articles and interviews archive

September 25 2008

Entering the "bat cave" that is Don Hertzfeldt's private animation studio, one cannot help but be overwhelmed. Dusty, stuffy, and chaotically "organized," it's difficult to fathom that this two-room rental has spawned such classic shorts as Billy's Balloon, The Meaning of Life, and the Oscar nominated Rejected. Then again, looking at Hertzfeldt himself—a pale, rumpled, and endearingly awkward 32-year-old who doesn't look a day over 25—it's hard to imagine that he's even the man behind it all.

A UCSB grad, Santa Barbara resident, filmmaker and admitted perfectionist, Hertzfeldt has spent the last 10 years of his career in this rundown studio of sorts. Sure, he lays claim to a Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking from Sundance and has scored a nod from Cannes, but Hertzfeldt is not above a bargain. Tucked off the street in a literally top secret location, the building provides a cheap and functional home for Hertzfeldt's unending list of projects. It also houses one of less than 100 functioning 35mm Richardson camera stands in the world.

Hertzfeldt's weapon of choice since 1999, the Richardson is a beast of a device. Between its suspended camera, attached table, and big steel and bolt appendages, it's no wonder the guy isn't budging. Currently, the Richardson is littered with tiny scraps of black construction paper and still photos—a sign of Hertzfeldt's current goings-on. As he informs me later over dinner, the animator has literally just wrapped production and fine-tuning on the follow-up short to 2006's Sundance winning Everything Will Be OK. The film, titled I am so proud of you, will be the second in an as-yet-to-be-finished trilogy starring Bill, Hertzfeldt's possibly disease-stricken stick man.

In Everything Will Be OK, Hertzfeldt's Bill wanders through life much like any Average Joe. Through tiny windows (which Hertzfeldt handcrafted by affixing pieces of black construction paper to his camera lens) the viewer watches Bill's mundane thoughts and humorous actions. But slowly the focus shifts. We learn that Bill suffers from a numbing mental disorder that brings with it dark thoughts and a horrifying struggle with what is imagined and what is reality. The story is one that resonates deeply, providing a bizarre but truthful look inside the mind of the mentally disturbed.

Much like Everything, I am so proud of you took nearly two years to complete. And, as he admits, two years is a long time to be working by yourself in a tiny room. "No matter how much time I have, things always wind up last minute … We just finished [the new film] last week. It's premiering at two film festivals in Canada next week—No, tomorrow's Wednesday. This week—it's premiering this week." The hilarity of the situation is not lost on me. Hertzfeldt has quite obviously been scurrying to get this film done—and up to his extremely high cinematic standards—before the close of awards season. And considering the glowing critical reception of Everything Will be OK two years prior, it seems like a smart move.

June 2008

After watching the documentary 'Watching Grass Grow' on the Bitter Films DVD, a time lapse film showing you drawing your film 'The Meaning of Life', I was almost ready to rip my own hair out. How many more years have you got in you making this kind of painstakingly laborious animation before you go crazy?

at the end of each movie i'm drained and hollow and seem to always go through an angry "i'm never doing this again" sort of phase, but that usually wears off after a couple weeks and i go leaping blindly right into the next one. i've got a pretty bad memory and maybe it helps reset me to a happy blank slate at the start of each movie. i'm not sure if that's depressing or not. i've got no patience for people, people wear me out fast, but i seem to be a good personality match for this kind of slow-motion patient work. i don't feel especially self-discplined. if anything i usually feel really lazy and wish i could get more done. but i still get excited by the ideas, and so far it's been enough to carry me through as all the months pile on. i've started building some larger projects that will eventually need a crew of artists and other new elements for me to play with and shake the process up. but at the end of the day the freedom of doing the shorts is what i've always wanted to do, you're making the movies you want on your own terms, and the constant fear of losing that is a good motivator to hurry up and make as many of them while i still can.

