articles and interviews archive

JUNE 2001
Animation World Magazine, article by Chris Robinson

When Qoheleth/Ecclesiastes breathed that there were "no new things under the sun," no doubt he stole it from someone before him just as I steal this thought from a voice before mine. Things aside, there are always new combinations and imaginings under the sun. In animation there are fewer fresh voices every year. With state support in decline, it is more difficult to carve out a career as an independent animator. Increasingly, we see one great first film followed by nothingness. The newcomer moves to a studio where they fall under the spell of 18-hour days hacking away for 'steady' pay. Under my sun newcomers are those who've managed to make at least three films and meet with some degree of critical and popular success (i.e. win shining trophies). With this in mind, let's meet a quartet of the newest, hip, happenin' coolsters.

Don Hertzfeldt (U.S.A.)
Don Hertzfeldt has been drawing since he smashed Lacan's mirror. He's self-taught and when he did go to school, he went to a sanctuary for eggheads (Santa Barbara) where talking about a film was more important that actually making one. However, the school did have an animation camera. For four years, the camera was Hertzfeldt's best friend and together they made a film each year.

Like Bill Plympton, Hertzfeldt self-finances his work using profits from his past films. "I made Ah, L'Amour in 1995, the first thing I ever shot on film. Spike 'n' Mike picked it up and turned it into a big cult hit." L'Amour funded Genre (1996), which bred Lily and Jim (1997) and... you get the idea. "I've never lost money on a film and have never had to have a traditional job, never had to do commercial work out of necessity."

At 24, Hertzfeldt's already an animation veteran and the landscape has changed since his school days. The biggest change he's seen is the onslaught of technology: "When I recently told some students I made cartoons, they immediately asked what kind of software I used. I said I didn't use computers, I shot them traditionally. They looked at me all bewildered. That's a scary thing."

No, a scary thing is the thought of Don Hertzfeldt not being able to make films. Be very, very happy that he's an animator. His films drip violence. His stick figure characters often stab, saw, beat, shoot and gut each other. My initial tendency was to write Hertzfeldt's work off as an empty and juvenile celebration of violence. I was wrong. Hertzfeldt like Michael Dudok de Wit, Igor Kovalyov, Michele Cournoyer or any other supposedly legitimate artist is simply working through internal emotions and thoughts. Hertzfeldt's characters (Genre, Ah, L'Amour) are anguished souls simply longing to be accepted, to be loved, to be. The fierce frankness of these violent emotions are legitimate feelings. Hertzfeldt's work shares a strange sort of kinship with the writing of Hubert Selby Jr. (The Room, Requiem for a Dream) in their unearthing of the rage of existence that creeps and crawls within each of us. There are times when it howls to be unleashed upon the world. Often it spurts out in a small shout, a dirty look or a middle finger. It's never enough, so we find caged releases through exercise, alcohol, drugs or art. These are spaces where we uninhibitedly articulate the beasts within, where we let them out to play in a confined area to examine, confront and understand. Some do it in a bar. Some do it on a hockey rink. Don Hertzfeldt does it on a piece of paper.

FILMMAKER Magazine, article by Peter Bowen, photographs by Porscha Ricketts

Animator Don Hertzfeldt gives a new twist to the maxim that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Hertzfeldt wanted to be a filmmaker, indeed an animator. Hertzfeldt couldn't really draw. So he turned to stick figures to propel his art.

Hertzfeldt's career has long shown a pragmatic approach to the aesthetics. "I went to UC Santa Barbara for film school, a top school in the country for film theory, analysis and history, but with a minimal emphasis on production. Nobody there used the equipment much, so I had the 16mm animation camera all to myself and made four films in four years." Those four films - - Ah, L'Amour, Genre, Lily and Jim and Billy's Balloon - - demonstrated Hertzfeldt's talent for using the inherent preciousness of the animated form for his own bitter and hilarious ends. In his 1996 Genre, Hertzfeldt uses the convention of the congenitally cute bunny rabbit to stage an artistic war between creator and subject. And his 1998 classic Billy's Balloon takes the most basic element of a children's film - - think Albert Lamorisse's 1956 kid classic The Red Balloon - - to create a sadistic little gem. <> His post-college film, Rejected, a series of absurd scenarios purportedly rejected for different commercial and promotional projects, creates a metaphysical whirl from what starts as a fairly straightforward joke. And it is clear from Hertzfeldt's own explanation that the film was never a simple joke: "I'm very tired of seeing talented young artists unflinchingly selling their souls to corporations; an indie has a hit, tosses out all his old creative goals, and directs commercials and sit-coms in Malibu for the rest of his life... we're all getting blitzed every day with more and more commercialization and less content. Nothing to say, something to sell. Most Americans by now have simply grown numbed and accustomed to it all; most people won't complain when their ATMs play commercials as they wait for their money. The bar of quality and meaningfulness has dropped so low it actually seems outlandish to complain about it anymore... so on some levels, Rejected is this big mass of frustration."

