On his Twitter profile, fiercely independent filmmaker Don Hertzfeldt describes himself as a “director of things / 2x oscar loser.” He’s selling himself short on both counts. For starters, “things” is an endearingly modest way of describing some of the most essential short films of the last 20 years, animated or otherwise; from revered early work like “Rejected,” to the trio of vignettes that were ultimately stitched together into a feature-length omnibus called “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” Hertzfeldt has created a singular universe of stick figures in crisis.
And then there’s the bit about being a two-time “oscar loser,” a distinction that Hertzfeldt earned when “World of Tomorrow” — his first digital project — was a 2015 Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Short Film. It may not have won its creator the chance to give a speech on global television, but it did win him a legion of new fans. One of life’s few perfect things, “World of Tomorrow” is as mordantly funny and existentially fraught as anything Hertzfeldt has ever made, but also vibrant and joyful where his previous films were waiting to die. Written around unscripted recordings of his four-year-old niece, the short tells the story of an oblivious little girl named Emily Prime who’s visited by a time-traveling adult clone of herself (voiced by Julia Pott) and spirited away on a whirlwind tour of our species’ grim future. By the time the duo arrives back where they started, their circular adventure through time and space has somehow resolved into an unspeakably profound meditation on the preciousness of the present.
Now, after secretly toiling away in his Austin studio for the better part of three years, Hertzfeldt returns with “World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts,” and the filmmaker seems likely — if not destined — to find himself a three-time Oscar loser when the awards are handed out next March (the short enjoyed a qualifying run in Los Angeles before premiering at Fantastic Fest earlier this fall). If quality had anything to do with it, “Episode Two” would be a shoo-in; once again confronting young Emily Prime with an adult clone of herself, the sequel is somehow as blisteringly hilarious, deeply moving, and endlessly quotable as the original. Of course, if quality had anything to do with, Hertzfeldt would have won the first time around. …And also the second.
With a formal release of the film on the immediate horizon — Hertzfeldt will be touring the country with the film before making it available online, screening info can be found at the bottom of this page — IndieWire emailed Hertzfeldt to discuss the process of making a sequel to one of the most beloved sci-fi stories of the 21st century, the challenges of directing a star who may not fully understand that she’s in a movie to begin with, and what the future might hold for the “World of Tomorrow” cinematic universe.
When did you first realize that you wanted to return to these characters?
I recorded my niece candidly for “World of Tomorrow” in December 2013 when she was four and I was on my way to see her again exactly one year later. The film was still a month away from premiering and I was mainly just curious to see what I’d get with a new set of recordings. I learned the first time that it’s foolish to have very much planned until I know what sort of audio I get out of her. I only see her once a year, she lives in scotland and I’m in austin, so the recordings I’m able to take home with me are very take-it-or-leave-it. So I don’t think I had too many concrete ideas for a second episode at that point, maybe just some story fragments.
Was it more difficult to record your niece this time around, now that she’s getting a bit older?
I use an iPad to record audio so it can just sit next to us unobtrusively as we play and draw. The sound quality isn’t always so great but I think if I had a big professional mic hanging around her face she’d just shut down. The immediate issue I ran into with that new round of recording was how much she’d changed in a single year. Age four was this wonderful, open, reactive age – “look at this!” “let’s go here!” “hooray!” – which is relatively easy to create conversations out of and build a story around. She also generally spoke in short sentences, which are just way easier to edit.
At age five she wouldn’t shut up. Of course it’s a wonderful age too, but a different sort of wonderful age. That madness of childhood imagination had fully taken hold and she was spouting endless monologues about fantasy worlds, bossing me around, having long conversations with herself about imaginary things, just sugar-fueled energy flying in every direction. Which is great and fun and all, but an absolute nightmare to think about somehow building a narrative around. And not just a new narrative, but something that would also connect with a previous film as well as a hypothetical future one. none of what she had to say really lined up in any way with the early ideas I had for the movie and I think I was pretty discouraged by the sessions. I just had no idea how I could make it all fit. So the writing for “Episode Two” was much, much more complicated.
