DON HERTZFELDT BRINGS YOU THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF ANIMATION
by Eric Campos, FILM THREAT (2004-05-17)
And heís not doing it on his lonesome because that would be a gigantic pain in the ass. Together with Mike Judge, Don ďRejectedĒ Hertzfeldt has put together The Animation Show, a touring festival of animated shorts for the artists by the artists, promising to put these shorts into more theaters than any other animation festival in American history. In case you missed the tour, The Animation Show has now come to DVD, so you can experience many of the films shown in the safety of your own home without the danger of anyone looking at or possibly even touching you.
Don was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule, which includes laboring over his feature film for the past four years, to answer our questions about The Animation Show and his latest project.
How did it come about that you wound up working with Mike Judge on ďThe Animation ShowĒ? Did you have to put him into a headlock and make him do it, or was it the other way around?
Bill (Plympton) and I were in Austin for a joint screening of our films and we hung out with Mike for the weekend. The energy and vibe of the audience there really reminded us of how cool, fun, and uncorrupt animation festivals used to be, and how "somebody" ought to do something to bring that sort of thing back into proper theaters. Mike and I talked about it for several months after that and i think the light bulbs went off simultaneously.
What makes ďThe Animation ShowĒ stand out from other animation festivals?
Well, for starters we actually pay our filmmakers and treat them like human beings... and for the first time an animation festival is being run by animators rather than suits or creepy hippie burnouts...or hippie burnouts who have graduated into suits. I feel like the animation show performs much more of a community service in bringing these films into theaters than the companies of the past...we're not structured to maximize profits by any stretch of the imagination and it's very much a passion project for Mike and I. Anyone can tell you that there's very little money to be made in the United States from animated short films. As long as the show can find ways to continually break even, we'll be happy.
What's the criteria for choosing films for ďThe Animation ShowĒ?
We don't really have any criteria, they just have to be good films. Animation's historically been cursed with far too much emphasis on style and format rather than whether or not the piece actually has anything to say. Even people in the industry who should know better can tend to get way sidetracked with pretty window dressing in lieu of content. Any audience would rather watch a triangle made of crayons emote, than stare at a beautiful photoreal statue - and vice versa. Aside from the big theatrical program, we've now got the DVD series up and running through which we can release additional films that we feel are just as good but couldn't fit in, for whatever reasons.
Was it cool doing three new shorts for ďThe Animation ShowĒ featuring characters from ďRejectedĒ or was it a distraction from your other project?
It was a lot of both...the new film is without a doubt the most difficult thing I've ever tackled in my life, at least so far. There hasn't been a single shot in this thing that's been easy to produce, and I still have trouble believing I'm already entering year four with it. Some of the earlier sequences in the film were so complicated they took several months just to produce a little more than a dozen seconds of footage. I've described it before as writing a novel by etching it out one letter at a time into a rock with your fingernails. It's all in your head and dying to pour out, but the process is terribly slow and meticulous and maddening...already the next, next film is 60% written in my head and desperately wants to be let out of the cage too; i feel like i've got tons of ideas backed up and waiting to go. So being able to whip out three terribly stupid cartoons relatively quickly for "The Animation Show" was a relief...I got to experiment with some new tricks and relax and have fun with the basics of the process again and throw a bunch of things against the wall without having any pressure. I like two of those three cartoons quite a bit, the other came out a real mess and i still felt great about it because they blew off so much steam. On the other hand, they took about nine months to make, and i did lose some focus with the larger task at hand.
What the hell are those puffy little things anyway?
I'm not entirely sure. I think they are like little lambs.
Can we look forward to another tour?
Yeah, that's definitely on the plate, the only question is when... I think we're still getting our schedules together for when the next tour kicks off, when the next in the DVD series goes out, etc. Mike is very busy shooting "3001" right now in Austin and I'm still buried with this new film, but we've been exchanging tapes of cool films in the meantime to consider for the next show(s)... depending on how things sync up, the next theatrical tour will very likely open either in the fall of this year, or in very early 2005.
