Cartoons, Movies

TR Interview: Animator Don Hertzfeldt, Picturing Matchstick Men and You

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Don Hertzfeldt can truly claim to be the only director working today to have had a film featuring the repeated line “MY ANUS IS BLEEDING!” nominated for an Oscar.

Now that I have your attention, Hertzfeldt deserves more of it. Said Oscar-nominee, “Rejected,” was an animated short in which Hertzfeldt himself is hired to create commercials, only to go insane and have the spots get weirder and weirder until the drawing paper itself rebels and creates a vortex that destroys all the animated creations. It was of a piece with other creations like “Billy’s Balloon,” in which childrens’ balloons start beating the crap out of their owners. Drawn in simple black and white stick figures with occasional splashes of color, they were sometimes dismissed by animation snobs for having a primitive aesthetic, but appreciated by viewers who could sense the creativity underneath.

His 2012 feature It’s Such a Beautiful Day, which combined his line drawings with filmed backgrounds, and meditated on infinite time, neuroses and the future, was my favorite film of that year, so I was excited to learn he had a new animated short available to view online, and is working on a feature. Also, you might have seen his recent take on The Simpsons couch gag, which was typically unorthodox and anti-consumerist. Here is my conversation with Don Hertzfeldt.

Luke Y. Thompson: There is a tendency, unfortunately, still to view Disney and Disney-like movies as the epitome of what animation should be. We’re still – some of us are still fighting to get past that, and there’s a very entrenched mindset that says otherwise. It’s unfortunate, because it feels like that’s only in America that we have that idea.

Don Hertzfeldt: Yeah, yeah – it’s an American company, and it’s – in a lot of ways, it’s an American medium. So it’s not surprising. We’re all fighting the good fight.

LYT: At the same time, I was wondering – once you got the deal to do The Simpsons opening gag, was that the first time that a big company has approached you, or have there been overtures before, and you’ve sort of rebuffed them to stay more underground?

DH: Uh, there’s been a lot of advertisers, which I won’t do. But beyond that, I don’t think anyone wants to stay underground. [chuckling]It’s more just making sure I can do what I want to. I think a long time ago, a lot of people misunderstood when I would say I don’t want to do commercials, and I don’t want to do commercial work. Which is not always the case – I mean, The Simpsons – who would ever turn that down?

I remember when that premiered. I was, what – 10? 12 years old? Something like that. So that’s every animator’s weird childhood dream is to be on something like that. But yeah, there have been certain advertisers – you know, lots of big advertisers, lots of money that I have turned away from, that I don’t want to think about so much.

LYT: That’s funny, because you’re most famous film was sort of eviscerating the notion of advertising and working for advertisers.

DH: Right! Yeah, you know what? I thought that would do the trick, and that they’d leave me alone, but instead that’s how much they don’t get it. They trade on whatever is perceived as cool, and then they either take it or they’ll steal it another way, and they’ll completely miss the point. They’ll create something that’s all surface. They would create something with stick figures, thinking that’s what people like, without – you know what I mean? It’s just a very shallow way of looking at things, that’s just kind of gross.

LYT: Yeah. With both “The World of Tomorrow” and The Simpsons opening and It’s Such a Beautiful Day, there seems to be a recurring theme of futurism and immortality in your work. Is that a conscious theme, or is that something that’s happened in each case because it felt right for each project?

DH: Umm, it’s something – maybe neither. I never – when I write, it’s never very calculated. I find that it’s really a good way to get in my own way. If I worry about it, if I fuss about the writing too much, it’s not going to be very good.

Most of the writing is very spontaneous. When I’m writing a project like It’s Such a Beautiful Day, there will be scraps of notes all over the place, and I’ll have an interesting thought in the shower – I’ll write that down. I don’t know how it’s going to fit in yet, but I’ll write it down. I’ll have an interesting dream – write that down. I’ll take something from my journal four years ago that I saw in the supermarket – write that down.

