Hey folks, Harry here with that sick puppy, Mr. Beaks. Seems he and Don Hertzfeldt sat down to discuss all things depraved about the once innocent and pure world of animation. Leave it to Mr. Beaks to break the ice by talking about Hentai... and from there... well... No man can say. Only, if they were going to talk about Disney Porn and legendary rare animation treats... at the very least they could discuss the test film that Disney's animators made when Walt sent his guys down to Mexico, and the test footage they shot of a "Donkey Sex Show" that featured Donald Duck as the wide eyed American enjoying the antics... TRUE STORY FOLKS - it once showed at the San Diego Comic Con in the Mid-Seventies. Now that's something to discuss... Anyway, THE ANIMATION SHOW may be coming near you, and while you won't see that classic, you'll see quite a bit else. I love that they're throwing vintage things into the mix. Personally, I hope they end up with the classic UPA - TELL TALE HEART narrated by James Mason... it rules!
Because I’m essentially learning this reportin’ thing on the fly as I contribute to Ain’t It Cool News (my prior education on the profession being ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, HIS GIRL FRIDAY and, of course, James Bridges’ scintillating PERFECT, in which John Travolta gets a lesson in journalistic ethics he’ll never forget while fucking Jamie Lee Curtis a whole bunch), I’ve been blessed on occasion to hit upon a few truisms that don’t get taught at, say, the Columbia School of Journalism. For instance, it wasn’t until this chat with Don Hertzfeldt, the insanely talented (or is that talented, but insane) animator of “Billy’s Balloon” and “Rejected”, and, now, co-creator with Mike Judge of THE ANIMATION SHOW, that I realized there really is a sure-fire subject to which every interviewee is likely to respond warmly and loquaciously. But not even my most depraved conversations with Harry could have prepared me for where Hertzfeldt steered our dialogue next. Okay, that’s more than a bit disingenuous; I’m sure Harry’s already not only well acquainted with Dalmatians porn, but working on programming a full hour of it for this year’s Butt-Numb-A-Thon.
In any event, here is Don Hertzfeldt, the Academy Award-nominated genius who made bleeding from the anus funny again. If only all interviews were this much fun. (Note: To avoid tangential overkill, I had to regrettably trim our discussion of profoundly disgusting websites. Another time, perhaps.)
Why is there no Hentai Tentacle Porn in THE ANIMATION SHOW.
(Laughs.) I’m actually glad you asked me that.
That’s the question on everyone’s mind right now.
I’ve been answering the same five questions for two months now. This is very cool. I was really pushing for that, but Mike’s kinda square.
That’s too bad.
Yeah, we’re stuck with a PG deal, but maybe next time we can get a little… hipper. Have you seen the Dalmatians porn?
The “what” porn?
The Dalmatians porn?
It’s like crazy Hentai stuff, only it’s all based on 101 DALMATIANS.
Oh, god, no.
It’s the foulest thing you’ve ever seen on the internet.
Does Cruella de Vil figure into any of this?
No, I think it’s just people with a 101 DALMATIANS fetish, like they… (laughs) I think they just hire some artist to draw the 101 Dalmatians in all of these suggestive poses with tentacles all over them. It’s… it’s actually kind of amazing.
(Laughing.) So, if the money was right…? Never mind. Anyway… Mike explained a little bit about the selection progress for the show, but how difficult was it paring down the selections to fit a ninety minute format?
It was heartbreaking, and it wasn’t. When we started from day one, I was a little nervous. Is there enough material out there to sustain a ninety minute show that we feel is quality? I was more relieved to find that we had three or four hours worth that we fell in love with because then I knew that no matter what we pick, it’s going to be amazing. But the stuff that didn’t make it, we’re going to be putting on DVD, or it’s going to be in next year’s program. I was leaning towards 105 minutes, but everybody kind of wisely talked me down. It does become a marathon for an audience to sit through a lot of shorts, probably just because of all of the credits, you know? But we’ve got a couple of things that are better suited for the DVD.
So you guys do have a DVD planned?
