In 2014, DIY animator extraordinaire Don Hertzfeldt wrote a loopy sci-fi story around some ridiculously cute audio recordings he made while playing with his four-year-old niece Winona. He cast her as a pigtailed stick figure named Emily Prime, and roped in friend and animator Julia Pott to voice the time-traveling adult Emily clone who zaps into the past on a mission to retrieve something from her younger, original self (and leads Emily Prime on a whirlwind tour of the future along the way). It was just supposed to be a fun way for Hertzfeldt to teach himself how to use digital tools, but — oops! — the morbidly hilarious “World of Tomorrow” went on to earn Hertzfeldt his second Oscar nomination, and is now celebrated as one of the best short films of the 21st century. People have Emily Prime tattoos. The rest of us should get them.
Hertzfeldt never looked back. 2017’s “World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts” found him diving even deeper into the ever-expanding universe he’d created with these characters, and earlier this month he released the much-anticipated “World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime,” a 34-minute epic that follows Emily’s clones into new folds of the space-time continuum, while also providing an entry point for people who are unfamiliar with her previous adventures. Released online after the pandemic scuttled plans for a major distributor to screen it in theaters across the country, “Episode Three” is as funny, poignant, and wise as the episodes before it, and it ends on a note that suggests Hertzfeldt isn’t done looking into the future. Not even close.
Zooming in as he prepared to launch the film on Vimeo (and agonized over some lingering matte line issues that he only he might notice), Hertzfeldt spoke to IndieWire about the evolution of “World of Tomorrow,” his ambitious plans for the series, and how his late cat almost ended the whole thing.
Editor’s note: This interview discusses some plot details from the second half of “Episode Three.” Nothing ruinous, but it wouldn’t be the worst idea to watch the film before reading further — you can rent it here for $5.99. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You started working on the first “World of Tomorrow” in 2014 or thereabouts — did you ever think it was going to dominate so much of your time on Earth?
I think I knew that there could be more before the first one was even released, but it never felt like — for lack of a better word — a “trilogy.” When I was doing “It’s such a Beautiful Day” it was always clearly three parts in my head and then I would close the story up. I was careful to use the word “episode” when it came to the “World of Tomorrow” series because it’s more open-ended and there could be many, many more. It’s my science-fiction sandbox.
Emily Prime isn’t in this one because I felt like if it was Julia and Winona again it would feel like a formula — there’d be a pattern repeating. The last thing I want to do is like an animated TV sitcom where you get wrapped up in something that’s nine seasons long and you lose sight of it. The first two had a nice mirror effect, but I thought if we were going to continue this we need to go to new places and see new things, and that’s where we’re headed now. This is something that’s finite, but it’s not finite yet.
As complicated as things get in “Episode Three,” the ending still knocks the wind out of your chest even if you’ve gotten a bit lost in the space-time continuum on the way there. How important was it for you that it all added up at the end of the day? Would you even want someone to go on Reddit or whatever and successfully “solve” the plot?
The solution is there if they want to find it. I love when fans get involved in canon, or I guess it’s called “lore” now, but I don’t think it’s necessary to enjoy any of these movies. They’re all parodies of science-fiction on some level — their all farces of ridiculous shit, and these people are just navigating it. But I’m part German, so the story has to make sense. There has to be some concrete logic to it. I don’t like puzzle movies. So whatever I make needs to first and foremost be funny, interesting, emotional… but it has to have a logical consistency because I’ll never forgive myself if I cheat.
When I was writing “Episode Three,” I had a whiteboard of the timeline from the very first movie to even before the first movie, because I had to plot out when things got invented in this world — when cloning was invented, when time-travel was invented, etc. It was really intricate, but then my cat… he didn’t have claws, but he would bat at things like he was sharpening his claws, and the whiteboard was on the floor, and he went up to it like [furiously bats his hands in the air] and erased everything. I had to rework the whole thing.
David is a character who first popped up in your book “The End of the World,” and has since appeared in “World of Tomorrow,” and maybe — maybe! — somewhere in “Episode Two.” Why were you interested in promoting him to the protagonist here?
He doesn’t have much to do in the first one. He’s this old clone and his function is basically to show up and drop dead. And I thought that was an interesting blank to fill in. I liked the idea of Emily and David’s relationship being both destined and doomed — these copies of themselves don’t even remember why they like each other. There’s an attraction there because maybe they can’t help it, or maybe it’s only there because they have a memory of it. Is it destiny for them to be together, or is this a bad thing?