It’s really just a process of connecting these things. I’ll have a sentence in my head that’s kind of beautiful and interesting, but I’m not sure why or where it’s coming from. So it’s kind of funny, because when people point out patterns or themes, it’s the exact opposite of my film school experience. When I was in film school, we would deconstruct movies, and you could make a blueprint of the narrative, the narrative relations of these characters. “OK, John Wayne is sitting in the middle of the stagecoach in this scene because he’s a catalyst between these characters.”

We’d plot it all out, and we’d have all these fancy words for it, and I don’t know if any writer really thinks about any of that stuff. At least I don’t. It’s much more – I don’t want to say subconscious, but it’s much more immediate. I feel like I catch ideas, more than I’m coming up with them. So that’s a long way of saying I’ve always been interested in memories and psychology and death, and all of these things that just keep recurring in the films.

And I think I’ve also wanted to do science fiction for a really long time. I think you can see that starting to leak into the end of It’s Such a Beautiful Day. Then it seemed like a perfect thing to do with digital – my first digital piece seemed like, here’s a guy who’s been working with paper and film for 20-odd years, and it’s kind of a fun satire on science fiction when I’m also entering the future.

I’m doing this visual thing, but it kind of looks like it could have been made in the 90’s. It’s not really cutting-edge CG. The Simpsons got in touch only two weeks after I had started “World of Tomorrow.” So I obviously had the futurism on the brain, and The Simpsons would also need to be digital, so it just made sense to make them at the same time, and they shared a little blood.

LYT: I read that you’ve got a feature coming up next. Is that right? You’re actually outsourcing some of the work on that, in a way that you never wanted to before?

DH: Umm – I’m sorry, I missed the last half of your sentence.

LYT: I read that you have a feature coming up, and you had said that you never wanted to relinquish that level of control to make a feature before, but this was sort of a first step.

DH: Umm, I would love to relinquish a lot of the responsibility. I’ve never gotten much joy out of animating – the process of actually animating. I know a lot of animators who love it, they get lost in it. I’m more interested in the writing and the sound effects and editing. To me, the actual act of animating is interesting, but it’s a lot of busy work. It’s very grueling, it’s very lonely.

To work with an actual budget, to work with an actual crew, and a team of artists to collaborate with, that would be fantastic, and I hope it will be fantastic. It’s a project that – the script is pretty old now. The script has been written and re-written for many years. It’s just slow going. Animated features take several years. I’m not holding my breath. It’s going to be a very slow process. We’re just in the very, very early stages right now.

Most likely, I will continue to do shorts at home, like “World of Tomorrow,” on the side, just to keep myself moving. I’m really trained now, and I’m used to being able to come up with an idea and there’s no pitching process; there’s no need to raise funds. I can just start animating it on a weekend, and it’s – the only investment is my time.

So a bigger project like this, for me really the challenge now is learning to be patient. You can’t leap into it just yet, we have a lot of paperwork to do. Probably the next thing that will be released is more shorts, but the feature is slowly brewing.

WORLD OF TOMORROW – Trailer from don hertzfeldt on Vimeo.

LYT: With the slower feature, will that change your aesthetic at all? I would assume that part of the reason you’ve used stick figures so often so far is because they’re quicker to animate and less time consuming. Will that change once there’s a much slower process, or will you retain that sort of unique style that’s all your own?

DH: Umm – we’re going through some visual tests soon, and it’s going to – I guess I should preface that by saying it will retain my style, but it’s going to be sort of a hybrid, sort of an experiment. We have a lot of visual test to do, because a lot of this has never been attempted before. So there’s a lot of fleshing out to be done.

But at the end of the day, you should be able to look at it and say oh, that’s – Don did that, if that makes any sense.

LYT: Yeah. “World of Tomorrow,” that’s available on video for like $4 right now, right?

DH: Uh-huh.

LYT: How is that model working out so far? Is it becoming a good and viable one? Are you seeing a lot of people paying for it like that?

DH: So far, yeah. It’s really new ground for me. I’ve never released a new project like this online. It’s an experiment. Everything else has been film tours and DVDs and all of that used to pay for the next film. So it’s a bit of a risk to do this. It’s only been two days, two-and-a-half days, and it’s doing – it’s interesting, it’s doing OK. It’s slow, but it’s very, very, very steady.

