Alumni Spotlight: Jay Castro, dir. ‘Steadfast’

 Today our Alumni Spotlight falls on Jay Castro, a 2014 graduate of Emily Carr.’s animation program. He is currently employed at Atomic Cartoons and continues to impress. His graduation film was ‘Steadfast’.

Steadfast from Jay Castro on Vimeo.

What was your inspiration and influence in terms of story in your short film “Steadfast”?
     I began in 3rd year knowing that I wanted to draw from my experiences with depression. I needed to describe it – to somehow capture an aspect of it. There was nothing more important to me at the time. I watched a video called, ‘To This Day’, produced by Giant Ant, that talked about being bullied. The pain that I felt it was drawing from resonated with me because depression can feel like being a bully to yourself. I thought that making media about this would be so worthwhile for me.
   The first symbol that came to me was the tornado. Whether it’s the hurricanes in the interior or the eastern coast of our continent or the many typhoons out in the Philippines – this idea of a natural danger mixed with impending death appealed to me. It’s what I was after.  From there I worked through scenarios that justified having a tornado, and thus a farmer and his story began to develop. A huge influence from there was the people around me that I talked to.
     I spent endless hours talking to people mainly about 2 topics. One of them was experiences with the farming lifestyle. My girlfriend is from the prairies and has stories of farmers she knew of and tornados/storms she’s experienced. Then my dad told me his stories of what it was like to grow up on a rice farm in the Philippines (yes, I’m so Filipino that I actually come from a line of rice farmers). The second topic was people’s experiences with depression. There turned out to be many people close to me that I hadn’t previously known about who have been suffering through depression and/or other forms of mental illness. There’s a statistic out there, what, like 1 in 5 people in Canada suffer from mental illness? I believe it.
What was your inspiration and influence in terms of style and mood?
     I came across this photo of a supercell tornado taken by Camille Seaman. The image is so beautiful (you should look it up). It had that look of impending doom I was seeking out, but added this layer of elegance I was enthralled by. The tornado was just one of those things you look at in pure amazement and think, “wow… that was definitely not rendered in 3d…”  And so I tried my damn hardest to capture it in 2D.  Oh, on top of that there’s a farm that it’s hovering directly over and it looks so small in comparison.  You really feel like that farm will be engulfed by it but at this point it doesn’t matter because of the utter astonishment of what the earth is capable of.
     The rest of the aesthetic I sort of came to intuitively. I kept drawing from that feeling of depression and sort of imposed this look of rough, dark, textured but empty.  There wasn’t much I tried to emulate specifically at this point. Depression as a subject matter has been visualized before, but I needed my own way – my own aesthetic.
I looked it up.  (c) Camille Seaman
How did you go about making this film feel distinct and personal? Did your own experiences shape the film?
     Well I guess I’ve already gone into personal territory with talking about depression. But I like being candid so I’ll get into it a bit more. Generally when you’re depressed it’s really easy to start making up scenarios in your head that are really morbid, that can really destroy you. I thought about a lot of things that just ‘would be really sad’ if they were to happen. And it’s mostly not a good place to be (unless you’re making art apparently). Narratively, I drew from these scenarios I thought up and tried to make coherent sense of it.
     The protagonist wound up having a lot of qualities from my own family. They all work so damn hard day-to-day, persevering through hardships and it’s inspiring in a ‘leading by example’ sort of way. There were a lot of times where I’d be writing out notes for the narrative… and because of how sad the scenarios would be, I would just cry.  Hard. (I stopped for a minute…crying right now just thinking about it) But, usually this was my gauge for if a plot point or idea should stay. So at least that was consistent. Okay, next question.
What were some major themes that you yourself see in the work, or inspired you initially?
     First, I’m glad that mental confusion aspect came through, because of how much it meant to me it was something I was really worried about not being able to convey. Also, family is huge, but I had no intention of making a film that had so much to do with family. It’s one of those things that just came through. The cathartic nature of student film was pretty good for me in that sense. By the time I was finishing the film, this aspect of being a nihilist was prevalent… and I felt proud in the weirdest way… because it’s something that arose amidst depression.
There’s a very agricultural feel to the environment.  I feel like it’s set around where I grew up (southern Alberta).  Yet (as far as I know), you grew up in urban Vancouver.  What made you curious to explore that environment, and the feeling of isolation present in the film?
