December 16, 2013

Simon Wilches-Castro Wins Adobe Design Achievement Award Grand Prize

Hench-DADA MFA Student Takes Home Grand Prize

 John C. Hench Division of Animation MFA student Simon Wilches-Castro has been awarded the Animation Grand Prize in the Adobe Design Achievement Awards. Wilches-Castro’s film Semáforo beat out thousands of other entries from over 50 countries. The film, described as  “a beautiful circus act that becomes a terrifying freak show” is an allegory for the ongoing conflict in Columbia where, Wilches-Castro notes, “Some show the only thing they have left - deformities and amputations, in exchange for sympathetic coins.

The film, Wilches-Castro’s first year project, was just over a semester of work. A total of 5 months went into the project, a short amount of time for such a polished film. But, Simon, notes the idea “had been boiling in my head for years before I came to USC”. Simon first began animation work in 1998, working in Flash long before Adobe acquired its parent company, Macromedia. Before long, it was all he wanted to do. In 2012, he applied to USC’s legendary John C. Hench Division of Animation & Digital Arts, looking to take his skills to a new place. He notes that while his work may be unusual, he’s “grateful that the school found my work compelling enough to accept me and support my ideas”.

While winning the Adobe Design Achievement Awards was no small feat, merely entering and being accepted is an achievement unto itself. Started in 2001, it has quickly become a highly competitive contest, the kind of award that isn’t just a trophy, but a mark of distinction. In 2013, the awards received just under 5000 entries from around the world, almost double the number it saw 5 years ago. Spanning 12 categories, the judges look not only at animation, but print communication, photography and package design. Recent years have seen the introduction of an interactive category that looks at video games, information design and digital publishing.

And while winning is what most entrants would hope for, the ADAA also has an expansive mentorship program open to any applicant who completes the submission process. Moving on in the process has its perks, too: “Once you become a finalist it’s very rewarding. Adobe really takes care of their finalists. They produce a wonderful ceremony highlighting the creators and their work.” Castro goes on to say about winning that “once you hear your name, not once but twice in the same night everything changes and a lot of doors and new horizons are suddenly open.”

Wilches-Castro says that while the experience was rewarding, its “sad to see so many talented people around you not make it through the multiples stages of selection” and that with so much attention on the contest you are “always fighting the odds”. However, it couldn’t have hurt that Semáforo has also been accepted into more than twenty other festivals and awards shows around the world, including the Ottowa International Animation Festival, the Cyprus Animafest: Views of the World Festival and it was an Official Selection of the 12th International Student Film and Video Festival of Beijing Film Academy.

 The three minute piece opens with images of the familiar. A red curtain parts, a trapezee artist flies across the shot and a ring master welcomes us. But it’s not long before a group of acrobats merge into a phantasmagoric tower of bodies, swinging through the frame with the weight and heft of a wrecking ball. Soon, things spin into a kind of free association as we’re treated to images of the grotesque and comedic, pressed up against each other into a work of spectacular vision. The film ends with a single coin clattering against the pavement of a nameless street and a dedication: “Inspired by the people that live under a stoplight and the people who watch them”.

 Its precisely the conflict and juxtaposition in the film that fueled Wilches-Castro’s work. Talking about his inspiration, he says that “It is difficult not to notice there’s a conflict in Colombia, since you witness its consequences every day. At the same time, it becomes a routine to watch these acrobats, merchants and deformed people, they become part of the landscape. The main concern of the film was the disconnection between our perception of the conflict and the actual conflict going on. How a beautiful show can actually be the expression of something sinister going on beyond our most immediate perception. “.

His win at the Adobe Design Achievement Awards is of course a demonstration of Wilches-Castro’s skill as a storyteller and animator, but also a testament to the School of Cinematic Arts’ unique ability to find, nurture and promote the vision of creators of all kinds.

Semáforo can be viewed at