Oh, yeah. It’s going to be kind of interesting because, obviously, it’s next to impossible to get all of the rights that we got for the theatrical show for the DVD. For instance, the Disney stuff, we would never get the DVD rights for that. So, it’s going to be a cool hybrid every year; half of a theatrical show plus half stuff that we think is just as good, but maybe (the prospective short) is, like, twenty minutes long, and it’s a little too much for a theatrical piece. We’re just trying to get a nice mix going. I think we’ll probably be doing DVD’s every year, just our little series that complements the theatrical show. I think it’s cool, too, that the theatrical show isn’t going to be a carbon copy of the DVD. It’s a little more like live theater; it’s gone forever.
And there are some surprises that you just have to see in the theater.
Right. I think the point of this is to rescue films from television and from the internet, and to get them in the theater. I don’t want everyone to just get lazy and wait for the DVD to come out.
Any particular favorites? Were there any shorts that you were just dying to get in there?
MARS AND BEYOND is all to Mike’s credit. He discovered that one, and everybody fell for it real quick. I think… especially now that we were able to restore the film, and get the colors out, we’re really jazzed about that one.
It looked great.
Isn’t it beautiful?
It’s amazing. It kind of reminded me of Miyazaki.
Yeah, a little bit, huh?
A little, I think.
I could just watch that forever. I mean, I’ve seen all of these films over 400 times now. I think I’ve spent the last two months in a Burbank screening room with a notebook, looking at these shorts over and over again, just going, “That soundtrack isn’t loud enough! The colors are wrong there! Oh, my stuff sucks!” (Laughs.) But that one (MARS AND BEYOND) I can keep watching. I mean, I know the narration to a tee, but it’s just eye candy. It’s gorgeous.
“Ident” was one I was jazzed to get in there just because it’s so weird and surreal and Freudian, and nothing you’d expect from Aardman. Also, I’m really excited about Mike’s, honestly, because I had not seen a lot of that before at all. I don’t remember the last time I saw that “Office Space” short anywhere.
I had heard about it, but I’d never seen it.
I think he’s going to try and do more stuff like that for the show. You know, not having to worry about coming up with a story. If he just wants to do a guy getting hit with a shovel… I think he explained it that he’d like to be the Sergio Aragones of the show. You know, the Mad Magazine artist who did the margins?
I think that’s a great fit, just doing ten second vignettes to pad things out a little. It’s really important for him to have fun with it. When he’s done with his latest feature, he can just chill out and draw a guy talking about cucumbers and French fries.
I’m sure it would be far more entertaining than a good deal of the stuff I’ve seen this summer.
I don’t get to see anything anymore. The last thing I saw was HULK.
I liked it.
I liked it. I still don’t know what it was trying to be, but I liked it for the most part. CGI stuff has gotten to the point now where I’m completely taken out of the movie every time I see a CG character because I immediately think, “Does it look real?” I start analyzing the frame, and I’m not in the scene anymore. I’m just, like, “How’s his skin looking?”
There is that danger. Gollum was the one that I thought was well integrated.
It was very well done. That’s was the most gorgeous one I’ve seen yet.
But that’s interesting. I’m wondering if you’d be interested in trying out CG, or do you think there’s too much of that around?
It’s whatever serves the story best. I’m always trying to tell students – because there’s always this trend to stampede to whatever’s new – and when you’re a student you always stampede toward what’s less expensive. Digital, is, obviously, the hot thing, especially for animation. But there’s a lot forgotten in that it’s just as important, if not more so, than choosing… I mean, not just between shooting on film or digital, but 2D or 3D, claymation or crayons… all of that is just so crucial to what your film is saying, and what it adds to your film. It’s like color versus black and white, or super-8 versus IMAX. Your format is huge, and I think a lot of people overlook that. They go straight to CG with their stories without thinking what these other mediums might bring to it. I think that’s a danger. Animation is, I feel, the most powerful film medium because the artist is dealing with every single frame physically – literally, sometimes – and you’re only limited to what you can imagine. You can literally do anything you want to; you can make the most surreal, crazy thing! Yet what gets everyone so excited is boring old reality. Photorealism has never been the goal of animation. I don’t know why that gets everybody excited because it’s just… outside! (Laughs.) I can look outside, and know that it’s great. I mean, it looks like SHREK out there, but who cares? I want to see something I’ve never seen before. When they do FINAL FANTASY… f/x animation like HULK is one thing because you’re trying to duplicate reality, obviously. But when you’re not integrating it, and you can do anything, it’s the lazy choice to obsess on how real it looks.