My main concern is that right now we’re right in the middle of an amazing media storm about it. Everyone’s talking about it, we got great reviews, great word-of-mouth, awards. So my concern is, when that goes away, will the film remain steady? That’s what we have to wait and see about. How long until people just pirate the thing?

I was kind of half-joking with a friend of mine, and then I realized there was a bit of truth to this, how we really need to reprogram people’s brains a bit. Everyone is so used to not paying for shorts, and it’s really harming a lot of young artists, and a lot of other artists who won’t even bother to make shorts, because there is no market for it in the United States.

I’ll meet so many animators at film festivals who make amazing things, and they either dump them online for free, because they’re taught that they have no value, or they won’t even bother to put them online, because what’s the point? They’ll play a few fun film festivals, and just disappear.

In my own case, I was thinking if we were to throw a Kickstarter campaign and say “Hey, there’s this vague project I’d like to do called ‘World of Tomorrow,’ please support us, you’ll get this trinket,” there’d be a massive rallying cry of “We have to support our independent artists, Don needs help!” [chuckling]

We would raise probably ten times as much money as doing it this way. Somehow, it’s just the way people are wired now. To actually create something first and then try to sell it – the same people turn around and say “Hmm, I have to pay for a short?” For some reason, the effect is completely opposite.

But it’s encouraging, you know – I think in another few weeks we’ll know for sure. And if it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else next time. It’s just – I want to believe we can build some sort of market for shorts online. It seems so necessary.

IT'S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY – Trailer from don hertzfeldt on Vimeo.

LYT: When you and Mike Judge were doing the touring animation show, did that turn out to be a viable model, or did you stop because it wasn’t?

DH: It was always a struggle. It was something where – we had a lot of trouble. We made a lot of mistakes. Let me preface this first by saying we made a lot of mistakes. If we were to do it again, there’s a lot of things I would do very, very differently. But I think anytime you’re dealing with this sort of unusual film making in the United States, you find yourself constantly ringing the bells and banging the drums and saying – I feel like we’re constantly shoving it into the mainstream. [chuckles]

It’s a constant effort. We did very well in theaters. We did good on DVD. But it was always a – it was never a smooth landing. We always felt like we had to really force it. And it’s just – this was, YouTube was still around, but I don’t know if that was to blame. What we did learn was – oh, boy, I could talk forever about this, but I think a major problem was in a lot of the media, we were perceived as a film festival. Many newspapers wouldn’t review us, because we were – they didn’t look at us as a nationwide release, like we were – like a regular movie.

They thought we were just a local film festival. That hurt a lot too, just not getting coverage when we needed it. So there was a lot going on. But it was – I don’t know, I don’t think animated shorts are ever “easy.” It’s an unusual animal.

LYT: Yeah, I don’t even think the Spike and Mike Sick and Twisted Festival does as well as it used to, although they show it at Comic-Con every year now.

DH: Yeah, yeah, and they – they shut down the regular festival that they used to do, which was so wonderful. I used to go to that when I was a teenager. It’s just rough. It ties into the whole – this weird mindset that we have about shorts in America. It’s a very good reason why when you see shorts from Canada, from the National Film Board, when you see shorts from Europe, they’re amazing, and I would argue that they’re better than most American shorts.

Because in those countries, there is a market for shorts, and they’re appreciated as movies – as miniature movies. In many areas of Europe, television is government run, which means rather than show commercials between programs, they’ll show some shorts. It’s something here – a lot of American shorts, it affects the actual film, because shorts don’t have the support here, and therefore a short film is traditionally in America just used as a stepping-stone or a calling-card.

LYT: Yeah.

DH: The film maker doesn’t really want to make this short. He just wants to make a feature, and he’s got to do this first to prove himself. Or she’s – somebody wants to get an agent, so she’ll make this short. They become very hollow, and they become very similar. That’s just part of the – part of my constant political call.