So back to your new film. Are you using any computers this time around?
No, no computers... i've never gone that route, everything has either been shot straight to 35mm or 16mm. I realized I bit off more than I could chew with this film somewhere in the second year and that was the only point when I wondered if maybe it was a project that ought to be helped out with a computer. I talked to a computer animator friend about it and explained the scenes I was animating and he sort of rolled his eyes and said, "Jesus Christ! That would take years to produce no matter how you went about it." So it's just different tools working towards the same goal. There were other shots in the film that I could very definitely have saved quite a bit of time if I'd done them digitally, but it became sort of a personal rule to get through the film "the old fashioned way" like the others, and solve all the special effects needs traditionally with just basic light and camera principles. So I shot the film's outer space sequence with pin holes and optical composites and multiple exposures, circa 1955... it took months to prepare and two weeks to photograph about 45 seconds - one strip of film that was wound and backwound literally hundreds of times for each optical layer going over the next. If I'd made a single mistake in the process the entire shot would have been useless and I'd probably have flung myself out the window, but the sequence came out rather charming and pretty and I think you can tell that the light hitting the camera lens is real and not a simulation.
Any advice to young upcoming animators out there?
I'm all out of advice... don't listen to anyone's advice is my advice. nobody really knows what they're doing.
Last question - What the hell is wrong with people these days?
April 22, 2004
Hereís my second interview with the brilliantly twisted and Academy Award nominated animator, ďDandyĒ Don Hertzfeldt, who might be better known to some of you as the man who inadvertently popularized Dalmatian Tentacle Porn a year ago in an interview on this site. You may express your heartfelt gratitude by reading the transcript below, which features details about the next ANIMATION SHOW installment, his long-awaited follow-up to ďRejectedĒ, and Judy Blumeís massive smack habit.
I noticed on your website that the ending for your new film just kinda coalesced in your head.
Yeah. Itís such a high-wire act. I had one thing in mind, and then I started seeing the footage coming in together.. It just wasnít going to work anymore... after all this time, with all the stakes and the pressure, nothingís good enough and everythingís raised to the next level a little bit. I think this is going to work. Itís different. Itís hard to explain without giving too much away, but...
Just a basic premise, maybe?
Well the more I see the stuff coming together, it reminds me a lot of FANTASIA, actually. (Laughs.) When I really think about it, itís probably what I wouldíve done if I had the opportunity to do a segment of a FANTASIA thing.
Itís very different. Itís abstract, itís kinda surreal, and itís set to music. Itís linear, but itís not. Itís so hard to explain.
Is it humorous?
It is... there are parts that are humorous, but... I mean, itís not dark, or somber, or depressing, but itís not going to make anyone burst out laughing like the other films might. ItísÖ I donít know, itís so difficult. (Laughs.) Itís not funny, but itís light... and thatís kind of how crucial the whole ending is, because you could just turn it around right there and color the whole thing.
And just darken it significantly?
Yeah. Itís amazing that, after all this time, I still canít explain it. Isnít that just horrible?
But isnít that somehow similar to how youíve done things in the past?
Oh, itís very similar.
That you justÖ not that you necessarily find your story as you go along, but you have to find new ways to amuse or interest yourself.
Yeah, itís all script-less. Itís always been that way, and itís always just kinda shaped itself. I guess, this one has just taken longer Ė twice as long Ė as any of the others. Itís easily, I think, going to be the strongest of anything Iíve ever done, but it just freaks me out a little more. Itís a long time to make a cartoon. In hindsight, had I known it wouldíve taken this long, I donít know that I wouldíve started it. I couldíve made maybe three other films in that span of time. Iíve already got the next one in my head. I donít know how long of a vacation Iím going to get, but Iím going to try to make that one really quick. Just do it in pencils and get it out of the way.
This oneís not just in pencils, then?
Thatís cool. Whatís the length?
Itíll probably come close to ten minutes. (Laughs.) I donít know how that works out over four years.