The first one was like putting together a puzzle, the story came together relatively smoothly with all the pieces I had. The second one was like putting together one of those used puzzles you find at the thrift store, with a bunch of pieces missing or replaced by strange pieces from other sets, some of them not even puzzle pieces but weird toys that make you wonder how they got into the box at all.
Does she have any idea that these movies exist, and — if not — do you know when you might show them to her?
Yeah, she really liked the first one. It was her second favorite animated film behind “Frozen.” She hasn’t seen “Episode Two” yet. I was a little wary of showing her the first one at such a young age, I especially didn’t want her to freak out and not trust me anymore — I certainly didn’t understand how cartoons were made at that age and maybe it could be genuinely scary to realize your voice was somehow stolen? — but my brother figured it was fine for her to watch. She has a better understanding now, at least I think she does, of what I’ve been up to and she’s cool with it. I’ve been recording her every December since that first time in 2013. Last year she seemed much more aware and suspicious of the iPad being around all the time but she agreed it was OK. And then I think she forgets about it after a few minutes anyway. She sent me a good luck drawing before the Oscars in 2016. For school she had to write a sentence about herself and she wrote, “I am beautiful and famous.”
“Episode Two” feels like a true sequel, in that it’s bigger and riskier than the original in so many respects. Were you more comfortable with the digital tools this time around?
It was easier to get started up again, the learning curve was already taken care of, but the visuals quickly got so much more dense and complicated that the software froze and crashed relentlessly. And I didn’t want to upgrade to newer versions in the middle of production or start including Aftereffects or something like that because I didn’t want the look of the two episodes to change dramatically. So there was just more yelling at the computer than before. I also introduced a lot more practical and organic effects to this one, or at least effects that began as practical before I turned them inside out in the computer. My girlfriend and I built an old school cloud tank, which I was particularly proud of. It’s such a classic and unique visual effect from movies like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Poltergeist,” but an effect that was never really supplanted by a digital version like most everything else was.
Did you feel liberated by the fact that people were already familiar with these characters?
I suppose it’s a little easier to jump right in, but you also find yourself strapped into a sequel and all the complications that go with it. The first movie out of the gate always has the freedom to just go make a big mess. With a second episode you suddenly have to make sure you put all your toys away and be a little more deliberate about where everything’s headed… if there’s going to be more of these, you just can’t make things up as you go along. So in that sense it was a little less liberating. There’s also the problem with sequel expectations… if it’s too different from the first one, some people are mad at you, and if it’s too similar to the first one, these other people are mad at you.
Are there any sci-fi films or stories that you’ve been particularly inspired by, either in general or in particular re: “Episode Two?”
It’s hard to dive into the story’s influences without risking spoiling it, but I can say there were a bunch of oddly specific audio cues that were heavily inspired from other sci-fi movies. I started to find myself unintentionally planting references all over the place, probably because this stuff is, in a way, such a broad parody of science fiction to begin with. And as a kid it was mainly science fiction movies that made me fall in love with sound design in the first place. Not just sound effects like theremins and ray guns but specific moments and moods… like, “I want this sequence to sound exactly like the spooky opening to ‘E.T.’ when the first title comes up. Huh, this bit came out sounding like ‘Blade Runner’ somehow, let’s run further in that direction.” There’s a lot of that. “Star Trek” sound guys used to record their own stomachs digesting food to create the sound of an alien planet so I did the same.
Even using the “Rosenkavalier” waltz came from reading about “A.I”… when Stanley Kubrick was still planning on directing it, he’d written that specific waltz down in his notes to be used at some unknown point in the movie. Of course he didn’t end up directing “A.I.” so I went and stole his music. Sound design is usually my favorite part of making any movie and this in particular was a big dopey love letter to the genre.
These films critique social media and internet culture in a way that feels accurate (and damning) but never scolding. There’s the sense that constantly documenting and sharing takes us out of the moment, and also that giving everyone the ability to express themselves at all times has counterintuitively resulted in less individuality.
