articles and interviews archive

Online Interview by Tim Gadd for Keyframe-online, Australia
May 2005

> When I pitched this interview to you, I told you that here at keyframe we get more search hits for 'Don Hertzfeldt' than for any other person. What I didn't mention is that we're actually getting more hits for you than for any movie. Last month you were held out of the top spot by the new Bambi film, and the month before that it was 'Mulan II', but this month you've totally creamed everybody and everything else. Hugely. So, how does it feel to be bigger than Pixar? And Soyuzmultfilm?

i lost out to mulan 2????

>Are you still interested in the more tactile, mechanical aspects of film-making (as opposed to say working with software?) e.g. most animation seems to try to disguise or eliminate any physical, mechanical origins and present a perfect illusion. Your work often breaks the 'fourth wall' in that respect - in the same way that say, Terry Gilliam's Python animations or some Aardman shorts would, with the animator's hand entering the frame. To put it another way, you can't scrunch up the paper if you're using rendering software (unless you render scrunching up paper, but that's too bizarre to think about)

yeah i just prefer working on stuff with my hands instead of a mouse.. for me its kinda like a choice between painting with a real brush versus a simulated one that you hold with chopsticks.. it's just a weird barrier between me and the piece. i don't think one set of tools is necessarily better than the other, you should just use what you're most comfortable with, and what serves your piece the best. i think computer animators sort of get the short end of the stick to some degree, since they work just as hard as traditional animators do yet there's so little understanding of how computers work that i think a lot of the awe is lost on most audiences today. years ago it seems like people used to go, "wow, how'd they do that?" a lot more, and have this great sense of wonder when they saw stuff like "star wars". nowadays audiences all just seem to shrug and say, "i guess they just used a computer".. as though there's no reason to wonder anymore "how they did that"... as though computers have a "make art" button on them or something.

but i just like real ink on real paper with real light hitting a real camera lens.. and if there's a problem with my camera i can fix it with my hands instead of "file not found" or something.

there's a certain quirkiness to these materials that is extremely difficult to simulate digitally. there are inherent flaws all over this old fashioned process that i think are charming and extremely attractive to the brain in some way. humans are always going to be more attracted to the subtle flaws in things rather than perfection - we're attracted to the flaws and the uneven edges and the quirks, because these things make objects and art more like ourselves. we can all relate to those things. i can't relate to visual perfection with glossy chrome coating on everything. 99% of 2d and 3d computer animation looks the same to me - very, very few people seem to be doing truly new things despite this incredible software at their command.

>You said something once that resonated with me - about how photo-realism in 3D animation bugs you. I had the same reaction watching 'Finding Nemo'. There was a scene of Sydney Harbour that was visually indistinguishable from a high resolution photograph. I thought, why did they animate this? Why didn't they just stick a movie camera out of a window? Do you think people are going to get bored with this sort of thing, or are we stuck with it? This schizophrenic sort of pursuit where you create the most realistic environment possible, and then fill it with characters who couldn't exist in it?

yeah i don't know how long the silly holy quest for photorealism is going to last. photorealism has never been the goal of animation. we've already got photorealism, we all know what outside looks like. the point of animation is to break away from live action and to dive into the artist's head. that's why most "photoreal" CG stuff bores me to tears.. there's no imagination in those visuals.. you're stripping yourself of the full potential of the medium.

> In 'L'amour', men have their heads chainsawned off, skin ripped off and so forth, and there's violence in 'Billy's Balloon' and 'Rejected', too, but it doesn't disturb me. I mean, there's a show called 'Happy Tree Friends' - have you seen it? It's just short after short where cute, furry animals get dismembered and blown up and dismembered. I hate it. So how do you make violence funny and not overtly offensive? Or how do you balance the tension between the two? I assume this is something you must have thought about when making those earlier films.

i haven't seen the happy tree thing.. but you're right, there is a very fine line. john cleese said something very true about dark comedy, that it's not hard to watch when the black knight gets his limbs chopped off because the black knight's not expressing any pain. and there's definitely something to that. "billy's balloon" wouldn't work at all if billy was crying or suffering through everything.. his deadpan is what makes it work as a comedy. or more directly, it's what makes it a comedy at all. all of the violence in "rejected" and the other films - nobody ever really suffers, it's all just absurd and silly. the "l'amour" guy is right back on his feet again every time. i do think there is a certain innocence to our characters and a certain innocent charm to our stuff.. they're probably too self-deprecating and reflexive to take themselves seriously.