The ratio? We probably shouldnít think about that. (Laughs)
The deeper I get into this stuff, the more I think about it, itís just so tempting to pull a J.D. Salinger one of these days. The rumor is that heís still writing?
Thereíre all sorts of rumors.
That heís never quit and he doesnít publish. He just writes a book, finishes it, and puts it in a bank vault. Man, I respect that so much. I totally understand that so much. I mean, you finish it, and the compromises, and the distribution nightmares, andÖ
But thereís still enjoyment to be taken from sharing it with other people. Thatís why we do these things.
Iíve been wrestling with that.
Of course, there is, but I have so many friends whose work is never seen. They paint a picture and throw it away, because the point is just to get it out of them. I just feel Iíve been giving birth to something for four years.
Thatís an intense, long labor. Thatís cool, though. I canít wait to see what youíve been cooking up.
The difficulty in explaining it is that itís just about broad things. Itís about life, more or less.
David Lynch refuses to explain his work. A lot of filmmakers are like that. Thereís nothing wrong with that, I guess.
Thatís probably why I hate audio commentaries.
Thatís such the bane of my existence. I write for The DVD Journal, and have to listen to commentaries, and often theyíre just so self-congratulatory. Or they explain too much. Like DONNIE DARKO, which is a movie I love, (director Richard Kelly) begins to kind of explain what he meant by the film, and Iím like, ďOh, I donít want to hear that. I rather like my interpretation.Ē
Yeah. You made it. You shouldnít have to explain it. Thatís how I see these things. I donít know if thereís an actual demand for them, that people want to hear them, or if the demand is on the other side Ė that directors want to give them so badly.
I think thereís certainly a large segment of the DGA that would love to explain how brilliant they are retrospectively, especially if the filmís a piece of shit, like BATTLEFIELD EARTH. (Laughs.) And there is. There really is a directorís commentary where (director Roger Christian) is explaining the film like he just made BEN-HUR.
Oh, no. Itís quite funny. Itís almost worth listening to for a laugh. But the whole commentary thing results in a lot of navel gazing. Just let the work be, and let people have their own interpretations.
Yeah. I mean, can you imagine walking into a gallery, and thereíre paintings on the walls, and the directorís track is sitting there? ďThis is what I meant by these colors.Ē Itíd wreck everything.
(Laughing.) Da Vinci explaining why Mona Lisa is smiling.
Itís awful. So, while youíve been working on your new film, youíve also been doing a lot of traveling behind THE ANIMATION SHOW. How much touring did you do?
Quite a bit. I think I hit maybe a dozen or fifteen cities with it. I think Mike did about seven or eight. That was pretty cool. It was a nice excuse to get out and about. Seattle was my favorite of those. It seems so long ago, though. I donít remember how many cities the show eventually went through. I think weíre still playing a city or two every weekend, and Iím not sure about the next one if weíre looking at the fall again or not. Weíll have to go over when the next one is launching.
Youíve already got works queued up and ready to go?
Absolutely. Weíve already gotÖ probably about three quarters of a show together. Mike and I still need to go over a lot of it, but itís just a matter of timing and what we learned from the first year: where not to go, whoís more friendly with this sort of thing, what cities we got hurt in because we were in the wrong time frame. Weíre actually going to talk about it this weekend, so itís still kinda new.
But generally the experience was positive? Getting out and sharing animation with all sorts of folks?
Yeah. Weíre doing respectably. Weíre on par with art house receipts: weíre not raking in millions of dollars a weekó
But your per-screen average is good?
Sure, weíre doing pretty well. Itís just a matter of keeping it going. Once you get the second year going, and you get the second DVD out Ė I think we might start doing two DVDís a year, or more. Get that series going.
Yeah. Weíre only nine months old, or so, so itís still kinda start-up. And Mike is shooting his new movie now.
Iíve actually got the script for that sitting *right here*.
Uh-oh. You probably shouldnít have that. Or was it sent to you?
I, uh, happened upon it.
Oh, thatís right. You guys happen upon things.