I agree. On FINAL FANTASY, I actually thought it looked beautiful until we got to the humans, and then it was the most horrifying thing I’d ever seen.
Yeah. It’s a gimmick. It’s a William Castle trick. There’s no reason to do it other than to say, “We’re trying to do humans now. Buy a ticket!”
I’m hoping it’s a fad. The whole flap over 3D now… I’m praying it will spark some new inspiration in the 2D folks. Kind of like 100 years ago when photography changed the face of painting, and nobody painted realistically anymore because you had this new thing. It kind of created surrealism. I’m hoping that it can open new doors because it’s so depressing.
So, then, best case scenario: what will THE ANIMATION SHOW accomplish?
(Don initially answers the question with a laugh that grabs me by the lapels, knees me in the groin and screams, “How do you expect me to answer that, you nancy-boy?”)
I mean, aside from creating a bunch of Don Hertzfeldt storm troopers, who are going to rise up—
(Laughs.) My precious clones.
And rule the world with non-sequiturs.
I don’t know. Right now, we’re pretty modest. I think we’re just trying to, at least, create a market for this sort of thing. Right now, if you’re a short-film maker, especially if you’re an American and you’re a short-film maker, there are so few options. Even on the internet now, even with DVD, not only are your horizons… darkened, but ninety percent of the people you can go to will just rip you off and steal your rights away. I think Mike and I share that history. I started doing this when I was eighteen, and I kind of learned as I went how to read a contract, and what “exclusivity” means, and what not to do. There are so many people who will just take you. More to the point, you feel lucky to be on the big screen, which is just wrong. I guess what I’m saying is that there’s no market for this kind of thing in the United States because the short film isn’t really seen as a medium unto itself. It’s usually treated as a calling card for a student, or an independent, who can’t afford to make a feature yet, so he can show it to the studios, and it’s his key to getting funding to finish it and make a feature out of it. Pixar and Sony, they’ll test out their new software with a short before they can make a feature with a new feather program, or something. Whereas overseas there’s a demand for this stuff because their television is government run, so rather than show commercials, they show short films to fill time between programming. Demand obviously equals more product and higher quality stuff. There are actually people bidding over shorts there, whereas here that would be unheard of. Maybe it will take just a half-dozen other festivals like this to come out of the woodwork and create bidding wars for these shorts; to bring the nominees every year to Middle America where they’ve never been seen on the big screen before, and get the spotlight on these filmmakers. Some of my favorite films of all time are shorts, and it’s kind of frustrating to see people to feel lucky just to have them on the internet, for chrissakes.
It’s not the ideal presentation, and, frankly, it looks like crap.
You’re actually… you’re younger than me, which kind of sucks.
(Laughs.) You make me feel like I’m not trying hard enough… but I think we’re close enough in age that I assume we were probably watching the same early morning and afterschool animation that I was in the 80’s.
HE-MAN, G.I. JOE, TRANSFORMERS, VOLTRON… all of that. Did the overly serious, kind of moralistic tone of these shows play a part in shaping your irreverent sensibilities?
The weird thing is, I was more of a film dog when I was growing up. I always wanted to just make movies. Cartoons… I mean, I watched the “Loony Tunes” like every other kid, but I wanted to make STAR WARS. I mean, I always drew, like every kid drew, but when I was fifteen I got a video camera for my birthday, and it had a frame motor on it, which is really rare, actually. You could take it frame-by-frame; it was called a “time-lapse” feature, but you could jimmy it so it would take a frame at a time.
I actually had one of those, too.
It was 8 mm.
Oh, right. I have one of those now, actually, because I still pencil test on video, but I was still testing on this old broken down camera up until a year ago. It kind of got me through high school, survival-wise. Every weekend, I would teach myself more about animation, and just do these little cartoons of stuff blowing up and people running around. I got into UC-Santa Barbara for their film program, and I learned pretty quickly that everybody else doing their student projects were spending upwards of twenty to thirty thousand dollars to make 16-milimeter short films using their rich uncle’s money. I couldn’t afford that, and I realized that I already know how to animate, and no one is using this animation camera. I made my first cartoon there for $400. You can work by yourself, and your eighteen year old roommate isn’t playing a fifty year old. No matter what you do in a live action student film, it’s still going to look like a student film. You can’t control the weather, you don’t know what you’re doing yet, and you can’t show it anywhere after the campus screening. So, it was really just a practical thing. I made enough to make the next cartoon, and I made the four films in four years, then I was able to afford to buy the 35-milimeter animation camera that we have now for the new stuff. It’s weird. I’ve never taken an animation course, I’ve never formally studied. Obviously, I can’t draw like the Disney guys can do those life drawing and stuff. I’m just doing what I can, and it came out interesting. It’s hard to describe, I guess.