> It seems to me a lot of what makes 'Billy's Balloon' work is comic timing and anticipation. Is that fair? Is that something you were conscious of when you were working on it, or any of your movies?

i don't know how conscious i am of those sorts of things, but i agree.. i'd also add that "rejected" only works because the sound and editing in it are top notch too. really, everything else that works in those two particular films is secondary to sound and editing.

> Your films have had a very 'hands-on' approach, because, I suppose, you didn't have much choice. You talk, for instance, about the tedium of the lip-synch and the sheer amount of drawing in 'Lily and Jim'. Now that you've grown up directing this way, can you imagine delegating work to other crew, if someone threw a bucketload of money at you? I remember Ralph Bakshi talking about how it'd be fine if he had a budget like Disney and could just walk into a room and point at drawings and say "I like that" or "I don't like that" and then go home - but Bakshi did everything himself because he had to. You're probably an even more extreme example of that. Are you always going to be in there getting your hands dirty, even if it means less output and more work? Even if you don't have to?

sure, i'd love to have a crew. but a crew would require a larger budget and a probably some studio backing, and well, there it is. i spent a lot of time a few years ago meeting with all of the studios trying to get this or that animated feature film off the ground, but soon decided my time was better spent just continung to do what i do for as long as i can, rather than waste years groveling after something uncertain.. i'm very lucky to be able to make these films solo and still enjoy doing it. and nowadays i don't think any studio on the continent is interested in doing a traditional animated film, but it still would be really cool.

> Your latest movie is 'The Meaning of Life', which has been touring around the country at animation festivals this year. You'll have to forgive people like me who live halfway to Anarctica for not having seen it yet. I gather this is a very different film from your earlier work. You've talked about it being very painterly and musical. Also that it backgrounds humour compared with your older films. Now it's been out for a while, are you finding that people's expectations of you are changing a little, or do you think they're expecting this to be some sort of odd diversion that just happened to take you four years to make? (or is that actually what it is?)

yeah it did "just happen" to take four years to make.. that was certainly not planned on.. but yeah, it's not a comedy and people going in expecting "rejected 2" are probably in for a bit of a headspin. i think maybe the first month of release threw some fans for a loop.. it seemed like what most people were talking about was what the film wasn't doing - it's not funny, it didn't tell me the meaning of my life - rather than what it was doing. it's not really that unusual for me though.. you have to remember, many people didn't even know what they were looking at when "rejected" came out in 2000.. and lots of people still don't understand that one.. it seems like all of our films kinda maybe need a little time. "life" is also sort of difficult since its so dense and you only catch about half of it in one theater sitting. but i think it's sort of soaked in the public's ether long enough now and audiences seem to be really responding to it more. about once a week i get an email from somebody somewhere who reports having actually cried during the film because they were so overwhelmed, and i don't think the film could ask much more than that.. i saw a drunk guy puke from laughter once at a screening of "rejected", but tears are a bodily function that my films hadn't yet achieved. maybe the next film will give everyone explosive dysentery.

> You say people often think your films are computer animated. That's mind-boggling to me, but that aside, do you feel that the 'restrictions' of live film can be a source of inspiration and creativity? Do you like having to improvise new techniques?

i do think the limitations of doing things the old fashioned way actually helps, at least for me.. if i have to construct an outer space special effect from scratch with only a camera and backlights, it's a big challenge that's going to be demand many experiments, different ways of thinking, happy accidents, etc.. it's a lot of sitting around trying to figure out how to physically pull it off, and that spurs all sorts of additional ideas. when i work on a computer, often the first thing i try will work out fine and i'll move on... and it doesn't challenge me to actually think very much about what i'm doing, or come up with any more radical approaches that i might never have considered.

but yeah, lately that's been one of the nicest compliments for "life".. audiences thinking all the effects were CG and being surprised to learn they're all in-camera. in a way i guess it brought that "wow!" factor back into the equation we were talking about.. suddenly everyone's wondering "how i did that", which is kinda cool