Your most recent film, 'Everything will be OK', is the first in a trilogy. The second part, 'I am so proud of you' is due to be released this year. Is creating the final chapter a priority or will you begin work on something else and shelve the final chapter somewhere towards the back of your brain?

it's something i'm figuring out right now, i'm not sure whether to leap right into chapter 3 this year or put something else in front of it first. i've been developing a new thing for tv that was supposed to come up next, but we're looking at delays now that have kinda jumbled my calendar. so i'm not sure... chapter 3 is still mostly unwritten other than a broad outline, so there's a lot for me to do there before i can pick up the pencil again. i was thinking of maybe just relaxing and doing a few quick dumb cartoons like the three i did between "rejected" and "meaning of life", though i don't know exactly what i'd do with them. but who knows, everything could change in a week. just today i had an interesting idea that would open the door for doing further chapters beyond part 3. on the other hand, i'm surprised at how much i like the end of "i am so proud of you", and in a way i think it could actually serve as a satisfying end to everything if chapter 3 somehow never wound up happening.

As a film student, have you ever been close to pushing aside animation and just picking up a video camera to create your films?

i had the opposite experience, i actually had every intention of being a live action director in school but i never realized how expensive that was, i just couldn't afford it. i also found that no matter how much money the kids poured into their live action stuff they always just looked like student films. even if you found a really good crew, you could still never get around the fact that you had to shoot it in some kid's backyard or on campus somewhere and all your actors are 19 years old. i had made dozens of little VHS cartoons years before i got to university, but i don't think it dawned on me right away to carry that over to film until i realized how much more control i'd have. and animation was all i could afford to do there anyway, because you needed to buy less film stock and could conceivably work alone. in my first year there i remember being a bit surprised that i could actually animate my student films for credit, like i was getting away with something.

One fact about you that blows me away is that you have never had a job before. Obviously you're fortunate to have carved a career where you can survive on your art, but have you ever felt that perhaps having a horrible, spirit crushing 9-5 position may be beneficial artistically to your style of comedy?

no, independent film is plenty spirit-crushing. i work much harder on the films than i ever would in a 9-5 position, it's seven days a week with no holidays.

I've been a dedicated advocate of your work for some time now. I think i've sat through "Rejected" and "Billy's Balloon" three or four hundred times just spreading the good word about you to people. A lot of artists are always quick to dismiss their past work, how do you feel about your previous films? Do you still get a kick out of watching them or are you done with them as soon as you've finished making them?

i like them, i don't think i've ever been able to view them the same way other people do, but i would never dismiss them. they've mostly held up really well for me. they're not all necessarily the same movies i'd make today, but you sort of appreciate them as time capsules of your younger self and maybe the stage of life you were going through then.

Don, you're a good looking guy with a skill in story telling way beyond your years. You make me completely jealous with your success. How did you get so good looking?

nightly i bathe in the virgin blood of lesser animators.


Any idea what a second of your films costs to make?

i actually haven't got a clue. i work from a low budget, but i work alone and pay for everything out of pocket so i never really have to keep track of exactly how much i'm spending during a project; and i don't want to ever think about it while i'm working, and risk letting money affect any decisions. and my costs get pretty abstract and meaningless anyway... a minute of my finished footage on paper might only cost as much as the film stock did, but it doesn't take into account all the months spent pouring images into it.

May 2008

How useful was your [film school] education?

it was huge... studying the guts and language of movies, the history, the theory, all of that shaped my flailing energy into clearer ideas. it's maybe strange in hindsight that all my education was in live-action film, but i think any well-rounded animator needs to understand editing, camera, sound, directing, acting, writing... you can't make a movie if you only understand how to draw.

Are you considering a TV series?

yeah, for the last few months i've been putting together my first project for tv. it's the first time i've had an idea that i'm interested in going the distance with in a longer, episodic format. it's not related to any of the short films.

Your films are getting longer. Is this leading to features?

features are a horse of a different color. i animate in 1's and 2's so if i were to tackle a feature alone it would probably take 20 years. so i'd need a studio's help and financial backing, like i'm doing now for tv - but i don't think anybody in those feature film positions are really interested in doing hand-drawn animation anymore.