It’s essentially minimalism.
Yeah. It serves the story somehow. I wouldn’t be doing this if I were trying to do FANTASIA 2000 with the whales, or something ridiculous like that.
That actually might be interesting with stick figures. But do you think you could explain the legitimacy of minimalism, and why animating stick figures doesn’t mean you’re a lousy artist?
Well, I am a lousy artist. (Laughs.) I always compare it to the music world. You can find a million singers, like opera singers, Mariah Carey-style singers, who can sing better than Bob Dylan. And you can find a million session players who can play guitar better than Bob Dylan. But that doesn’t mean Bob Dylan doesn’t have anything interesting to say. I think it’s very comparable in the sense that, for instance, Disney has a thousand animators working, and they’re your session players; they’re the violinist in the orchestra. They’re not writing anything, but they’re playing the notes very beautifully. I think I’m more of a garage band, the do-it-yourself kind of guy. It’s the only analogy I can think of that justifies it. (Laughs.) I think it does serve what we’re doing. I don’t think “Rejected” would be very funny if it was 3D, for instance. It’s got a certain charm to it. But it’s very frustrating to me, actually, because a lot of people see stick figures, and they just assume, “Oh, this guy’s drawing with his left hand.” They immediately think it’s poor animation, whereas I’m animating in twos and ones, which is on par, or better than, at a technical level, the highest quality studio stuff.
What’s the average production period on your shorts?
“Billy’s Balloon” took about nine months. “Rejected” took about a year and a half. The three new ones for THE ANIMATION SHOW took about nine months. It’s entirely too long, and it’s because I’m doing everything. I don’t use cells, so there’s no recycled animation. Most of the time, everything you see on screen is literally being drawn over and over again. That’s what makes it jittery. Meanwhile, Bill Plympton can make a feature in the same time it takes me to make a short, which is endlessly frustrating. But it’s just a different production method.
He’s like a well-oiled machine. He’s been doing it forever.
He’s a lot like a 1950’s exploitation director. It’s great to listen to him talk. He calls them “pictures”, and he’s got that kind of excitement about putting out all of these movies. It’s very inspiring.
Do you go into these shorts expecting to take them to such extremes, or does that just evolve naturally over the entire process?
Extremes? How do you mean?
Like in “Rejected”. Did you have the whole thing plotted out, where your mental state would gradually decline, or was that something you worked into? (Essentially, what I now realize I was asking in a bizarre roundabout fashion was, “Do you script your shorts?”)
I don’t really start with scripts because the stuff takes so friggin’ long. Especially with comedy, you just get sick of the jokes after a while. Inevitably, I come up with better ideas as I go. I don’t know… when you write, do you feel like this? Because a lot of the time when I’m writing, it seems like re-writing is more important than the first stuff you get down.
Well, for me, the first stuff is always bare, and not terribly funny. When you embellish it, it becomes livelier and funnier.
Yeah. And it’s, honestly, just more fun to make when you’re not tied down to a script for nine months, and you doubt the stuff while you draw it. It’s changed from show to show, but something like “Billy’s Balloon” or “Rejected”, which starts with maybe just a handful of scenes, or just a concept, and I just start animating. It’s such a horrible, time consuming process, but you’ll come up with something better. I think the very first thing I animated for “Rejected” I threw away, and did a different thing that was a little step up. I don’t think I came up with the ending until we were close to the end of animating all of the pieces, and then everything changed again when it was shot. That finale was a disaster when it was finished; it was just not funny, it wasn’t working, it was too slow. Rebecca and I just reedited the order of those sequences over and over again. We cut out every bit of fat we could find. Then, going into the sound mix, lots of those talking heads, we didn’t know what they were saying yet. (Laughs.) Rob and I did the voices. In that sense, we would record a scene, mostly improvisational, and go, “Okay, it’s kind of funny that way.” Throw in some sound and, like, “Oh, it might work.” Then tear it all down, mix it in an entirely different way, with different lines of dialogue, and then it’s funny in a completely different way. It starts getting to the point when scenes started getting funnier when the dialogue was backwards. We were just so close to it, and got deeper and deeper into it, and pushed more and more out there. I think you just reach a point where the film says, “Stop fucking with me!” And you know, “Okay, this is it. We can’t mix that anymore.”