> The Animation Show is obviously a passion for for you. Would you like to see a greater interest in non-feature length animation in the US, and have you seen any changes in that direction?

we've had some really great audiences across the country and the public interest is certainly there... but no, i don't think we're ever going to see animated shorts as a regular fixture in mainstream US theaters. there's very little money to be made in it and that's really the end of the discussion. there will always be guys like me and mike who really care about this stuff, but we are basically force-feeding it into the popular marketplace.. most theater chains and the general media are unfamiliar with it and wholly indifferent to what we're doing. everywhere we go its like a mini-education: this is why these films are important, this is why you should book us, this is why you need to review the show in your paper. we're able to regularly sell out venues, but much of the time it's an uphill struggle getting the word out. it's a bummer but i think all art in the US will always be sort of sidelined until someone is around with the ability to sort of briefly jam it into the public's popular field of vision, with arms waving. it's anybody's guess on how long we'll be able to do it, but i'd certainly like to keep trying.

> John Waters once said that he stopped doing underground and started doing more mainstream comedies because he couldn't imagine being 65 years old and still trying to shock people. What sort of direction can you imagine Bitter Films going in 20 years from now? (apologies for the crude and very tenuous analogy between yourself and Waters, and any inference that you haven't already started moving in new directions)

i don't really think about it.. "life" didn't come out of sitting down and saying, "hey let's do something radically different", it was just the next film in my head that needed to come out, and it just didn't happen to be a comedy. and the next film is already shaping up to be very different from "life". and i like that.. i think all of these films are clearly coming from the same voice but i never want to tread the same ground and find myself making the same thing over and over again.. at that point i may as well quit. many animators seem to hit a rut of success and find themselves turned into commodity. and maybe that works because it probably means they'll make much more money that way.. i don't know, i'd rather keep trying out new things and push myself into more frightening, unknown directions.. if something isn't a creative risk on some level i don't think it's really worth doing. if i was after the money and a quick sale, i certainly wouldn't be making weird indie cartoons.

> You've talked, not for the first time, about the frustration of working on a project that took as long as 'Meaning of Life'. You're working on something new now, and seem downright excited about it, especially the speed with which it's happening. What can you tell us something else about it?

it's spun from an old comic strip i did years ago called "temporary anesthetics"... it's all about a character from there whose name is bill. half of those strips were terrible, but i always enjoyed doing the bill ones. the film now i think is some of my strongest writing and it's been a dream to work on. i may already have a few minutes of footage ready to shoot here.. the whole thing is in pencil and its moving nice and fast.. really the polar opposite of production on "life". i'm not sure what else i can share.. it is going to be a comedy, but it is going to be very different. we may be stretching the film form a little bit with this one.. the story is going to be told in a way i've never really seen done before. i don't think i've been this excited about working on something new since probably "rejected", or earlier.

Don Hertzfeldt Interview at the Sundance Film Festival
January 22, 2005
by Pete Timmermann


Immediately after the second public screening of his new short film, The Meaning of Life, I talked to Don Hertzfeldt about who I needed to contact to do an interview prior to The Animation Show’s run at the Tivoli. He offered to do the interview right then, but he had to get groceries, so this interview took place entirely in a busy grocery store in Park City, Utah, with me asking questions I had hastily jotted down while watching the film for the first time only a few minutes before. Due to the surroundings, some of what was said was lost in the ambience. When I turned my recorder on, we were talking about how he thought the recorder was a cell phone, and how we both have a distaste for cell phones. Also, if at all possible, you should see The Meaning of Life before reading this, because it will make a lot more sense that way.

Pete Timmermann: I agree with you about cell phones. I’ve never owned one.

Don Hertzfeldt: They’re usually for other people’s convenience. I mean, there’s been a few times in my life I’ve really wished I’d had a cell phone. It’s always been in the car.

Yeah, when my car breaks down, that’s it. So, of all of the talking in the beginning [of The Meaning of Life], saying all kinds of non-sequiturs and whatnot, do you have any particular favorites, or any that mean a whole lot to you, or anything like that?

Yeah, there’s a lot that I love that I foolishly put towards the end.

Uh huh, when no one can hear them.

When no one can hear them. So there’s a lot of really golden performances [inaudible for a few seconds]. Maybe we’ll do a DVD…

…Where you can isolate them…

…so you can actually see that we did the work of syncing every single person rather than using a crowd sound effect.

