Don Hertzfeldt is at the end of one journey and the beginning of another. The indie animator, perhaps best known for his brilliant 2000 short "Rejected," has been steadily churning out spectacularly eccentric animations for years, working on his own using a 2-D process largely of his own making. He doesn't even know how to sell out; his work bears little resemblance to anything mainstream.
At the same time, the last decade of Hertzfeldt's cartoons shows his growth. While "Rejected" features little more than stick figures on a billowing piece of paper and occasional flashes of color, his more recent efforts erupt with marvelous special effects and explosive imagery. But he's still just a one-man band.
Hertzfeldt came to the Sundance Film Festival this year to screen his latest short, "It's a Beautiful Day." Concluding a trilogy that began with 2006's "Everything Will Be OK" and continued with 2008's "I Am So Proud of You," Herztfeldt has reached a stopping point for the perpetually confused protagonist Bill, who is revealed in the new film to have suffered brain damage in an accident. At first merely forgetful, Bill eventually transitions onto an entirely new plane of awareness that leads to grand epiphanies and a stunning finale that blows away everything Hertzfeldt has done before.
Not that he'll tell you that. The perpetually humble Austin resident is currently in the throes of a national tour (which you can track at his website) to share the new film with audiences and presumably figure it out along with them. When I sat down with Hertzfeldt in Park City on Friday, he was reluctant to analyze his own work (and more excited about the prospects of hijacking Sundance's Twitter feed, which the festival allowed him to do today). But he also had some big news to share: After the current tour, he hopes to finally apply his skills to the production of a feature-length film. Hertzfeldt discussed this possibility as well as the current state of his career at length.
When did you start this tour?
We started last October and we did maybe 10 cities. A lot of the travel doesn't make sense. It's all three chapters of the story now with a couple of other things, so it's about a 70-80 minute program. I'm there for a Q&A afterwards. It's a tour I did in 2008 and 2009 when "I Am So Proud of You" was new. Now, I'm just doing it again with more stuff. It's a lot of fun. I think we're going to do 30-odd cities on this leg, and I might do Japan and Europe after that. It's going to be a busy year.
It's sounds like you don't get sick of this doing this.
I remember the last I went around like this, it was like being in a band. The adrenaline kicks in and at a certain point you don't want to stop moving. You always feel forward motion, especially after working on the movie for almost two years in solitary confinement, it's just nice to run around with it and talk to people, see if it works or doesn't work. When you put your movie on TV or DVD, millions more people are going to see it, but I can't see them see it unless I'm in their bedroom or something. A lot of this is just for my sake, to see the thing play and talk to people afterwards. So that's the first half of the year.
When did you decide that "It's Such a Beautiful Day" would complete a trilogy with "Everything Will Be OK" and "I Am So Proud of You"?
I guess it was midway through the first one. I was having such a good time making it that I just didn't want to stop writing it. The one I had made previously was really horrible to work on, and this was just a little more open, I could flesh the story out and not feel tethered to a script from day one and for months on end. I knew I wanted to keep writing and it made sense to make it a three-part thing, and I made number two almost immediately after number one.
Why did it make sense to have a trilogy?
It was more a vague balance thing. There are very few two-part stories and something in the back of my head said that there was probably a bigger arc. But I really didn't know all the details yet. I had most of number two plotted out when I was working on "Everything Will Be OK." But I like to start with just a few scenes and I'll take weeks and months to animate those; by the time I have those finished, I'll decide that this other stuff I wrote isn't good enough. So I'm constantly fleshing out movies as I go.
When I was working on "I Am So Proud of You," I had some vague ideas of what I was going to do with number three, but as I kept working on it, these scenes got better, and because they got better, I had to throw others out. I rewrote and rewrote until eventually I cannibalized every idea I had for number three and I stuffed them into number two. I think the ending of number two is how three was originally going to conclude. So I started number three with nothing left. I knew that Bill would wake up in a hospital and that was about it. I know it's kind of dumb to make a trilogy without knowing yet exactly where it's all going. I had some vague blueprints, but I really approached it like any other movie. I had these ideas, threw out the ending and completely changed things around -- over the course of something like two years.
Your shorts, especially this one, feel very arbitrary -- and I mean that as a compliment. It's like experiencing your stream of consciousness.
