10 Confessions from 'Rejected Cartoons' Animator Don Hertzfeldt

He dishes on animating the 'Simpsons' couch gag, and how to sell short independent films.

by Beckett Mufson
05 April 2015, 6:00pm

Screencap via

Don Hertzfeldt's Rejected Cartoons was among the first of the so-called "internet videos" that grabbed me, chewed me up inside, and made me face it: I was going to be on the web for the rest of my life. 15 years after its release, the short has millions of views and the animator has has become today's paragon of cartoon surrealism, racking up awards and enough honorable mentions to have the opportunity to direct a Simpsons couch gag, after one of their directors personally messaged him on Facebook.

In 2015 he released the short film World of Tomorrow on Vimeo on Demand after sweeping film festivals like Sundance and SXSW with his signature mix of existential humor, heart-rending humanity, and surprisingly emotive stick figures. World of Tomorrow follows a young girl, played by Hertzfeldt's own 4-year-old niece, Winona, on a journey through the memories of her future self. True-to-form, Hertzfeldt describes the character as "Mary Poppins but with part of [her] brain missing" in a recent Reddit AMA promoting the film. He also gracefully accepts buckets of praise for his work, and deals with a host of Redditors trying to out-strange him with uncomfortable questions. 

From his answers, we learned that his favorite ice cream is rocky road, he recently started playing Draw Something, and his guilty pleasure is "belting out Erasure songs when [he goes] to the grocery store at 2 in the morning." But the real highlights of the AMA are Hertzfeldt's insights into independent filmmaking, from his creative process to dealing with the industry's changing mediums and business models. Below, here are ten insightful anecdotes and observations the animator has collected in his two decades as one of the most independent animators working today:

On his influences:

"Whenever a filmmaker is asked about inspirations, they usually list people like John Cassavetes or something because they think it makes them sound more like a badass. And today I am going to say Steven Spielberg. I don't know why filmmakers never seem to want to list him. Maybe it's considered uncool because he's so popular, but nobody else moves the camera like Spielberg. I grew up watching everything he did, he is Mozart to Kubrick's Beethoven. I remember when Saving Private Ryan came out I went to the theater two days in a row, the second time just so I could study the technique."

On the creative process:

"It's like you're floating in an ocean, and you want to build a raft. So you just float there and you wait and wait. And eventually this little piece of something comes drifting by, maybe a memory, and you hang on to it, and then another little piece comes around, it is unrelated, maybe it's a funny sentence you overheard somewhere. And you keep collecting all these little things that just sort of drift by... A dream, a beautiful sentence in your head that just appeared while doing the dishes, an anecdote you stole from your old diary... And eventually you find connections between all the things and with all these parts you've gathered up you now have enough stuff to build a raft. And then once you have the raft you can remove all the bits that don't quite fit anymore, the spare parts that you didn't need after all, you toss them back or maybe save them for another raft later. when i write, there isn't a lot of active effort or swimming around, or calculation... For me that can be very poisonous to creativity. The big ideas won't happen right when you mentally stress on them... It is more a matter of being patient and being open to all the things that just drift in."

On making a film with his niece:

"I don't know why I was ever under the impression I could direct a 4-year-old. She wouldn't even recite lines back to me. Everything she says in the film is just her being herself while we hung out and talked about the world. I got an iPad app that I could record her with in a non-intrusive way. It was sort of like working with a half-crazed improvisational actor. Rewriting the story a little to match her reactions and thoughts was really kind of fun. Somehow I appreciated having those limitations."

On how he came to guest animate The Simpsons' couch gag:

"You won't believe this but one of the directors actually wrote to me through Facebook. I guess they didn't know how else to reach me. They invited me to do a thing if i had any ideas... The process was very normal, please send us a synopsis for approval, then send us storyboards, then an animatic, etc... And I sent them a synopsis in a couple of paragraphs which probably made no sense whatsoever, but to their credit they were cool with it, and then I said, guys listen i don't really do storyboards and have never even made an animatic before, can I just plow through animating the thing and if you don't like something I can change it? I don't know what a storyboard would have even said.... "Lisa-blob says, ARARARRRARRUUGHH" It is more about timing and energy than shot selection. I'm also not really at my best until i'm in the middle of something and playing around in it. I don't like to calculate too much. And they were cool about everything. It wasn't even supposed to be as long as it was but they gave it the extra time when it grew. I still haven't met any of them, oddly."

On releasing World of Tomorrow through Vimeo on Demand:

"It's a bit of a risk, I've traditionally funded everything else through theatrical tours and DVDs, and most people will tell you there's no market for shorts online. But if we continue to believe that without ever trying to do anything to challenge it nothing will change, right?"

"On Vimeo I have the nice ability to seamlessly replace the existing stream with improved ones over time... So when you're signed up to the 30-day rental, I can be upping the picture quality with better-compressed uploads along the way, which is great. Or I can replace it all with artsy footage of relaxing underwater reefs. Cool."

"As a side effect, in a weird way I've actually kind of grown to like the limitation of the 30-day viewing period. Think of it like a 30-day cinema ticket. It's long enough to rewatch a film and get more out of it, but it's short enough that you still know your time will eventually end and the film will be gone. It's nice and transient. It's kind of poetic. Why do we need to "own" everything? What if after the end of the 30 days I deleted all of the master files and removed it from theaters and the film will forever only exist in our memories? Isn't that kind of beautiful? Ok I won't do that."

On software used for World of Tomorrow:

"Three programs were used for entire film: Photoshop, Final Cut, and Protools for sound."

On the Vimeo vs YouTube debate:

"Vimeo gives the filmmakers a 90% share, which I think is unprecedented. They also seem to genuinely care about presentation. YouTube gets more traffic than anybody, but they are sort of eating themselves alive with advertising."

On how to sell short independent films:

"For the survival of young short filmmakers and aspiring animators today, we really need to begin training people to pay for short films. Theatrical tours and DVD sales and the old models that I relied on are not going to be realistic much longer for them (or even for me). I know everyone is used to the free YouTube model but without a viable market for shorts online, it is really going to continue to hurt them. Right now these artists are basically being taught that their work has no value. For a young animator, their short film is seen as a silly "personal project" that should be dumped online for free... And if they're lucky it will attract an advertising gig to pay the bills. And maybe make one more "personal project" that they can do on the side again. It's not a good cycle.

"I was on the sundance jury a couple of years ago and saw amazing short film after amazing short film. And many, if not most of them, are still not available online. These are wonderful films that are disappearing after a few festival screenings because many filmmakers aren't even bothering with the internet... "Getting exposure" doesn't fund films. When you pay to see a movie you are casting a vote. You are saying, hey please go make more of this sort of thing. It's strange to see people bemoan current releases in theaters but then see them go line up for them on opening weekend anyway. They seem to forget they have a choice. hollywood wants to make lots of money, they are not very complicated. If they can keep making lots of money from us by continually selling us junk, they have no motive to sell us anything else. There's even more at stake in the independent world. When you pay to see an independent movie, you are casting a vote that says, hey i'd like you to actually have the chance to go make another one."

On developing a new feature, Antartica:

"The only thing holding it back is paperwork. I think it's going to take a long, long, time. I am going to continue to make shorts like World of Tomorrow here at home just to keep myself from crawling up the walls. So there will be more shorts before there is another feature."

On the definition of art:

"Anything artificial that is intended to produce an emotional reaction."

Watch World of Tomorrow on Vimeo on Demand here. Find more of Hertzfeldt's work on his website, on Netflix, or on YouTube. Read the full AMA for more gems—including Hertzfeldt's opinions on David Lynch—and check out his other two forays into Reddit here and here.


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