Movie News

GhostBoy interviews the animation genius Don Hertzfeldt!!!

Published at: June 3, 2005, 2:25 a.m. CST by staff

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, Hertzfeltd's directed and animated some truly brilliant shorts - Billy's Ballon, 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.

So here we go:

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 oiften 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!

That's it for this round of whatever it is that I do. Up next: a look at a really wonderful little indie film starring a member of the cast of Friends, and an interview with the director of said film. It's a gem (the film, not the interview, which I haven't actually done yet).

Until then, go support The Animation Show!

Ghostboy

Readers Talkback

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  • June 3, 2005, 2:43 a.m. CST

    Hertzfeld is a genius

    by iamnicksaicnsn

    I'M A baNANa

  • June 3, 2005, 2:49 a.m. CST

    Ooops, forgot the last t...

    by iamnicksaicnsn

    my bad

  • June 3, 2005, 3:08 a.m. CST

    Awesome

    by jose-cuervo

    Somebody like PIXAR needs to give this guy a 3 picture deal immediately. All of the movies I've seen of his are basically the best animated shorts ever. We caught "Meaning of Life" in NYC and it was nothing short of sublime. It started off kind of silly, got geek-heaven weird, and ended up knocking me out of my head. Totally astonishing animation, especially to think he does it all without computers.

  • June 3, 2005, 5:35 a.m. CST

    Don's the most important American animator alive

    by zikade zarathos

    Pixar may have the bucks, but Hertzfeldt has the originality. Beyond the whole never-uses-computers thing (which, by the way, doesn't make the art intrinsically better, just more "impressive", I guess), it's his subject matter and natural comedic genius that makes his stuff always worth watching.

  • June 3, 2005, 8:28 a.m. CST

    David Shrigley

    by Trevor Goodchild

    Anyone aware of his work?

  • June 3, 2005, 10:49 a.m. CST

    Genius?... Absolutely! But....

    by Redrockmullet

    I there are still millions of people who have never heard of him or his work ( this talkback being one good example ). If you've not heard of Don then you really need to do a little research. His website, www.bitterfilms.com, is a great way to get introduced to him, though there aren't any long films on it. As good as Rejected was, I'd still say that "Life as a Guy" is funnier and is the absolute truth!

  • June 3, 2005, 11:59 a.m. CST

    'Life as a Guy'?

    by Stan the Bat

    I haven't seen it. I don't see it at bitterfilms.com. More information, please! Also- for a while, the bitterfilms site was threatening that a compilation DVD would someday be available. Folks who want to support this kind of work should keep an eye on the site and pony up the lousy $20 or whatever it'll be when the opportunity presents. And no, I'm not connected in any way, etc.,etc.

  • June 3, 2005, 12:04 p.m. CST

    by foreignerbelt

    I am feeling FAT AND SASSY! Lots of the time I dont like stuff like this getting out because then it stops being my little secret. Mike Judge I guess is already pretty well known for his shorts from Liquid Television, 2 of which blossomed into Beavis and Butthead and Office Space. But I actually dont want anyone to know about Herzfeldt- it makes it cooler. (Selfish) That was the way I felt about Adult Swim cartoons at the beginning. But slowly more and more people are finding out about them and its annoying me. I'm really not this type of person (really!), but whenever someone tells me about how much they love any one of the aforementioned I want to scream "I knew about it first!" Have no idea where the instinct to do that comes from but it looks like its not going away any time soon. Also, how many screens does Spike and Mike's Sick and Twisted usually end up getting? I thought they were already pretty big.

  • June 3, 2005, 3:42 p.m. CST

    "Ah, L'Amour"

    by jose-cuervo

    Actually the classic short you're thinking of ("Life as a guy") is called "Ah L'Amour". "Life as guy" was an arbitrary filename some moron gave the film when he bootlegged it to the Internet. But yeah it looks like Hertzfeld is finally doing a DVD of everything. Go to the NEWS page at www.bitterfilms.com

  • June 3, 2005, 5:36 p.m. CST

    Oh... that's why I haven't seen 'Life as a Guy',

    by Stan the Bat

    Oh well- I hoped there was one I hadn't seen yet. I was lucky enough to see 'Ah, L'Amour' in an animation festival in San Francisco. Repeated viewings sort of mute the effect, but I about fell out of my chair the first time.

  • June 5, 2005, 10:39 a.m. CST

    Kubrick?

    by Thunderball

    I love Don Hertzfeldt and his films, ("Lily and Jim" is a favorite) but I don't see any Stanley Kubrick when watching his work. I find that to be an odd comparison (as well as the Buster Keaton one). Just like Judge, the guy does know how to tell edgy humor with a crudely simple, cool style that appeals to the fickle cult movie crowd. After saying all that, I still hope Don wins his Oscar before his work becomes passe.

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