articles and interviews archive

Interview with Aint it Cool News
June 2005

GhostBoy interviews the animation genius Don Hertzfeldt!!!
Hey folks, Harry here... Don Hertzfeldt is amazing... his animation that he's done... is genius. REJECTED - bliss. GhostBoy had a chance to catch up with Don and we're the lucky benefactors of this encounter. So if you have THE ANIMATION SHOW playing somewhere near you... then you should go immediately to check it out... it's wonderful! Here ya go...

Howdy folks,
For the past two years, two wonderful people named Don Hertzfeldt and Mike Judge have been doing all of us a massive favor by presenting the world's best animation in feature length compilation called The Animation Show. The program started last year, and the current installment is making its way around the country right now. Many of you have already seen it (or missed it), but for those of you who haven't and need convincing, click here to read my review of it.

I recently interviewed Don Hertzfeldt when The Animation Show passed through my neck of the woods. For those unlucky few who may not know, Hertzfeldt's directed and animated some truly brilliant shorts - "Billy's Balloon", "Rejected" (the latter of which was nominated for an Oscar) - and his latest, the beautiful "The Meaning Of Life", serves as the grand climax of this year's installment.

Whether or not you've seen his films, or any of the films in this year's compilation, I'd highly recommend reading this interview - it's always wonderful to hear from artists completely dedicated to their craft. Learning that he's actually turned down money to focus on his own personal projects is incredibly inspiring.

One more thing: the interview was conducted via e-mail, and I've copied and pasted Don's responses verbatim, lack-of-capitalization and all - it reads better that way.

GB: Animated shorts have a sort of dubious renown - they're acclaimed at festivals, they have their own Oscar, and yet it's so hard to actually see them. Did you (and, to a lesser extent, Mike Judge) create The Animation Show partly in response to any frustration on your part about getting your own work seen - or had you achieved enough of a name through your shorts by 2003 that it was more a case of giving other filmmakers the same exposure you'd experienced?

DH: it's a great perk to be able to distribute your own films but i'm not the only artist out there who could use a distributor. short films are more or less extinct in mainstream american theaters - most everyone has been relegated to the internet or television. we created the animation show because mike and i love the medium.. and nobody else was doing this, and nobody had ever done it before on this scale. most of these films were intended to be seen on the big screen and we just think audiences deserve to see them that way. i don't expect we're going to single-handedly change the industry.. in a way i think we'll have succeeded if we just changed a few minds. i often sort of feel like a pilot in a rescue helicoptor, making strategic runs to save as many films as possible from obscurity before the chopper runs out of gas.

GB: On the Animation Show website, there's an open call for submissions for future compilations. How many submissions do you receive, and were any of the shorts in this year's installment chosen this way?

DH: i think the office got about a thousand submissions in the last year.. about half of the show's program comes out of those open submissions with the other half chosen from stuff that mike and i might have caught on the festival circuit or maybe had admired for a long time. the theatrical show can only comfortably program maybe a dozen or so films a year, and our dvd releases are able to share maybe a few handfuls more. so there's really an embarrassment of riches out there.. if we could afford it, there's enough material for more than one show a year. many amazing films being made that most people will never have a proper chance to see.

GB: Have there been any shorts that you've wanted to get but were unable to secure the rights to? And has an artist ever been against having their films showcased in this manner?

DH: one that comes to mind was "destino"... i really wanted "destino". disney was a big help in year 1 with "vincent" and the ward kimball piece we restored, but we had no luck picking up "destino" from them this time. i even wrote roy disney a letter and everything. it's a shame because it sounds like their own plans for the film sort of evaporated, so i'm not sure how wide a release it will ever see now. in genera,l i don't imagine any filmmaker would be against having their film in the show.. we pay more than anyone's ever paid for shorts before that i'm aware of, and we get them into more theaters than anybody else. usually if we can't pick up a film, it's a company or a film board that's getting in the way, though it doesn't happen too often

GB: So many of these films are so clearly labors of love, as all art should be - but is it possible to have a career making animated films according to one's own vision? At what point did you realize you could do this for a living?

DH: i don't know.. maybe at some point in college i figured i could pull indie filmmaking off and not have to work in an office somewhere. though every other day i'm still kind of unsure whether i can continue to do this for a living. bill plympton is the only other guy i can think of who does indie animation like this full-time, though he's open to doing commercial work which i'm not. i've turned down more money than i'd like to think about by not doing commercials. for the last ten years all the income from one film has gone straight into paying for the next. it can get hairy sometimes and a bit of a high wire act because if a new film should tank, that could very well be it. but i'm trying to be a little wiser with budgets than i used to be

GB: Did you approach "The Meaning Of Life" with a script, or did it sort of evolve into what it is now? Was it a response to anything particular you wanted to deal with artistically?