It seems that increasingly we're seeing more and more feature animations. Is this something you feel you want/have to do?

yeah, it used to be. "something you feel you have to do" is a good way of putting it. in the late 90s i commuted back and forth to LA to meet with every studio under the sun to get a feature film going. i eventually had a deal set up to develop an animated feature, but the whole process was frustrating because my heart just wasn't in it anymore, and it became one of those things that you know in the back of your head is going to be fruitless, but you sort of pursue it anyway because you think you're supposed to. and the studio shot down all my ideas anyway. i was slow to realize that i already had all the creative freedom i wanted in making my own short films without interference, they had a great audience, i could so far make a living doing them, so why bang my head against the wall trying to conjure up something to please these people? just last week i read a great martin scorsese quote: "don't make the movies you can make, make the movies you want to make".

Tell me about Bill Plympton's influence (if any). It seems to me that you've followed his model of creating indie films. You don't rely on grants or studios and instead generate revenue from your work which you then pour back into your work.

i saw bill's first few shorts when i was 12 or 13 and yeah, it was invaluable to realize there was somebody out there who's regularly able to do this for a living, and do it on his own terms (and who doesn't draw backgrounds either!). think he's been a guy that a lot of people have pointed to and said, "well if he's figured out a way to do this, maybe i can too". there's a famous quote about the velvet underground's influence in the 60s and 70s: although they didn't sell millions of records, everyone who did buy one of their albums went out and started a band of their own. i think the same could probably be said about bill's influence on indie animators in the early 90's.

How has the animation landscape changed since you started making shorts? Has it become easier for you? Are there more opportunities?

i guess, but opportunities is kind of a tricky word. there may be a thousand websites now who'd love to show your movie for free, but in many ways that would be taking several steps backwards for a filmmaker. artists need to be more careful and aware of their rights than ever. new opportunities bring new people out to take advantage of you. and a lot of these new venues, like watching movies on ipods and phones, are just dismal ideas to begin with. there's no kid anywhere in the world right now dreaming of making her own movie someday and premiering it on a fucking phone.
new and more convenient often means one step forward and two steps back... instead of nice stereo systems, most people listen to music now compressed into mp3s through crummy computer speakers and ear buds. and anticipating all those weak new sound systems, bands are compromising by crushing the dynamic range of their albums down into these louder, shallower mixes with no dimension. so music's more convenient now, but for many people it sounds worse than it did ten years ago. i'm still getting used to the new disposable-media universe. companies want to compress, shrink, and beam my movies into all these strange new places. and meanwhile i'm finding that some film festivals won't even project 35mm prints anymore - it's too much nuisance now in favor of "digital projection" - which to them just means taking compressed consumer DVDs and horribly blowing them up 30 feet to fill the screen.

People (including me in an old article) talk about violence in your films (notably "Billy's Balloon" and "Rejected"), but it seems to be that fear and anxiety are more consistent themes. Are these your own concerns as well?

very little of what i write is consciously mapped out and calculated, i'm often animating a scene the same day i wrote it; and by "wrote it" i mean it came to me from nowhere while i was washing dishes or asleep. so sometimes it's only when i take a step back from everything after the movie's finished that i start noticing some of the themes or double meanings and stuff that other people point out. so it's hard to say. on the surface "rejected" and "ok" and "life" and "lily and jim" and "billy" are all very different from each other, but thematically i think they're all speaking the same language and coming from the same place.

Does articulating the fears/anxiety through film help ease your mind at all or is it less about unloading your baggage and instead just dumping the bags on the screen... like, "look this is how I feel." Is it about helping you overcome your 'stuff' or just hoping that your audience will find comfort in seeing films that might reflect their own fragile psyche?

i don't know, that sort of thing never really crosses my mind. i think there seems to be something inherently therepeutic just in the act of animating. you sit all alone for months and patiently build something bigger out of thousands of almost invisible movements. doesn't that sound kind of tai chi or something? and it's very good to be forced to be alone with your thoughts, which animation requires in spades. too few people are truly alone with their thoughts anymore.

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