     You’re right, I grew up here in East Van. My family and I have done a lot of long driving, though.  We’ve made a few trips out into the prairies as far as Winnipeg throughout the years, visiting our other family members.  One of my most favourite things as a kid was sitting in the car quietly just looking out the window. Everything looked the same. Everything – but I enjoyed the sense of openness and calm and I was so enamoured by it. You don’t get the same vastness in the city.  I mean there might be an open field, but it’s usually a park that has been developed or a property that someone is neither maintaining nor want people intruding into.  Back to sitting in the car when I was young, I enjoyed being able to let my mind drift to the ambience of the car rumbling.  The places my mind would go to… I was really in a happy place. It was a feeling of being alone that felt really warm. Feeling alone in a city is very cold.  Feeling alone when there’s people are all around you brings up pretty negative emotions.
     As for agriculture in general, I’ve become a pretty big advocate for more ethical food production. Right now my girlfriend and I are part of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) which is where a local farm splits it’s crop amongst it’s members and distributes a box once a week during their growing season. I’ve never had more amazing tasting vegetables. That’s Farmer’s on 57th if anyone is wondering.
It’s awesome that you’re connected to the community. Speaking of people, what attracted you to this character and his relationship with his children? And in particular what made you feel it had to be explored in the bleak setting from before?
     With my farmer I’m attracted to that great sense of responsibility that he carries, his unending duty to support his family and to work hard for them. Its a very strong trait that runs in my family.  When I look at my farmer I can see my dad, my mom, my brothers, and myself. We all care so deeply for each other, but I know at the same time we frustrate each other too, and it’s a really deep frustration at that. That’s why my farmer also looks so hopeless. That bleak setting I created for the film reminds me of my upbringing, what my family has been through, but also in that I experienced most of it through the lens of depression. Sad, I know. But honesty over everything.
How did your film change during production? I know that originally your ending was a bit different, but I really like what you decided on.  What affected and changed the final product from your initial ideas?
     Yes, I remember that first ending I came up with (it was a scenario which strongly associates with depression or mental illness). I was forcing what I thought should happen, but it wasn’t genuine. It wasn’t genuine to me nor was it genuine to the farmer. It made sense on paper in a few ways, but at that point I was writing a narrative that had already, I guess, ‘written it’s own ending’ so to speak.
     First of all, being in Rubén Möller’s class was really enlightening for this kind of thing. He told me the cold truth in that it wasn’t working, and really talked it out with me. I really appreciate what I learned in that process. He told me how he read it as a viewer and how it could generally be viewed, and that there were implications I had to be aware of. I spent the rest of the year trying to write a more appropriate ending now that I had a better understanding of the audience it would be in front of.  We talked about that in December and it wasn’t until mid-March, I believe, that I actually finalized my ending.  Thankfully it contained only a few shots which I didn’t need to slave over animating disney-style animation for.  The breakthrough happened when I spoke with my girlfriend and basically she asked me… Who is your farmer? Tell me everything about him in his life from when he was born up until this point. We plotted it out, step by step, writing exactly who he is from his childhood to his having his family now.  And the ending finally arose without a single doubt. The planets, my chakras, and a few ducks all lined up in a row.
What did you most enjoy working on/animating?
     The run cycle was pretty fun to do – I come from a sports background and loved getting into breaking down footage for a good run cycle. Although, the most satisfying thing to animate was the ending.  I had such a strong emotional attachment to it because of what I talked about earlier in regards to scenarios while being depressed.  After a few hours of animating it, I just started to cry. Right on the spot, because the idea of what was happening really hit me… So there I was, sitting at a desk with my pen drawing on the cintiq, crying and animating and I was thinking to myself damn this feels so right. This was obviously a therapeutic experience.  But it’s art, so, you know, what’s new?
Any advice for those currently or who will work on their final film?
     Be real with yourself.  Don’t hide.  Your work will be going up on screen, which is a letting go of a sentiment or a part of yourself and letting everyone experience what that is.  That general experience doesn’t work as well when you’re holding something back that you know you might be thinking of.  Just say it.  Maybe think of it this way, you could either go the route of writing a complex narrative and hoping a nugget of truth comes out of it or you could fully embrace one nugget of truth and allow the complexities of it to show.  Do the second one.  I have nothing but good things come from that trying that method.  My life is very different now from before I began my film.
