Interview with the American Film Institute by Hye Jean Chung, November 1 2009
In I AM SO PROUD OF YOU, critically acclaimed filmmaker Don Hertzfeldt presents the second installment of a three-part story about a stick-figure character named Bill, who was introduced in the first film, EVERYTHING WILL BE OK (2006). Containing as much narrative complexity and emotional intensity as any feature length film, this animated short provides us with a glimpse of Bill's deceptively mundane daily routine, memories, and dreams, interspersed with anecdotes from his family history that fluidly interweave humor and tragedy. Boundaries between past and present moments, and real and imagined experiences are also dissolved to tell the compelling, indelible story of Bill and his family. The film itself looks like a dreamscape, with several windows opening against a dark backdrop to offer a concurrent view of multiple times and spaces, or as one character notes in the film, the past, present and future is "laid out like an infinite landscape of simultaneous events."
Don Hertzfeldt has recently finished his theatrical tour of I AM SO PROUD OF YOU that included 33 shows in 22 cities and four countries.
Many people enjoy the unscripted and spontaneous nature of your films. In I AM SO PROUD OF YOU, the episodes seem like disassociated vignettes, like snippets from a dream or a visual stream of consciousness. I don't want to demystify the process of your work, but could you tell us a bit about how you create your films? Do you jot down random thoughts as they spring to your mind? I've heard you say that about 30 percent of your work is based on your own experiences and dreams-are any of them in this film? I'm especially curious about the part about defecating a pile of blueberries, and the aquatic creature making off with a prized cow.
I like how your question sounded like we were about to discuss something really deep and interesting and then you ended with, "tell me about the part about defecating a pile of blueberries." Yeah, I think you're right, the writing usually comes from little pieces of everything... dreams, science books, conversations, little moments that run through my head... especially for this movie because like you say, it's so splintered from scene to scene. the story is jumping from different moments in the past and the present to the distant past, to dreams, to memories, to possibly imagined pasts and imagined futures, to the idea that there's really no such thing as a present. Just from shot to shot, the tense of the narration sometimes changes from the past to the present and back again. moments and scenes may not seem like they connect at first, but overall there is a sort of dream logic that flows you through the whole thing. Which is also how I think the brain works... your senses pick up little fragments of everything from the world and from the subconscious, and it sort of filters out all the noise and creates a whole. But for some people, something is wrong and the brain has trouble figuring out which signals are more important than other signals.
The two bits you mention with the cow and later the blueberries, I think that was all written in one sitting... some nights you are lucky to write one sentence, and other nights many pages sort of come gushing out at once and will refuse to be rewritten afterwards... most of Bill's family history, that whole sequence I think came out all at once.
Again, this is related to the spontaneous, unanticipated nature of your work, but I've often wondered this while watching your films: Do you sometimes think in pure images (without words) when you are creating characters and storylines?
Yes, I think so, but the words are not far behind.
The interweaving of live action and animation in I AM SO PROUD OF YOU is really quite striking. Although it seems to create a sense of disjuncture between the different modes, the juxtaposition of the two also somehow amplifies the "realness" of the animated parts. Could you tell us a bit about your decision to integrate live action shots in this film?
That carries over from the first chapter, EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY, and will be cracked open a bit further in Chapter Three. It's how Bill perceives himself as well as the things around him. The photos and the animation share space and amplify each other - but there is an obvious distance between them. It's Bill's disconnection from the rest of the world. I probably shouldn't say more than that. There's a reason for everything, but trying to explain it can sometimes be like trying to explain why a joke is funny or why a painting is beautiful; it will make sense but since the emotions are gone it will dissolve in your hands.
One of my favorite Peanuts comic strips is one where Charlie Brown looks at a stick figure that Linus drew and makes all sorts of speculations on why he drew him without any hands, and finally Linus looks at Charlie Brown and simply says that he didn't know how to draw hands. The deceptive simplicity and subtlety of your work must invite all sorts of interpretations from various people. How do you feel about this?