Thatís kind of ourÖ stock in trade. Thatís what we do. Sorry to get off on tható
(Lengthy digression edited. Things somehow get back on track here several minutes later.)
So, I talked to Bill (Plympton) the other day.
Good. I had a very interesting chat with him.
Yeah! It went really well. I hear youíre doing a voice for his new movie.
Yeah, apparently Iíve got a big scene with Matt Groening. I havenít seen it, yet, but I remember when he came down to do the session here, I saw the lines, thirty seconds later we did two takes, and he was done. Man, that guyís The Flash. Heís just so fast with his entire production process, itís amazing.
So, you werenít together with Matt?
No. It was all piecemeal, so I have no idea how that came together. I canít imagine I was very good. (Laughs.) I think itís at film festivals right now. Did he mention that?
He didnít say for sure. It certainly sounds like an interesting idea. Plus, we talked about the story behind ďParkingĒ, which, actually, is pretty fascinating: the parking lot owner being shot *dead*.
I think I heard that once.
I didnít expect that, because the commentary led me to believe there was some fun little anecdote Iíd get out of him about ďParkingĒ, and then heís talking about this guy getting shot and dying on a couch in front of him. Iím trying to get a follow-up question going, and Iím like, ďJesus.Ē And heís just like, (deadpan) ďYeah.Ē
But Billís interesting, and maybe this is something you can speak to, he was talking about how we hold back so much of our imagination because itís just too disturbing. And he said ninety percent of what he thinks *doesnít* get on the page. Which frightens me. Do you find that with yourself? Having to hold yourself back and say, ďOkay, I donít want to freak people out too much?Ē
Maybe. I understand the subconscious thing heís talking about, because, for instance, just getting that idea for my endingÖ I was struggling with it for a week, and I was just kinda depressed because I was starting to panic. I got the footage, and I was like, "Ah! This is *not* going where I thought it was. How can I wrap it up after all of this?Ē You can sit and think all you want, but itís not going to come to you until youíre in the shower or something. Youíre thinking about something entirely different, and it just pops in there. Usually, the best ideas that come are ones you dismiss as first as, ďNo, thatís just *too* out there! That would never work!Ē But you end up thinking about it a week later, and itís still there. Those are usually the best, the ideas I reject at first because they seem too different, or too far out. As far as offensive stuff, I donít know. I donít think Iíve ever (laughs)Ö I donít want to inadvertently put down Bill, but I donít know if we think of the same disturbing, perverse, horrible, murderous things.
Now, you are the person who got the nation hooked on Dalmatian Tentacle Porn.
Thatís right. Did you find the hidden Hentai Tentacle Porn on the DVD?
I was looking for the easter egg, but I havenít found it yet. Donít tell me, Ďcause I want to find it myself. It will be really fun. (Laughing.)
But, honestly, Iíd like to put that back in Billís court. Iíd like to see that film.
Well, if he says theyíre his best ideas, but theyíre too disturbing, I say go for it! Letís see that.
The downside to that being he might get locked up.
WellÖ thatís just great publicity, though. (Laughs.)
And some artists have done great work in prison! That could take his craft, his art, in a whole new direction. And Iím sure heíd be up for it.
I think heís on to something, though. I think the best stuff really does come to you when youíre doing absolutely anything but working.
What the hell is it about the shower, anyway? Thatís what I find works for me, too.
Somebody said itís ďhydrotherapyĒ to me. Apparently, people get ideas when theyíre doing dishes, as well. Or washing the car. It has something to do with the water. I donít know if thatís full of shit, or not.
Well, the shower is... I donít know, a fertile little embryo of ideas.
I take a shower first thing in the morning, so it probably has something to do with the fact that Iím not even awake yet. Itís lucid dreaming. The best stuff is when youíre half-asleep, entirely subconscious. You donít even know what it means, but it works somehow in the film. And two years after the film is released, you finally get it yourself. (Laughs.) Thatís where I find the best stuff.