LYT: I grew up in Ireland, and every once in a while you’d see – they’d just find these weird Czechoslovakian cartoons that they’d use to fill time.

DH: Yeah, exactly!

LYT: You never quite knew what you were going to get.

DH: And there is government funding over there for this stuff. It’s completely – it’s just a different attitude – a better attitude.

LYT: Although they had commercials as well.

DH: I’m sure, I’m sure. Probably a little bit of everything now.

LYT: So was doing the feature something you wanted to do as a long-term goal, or were you always interested in shorts, and then you just got an offer you couldn’t refuse?

DH: Oh, it’s been on the radar for a very long time. It’s just more difficult to arrange, because you’re not working essentially alone anymore. And It’s Such a Beautiful Day was a great gateway to that, because it was a feature that I was able to pull off single – almost single-handedly. But it obviously just took a very, very long time. I’m not getting any younger, and to do more along those lines, it just will take too long.

I’m looking forward to collaborating, you know. To actually – I joked about this before, but to actually walk into a room full of really, really hard-working artists and tell them everything they’re doing is wrong, and just being a bully. [chuckles]Then go to the beach!

I feel like I’ve been through a sort of really grueling animation boot camp for the last 20 years, and to be able to work with a crew now, it might be a bit of a nice luxury, rather than a daunting thing.

LYT: What’s it like for you to work with actors more, as opposed to the earlier shorts that were less sort of dialogue driven?

DH: I love it! I mean, I had the most fantastic time working with Julia on “World of Tomorrow.” The other voice is my niece, who was four years old, and what I loved about her was – first of all, I was really naive to think that I could get her to recite lines back to me. Impossible – forget it. She’s doing her own thing. So I quietly recorded her while we were doing other stuff – while we drew pictures, we talked about the world.

I knew she was the key to the whole thing. She was the very first thing I did for the film, because I knew that if I couldn’t get her really genuine little girl speaking dialogue thoughts, the whole thing would be sunk. And what I loved about that was it was almost like reading with an improvisational actor, in a way. It was just her being herself, and from those sessions, I’d say “OK, I have a clean take of her saying ‘this.’ What could she be looking at? What could she be doing here? What could they be talking about?” And I rewrote my script to match her thoughts, and I rewrote Julia’s dialogue so they could have a seamless conversation.

But what I loved about that was it was generating material where there was none before. I wasn’t – in a way, it took a lot of pressure off of me as a writer, because there were very, very strict parameters. She lives in Scotland. I only had this session of recordings with her. So it was find something to use from this, or nothing. And it was a really great exercise in limitations. And “OK, this is it – what is she looking at? What could this refer to?”

That was refreshing. It took a lot of pressure off. It made it a little easier to write, because it wasn’t all on me all the time, in a very strange way.

LYT: So what’s going to be the next immediate project for you? The feature’s long-term, but is there another short one?

DH: Very long term. Umm – it’s probably going to be another short. I’m kind of circling a couple of things right now. I’m going to be traveling a little bit in the next couple of months. But I started animating something already and feeling it out still. I’m going to see if it’s viable. Again, I think I will definitely be making shorts like I have been at home. It just keeps me from getting – honestly, getting too bored waiting for other things to happen.

LYT: All right, Don. We look forward to it. Thank you very much for talking to me today.

DH: Thanks, man. I appreciate it.

Everything Don Hertzfeldt-related can be followed on his website, Bitter Films.

About Author

Luke Y. Thompson has been writing professionally about movies and pop-culture since 1999, and has also been an actor in some extremely cheap culty and horror movies you will probably never hear much about (he is nonetheless mostly proud of them, as he met his wife on one). As editor of The Robot's Voice since 2012, he can take the blame for the majority of the site's content, all of which he creates because he loves you very, very much. (Although he loves nachos more. Sorry.) Prior to TRV, Luke wrote for publications that include the New Times LA, Los Angeles CityBeat, E! Online, OC Weekly, Geekweek, GeekChicDaily, The L.A. Times, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Nerdist