How was your experience of Emily Carr? Do you miss anything about the school?
     When I was there, it wasn’t awesome being under the stress of school, of course… being locked away from my friends, and being glued to the school’s available tech… but looking back, I loved it. There’s of course a valuable art education, but there was an element of me being able to isolate myself with my work that I loved. There was too much happening at home, so it was also a nice escape. What I miss the most is the people. I really appreciate the teachers I had, they’re good people. My classmates were awesome. They were very weird and horrible, but awesome because of that. If any of you guys are reading this – I miss you.
Who are some artists that inspire you?
     Shane Koyzcan.  He’s a poet and a beautiful person from what I’ve heard about him.  I’m basically stalking him.  Shane if you are reading this – I miss you.   Apart from that, I don’t necessarily follow any animation artists as much as I watch a bunch of animated short films when I can. Oh and who can forget about Kanye West,  because everything he says and does is awesome.
I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that last one so I can continue to like you. Why did you choose to go into animation?
     I was on the verge of going into Communication Design – but I knew that most of what I was going to learn wasn’t going to revolve around how things move. I loved the idea of moving compositions and I just simply needed to move things.  That storytelling aspect of the animation program came as a bonus as it was comforting to me knowing that I’d be able to share a story.
Are you currently working on anything?
Outside of working at Atomic Cartoons I write poetry on the side. It’s a nice space for me to explore ideas and see how I’m feeling about certain topics. I may or may not be aiming to animate one of them…
Okay, it’s called Greater Being. And I’m doing it with Thalia. Chantal, we will tell you all about it when we see you next 🙂
Do you have a dream project?
     Yes, it involves breaking down what mental illness is doing in our society today, and teaching what it means to love each other more genuinely, and basically saving the world from mental collapse.  If I figure out how to do that one day, that would be nice.
You’re currently working at Atomic. Could you tell me about that experience, and what you’ve learned there?
     It’s been really cool working there, I’m lucky to be working with people I get along with. I’m sitting with two other grads from my year and we go out for lunch or play Frisbee sometimes. Overall I feel very fortunate. Who you work with can easily overshadow the work you are actually doing sometimes. As for the work itself, it’s been a huge learning experience.  Snappy television animation is something I’ve been adapting to after being educated in more Disney-centric animation. Then of course there’s the flash aspect, which I had to find ways to educate myself on. Hey 2D folks, learn Flash and/or Harmony! Its a must!
What was helpful in getting that job?
     I was ridiculously diligent in applying for jobs, but there was a point where I would lose momentum… stubborn persistence is what I had to fall back on.
In terms of my reel, I changed it up after doing a wave of applications. I did more research on what companies were looking for in a reel and I wound up restructuring what I was showing. I divided it into 3 sections: Body Mechanics, Dialogue, and Subtle Acting. The results were better once I did that. Then of course what also helped was showing flash puppet animation on my reel because its more relevant to the industry.
Do you have any advice for ECU students looking to get a job in the industry?
     Apart from what I said about the animation aspect, there’s also expectations. In the process of applying and communicating with companies, know that some might only be looking for a particular style, or that the timing simply wasn’t right. Then of course the rest of the endless factors playing into it. Basically what I’m trying to say is don’t count yourself out because of reasons you’re not aware of. That’s neither fair to you nor to people who might end up hiring you. If it’s something you want, you keep going. Finding reasons to stop really might make you stop just as much as finding reasons to keep going really might make you keep going.  If you’re not working, find another way to surround yourself with people who are passionate about similar things and keep making things that you’d want to make for yourself – it’s not something you can do as easily when you’re working for a company so make the most of that if you can.
Lastly I just wanted to say thank you, Chantal, for asking to interview me. I really appreciate it. I wish you the best of luck with your film.
As well as the rest of the 4th years that are in the midst making their films right now – stay strong. I believe in you.
 That means a lot coming from you. Thanks so much for your time and incredibly candid insights into  your work and career, Jay. It was amazing to watch your film being produced and I know we haven’t seen the last of you. You’re a talented animator and a great person and I can’t wait to see what else you’ll share with the world.  
If you want to see more of Jay’s work, check out his blogs.