The trouble with CG is that nothing is left up to chance
May 15, 2009 7:58 AM   Subscribe

Since the mid 1990s, Don Hertzfeldt has been making animated shorts by hand. To date, his 8 primary films have an apprioximate runtime of 75 minutes, and in total have won 117 awards, all shot on 16 or 35 milimeter film. (There is another 8 minutes or so that was part of the Animation Show (previously).) His recent films have been shot on the same camera rig that recorded It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966), as he noted in a 2007 interview (part of a Scene Unseen Podcast (direct link to the MP3)). Hertzfeltd is currently two thirds of the way through his most ambitious project to date, a trilogy of films which have been called "the closest thing on film yet to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey." (Video links inside)

Ah, L'Amour (1995) - awarded Grand Prize Award for "World's Funniest Cartoon" in 1998 from the HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival (now known as The Comedy Festival).

Genre (1996) mixes stop-motion and 2-D animation, and was shown on an episode of MTV's Cartoon Sushi in 1997.

Lily and Jim (1997) - single-handedly animated from over 10,000 drawings, and was shown on an episode of MTV's Cartoon Sushi in 1998, and Hertzfeldt's first short with a vocal track.

Billy's Balloon (1998) - The film was invited into Official Competition at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival (where Don Hertzfeldt was the youngest director involved), and it won the Grand Jury Award at the 1999 Slamdance Film Festival; has also appeared on Adult Swim and MTV

Rejected (2000) toured North American theaters between 2000 and 2004, first as part of Spike & Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation, then with fellow animator Bill Plympton's films called "The Don and Bill Show," and finally as part of Hertzfeldt's own the Animation Show tour.

Welcome to the Show/Intermission in the Third Dimension/The End of the Show - 3 shorts created as an introduction, intermission, and end for the first "Animation Show."

The Meaning of Life (2005) is the result of almost four years of production and tens of thousands of drawings, single-handedly animated and photographed by Hertzfeldt.

Everything Will Be OK (trailer) (2006) won the 2007 Sundance Film Festival Jury Award in Short Filmmaking, a prize rarely bestowed on an animated film.

I am so proud of you (2008) Hertzfeldt traveled with the film on a sold-out special theatrical tour of his work in 2008 and part of 2009.
posted by filthy light thief (31 comments total) 78 users marked this as a favorite

Billy's Ballon is hilarious. I think I saw it at a little animation festival thing when I was at University. I didn't realize he had produced so much stuff.
posted by chunking express at 8:04 AM on May 15, 2009

And rejected is awesome too!

posted by chunking express at 8:06 AM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

/me heads over to MeTa to call out Hertzfeldt for Ah L'Amour

This seems like a lot of work. I can understand preferring hand drawn to CG, but not even any animation techniques that they used back in the day to avoid having to redraw every. single. frame.?
posted by DU at 8:16 AM on May 15, 2009

That's why it takes him two years or more of full working days to do these. You don't really appreciate the insanity of this until you've done animation, the tedium involved in any form of animation, even using computers, is skull-melting. To do the entire thing photographing one hand-drawn frame at a time, is. . .there really aren't words for it. It's one of the reasons his comic timing is perfect, though, when you spend an entire month animating a single minute you tend to get the timing right.

Everything Will Be Okay and I Am So Proud of You are both amazingly mature, very significant departures from his earlier work. I'm massively impressed by how much pathos he manages to generate with stick figures.
posted by Ndwright at 8:33 AM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've done some (extremely lame) animation by hand. On a whiteboard with a computer taking the pictures and only erasing/redrawing the parts that changed. And I would say that this:

...when you spend an entire month animating a single minute you tend to get the timing right.

is exactly wrong, at least for me. Once I spent N hours (let alone days, months or years) on something, I'm very very unlikely to go through it all again to go back and fix something.