It’s clearly not exactly a comedy, like most of your work is. What were you aiming for, exactly?

It’s more like a painting, I think. It’s obviously not as much of a narrative as my other stuff. I think what you take away from it is personal; like you’re going to see it in a way and this guy’s going to see it completely differently, and she’s going to think this meant this, and he’s going to think it meant that. It’s kind of like a painting and you go to a gallery and you’re there, and to this person it means something personal to them, because it reminds them of something from their childhood, and this guy just doesn’t like it at all, and this guy doesn’t get it. It’s more amorphous, I guess, more for whatever it is that the viewer takes out of it.

I thought it seemed to have a kind of driving narrative force, but was kind of abstract with it.

It’s definitely driven by the music, but it’s more of a… I’ve heard it described as kind of like a "Fantasia" piece. You know, in that it’s just music driven, and I guess it’s not non-narrative, but it’s concept driven rather than character driven. There are no main characters. All right; [where is the] butter?

I have no idea… There’s a lot of refrigerated crap along this right aisle… Yeah… Was it a conscious decision to transfer from a comedy to “painting,” or was that just the way it worked out?

Yeah. Definitely. I mean, I don’t ever want to make the same film twice. I think as soon as I do that I should quit. I don’t want to make Rejected again. I think every film I’ve done is kind of a polar opposite of the previous one, um… [Noticing he’s in the wrong aisle] This is cheese. Um, so, yeah, it was, I want to branch out. I don’t want to be the “My spoon is too big” guy. I don’t want that on my gravestone, by any means. [A few inaudible words] The next one is going to be funnier… I don’t even know much about it. It’s festering. [He finds the butter] Ah, here we go. This kind is really good for you. And it tastes like everything else. [Putting away four pack] I don’t need four. What am I doing? I hear that the beer here sucks? In, like, Utah?

Yeah. I haven’t had any. Yeah, they’ve got a, um, there’s one, um, Polygamy… [Finding it and pointing] Yeah, Polygamy Porter. Have you seen that?


Fucking terrible. Yeah, I kind of want to buy one so I can take the six-pack home and carry it around.

[Quoting the beer’s tag line] “Why have just one?”

[Laughs] Um… yeah.

It’s something local, because there’s, like, 1% alcohol.

Um, I might have started this earlier, but I got sidetracked by the beer: How do you think your fans are going to react to the transition from comedy?

You know, at the screening last night, we got a lot of laughs, and I wasn’t expecting any. But I don’t think you can make a film with an audience in mind, because then you start second guessing yourself, you know, and you’re going to start compromising completely. I just make the film as best I can and get it out of my head and move on to the next one, so honestly I don’t really consider its reception too much. But I don’t know… They can laugh if they think it’s funny. As long as it’s honest, you know? [Regarding his basket of food] I think this’ll do it.

Cool. Um, how come you premiered The Meaning of Life in Sundance, instead of just in The Animation Show?

I don’t think we would’ve even been done in time for that if it weren’t for this deadline. Because it was four years in the making, and it wasn’t until we actually had this target: “Hey, Sundance is in January. I think we’re in, so now we actually have to finish this goddamn thing.” And I think without that, we’d still be making it right now. So, it was just a nice, convenient excuse to just finish it and clear it out and get it out of my head.

Do you have anything special programmed in the new Animation Show that you want to say anything about?

Well, we’ve got Fallen Art [which was in the same animated short program as The Meaning of Life at Sundance]… And we’ve got Bill Plympton’s new one, Guard Dog. And there’s a good one called Ward 13 too, that’s Australian, that I really like.

During the Q&A, someone asked about computer animation, and what you think of it, and you were standing next to a whole bunch of computer animators, and you’re always really vigilant about how none of your work is made on computer. You clearly seem to like it, because in The Animation Show there’s a lot of computer animation.

Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with it; it’s just not for me. I mean, the thing is, the reason that tag is in the film, you know, “No computers were used…”

It looks computer animated. I thought it did.