Hey, that's one of my favorite Peanuts strips, too. Although it's harder to generate emotion and personality in simpler characters (naturally you just have less to work with), I think it's easier for audiences to project into them and empathize with them. Charlie Brown's a perfect example of that. And I think personal interpretations are exactly what any filmmaker wants. There is little to interpret when I see an animated character that is photorealistically rendered with amazing graphics; that character only exists to me as a noun. I'm more attracted to animation and characters that are drawn from a specific point of view... drawings that start to tell a story as soon as you see them, before the narrative even begins.
In a recent interview, you described Bill as a silent film star, which seems to be a very apt description. One big difference is that silent film stars usually communicated through exaggerated expressions and gestures, while Bill's performance is for the most part understated. But it is amazing how expressive Bill's features and gestures are, considering he's a stick figure. How many times do you have to draw him to get him to be "just right"?
I guess it depends on the scene... but yeah, when a character is stripped down to its very basic features - like just two eyes and a mouth - isn't it amazing how amplified those features become? If I draw one of Bill's eye dots a millimeter this way or that, his demeanor totally shifts, at least to my eyes. If he had a nose and ears and colors and shoes, I think that subtlety would be lessened... I don't think you'd be quite as drawn in by his understated gestures and details you're noticing. When you have a character who doesn't speak a single line of dialogue, those little mannerisms become very important. He's a very minimal character, even for me, so you have to be much more careful about every pose.
Once during a Q and A session, you mentioned how you enjoy the happy accidents that occur when creating hand-drawn animation, as opposed to the rigid and calculative nature of computer animation. Could you elaborate on that by giving us an example from I AM SO PROUD OF YOU?
That big flood of images towards the end of the movie when Bill is having a seizure is a good example... everything is composited in the camera, and that sequence was mostly shot in the spirit of "let's blindly run the film back and forth over beautiful stuff and see what happens." It's colored lights, experiments, colorful photos, film fogs, light leaks, optical effects, all piled one on top of the other. Every frame is made up of several exposures of different things, with drawn animation sort of coming in and out of it. I like having complete control over editing and sound - we are totally digital there - but visually I want to leave the door open a crack. So often you'll get images you would have never otherwise visualized... in a small way it brings to the table one of the strengths of live action.
There is a level of intensity in the sheer amount of information that is included in each sequence of the film-partly because of the emotional intensity of the narrative and the images, and partly because of the simultaneity of multiple temporalities and spaces that co-exist in one frame in different windows. In fact the whole film complicates the uni-directional concept of time by moving across different points in Bill's life and the lives of his family members. Like one character notes, "the passing of time is just an illusion because all of eternity is actually taking place at once; the past never vanishes away and the future has already happened." Would you say that this concept of time is something that pervades the form and content of your work?
For I AM SO PROUD OF YOU, yes, that sentence pretty much explains the narrative structure of the entire short. I get really annoyed when filmmakers say "narrative structure", but there it is.
Going back to the point of Bill as a silent film star, I've heard there's a hidden Easter Egg on the DVD of EVERYTHING WILL BE OK that plays a narration-free version of the film. I've been trying to access it without success. Could you give me (and other clueless hunters) a hint?
Oh, right, just click around left or right on the Special Features page. It should highlight something hidden. The same thing is on the I AM SO PROUD OF YOU DVD.
Besides the anticipated last installment of the trilogy following EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY and I AM SO PROUD OF YOU, could you tell us about any future projects to look out for?
I'm mostly finished now with this new five-minute thing, a really silly cartoon. EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY and I AM SO PROUD OF YOU were made back-to-back and I just needed to do something really quick and really stupid this year before sinking into the long nights of the Third Chapter. We just premiered it in Canada a few weeks ago as a surprise, sort of a test screening I guess, and there were equal parts horrified laughter and horrified screams. In a good way. I'm not sure yet when that will roll into theaters officially. I've also been sort of plugging away at a graphic novel and a couple of other things... but Chapter Three is the big gorilla in the room now.