DH: i've only begun production with a finished script in my hand one time out of eight films.. i usually just start animating, with sometimes only a scene or two of a concept in my head, and write down very little. animation is such a tedious, maddening process.. the less chained down i am to a finished script & the more freedom i have to improvise and come up with better stuff as i go along, the happier worker i'm going to be when i sit down and draw the same round little heads for another year. it's also really difficult to inject a feeling of spontaneity in a cartoon since the process runs exactly counter to that, and i've learned that sometimes literally making things up as you go can lend it that kind of energy. there's just a little faith involved that 12-24 months from now you'll have come up with an ending for the thing. but i try not to intellectualize too much of it and just let it all happen.. "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 shaping up to be very different from "life". it's hard stuff to explain. i've never had writer's block. if anything, there are too many ideas. one problem with animating the same cartoon every night for many months or years on end is that the ideas for other films start to pile up and grow impatient in the back of your head. you know the stories you want to tell but you're only able to get each one out of your head one frame at a time.. that can sometimes get to you in a bad way. so since 1995 i've finished up each film and begun the next one maybe a week or two later.. this stuff just needs to get out one way or another. i'm not real sure anymore what life is like without being in production on something.

GB: Your film begins with the stick figures we're all familiar with from "Rejected" and "Billy's Balloon", and then takes a drastic detour into new stylistic territory - sort of "2001"-by-way-of-Brakhage. While it works beautifully for the film, does it also represent any sort of progression you see in yourself? Are you planning on moving away from, or expanding upon, your recognized style?

DH: i think if there's a progression it's been a technical one... from "rejected" to "life" i've improved 10 times as an animator and 100 times with the camerawork. i'm always experimenting and learning new technical tricks so it's probably one factor that keeps me returning to the well to make more movies.. "i didn't get these shots quite right this time, but for the NEXT film.." creatively though i don't think there's been any major continent shifts.. the ideas behind "life" predate "rejected", it just took me longer to get out. to me at least, all of these pieces are coming from the same voice. it's just sort of filming a different angle of the same thing in my head, with bits and pieces from real life glommed on. there's a difference between that though and getting into something like sequels and repetition. i don't want to turn predictable or make something that i don't feel is a creative risk anymore. i could probably do "rejected" sequels for the rest of my life and make a lot of money, but if i'm not pushing onward i have a really hard time seeing what the point is.

GB: And now that I've mentioned Kubrick and Brakhage, I'd be remiss if I didn't ask: who are some of your influences, cinematically and otherwise?

DH: i used to think "life" came more from david lynch than kubrick somehow, though i can't remember how or why. maybe something to do with all the smoke. in technical terms at least i think there's influences everywhere.. i'll see a camera trick or special effect process in an old film and immediately want to try it out on my camera rig.. there's a particular experimental animation techique from the 70s i read about that i've already found a way to write into the new film to try out. in general though people do say kubrick a lot.. and i can see it in the detachment & open spaces. certainly he's someone i've studied and admired but i think i also get a lot just from reading weird science magazines or listening to music or watching people. "life" is a great people-watching film. i guess influences are probably best pointed out by other people looking in.. i've never really noticed them until after something's already finished. somebody said buster keaton after "billy's balloon", and i felt really blind for not realizing it.

GB: What are your hopes for the future of short form animation? Has this venture proven successful thus far, and are you and Mike Judge going to expand the concept for future installments in any way, such as giving it a wider release? Do you think short films will ever be commercially viable enough to return to theaters en masse, especially with the advent of widespread digital projection? I've heard that Landmark Theaters is going to start showing shorts before features in their digital cinemas - perhaps this will open up some wider avenues for short filmmakers.

DH: for two seasons now we've had some incredible audiences across the country so the public's interest certainly seems to be there... but i don't know if we're ever going to see animated shorts as a regular fixture again in US theaters. i really kind of doubt it. the bottom line is, there's very little money to be made in shorts and that's usually the beginning and end of the discussion as far as the industry is concerned. there will always be guys like me and mike who really truly care about this stuff, but we're 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. many places we go it's sort of like a mini-education for the media: 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. audiences though seem immediately hip to it. we're able to regularly sell out venues when the stars align in each city, it's just always an uphill struggle getting the word out. indie film distribution can quickly suck the morale out of you, but i can't say it's a big surprise. in the US, i think this kind of non-mainstream art will always be sort of sidelined until every once in a while, when someone's around with the ability to briefly jam it into the public's popular field of vision with arms waving. year one of the animation show opened in over 200 theaters which i think was some sort of all-time release record for this kind of program. we hope to bring the 2005 program around to those numbers too. the more theaters you open in though, the more risks and expenses you shoulder, which is historically why all of the animation programs of the past have always stuck to just opening in the same dependable 12 cities and then they're done. we're a different animal.. and maybe it's a bad business decision to open in cities that have never screened this sort of thing before, but we do believe that the films are good enough and that people will want to come see and support this stuff. so we all want to do a year three, and it's just going to be a bit of wait-and-see. the year two DVD should be out sometime in the fall with a brand new lineup than what's in theaters now, and then i think we're going to hang out a bit and see how the weather's looking.