Well, thank you. It’s mostly, everyone I talk to, not just students, but people in the industry, they say, “You know, I like your work,” and then the first question is, “What kind of software do you use?” I tell them it’s all done traditionally, and I always get a blank stare, like they have no idea how cartoons used to be made without computers. And it’s kind of affected the history of the [inaudible]. So it’s really just a title card that makes people go, “Oh,” and that’s all it needs to do, is to remind people that you can still do some really cool stuff with hand-crafted work. It’s really rewarding for me to think that you created this thing out of nothing, whereas every time I do something cool with Photoshop, I feel like somebody, somewhere must’ve done that before, because the program’s got parameters.

Another thing you seem to be very vigilant about is, uh, [The cashier starts ringing him up] I can pause for a minute. [After he’s done checking out] The last question I had written down is about bootlegging; you just seem very… I think the reasons are pretty obvious, but you are more forthright about it than most people are, except for guys who make a lot of money. Is it lack of quality, or loss of money; is there something specific?

Well, very few are actually selling what they’re pirating. If that were the case, we’d be cracking heads much more swiftly. It’s primarily a case of quality, where you pour four years into making this thing look good on the big screen, and it just takes one 10-year old to rip it and throw it on the internet in this dismal quality, and that’s how it’s going to be exposed to a lot of people the first time.

Yeah, actually, I hate to admit it, but the first time I saw any of your work it was bootlegged.

Yeah, I know, that’s not unique. I mean, it’s a double-edged sword, because on one hand, you know, hey, there’s this big audience who’s going to discover it. I mean, if I wanted to make cartoons for the internet, I wouldn’t shoot them on film. It’s the reason why if you blow up Flash animation on the big screen, it looks like shit, because it’s just not the format it’s meant to be screened in. So, I don’t know, if we wanted the films on the internet, we’d put them there ourselves. We’re not, you know, busting down doors or anything, but, you know… The main thing is the new film… It’s always the newer stuff that’s precious. If this thing leaked on the internet now, I’d just be heartbroken. Because it’s got to be seen on the big screen.

How long do you think it’ll be, now that its world premiere has come and gone?

Well, probably as soon as it’s released on DVD. You just, you just kind of have to live with it. You know, it’s inevitable with technology and where it’s going. Hopefully, you know, one day it’ll get better, where it’s going to look good for everyone, and it’s not going to be out of sync or pixilated. Part of the hope of The Animation Show is to rescue all of these films from that dungeon where “This is the only place my movie’s going to be seen—please see it.” We're just trying to change people’s thinking. Shorts aren’t just exclusively on the internet anymore; go down to your local theatre and check it out. You don’t have to bootleg this stuff.

Don Hertzfeldt Reveals the Meaning of Life
by Pete Timmermann
Playback St Louis

Every now and then, in my treks through film Web sites and magazines, I come across a picture of Don Hertzfeldt, the maverick animator best known for his 2000 short film “Rejected,” as well as for co-founding The Animation Show with Mike Judge. He was usually long-haired, wearing flannel and looking stoned. This look was well-suited to the Hertzfeldt one would imagine based on his work and a few select details about his life: he was 24 years old when he was nominated for the Best Animated Short Academy Award in early 2001 (a 24-year old animator? Come on. It’s a prerequisite that they’re high), and “Rejected” is a series of purportedly turned-down commercials the Family Learning Channel commissioned Hertzfeldt to animate (which include things like a screaming stick figure’s eye socket turning into a turned-on blood spigot or a baby taking his first steps only to fall down a seemingly infinite flight of stairs). As a result of these assumptions regarding his character and the couple of pictures I saw of him several years ago, I wouldn’t have recognized him if not for his nametag when I ran into this suspiciously Johnny Depp–looking guy outside of the Animation Spotlight at the Sundance Film Festival this January.

After seeing his new short, “The Meaning of Life” — which, at four years in production and 13 minutes in duration, marks his lengthiest piece to date—some might think Hertzfeldt is trying to clean up his act and get away from the college humor that has made him a cult superstar. “I don’t ever want to make the same film twice. I think as soon as I do that I should quit,” Hertzfeldt said upon my query about the transition from comedy to a more abstract piece, which better describes “Life.” By the time I had seen “Life,” in its second public screening in the world, a reviewer had already beaten everyone else to the punch of describing the film as what it would have been like if Hertzfeldt had contributed a short to Fantasia. “Life” is very classical music-driven, and can be interpreted any number of ways. The film begins with a man being sent away from the sky to Earth, slowly rotting along the way (much like the reverse of many filmic sequences of dying people being called up to heaven), and then follows the evolution of man throughout its duration on the planet (keep in mind that this synopsis is more of an opinion of the film’s content on my part, rather than a concrete retelling of its narrative). By means of explanation why he went this direction for his new film (and in reference to the first sequence from “Rejected”), Hertzfeldt lamented, “I don’t want to be the ‘My spoon is too big’ guy…I don’t want that on my gravestone.”