Even when having no complaints about life we often feel at unease and our identity wavers. Sometimes we feel as if we are as big as the world itself while at times as minute as a speck of dust. We expand and we shrink. This is not a contradiction, both are truths. This is how one might feel seeing Don Hertzfeldt's unfinished trilogy, Everything Will Be OK (2006-). According to Hertzfeldt, in these films what we see on the screen is Bill's subjective world, but what we sense in this world is the existence of a huge world of which Bill is just a very tiny part.
In Everything Will Be OK, the first chapter of the trilogy, Bill starts to recognize that most parts of his daily life are comprised of the repetition of very prosaic acts like putting a key on the same place of a table in his room. Such acts, realizes Bill, waste a large amount of time in his life. He seems to be a little annoyed by this fact but does nothing to change his routine. But gradually things go awry. His gums bleed. His teeth drop. He feels lousy when he wakes up and sees the world deform in front of his eyes.
We never touch the world directly. Each of our brains makes up its own world according to the electric pulses and neural signals that are produced by our sensory organs and transmitted through our nerves. These made-up worlds have not only the sense of sight and hearing like in a movie but also of smell, taste and touch. (They are gorgeous!) Each of these worlds should differ from each other, but, very strange to say, we tend to think we are living in the same world.
Despite having survived a severe disease, he continues to feel his own limitations. In I Am So Proud of You (2008), his life is threatened by another element that destines his existence: genetics. All of Bill's family members and relatives had something that went wrong in their lives and died unhappily. Some of them were hit by a train, an infectious disease took a little girl's life (she even caught on fire), while others died in loneliness. How their lives ended makes Bill (who was nearly dead in the first chapter) think of his own fate. As his colleague says, "Genetics is pretty messed up". Bill's tragic life now seems to have been predestined.
There are too many factors that are out of his control. Bill reads a book describing how each cell in the human body is replaced by another. This means his body is no longer the same as the one from his earlier, happy years. He cannot believe the young Bill in the old pictures is himself. The boundary that defines what he is and what he is not is now blurred. There are too many things even within him that don't actually belong to him, and they gradually eat him up.
We are very limited. We can only live in the world we create and can never understand the world as a whole. We cannot deny the possibility that we are only a part of someone's dream. Even when we are alive the place we occupy is very small. We cannot consciously control our entire body. We spend almost one third of our life sleeping. Even when we are awake, unconsciousness or something physiological affects our conscious part. How highly confined our lives are! We are destined to be engulfed by something bigger than ourselves.
This is one of Hertzfeldt's main subjects in his films, especially the recent ones. Most people notice the apparent change in The Meaning of Life (2005) but it seems to me that the shift has already begun in Billy's Balloon (1998), a very frightening yet funny piece in which kids are abused by their balloons. When watching the film I neither laughed nor felt disgusted. I just felt a chill run down my spine because it seemed to me that this five-minute film was a very accurate and succinct way of recognizing the world: something that is beyond our control beats us up with no apparent reason and there is no way to escape it. This is life. After Billy's Balloon, Hertzfeldt continues to deal with the same theme. In Rejected (2000), Hertzfeldt himself (of course a fictitious character in the film) suffered from his mental illness and the characters in his cartoon are attacked by the power from out-of-frame and sucked into a hole. In Meaning of Life individuals approximate nothing in comparison with the immense scale of time and space of the universe. Watching his films makes us think life is just overwhelming.
The first and second chapter of the Everything Will Be OK trilogy themselves are overwhelming. What an enormous scale of time and space they can condense in themselves. These 17 and 22 minutes animation films have nearly the same scale as, for example, the much longer, 2001: A Space Odyssey. These films cover both the outer and inner dimensions of human beings in the limited format of short pieces.