For me, it's two things. It keeps me plugged in and feels more spontaneous to do it that way, because animating is the least spontaneous way of making a movie. It also guarantees that all my best ideas are going to make it in. Inevitably, you're going to get better ideas and things are going to happen while you're shooting; to have the freedom to accept it all and change things is huge. With traditional animation, you have these guys who are drawing background, others are doing character design, music, story. You can't change anything because if you want to rewrite something, you're going to mess up all these people's jobs. So it's a small luxury to do things all by yourself. You can shape it and not make people angry.
You've been making animation with the same handmade process for over a decade, but your effects have grown more complex, as has your ambition. It's obvious from the work.
I feel like I'm still learning, which is true of every filmmaker. The idea in your head is always perfect, but it doesn't always come out that way. Life gets in the way. But your next idea is perfect again. It's fun for me in the sense that I'm still figuring out new things with the camera. I'm smarter than I was in that I know how to get these ideas on the screen now. I think it's also that it's so personally taxing that in the process of making these films I have dozens of new ideas so when I finish I can only choose one. And that's going to be a long haul. I'm not interested in doing something I've just done before. Even if it's a failure, it's going to be an interesting failure. Everyone would be really bored if I made "Rejected" sequels for the next 10 years.
"It's Such a Beautiful Day" contains live-action imagery and blinding colors along with your trademark stick figure characters. What is your animation process like now?
It's a little bit of everything. In the new one, I'm really throwing in the kitchen sink. The basis is still pencil-and-paper animation shot on a very old animation camera, a down-shooter. That's more or less a camera pointed downward on your animation. I've shot everything on these cameras since "Rejected."
Do you own one of these cameras?
I have two in the house now and I had to cut a hole in the wall to move them in there. They're massive and not meant to be moved, but once they're placed, they're really user friendly. They're like mechanical cows -- just really nice to work with and I can't get the visuals out of any other process. An older film, like "Billy's Balloon," you could have shot visually and it would've looked the same. But this stuff would have been impossible for me. It's all multiple exposures, split screen things. The live-action component includes some new digital tricks I'm trying, but the trick it still has to be shot under the same camera.
Anytime you see something, like a tree blowing in the wind, it'll be shot and then printed out as 4x6 prints. Every single frame in one of those live action sequences is just hundreds and hundreds of frames of 4x6 prints. Some of the effects are analog to digital back out to analog. There are so many layers I can add to that -- things I can marry in the computer and then printed out when I shoot under the camera. I'd say the bulk of the movie is shot under cheap magnifying glasses; there are some scenes shot through broken glass, layers of plastic, weird diffusion tricks, different ways to get the light to change.
If there was an apocalypse tomorrow, you might be the only guy with the tools to keep making movies.
You know what's amazing is that these cameras are from the 1940s and they still work almost as if they're brand new. Yet Kodak is going bankrupt. While shooting "It's Such a Beautiful Day," the film stock I usually used was discontinued. I finished the movie on replacement stock, but I don't know how much longer Kodak will be printing any film. What amazes me is that the cameras are going to outlast the film.
What will you do when that happens?
They're great conversation pieces. I can put drinks on them. They look like they're torture equipment from the 1800s.
Do you know how to animate with other tools?
Not really. I've never even tried it. But I could figure it out. I'd like to do a feature next, honestly. I think this is the last short I'll make for a long time unless something goes very wrong. I'm writing a script and it's hopefully next for me. I'd like to work with a crew and a big budget. That would, by necessity, be digital and probably have to take place overseas where more interesting things are being funded. It seems like that's where a lot of the young animation talent is these days, in Europe. I'm in a place where I don't have something to work on next, so I can throw a year at that and see if I can get it off the ground.
Do you have a name for the feature yet?
I don't. There's not much I can say about it yet. The first draft is almost finished.
Would you say that it's consistent with what you've done before?
It is, but it's not related to any of the shorts. Even though the shorts are very different, to me they're all coming from the same voice. It's still me. It's still things I'm interested in.
Do you feel like you're "graduating" to features now?
I think shorts are a young person's game. I'm not getting any younger. I've been doing it since I was 16 years old. There's a certain degree of sameness to it, as far as working on it, and it's just a very lonely process. I have a good friend who helps with editing and helps see the projects through post-production. But until that point, I'm writing, doing the sound, animating every frame, narrating it, doing the music. There's never a point where I can take the hat off and give it to somebody else. I'd just like to try something different, get some other artists onboard and see what it's like. Now is the time to try that. I still think these films may be the best thing I do and I can always retreat to them when I fail miserably.
And you still feel comfortable making a living off your work?
Yeah, I'm doing fine in that department.
Does most of your money come from DVD sales?