The trilogy for the show was the same way. The intermission, and all of the surreal stuff… we’d animate a few scenes, and then we’d watch it and go, “You know, this isn’t enough. He needs to run around more.” So I threw in the stuff with the rainbow and the ponies (laughs)… running around in the flowers, and that worked a little better. I don’t know if that’s how a lot of animators work, but it just seems more fluid and organic to me. It’s a better time, being able to play like that.
I saw that you’re taking ten seconds out of “Intermission in the Third Dimension”.
Yeah, that was the one time where a test screening actually helped me. I’ve never really done them that much. A lot of times, I like leaving scenes long and awkward, kind of twisting the knife and making things uncomfortable.
I loved the guy walking forward and walking back.
That’s the segment we cut.
Well, not the whole segment.
But the longer that goes, it’s just great.
But it’s poison. The original joke was, and Mike and I were talking about this a *long* time ago. I want him to have fun, and I want him to be able to relax from all of the other stuff he’s doing. I don’t want this to be a source of stress. But we always wanted to do a 3D short for real. We looked into it, and talked to a lot of 3D people. The polarized way is really the way to go – the red-and-blue way can get a little irritating – and I think we might try doing it for real one year. But we just came up with some ideas, and that was just a leftover. We were like, “We should spend all of this money doing this 3D thing, make everyone put on the glasses, and all he does is walk back and forth.” (Laughs.) And we should just have him do it for a minute, just have him keep walking. So, we had been talking about that, and I think that’s the problem. I think it was much funnier when it was originally supposed to be in 3D.
(Laughing.) I still think the idea is hilarious. I don’t have glasses on, but he’s going to keep walking back and forth.
(Laughs.) I know. Well, I was like, “I think I’ll throw it in there anyway and just say ‘3D glasses not available in areas,’ and just make people sit through this.” And have car horns going off, so it’s like surreal, like it’s all supposed to be so amazing. That’s one that I went a little too far on. It played twice in Austin, and both times it started with a *huge* laugh. He starts walking up, and everyone gets it. We were like, “Oh, we hate this shot now because it’s so long, but it works. Thank god!” And then the laugh… you can just taste it, it just starts dropping and dropping, and he just keeps walking. I was like, “Oh, fuck, I pushed this!” It was just poison with the audience. But we were like, “Well, maybe it was just Austin.” And in L.A. it was the same thing. They just start hating you. So, I trimmed that down. I saw it for the first time today, and I was like, “Oh, yeah, it’s perfect now.” It’s just long enough where people are sick of it, and then it’s off the screen.
On the other hand, though, you know that long distance shot in “Billy’s Balloon” where he just picks him up and drops him?
Goes all the way down, picks him all the way up, and drops him again. That goes on for way too long, and that always had the same effect, too. Audiences laugh huge the first time, polite the second time, but the third time they just hate my guts.
But that’s great! That’s holding on to it too long, and generating that audience contempt.
But that was on purpose. The thing with the walking, I was like, “Ooh, we don’t want to do that.” Maybe I’m losing my touch. I don’t know.
I don’t know… it’s just my opinion. Trust me, it’s—
But the fact that you said, “NOOOOO!” It’s good that you liked that scene.
Yeah, but I’ve been liking a lot of things that other people don’t. I think I’m a really bad judge.
I like the 3D bit the best. I wasn’t too happy with the intro. The ending’s pretty cool, but it’s a little too short for me.
Robots always go over big.
That was rough to do, but great to see when it was finally up there.
What animators, and animated series, are you into now? Are you watching anything like ADULT SWIM?