This is partly made possible by his simple visual style, which is full of blanks on the screen. Hertzfeldt calls himself not an animator, but "a filmmaker who just happens to animate". He doesn't allot heavy weight for drawing itself. He seems to judge his drawing not aesthetically but functionally. The role of his drawing is just to be a catalyst that enables viewers to recognize these stick figures as humans. Maybe he approaches animation very differently from most animators but for me Hertzfeldt`s approach is closer to the nature of animation. In animation viewers see something that doesn't really exist. (Now I'm borrowing the theory of Yuri Norstein: in animation one single line theoretically can be recognized as the universe as a whole.) Even when we are awake and living our daily lives, our thoughts often crane its neck and drift freely like in the tremendously beautiful scene in I Am So Proud of You. We as limited creatures cannot stop daydreaming. In a sense, while watching animated films, we are daydreaming. Hertzfeldt's visual style leaves us more room to do so.
Hertzfeldt's films make us daydream about our own life because in his films there are many things that are like reflections of our real life or the perception of it. We are living in a dream-like world (in a sense it has no objectivity because our ability to recognize the world is very limited) and the Everything Will Be OK trilogy is just like such a dream. Hertzfeldt's films are shocking not only because the visuals and sounds sometimes jolt viewers but also because its content alerts (or corrects) our perception towards life. They awake us to our limitations and the existence of the huge world beyond us.
Everything Will Be OK features Smetana's Die Moldau just as I Am So Proud of You does Wagner's Das Rheingold . Both concern rivers. I Am So Proud of You starts and ends at the seaside. There, someone tells Bill about the sea that exists long before Bill was born and will be there long after he's gone. In these films we can hear the sound of waves every now and then. Through these motifs, we are continually made conscious of something existing beyond our limitation. These two films have a lot of repetition. Same scenes, compositions, plots and situations are repeated by slightly changing their details throughout these films. Life is repetitive and there is something big beyond us. This is just how we perceive life when we feel it as overwhelming. Hertzfeldt's films amplify the overwhelmingness of life.
Hertzfeldt never simplifies anything. Characters in these films are not caricaturing a specific nature of humanity (as is often the case with simple drawings like Hertzfeldt's) but the condensation of humanity itself. Bill suffers from a serious illness and his relatives live miserable lives but this is the condensation of how we as limited creatures truly live. Bill's mother's life is a disaster. She lost her beloved son Randall. She had a divorce. She smelled of baby powder and cheese. She went hysterical and was finally hit by a train. Her fate is cruel and tragic but, considering that no one has a vision that can see everything, this is the nature of human life itself. The piece of paper Bill found after his mother's death is striking. On it Bill's mother had continually practiced writing, "I am so proud of you." She always wanted to give her love but there was not one to share it with. She tried, but failed. This symbolizes our relationship with something that is out of our hands: We struggle to reach it but unfortunately won't succeed in the end.
"Everything will be OK" is not a mere a happy-go-lucky cliche. Its true meaning is revealed when we are awakened to the fact that we are a minute part of the tremendously huge world. The Everything Will Be OK trilogy seeks to recover the uncertainty that always exists in our daily lives but tends to be erased easily by the inertia of living. When we see the world as overwhelming and ungraspable, life resumes its uncertainty and every conviction reverts to only a guess. Uncertainty in life often makes us feel lost and sad, but at the same time it enables us to find something new in very prosaic things. At the very end of I Am So Proud of You , little Bill, a newcomer to the world, thinks of the wonderful things he will do with his life. In the ending of Everything Will Be OK , after recovering from his disease (which broke up his daily routine) Bill sensed something fresh towards falling rain. Such fresh feelings are momentary and soon vanish, but as long as we recognize our limitations and uncertainties, the moment will come when we can think "Everything Will Be OK." Sadly, this will be proved wrong in the end, but still, we as limited creatures cannot stop daydreaming.
By Max Goldberg
for the San Francisco International Film Festival
What if I told you there was a filmmaker who channeled the ghosts of Stan Brakhage and Charles Schultz in equal measure—whose animation veers without warning from vaudeville to existentialism—who working by hand produces special effects to rival any Hollywood fantasia—who has a taste for Richard Strauss's strings and scatological humor—who, at the age of 32, is the envy of advertising executives and burgeoning surrealists alike—who eschews digital cameras for an anachronistic 35mm animation setup and lines fans up around the block in this supposed twilight of theatrical distribution? Who else but Don Hertzfeldt?