Thatís interesting. Bill says he doesnít take too much out of his dreams, because his dreams are too plain.
Theyíre not really dreams, per se. I read about a lot of musicians who feel silly for even taking credits for the songs they write, because they just wake up in the morning and itís just playing in their head. Who knows where it comes from? Isnít that how Paul said he wrote ďYesterdayĒ? Or was it ďLet it Be?Ē
It was one of those. Actually, I was thinking about the goofy ďStairway to HeavenĒ story, but that was where they got really fucked up, passed out, and found the song written in the morning.
I always thought that was bullshit, but, the more I think about it, all the best creative stuff comes when youíre not trying. It just falls into your head.
Well, you know, Judy Blume wrote most of her best stuff on heroin.
Is that true?
Sure. Sure it is. (Laughs.) Iíll enjoy the letter I get from her lawyers for printing that.
(Laughing.) Thatís awesome! That should be true.
Another thing I wanted to touch on from my conversation with Bill is that he was giving advice to young animators who wanted to get into this racket. His thing was that 1) youíve got to make it short, 2) youíve got to make it cheap and 3) youíve got to make it funny. Those were his three guidelines, and he said you fulfill all three of those. Do you agree with that?
Yeah... (pause) I agree with making it cheap. Making it short, to some degree. Funny will make it easier for you, definitely. But I like the notion of ďlisten to advice and disregard it entirelyĒ. I just feel like whatever you do, you just have to do your own thing. I thinkÖ (laughs) because Billís right. Thatís the problem; Bill is probably more of a realist than I am, and Iím more of an idealist, where itís like, ďNo! You have to make the film thatís right for you!Ē Meanwhile, youíre never going to sell it, and youíre never going to eat.
Itís not like Bill hasnít been doing it for a while.
I know. He blazed the trail for all of these people. I think cheap, short and funny is going to get you financing to make the next film, but, regardless, you just have to do it. I get that question far too often, and itís become really irritating because it sounds like a lot of young artists are spending the time asking the question without doing anything about it. The most irritating one is when they phrase it, ďHow do I break in?Ē The word choice implies that theyíre not invited, and theyíre cheating by ďbreaking inĒ as if itís some exclusive club and we all know each other. Like we all have some secret handshake. None of us really ďbroke inĒ. You just have to make your film, get it out there, and get it seen. Everyone thinks thereís one guy theyíve gotta know, and then theyíre going to be given a stack of money so they can go make movies.
The golden ticket, or whatever.
Itís a lot of hard work, but youíve just got to make your own stuff, get your own voice out there, and youíll be invited in. I feel ashamed and disappointed when I have to tell people that I donít really know how you ďbreak inĒ. I donít think Iíve ďbroken inĒ; Iím just trying to make the next film and get by.
Well, youíve just followed your own voice, and itís caught on with some people. Thatís the most honest way to go about it.
Honesty is the key. The filmís got to be honest. I guess my reaction to Billís statement was justÖ I see too many films, especially now with the show going, where you can tell that the voice behind it was not honest to itself. It didnít believe in what the film was doing, and it was structured just to please distributors. You could tell it was hackneyed. It wasnít really anything unique. You could tell that the guy wanted to make *this* film, but he wound up making another film because he thought it would be easier to sell. And when it comes down to it, you just have to ask yourself, ďWhy do I want to break inĒ. If you want to make a lot of money then you should just go to Wall Street. But if you have stuff in your head that you just *have* to get out, and you can be like J.D. Salinger, and put it in a vault, and never make money off of it? If youíre that kind of compulsive person, then this is probably right for you... but if itís sales and accessibility and popularity, this is the wrong place to go. Itís rough. Thatís why we created the show. The showís doing pretty good, but itís still rough waters out there.
..But with THE ANIMATION SHOW, Vol. 1 on its way to DVD, and THE ANIMATION SHOW, Vol. 2 gearing up for later this year, hopefully thereíll be safer passage for aspiring young animators in the years to come! Faithfully submitted, Mr. Beaks