Not really. Honestly, I feel like a tool because I don’t watch enough animation. I loved FINDING NEMO; I thought that was the best film I’ve seen all year. Those guys can do no wrong, it seems. I’ll still watch THE SIMPSONS if I remember it’s on, but there’s a lot of stuff—
And KING OF THE HILL, of course.
(Laughs.) Of course! Absolutely! KING OF THE HILL is great! I also wish I saw SOUTH PARK more often, but I never know when it’s on. I don’t watch a lot of T.V. I feel like one of those assholes who say, “Oh, I don’t watch T.V.,” but I *really* don’t watch T.V.
You have a life.
Actually, I don’t have a life. I think I’d rather watch cartoons than sit and draw them.
Why wouldn’t the Cartoon Network air “Rejected”?
I don’t know. I never really got an explanation. I felt bad for them because it wasn’t their fault, and I think they were very embarrassed. I was bummed out just because they hyped it like crazy, and I think a lot of people were looking forward to it, and they didn’t get to see it. I’ve heard a lot of rumors – it was supposed to be on for two years or so – and they were always struggling with the censors allegedly over the fact that one of the characters says “Sweet Jesus!” I always thought that was hilarious because I thought they’d hate the blood and the guts and the nastiness, and the word “fuck” is barely bleeped, but you just can’t say “Jesus” on their network. But apparently everything else is cool. (Laughs.) Then, I heard that wasn’t really true, but it was… I never really got a straight answer. Then, it was going to air, and when they yanked it they didn’t really give me an explanation. (The Cartoon Network) talked about it, but it sounded like they didn’t even know why. The latest rumor I’ve heard is that somebody in a position of power at the network, not at the Cartoon Network, but at Turner Networks, somehow saw it and declared it not funny. And his personal opinion overrode the ADULT SWIM guys.
I think it probably *was* Ted Turner.
(Laughs.) That would be pretty cool, actually. It’s too bad; I hope it will be able to air somewhere on American television, but, ironically, it’s aired on Cartoon Network Spain… and all over Europe. They have the rights to show it for another nine to twelve months, but I think they’re going to have to write it out, and then I can take it somewhere else.
Do you have any feature length ambitions, or live action?
It depends on the story for live action. I’d love to give it a shot if I come up with something that I think would be better told with live action. I was peddling a few animated feature scripts. I think I took a meeting with every animation studio in L.A. I think that was right when I was graduating, when “Billy’s Balloon” was finished. I was going to write something at Fox for, like, a second, but then TITAN A.E. imploded their entire division. But, honestly, I suck at pitching. Have you ever had to do that?
Very few times, and, yeah, I’ve certainly not learned the art.
As you can tell, I usually stammer when I talk. I’m really bad at that. I’ve almost gotten to some impressive levels at a couple of studios, but I’ve learned pretty quickly that at least I’m lucky enough to have an audience for the shorts. I’d like to try it again, but the time it takes, and the energy it takes to get something off the ground. Just listening to Mike’s stories, and he’s making a new live action feature right now, or he’s trying to get it through… it’s just a lot of stress. And by the time you’re ready, you’re already sick of your own script. I think it’s inevitable that I’m going to give it another try one of these days, but I don’t feel the pressure so much anymore. When I was doing shorts five years ago, I felt the need to break out of shorts, but everyone wanted to do “The Billy’s Balloon Show”. Nobody wanted to do anything episodic or interesting. I mean, you’re a writer, you know how it works. Everybody wants dinosaurs on a boat looking for Private Ryan. It’s hook, hook, hook. Nobody wants to see stick figures having a conversation.
Maybe Stick Figure Tentacle Porn. That’s where it’s at. Have you thought about playing THE ANIMATION SHOW at penitentiaries?
I think, in this day and age, any audience is a blessing. I think we’ll play every venue that will have us.
And the schedule is ever-expanding?
We’re shooting the moon with this thing. I don’t care if we lose money in half of these venues, like in some backwoods theater where there’s no market traditionally for this. Mike and I are not interested in raking in the dough here. It sounds cheesy, but we want to be the good guys, and we want to get this stuff seen and exposed, and into the mainstream. I think we’re going to play every state and take it international, if we can get the rights.
Their quest officially begins this Thursday night in New York City at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. Check out the show’s schedule at the official website here, and find out more about Don Hertzfeldt at Bitter Films.
Check in tomorrow for my conversation with Mike Judge.