Using the rudimentary tools of a hobbyhorse, the Fremont-born animator whisks us away to faraway galaxies, probes our oldest insecurities and deconstructs the mechanics of a punch line. There's enough nonsensical brilliance and flaring imagination in a single Hertzfeldt short to supply several features, but compression is central to his handmade aesthetic. Both in terms of craft and emotional range, Hertzfeldt's evolution from early stick-figure howlers like Ah, l'Amour and Billy's Balloon to staggering works of heartbreaking genius like The Meaning of Life and the Everything Will Be OK cycle has been astonishingly steep.
It could easily have been otherwise. When he was 21, Hertzfeldt's fourth and final short as an auspicious film student at UC Santa Barbara, Billy's Balloon, was selected to play in competition at Cannes. Hertzfeldt missed the Palme d'Or but his edgy wit struck a chord with audiences who learned the lines by heart and tattooed their bodies with his figures. Every marketer dreams of this kind of viral presence, and the advertising offers kept rolling in even after Hertzfeldt's follow-up short, Rejected, took direct aim at corporate shilling. Instead of cashing in, Hertzfeldt plowed into two-year production cycles and untested formal terrain. As the man himself put it in his online diary, "I'd rather just walk through the woods and explore my own places out there, thanks."
Risk is fundamental to Hertzfeldt's arduous process. His style of composite animation entails reworking the same strip of film dozens of time without the luxury of a video playback. This means storyboards resembling physics proofs and an open invitation to serendipity. As the extensive special features on his DVDs makes clear, the Hertzfeldt way is an obsessive-compulsive disorder all its own (Ah, l'Amour is fondly dedicated to "my good friend caffeine"). The miracle of the finished films is that they retain a spark of spontaneity belying thousands of hours of labor.
Hertzfeldt's feel for what's funny is in direct contact with dreams, misplaced memories, common misunderstandings, unspoken observations and all the other flotsam of everyday life. Watching his early shorts now, one is struck right off by the nuanced expressivity Hertzfeldt is able to coax from crudely drawn figures; from the beginning, he displayed uncommon acuity as a writer. In Lily and Jim, for instance, he zeroes in on the impossible odds of a blind date with a few sidesplitting lapses in conversation. From these early exercises, it was only a couple of leaps to the cartoon sublime. The shot across the bow was The Meaning of Life, a self-conscious homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hertzfeldt's vision of the decline of western civilization—a maddening crowd of isolationists, each muttering the same phrase over and over in cacophonous combat—suggests a comic-strip Goya or Nathaniel West. An awed contemplation of the cosmos follows, and for a few breathless minutes Hertzfeldt tests the limits of his imagination.
With the Everything Will Be OK cycle, Hertzfeldt's dense narration style catches up to these visual flights. The films center on Bill, an epileptic stick-figure trying to make sense of his world and coming unglued in the process. Hertzfeldt's multipaneled compositions dissemble space and time without losing sight of the human scale of his character's trials. Especially in I'm so proud of you, the second film in the cycle and Hertzfeldt's best yet, the animator's penchant for furious digressions has a distinctly Joycean flavor. Subsequent viewings reveal that what first seems random in fact forms an intricate, fragmentary mosaic of Bill's dissociative disorder. Hyperfluid ellipses and wormholes rush into tremendous formal jolts, and even the Hertzfeldt faithful may be too stunned to laugh.
The secret of any cult following is trust, and Hertzfeldt continues to reward his fans' devotion with elaborate DVD packages, gutsy touring schedules and steadfast anti-commercialism. Film culture still marginalizes artisanal animation but Hertzfeldt is doing as much as anyone to cultivate a new generation of cinephiles. When he launched the traveling Animation Show in 2003 with Mike Judge, the explicit rationale was "to free the work of these independent artists from the dungeons of Internet exhibition." As to his 35mm working methods, it's certain that tomorrow's frame-by-frame dreamers are paying attention. We're happy to welcome Hertzfeldt back to the Bay Area to celebrate his passionate brand of filmmaking.