In the first one we see Emily telling her story and she falls in love with a rock, and she falls in love with a pump, and she falls in love with an alien named Simon, and she’s learning what that means. She’s learning what a relationship is. She’s gradually learning how to love something more human. And I felt like there was a connection between David learning who she was. She’s this abstract image — this beautiful woman that he becomes obsessed with. He doesn’t know her, and he goes on this journey, and she’s this idealized thing. And in learning how to have a serious relationship, a person starts to delete parts of themselves and make room for their partner. And so in this one she’s listing the things that make her happy and becoming a three-dimensional person that he actually has to contend with rather than this fantasy image thing. I thought that was an interesting continuation of the very early bit of the relationship we see in that first film of how these people are learning how to connect.
I also set a challenge for myself with him in that the first two movies there are no male voices. You don’t hear a male talk. And I wondered if I could do that again in the third one despite having multiple male leads — if David could still be a silent film figure.
Honestly, he’s so expressive that it didn’t occur to me that he doesn’t speak.
Is he drawn to the Emilys in general, or just fixated on this one particular Emily clone because she’s inherited all of the memories that Emily Prime had exhumed from David Prime’s brain?
The Davids’ connection is with that one. Emily 9 is the one who set all of this in motion. It could also be argued that our Davids can’t replace the David who was with Emily Prime, because then none of these events would have been set in motion. And I think there’s also an argument to be made that Emily 9 may have foreseen all of this happening and was cynically planting these seeds for her own motivations, because at the end of the movie it seems like maybe she’s expecting someone to be showing up behind her. I’m not saying one thing or another. It’s open-ended for multiple reasons.
These movies are hilarious and comforting in their own way, but does the process of making them force you to dwell in some dark corners of your imagination for longer than you might otherwise?
I know I tend to do a lot of these interviews at the end of the production, when usually I’m just lying on the floor and I’m complaining and I think I tend to sound miserable. And I think a lot of writers like to play that up. “It’s so much work. He’s so sad. He’s stuck in this dark room.” But at the end of the day it’s so much fun to build these universes and ask myself questions like: “Okay, she’s embedded this memory with ads from her future, so what the hell would that look like?” And it’s a shame that I always have to talk about making these things at the end of the process when I have no more bodily fluids and my brain is gone. But I want to reiterate the fun of it because it’s exciting to not know what “Episode Five” is going to look like or episode whatever. Just to have that openness.
How are things going with “Episode Four?”
I don’t know if it’s the next thing on the table, or the next thing that will come out, but before the world ended I was in LA because I can’t spend another two years doing “Episode Four” and then two years doing “Episode Five” and so on — at a certain point it’s just not realistic. And I don’t know if it’s fair to expect the audience to hang out that long. So I met with a bunch of places and just basically said: “Look, I need a home. It’s silly that I’m still doing this on my own. I’m fine doing it. I’m doing totally great, but the time it takes is just absurd. It can’t be so back-breaking on a personal level.” So it was just basically meetings where I said “I need a place where I don’t just have a crew and finish something, but also then don’t have to worry about releasing it.”
Long story short, we’re down to a couple places, and we’re talking about the details of it and it sounds likely that — if there’s going to be an “Episode Four” anywhere — it’s going to be made by a bigger crew and I’m going to have help and it’s going to come out much faster once we can get starter, and we ideally would be making multiple episodes at the same time. And so my guess right now is that if there’s going to be an “Episode Four” that’s not made all by myself, you’re more likely to see “Episode Four” through “Episode Whatever” all at once.
But I don’t know what the expect in the world right now — I’ve worked all this time towards getting other people in the room, and now because of the pandemic I literally can’t have other people in the room. With animation it’s still realistic to work remotely through Zoom, but they keep saying maybe life will never go back to normal. That’s the kind of thing I keep seeing.
Speaking of how screwed up things are right now: The most famous line from the first “World of Tomorrow” is the adult Emily clone saying “Now is the envy of all the dead.” Are you sure that’s still true?
Yeah, absolutely. I have to be optimistic to make a movie like this, or to make a movie at all. I think that’s a massive act of optimism. To go back to the thing about writers assuming I’m miserable or depressed or every artist needs to suffer or those sorts of weird ideas: I can only speak for myself, but when I get sad I don’t want to make anything. It’s the hardest thing in the world to do anything, especially if it’s working on something for two years, largely alone. That takes so much focus and concentration and ultimately hope, right?
I think the one unambiguous takeaway from “Episode Three” is that people shouldn’t live with their own back-up clones as roommates. It just doesn’t seem sustainable.
That’s the moral of the story.