OCTOBER 2001, interview by Jean Seok

Fans can get your videos just by sending you fanmail or gifts. Why aren't you (more) interested in money?

i felt our video & DVD distributors charged too much for our stuff so instead we used to mail them to fans for free. i just felt guilty directing people towards a 30 dollar videotape. but we became swamped with non-fans just looking for free handouts, so now we just require a little goodwill effort on their part first. and the gift system has been working better than expected; we hear from really sweet people and have received everything from art supplies to great wines to fan drawings to donations for charities; and they in turn don't have to pay thru their noses to own our movies. eventually we'll be able to self-distribute our work ourselves on video & DVD and not need to worry about distributors

money shouldn't be anyone's primary reason to make movies. but as we all know, it's why most movies suck: talentless hacks faking art to make money. if paintings could make them 200 million dollars, trust me they'd all abandon movies and desperately shit on a canvas instead. unfortunately most of the indie kids out there can be just as wrong-headed, they just use cheaper canvases.

How would you describe your animation style?

1/3 experimental + 1/3 improvisational + 1/3 minimal + 1/3 bad math. ha.

Is it a good idea to become an animator if you have great ideas but all you can really draw is stick figures?

all you need are great ideas. if you were animating with your feet but had great ideas, you'd still find a fascinating way to get those great ideas through. i'd much rather watch that than another pretty movie with idiot ideas behind it. animation is not about drawing and it has never been about drawing. animation is about movement and through movement, it's about story. drawing is a craft, it's a skill that you can get better at and hone like playing an instrument. and you may be a brilliant session player, but if you can't write a melody to save your life nobody cares. engaging an audience, making them laugh, that stuff is the difficult part, that's the creative part; those are your artists, your composers. i'm not the greatest technician in the world and i don't need to be, i'm much better off focusing on writing. and if i could draw brilliantly, i'd still just draw stick figures because they're crucial to the stories i'm telling. if there's a story i want to tell that wouldn't play right with stick figures, i'd shoot it another way.

What's your all-time favorite animated film ?

i've recently re-discovered fantasia, which really is genius in many spots and lately i can't stop watching it. my favorite animated short right now is when the day breaks because it's so well done i shrivel up with jealousy

How much of your funniness is natural? How much is work?

if you try to be funny, you will never be funny. 99% of funny seems accidental or spontaneous, it's just finding the right moments. when working with actors, funny will only appear in the first few takes, even if you're improvising. comedy gets stale really fast and always needs to be attacked from different angles.

Can we persuade you to draw a little (digitized) doodle for us? We promise we won't sell it.

this is some manner of cabbage ---> {0}
you have my full blessing to sell it

What about the promotion part? Do you have people that do this for you? Is it more word-of-mouth?

i guess it's all word of mouth. we have a pretty solid fan base that's really grown over the years with the release of each new film, and the website probably does the rest for us. i don't think about it much. i've almost always had distribution in place before the films were even finished, so there's never been a need for me to run around trying to sell them. i think i've got the only crew that goes to sundance and never does a single shred of promotion: no postcards, no fliers, no posters, nothing. film festivals are the only vacations i get, so i'm usually there to just have a good time

What is the most exciting thing that happened to you because of your films' success?

the academy award was exciting just because it was so incredibly strange and foreign to all of us. the travel and the people you meet at shows are always fun too. playing on television is always exciting in a way because you can't comprehend the millions of people who are simultaneously watching your little thing and you get boggled and want to crawl under the couch

What is the worst thing that happened to you because of your films' success?

doing interviews. this year has just been a very tedious interview year for me. but i'm not really one to complain about success because that seems like the most arrogant horrible thing in the world. i guess i get weird scary e-mails sometimes but i've gotten better at letting them roll off my back

For budding animators desperate to break into the business, please say a few words of encourangement.

first off, don't be desperate to break into the business. you can always tell when a film was produced by somebody "trying to break in", because it turns out desperate and bland. don't concern yourself with anything other than the art in the moment... not where you hope it ends up, otherwise you'll stop taking risks, and risks are usually the most interesting bits in a piece, even when they fail. all you need is access to an animation camera and some paper. if you end up with something special and share it a little, the "business" will break into you, believe me.

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