I’ve never owned a smartphone. not for any reason I can think of, I’ve just never felt like I needed one. I’m a boring animator who doesn’t have to commute anyplace. and most of the time I don’t want to be reachable. I remember back when pagers started to be a thing. In junior high school these kids would carry pagers around. They weren’t even drug dealers and they rarely got paged, it was just a status symbol. It was a way of saying, look how important I am, I need to be reached at all hours. You’re 12 years old, who needs to reach you at all hours? Then it turned into mobile phones. Not smartphones, just phones that don’t do anything but make a call. That felt just as alien to me: Why would you want to carry around a phone all the time? Why can’t you just wait to call people from your house?
And then everyone owned smartphones and it became more and more weird not to. And I guess these days, for most people younger than me it’s an automatic thing to want in your life, like shoes. So “World of Tomorrow” might have a sort of passive, observational point of view about social media and all that compulsive documenting and sharing on-the-go because I’ve always been sort of on the outside looking in myself. And I hope it’s not a judgmental point of view, I don’t think these are black and white evils or anything. But “the burden of other people’s thoughts” is what I feel whenever I log in to my Twitter feed. Or Facebook, or whatever it is. It is not a happy feeling or something I look forward to, it’s a totally smothering torrent of stuff. A burden. I can’t even actually look at Facebook anymore, I can’t handle it. And so the movie takes a lot of these things to more literal extremes.
There’s a pivotal moment in the movie when one of the Emily clones observes: “The closer I look at things, the less I know.” Can you unpack what it means to you a little bit, or what you feel clone Emily might be thinking in that moment?
It’s just something simple that’s usually on my mind whenever I learn something… the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t actually know. The more questions you can answer about something, the more questions you’re going to uncover. It’s not even the big lofty subjects like life or science: I love movies, but I know I’ll never be able to see every movie ever made. I will never in my life even have enough time to see every good movie ever made. The further we try to go, the more limited we realize we are. So it seemed like a nice thing to put into words for Emily as she tries to figure out what’s real.
Are you considering another Kickstarter campaign for the potential Blu-ray?
That one Kickstarter worked out great because I had so much stuff to release on Blu-ray for the first time. I was able to remaster everything, from old student films to new 4k scans of “Rejected” and “The Meaning of Life,” to the feature film and “World of Tomorrow,” and more. I kind of doubt there will actually be a physical release of “Episode Two” by itself, but if there is, I wouldn’t need to crowdfund that so it wouldn’t be right to ask.
Do you think that you’ll continue making movies in the world of “World of Tomorrow?”
While I was animating “Episode Two” I sort of wondered if this was all going to turn into “Boyhood” or something like the “7 Up” series. Are we going to watch Emily grow up? I never thought of it as a trilogy but as more of a longer episodic amorphous thing that could maybe just keep going. It took me a long time to figure out the title to this one, I changed it a few times, but I felt that introducing “Episode Two” in there was very important. I didn’t want to say “part 2” or “chapter 2” because I don’t think these stories should, or need to, connect as much as a “part 2” would imply. To me, a “part 2” or “chapter 2” means it’s an essential part of a single story that comes right after the first one. Like the “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” chapters seem like true chapters to me.
Maybe I’m wrong but I don’t think you need to see either “World of Tomorrow” short to enjoy the other one, and the order you watch them in might not really be a big deal either. At one point I was tempted to call this one “episode 5” and actually produce them all out of order. It’s all jumbled up time travel anyway, so maybe it would have been more fun. But now that the new one’s finished, I think 1 and 2 sort of mirror each other really well — and what I don’t want to do is go make a third one that mirrors those, and fall into a formula. A third one would need to shake up the box now and maybe go somewhere else. the early ideas I’m kicking around actually only tangentially relate to the Emilys. Who knows, maybe they would only have a cameo. If I want to keep this interesting it seems like it’s time to start opening up the universe a little more.
“World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts” will screen at LACMA on December 21st with Don Hertzfeldt in attendance. Hertzfeldt will also be bringing the film to Alamo Drafthouse theaters in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, and Austin. Click here for showtimes and tickets.