DVD sales, tours like the one I'm on now, each film paying for the next one. It has always been a little bit of feast and famine. When I'm in production, I'm broke, and when the film is released, the money comes back in. That's been very good for me and for the films especially because in the early years, I was always very hungry -- literally and figuratively. If I wasn't working on something I'd have nothing to release next year and wouldn't make any money. I've never had a job aside from making these. That's always been a nice pressure to have. I never had a huge payment at once where I would be tempted to rest on my laurels or take a break. In hindsight I've seen that ruin a few people, where they'll get a big payment for something they used to do for fun, and then they'll relax, and the work just drops off.
A lot of your shorts are on YouTube. Does that bother you?
I think it's inevitable. As long as the new stuff isn't on there, that's fine. I have a great account with YouTube, where we can control the content. If the new film was leaked, I'd be in trouble, but I think the fans and audiences get that. They're very respectful. So many of them have discovered this stuff through YouTube, and then maybe buy a DVD or see me at a theatrical show. I think it's fine. I just had a new one, a couple of years ago, debut online with Showtime. It was anti-climactic for me because you just get a phone call one day telling you it's online. "There it is. Maybe there's a comment! Refresh." It's not like having it in the theater, but you have to evolve or die. I'm cautiously dipping my toes in that water.
What kind of audiences come to your shows?
They're surprisingly normal people. A lot of college-age people, but by and large, they could be seeing a Kevin Costner movie. It's not just a bunch of weirdos and losers like myself. I've never really felt a part of the niche that is animation and animation fans. I didn't go to CalArts and don't often go to animation festivals. I don't know if they know what to do with me. I still feel like a filmmaker who just happens to draw. I think that has helped me survive. That world of animation fans is very small, niche-oriented, limited. If they're the only ones behind your DVDs, you won't make it. Whether it was YouTube or however people are finding this stuff, the fact that there are normal people going to the shows and buying DVDs--breaking out of that animation world has made all of the movies happen. I don't think you can survive just selling to a small group of people. I'm meeting a lot of people who don't follow animation but they go to these films. That's huge.
What's it like to work in your bubble for years at a time and then share your work with the world?
It's why I tour, watching the film make connections or fail. When they laugh or don't. I think every artist needs to see that. Otherwise, you're working in a vacuum. If your work is only online, you don't that energy in the room, you don't speak to people afterwards. This film and "I Am So Proud of You" have been very emotional for people. There are a lot of people bringing intensely personal things into it. Things I never expected. I still have to get better at responding to them.
What do you put into it?
Wow. Everything. It was two years of my life, seven days a week. It's things I'm afraid of and interested in. I don't entirely know. A lot of this I learn in hindsight.
Where did the framework of a guy losing his grasp on reality come from?
I've been interested in nonfiction over fiction. I've always been researching psychology, neurology, memories. It just sort of snowballed. In the first chapter, you don't even know if Bill's sick. I've sort of felt my way through -- if I can make this sound as least pretentious if I can -- you sort of shape it. I wanted to be very careful to not really reveal exactly what's wrong with him. If, in the first or second movie, you reveal he has cancer or aneurysm, it becomes… for lack of a better word, a cancer movie. That allows some people to unplug: "That's not going to happen to me. It's very unusual." This way, it becomes more universal. It's not about the details. We're all going to be dead. It's more relatable somehow.
The trilogy has a persistently cosmic existentialist slant. It's like you're making peace with chaos by finding beauty in the details. Bill is very confused but still reaches this euphoric awareness of life.
Sure, of course. At the core of it is that it takes terrible things to make most people appreciate what they have. It almost says that point blank in the film, but it's often a diagnosis or an accident or someone breaking up with to shake you up, slap you in the face, make you realize you've been droning through life. It's the bad things that kind of make you appreciate what you do have and remind you there are deadlines. If nobody died, we'd have no reason to get up in the morning. It's the ultimate reason for everything. Those bad things make us stronger, smarter people. That's really the arc of the third one.
So this is a culmination of something you've been building toward over the years.
It really is. I'm just constantly trying to shape these vague ideas into things I can express more clearly. And then there are snippets of conversations and dreams. I'm constantly keeping notes by my side. I do have a pretty bad memory of myself. I'm always jotting things down. I keep a journal online, which is very helpful to steal from years later when I'm stuck. When it comes time for me to write, it's really just gathering up all these notes and moving them around. For me, the worst thing a writer can do is sit down in front of a blank page and decide to write. You have to do it when you're ready. I'm so used to taking my time. That's really the one good thing about working with no budget all by yourself: You have all the time in the world.