probably too disturbing—with some showing melting ice cream appearing in the shape of a skull—and decided to pull back. Those takes were too obvious in their depictions for the mysterious tone Kaufman had cultivated throughout the film. The final result was a mash-up between the adorable look of bygone Disney and the subtle uneasiness of Max Fleischer’s shorts to reflect the underlying darkness of Americana.
Last year, Wilches-Castro was assigned to direct and animate a very special sequence for the HBO series Euphoria that would soon prove controversial. “The prompt was to create an anime fan fiction, like Sailor Moon, about two members of One Direction who ascend into the sky and become a constellation while pleasuring each other,” he explained.
Inspired by popular, online smut fiction based on the Larry Stylinson conspiracy theory (which turns the fraternal bond between Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson into a romantic relationship), the animated sequence appeared in episode of three of the sexually-explicit show. In addition to taking cues from 1980s anime like Saint Seiya, Daft Punk music videos, and the French short film High Summer (Plein été), Wilches-Castro enlisted the help of young Latinx artist and self-proclaimed “Directioner” Martin Lopez, who had experience rendering the faces of the famed singers in manga style.
Since its polemical release, the raunchily whimsical scene has become a great conversation piece for the animator, as one of the most pop culture-centered works he’s ever developed and executed. Luckily, because his name is not visibly attached to it on screen, he was safe from the hateful messages HBO received in the aftermath from upset fans.
“It was funny to witness as an outsider to the fandom,” he noted. “There were people that were outraged by it like, ‘How dare you defile these beautiful creatures?’ And then others were very self-reflective and said, ‘Guys, we are being hypocritical because we did this before in writing on Tumblr and now we are complaining that somebody is doing it in animation,’ while other people were just happy that their obsessions were now mainstream.”
Earlier this year, at the beginning of the COVID-19-related quarantine and some time after he’d finished work on I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Wilches-Castro also served as animation director for the music video to British star Dua Lipa’s hit single “Hallucinate.”
Working from ideas and storyboards by creative director Lisha Tan at The Mill, a London-based studio, he conducted a group of animators working around the world. To Wilches-Castro’s delight, the concept for the psychedelic video featured clowns and mandala designs, another of his aesthetic passions. Coincidentally, “Hallucinate” also used classic cartoons as stylistic references. But unlike his experience with Kaufman, where he was the main artistic voice, here his role was of a more managerial nature.
Over the last few months, the pandemic has turned animation into a precious commodity in Hollywood, as studios and networks seek to release content without physically shooting anything. Though he is thankful to be consistently employed, this increase in demand has prevented Wilches-Castro from finding time to concentrate on more personal projects. After six years establishing himself as a professional in the animation industry, he wants to shift focus to stories about Latin America, and Colombia specifically, even if these are not as commercially appealing on paper.
His current slate of ventures range from a new short centered on, you guessed it, clowns, to a moving animated feature set in his hometown, and a TV series about an Amazonian reptile abandoned on the Mexico/U.S. border who befriends a donkey—a concept he describes as SpongeBob SquarePants meets Breaking Bad. Wilches-Castro also recently wrote a talk on the sociopolitical history of Latin American animation, which he’s presented at multiple universities and animation organizations. “I talk about how trauma influences the way people create art and how that is expressed in animation,” he added.
As an immigrant, he believes the hunger to pursue his dreams with whatever was available in the early days on his journey prepared him to face most hurdles. At first, he was putting in extra time and effort to justify his existence within the competitive field, but now he looks at every opportunity as a step toward getting a little bit more control over the next thing he does.
“I hope the recognition that may come from doing this thing for Charlie [Kaufman] and doing the thing for Dua Lipa, and all this accumulation of projects I’ve done, will lead me to something where I can again say this is something that actually came out of my own brain,” said Wilches-Castro—with measured optimism.