Being the “My spoon is too big” guy wouldn’t be one of my primary concerns if I were him. Although it is surely hard to shed the confines of being widely known for one extremely quotable film, Hertzfeldt has quickly been recognized in his short career as one of the greatest living animators, as witnessed by his Oscar nomination and exposure in all of the world’s biggest film festivals. Unlike the vast majority of his peers, Hertzfeldt animates the old-fashioned way: with hand-drawn pictures shot under a 35mm film rig, with all special effects being done in camera. But, despite the nearly century-old process of animating this way, Hertzfeldt continues to break new ground, such as animating real holes and crumples in the paper (as he does in “Rejected”), using 3-D objects set on the page and moved around by the animated figures (as in “Intermission in the Third Dimension”), and now, messing with double, triple, and probably more exposures, which give certain objects the feel of being sources of light, which comes in handy in the animation of planets in “The Meaning of Life” (not to mention giving these parts of the film the feeling that they were computer animated).

“Every time I do something cool with Photoshop, I feel like somebody, somewhere must have done that before, because the program’s got parameters,” Hertzfeldt said about his personal feelings toward computer animation, “Everyone I talk to—not just students, but people in the industry—say, ‘Oh, yeah, I like your work,’ and their first question is, ‘What kind of software do you use?’ When I tell them I film it traditionally, I always just get a blank stare, like they have no idea how cartoons used to be made without computers.”

Hertzfeldt might be trying to get away from the hilarity of “Rejected” in favor of more thoughtful pieces. While this might surprise his fans initially, I think that neither he nor his fans have anything to worry about in terms of his continued success. And even for those who have no interest in anything but comedy, “The Meaning of Life” won’t disappoint them, as it still has more than its share of quotable non-sequiters spouted by humans running around on Earth. For example, after man gets done evolving from apes, the first things he says are (in a cheery tone), “Give me your money,” “We know what’s good for you,” and the like.

For those of you who stumbled across “Rejected” in a friend’s dorm room or on IFC or something, and whether you liked it or not, it is still worth your time to track down “The Meaning of Life” when it shows in this year’s Animation Show. Hertzfeldt, now 28 years old, clearly has a long and fortuitous career ahead of him, and the sooner you jump on the bandwagon, the more enjoyable your life will be.

Simply Don
Lo, I am ruptured

by Alex Handy
There's a quick and easy way to find Don Hertzfeldt fans in any situation. Simply stand up and say, with a soft, southern accent, "My spoon is too big!" If there is a Hertzfeldt-head nearby, he or she will invariably respond with "I'm a banana!" If this makes no sense to you, then you have missed out on the work of a man who is, without a doubt, the most brilliant mind to enter animation since Matt Groening created The Simpsons from his rabbits in order to pay off gambling debts. Yet Hertzfeldt has walked a different route than those of Groening, Mike Judge, and Craig McCracken. While those folks have gone to television and now watch over large staffs, he remains a loner, working by himself and animating every painful frame with his two godsent hands. From great simplicity can come infinite complexity; this is particularly true of Hertzfeldt's art. His humor is deceptively simple, as is his artistic style. While his characters are invariably bulbous stick figures, they say more by simply looking at the audience than the sum total of all dialogue said by all the characters in every Disney animated movie of the past twelve years. There are few experiences on this earth more original and twisted than your first viewing of one of his short films, Billy's Balloon, Genre, and Rejected being the best. Thus, the arrival of a new Don Hertzfeldt animated short, four years in the making, is reason to limber up your guts for a good round of busting. Just remember to bring some tissues for your tears of laughter, and a silly hat, as there will be a "Silly Hats Only" section in the audience, and those violating this can expect to be beaten with sticks.