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Evolve or Die: Talking to Experimental Animation Icon Don Hertzfeldt

The 'Rejected' animator talks honesty, comedy, and making it as an independent artist for over 20 years.

by Beckett Mufson
Aug 12 2015, 1:40pm

Still from(2015)

World of Tomorrow . Images courtesy Bitter Films.

The name Don Hertzfeldt might not be immediately recognizable to you, but chances are you've seen his work. His Oscar-nominated short film, Rejected (Of "My spoon is too big" fame), has stayed viral for the better part of the past decade, his signature stick figures have come of age through eight different animated movies released under his independent studio, Bitter Films, and if you haven't seen any of those, you've definitely seen the "Craaaazy good!" Pop-Tart commercials from the mid 2000s, which some say blatantly lifted Hertzfeldt's style. In 2014, his surreal squiggles took over The Simpsons' couch gag, in part to promote his most recent effort, an absurdist take on sci-fi called, World of Tomorrow (2015).

I've been watching Hertzfeldt's films for years, starting when I was a kid. His work has been compared to Kubrick and Lynch, but I didn't really watch their films until I was older, so Hertzfeldt, who nearly always animates alone and by hand, was my window into single-minded auteurism, critical misanthropy, and black humor. His student films have deceptively jaunty names like, Ah, L'Amour and Lily and Jim, but will literally rip your heart out. After Rejected's mainstream success, Hertzfeldt refused to go into advertising despite lucrative offers, and instead funded The Meaning of Life (2005), Everything Will Be OK (2006), the feature-length It's Such a Beautiful Day (2012), and more, directly from the sales of his previous work.

Reading about his commitment to independence and artistry for personal value, not money made me respect the man behind the cartoons even more. I gobbled up his work over the years, and continue to revisit The Meaning of Life during existential crises, Everything Will Be Ok when I'm feeling lonely, and Rejected when I need a black-tinted belly laugh. I found the one I'll watch when I feel old, jaded, or nostalgic when World of Tomorrow, the story of a near-immortal woman from the future travelling back in time to visit her childhood self—Hertzfeldt's first foray into computer animation—which was launched through Video On Demand earlier this year. Over the last month, he has carried on his audience-centric business model into the world of Kickstarter in order to fund the Blu-ray release of the film.

The campaign reached its modest $30k goal in about six hours. As he is wont to do, the animator is "punishing" his audience by adding his previous work, a Danish film called Pride of the Manatees (1985), and one mystery reward to the Blu-ray as fans catapult the campaign past half a dozen stretch goals. Now, it's in its final 72 hours, so we decided to check in with the art to see how he feels about creativity in the digital age, to learn the secret to comedy, and to get to nerd out about a longtime hero.

Still from
(2015)

World of Tomorrow

The Creators Project: How are you? What are you working on at the moment?

Don Hertzfeldt: Hi, I'm good thanks. Today I'm working on animating and compositing a Blu-ray menu. 

What's going on with this Blu-ray Kickstarter? Why dive into the medium now? 

A lot of people have been asking for a Blu-ray over the years and the timing seemed right to get something out there now. We went through Kickstarter just to make sure enough people would be on board with it... There's so many ways to watch a movie these days, and physical media seems like it's on its way out, so i didn't want to miscalculate and wind up with a warehouse somewhere full of sad and dusty discs. The response has been amazing, but we're still only making as many copies as people sign up for, and that will be it.  

How do you feel about the overwhelming response to the campaign?  

Audiences have been consistently wonderful over the years... I even hate to call them fans, it seems dismissive. It's maybe a boring cliche, but I simply wouldn't have been able to continue making movies for this long without them. This is independent film in the truest sense, right down to often self-distributing...  In 20 years I've never had a second job or received a major grant for any of this stuff, it really is the audience who is directly paying for each new project. They are the ones who keep the engine going. 

Do you recommend Kickstarter for other animators? 

I don't know if i'm in a position to advise anything, really. We're living in an age now where there really are no rules or strict career paths to follow anymore. As an independent, most of us, myself included, are still just making everything up as we go along. Kickstarter was obviously a great fit for this project, but I think a lot of people tend to be blinded by the dollar signs and have misguided ideas and expectations about crowdfunding. I think the Blu-ray is performing so well there not because people want to give me a hand-out, but because they want a Blu-ray.

Still from
(2015)

World of Tomorrow

How do you know when you have an idea that you actually want to pursue and turn into a film? 

They're usually the ideas that won't go away. They seem to be the little pieces of things that just keep lingering around and withstand my attempts to demystify them. 

Here's an easy one: What is the secret to comedy?

Honesty.   

Rejected was a game-changer for me. I'm sure you get tons of annoying questions about it all the time. What is the question you wish people would ask about it? 

Hmm. I don't know if I wish for anyone to ask me questions. I don't find them annoying so much as I usually just feel inadequate answering them. The most fun things to talk about are the questions with specific answers, like, "What is going on with this sound effect?" It's more difficult to answer questions about ideas or intentions or meanings, because everything I had to say about the film is already on the screen, so suddenly I'll just feel redundant. 

Now that you've experimented with digital animation, Kickstarter, and Blu-ray as a distribution platform, what's next for you to explore?  

My approach to World of Tomorrow was, "Do everything differently," and I'm still enjoying this "evolve-or-die" path. I'm working on a new short film and a new feature film and I'd like to continue shaking up everything I've done before and keep learning. It's going to be a busy summer, there's a lot of immediate work to do on the Blu-ray and then I'd like to spend some time disappearing... drawing and swimming.

Learn more about Hertzfeldt on his website. Get your hands on a Blu-ray that, at time of writing, will contain World of Tomorrow, It's Such a Beautiful Day, The Meaning of Life, Pride of the Manatees, Billy's Balloon (1998), Wisdom Teeth (2009), and one mystery film by donating to the Kickstarter.

Related:

10 Confessions from 'Rejected Cartoons' Animator Don Hertzfeldt

[Exclusive] Diplo & Ferry Gouw Talk 'Major Lazer' the Animated Series

The Creators of 'Rick and Morty' Told Us the Secret to Comedy

What We Learned From the Animators of Dan Deacon's “When I Was Done Dying” Music Video

Tagged:
filmmaking
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Animation
Interview
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Creators
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rejected
Don Hertzfeldt
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bitter films