And there you have it!



Interview by Taylor Jessen, for The Animation Show
April 2006

In his first year at UC Santa Barbara, Don Hertzfeldt made Ah, L’Amour, an unexpected cult hit – and the hits kept coming. As a sophomore he made Genre; his junior year he made Lily and Jim; and in his final year Hertzfeldt animated Billy’s Balloon and had to take the unusual step of asking his professors for permission to miss class so he could take the film to Cannes.
From then to now, animation has been his life. He’s literally never had a job other than making his own animated shorts. Which is insane – ask anyone, starting with Don himself, and he’ll say anyone who gets into animated shorts for the money is a fool. Yet Don has a fan base waiting for each new film he makes and each project funds the next one, particularly from revenue from his 2001 Oscar-nominee Rejected.
“It’s been a highwire act,” Hertzfeldt says. "I guess it just takes one bomb and I’m working in a video store."
Hertzfeldt became so acclimated to working on film as a student that he bought his own rig when he graduated. It’s a 35mm animation stand and may be up to seventy years old. Electronically it has all the vintage charm of a crystal radio set. What the camera continues to deliver has so pleased Hertzfeldt over the years that he feels no need to move to a digital shooter. For the record, though, this man is in no way a Luddite. He’s maintained a pro-film artistic pose for so long that many fans think he’s completely anti-digital, full stop. But read that credit again at the end of The Meaning of Life: “No computers were used in the animation or photography of this motion picture.” There’s more to a movie than that – the soundtrack was mixed digitally, and even now he’s using digital restoration tools to work wonders on all his films for the upcoming Bitter Films DVD. Many viewers took “no computers” as a political statement, but his intention was much simpler than that: he just wanted to tell young artists you’ve got options.
“Many students I talk to,” Hertzfeldt says, “their first question is, ‘What kind of software do you use?’ And I'd say, ‘No, I actually animate traditionally without a computer.' And lately I've been receiving blank expressions. And it started to dawn on me that more and more people simply don’t know how cartoons used to be made, before everything went digital. Even the people who should know better. I was pitching a studio back when they were still doing 2D and it was the same conversation – ‘I don’t use computers, it’s all traditional, like they did fifty years ago.’ And the exec says, ‘So... does that mean you draw really small on every frame of the film strip?’ And this was one of the guys in charge of making decisions in the industry. So I wanted to remind people, to let students know that you can still do cool things without having to use a computer."
We mainly talked about The Meaning of Life. One of the many artistic benchmarks for The Meaning of Life was Tango, Zbig Rybczynski’s 1981 short where 21 teams of people populate and then de-populate an empty room, moving in loops as they steal a parcel, retrieve a lost ball, have sex, change a light bulb, or make a meal.
“I probably saw it the first time I went to Spike & Mike’s", Hertzfeldt says. "I’ve never seen a crowd scene done better than in Tango. But I wondered, can a crowd even bigger than this be done by hand, without a computer? And how many years would that take?” he laughs.
Hertzfeldt spent a few months before the main production designing walk cycles that conveyed strong personalities. Then he recruited friends to record the hundreds of personal affirmations, complaints, and accusations that defined his huge cast of characters. When he finally started animating the first section of the film, where characters wander on- and off-screen until the crowding is overwhelming, he didn’t over-plan; he laid his animation paper on top of one frame from one walk cycle, traced it, and repeated. When he thought it was time for another character to enter, he’d introduce the next cycle. The paper filled up with dozens of characters all drawn on top of each other, in various stages of their individual walks.
Hertzfeldt intentionally tried to mix up the choreography so the crowd would seem truly chaotic. Oddly, the more random he chose the entries for each character, the more they ended up walking off-screen in orderly groups. “It was unnerving, especially because they'd all been animated separately and were walking at different speeds! I couldn’t figure out how they’d always end up leaving together. Something to do with chaos theory that I haven’t quite figured out.”
Because he was doing it sequentially, unwanted results meant either a lot of erasing or – hand me that beer – going back dozens of drawings and starting over. When the pacing was to his satisfaction he finally started inking, at which point he could animate mouths and decide who was in front. The final product is a beautiful cacophony, just like real life – and it had eaten a considerable amount of Hertzfeldt’s. “I got through those first two minutes of footage, and I was two years into it,” he says. “I never thought it would take nearly that long... I still had the outer space thing I hadn’t started yet, still got all the evolution stuff… It was depressing.”
"It's been playing a lot of children’s film festivals lately. And the feedback I get from children has been interesting because they’re not trying to out-think the movie. They just let it go. Kids seem to absorb things visually better than many adults. I think it is a film that plays better to someone who lets it be, and doesn’t try to decode it. Movies aren't supposed to be decoded."