Of course, if you have all your frames available and can "just" reshoot them, that's a little easier than with a whiteboard where there's no going back.
posted by DU at 8:39 AM on May 15, 2009

I remember seeing Rejected and at least one other fiml on the Spike And Mike tour. Thank you so much for this link. These shorts are one of those things that pop up in my mind as something to track down every now and again, but I never get around to it.
posted by efalk at 8:43 AM on May 15, 2009

This may be my most favorite Metafilter post. Great Job, thank you!
posted by ElmerFishpaw at 8:54 AM on May 15, 2009

I have the Rejected Zippo, have carried it for years. One of the great things about it is when people bum a light from me, see the happy little character on it, and ask me what it's from. I'll direct them to the google to find Hertzfeldt's work - Rejected specifically - and generally hear back from them in a day or two, just gushing about how great this new world of animation is for them. It gives me warm fuzzies.
posted by davelog at 8:59 AM on May 15, 2009

Yes, yes, Don is the man and "Rejected" is awesome. Just the fact that he uses a swedish christmas carol in the "My anus is bleeding" one is beyond great.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 9:03 AM on May 15, 2009

I remember being OMFGEXCITED for The Meaning of Life. All its predecessors caused literal pants pissing, and Hertzfeldt was promising an 8 minute animation. Then the Animation Show came to town with The Meaning of Life stuck at the end in a sort of tantalising finale. Everyone applauded when it started rolling.

As it turned out, it's not 8 minutes of silliness, it's 8 minutes of blinkenlights. 'But it was done without computers!' Hertzfeldt chanted. Yeah, so was Disney's Snow White -- what's your point, Don? At the end of the show, the room shuffled out silently.

To be fair, when you spend so many years producing films with predictable silliness and edginess, you can't break out of the mold without criticism. But filming what was basically an artistic rendition of an LSD trip after a career of dark humoured stick figure animation is like Ah-nold Schwarzenegger's transition into politics.

I still haven't quite forgiven Don.

I'm done.
posted by spamguy at 9:06 AM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

As a belated warning, Don's humor is dark and often bloody/violent.

efalk - I think his shorts are something many people have seen, often in college dorms, without knowing more about his efforts. I didn't make this a full bio-post, because I seem to get too deep into the details and saturate posts with tangential links, but I think this is a good intro to the guy.

DU - I believe Don's aesthetic is part of his choice for hand drawn and shot on film vs. purely digital. In this essay on and interview with Hertzfeltd, he talks about his feelings on digital editing:
The Meaning of Life is the first film we edited on a computer and it worked out great, but it was strange for me because when you work on a flat bed, you’ve got the film and a razor blade and, it’s easy to, for example, cut six frames from a scene. It takes about five minutes. I have time to walk around and think about the cut and think about what we’re doing. With computers, it’s just a key stroke and we’re ready to move on. And I’m not ready, you know, I need to take my time.
He seems to really get into the process of making the film, along with the fact you don't completely control what is filmed, even if you can do more precise editing later. He talks about the happy accidents that can happen with photographic film, and it sounds like he can make some effects more easily with the manual set-up than with computer-based production or post-production.

More stuff I could have tossed into the original post: Animation Show interview, interview with Ghostboy at Ain't It Cool News, another odd interview with Manny Santiago at HESO Magazine, and an interview wit Matt Tobey at Comedy Central Insider.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:08 AM on May 15, 2009

spamguy - I'd like to think that the end of Rejected was a taste of things to come. Sure, the beginning of it was really funny in an offbeat, random, and violent sort of way, but the collapse of the animated universe was amazing. Partially funny, but I was really impressed by the mixed media animation, especially the pounding on the paper.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:20 AM on May 15, 2009

Lovely update, thank you kindly!

My SPOON is too big... Mah SPOON.. is TOO BIG!
posted by cavalier at 9:26 AM on May 15, 2009

I had not seen these before. I was sitting here at my desk watching BILLY'S BALLOON with earbuds in and snorting with laughter. Thank you for this link.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:26 AM on May 15, 2009

I watched several and -- yuck! What the hell?

Dude, if you're a talented animator, you're supposed to use your powers for good, not evil.

posted by Malor at 9:43 AM on May 15, 2009

There's also the box of weird links, called rrr r rr.

Also of note: Don has not made any commercials, so any look-alikes are knock-offs or tributes at best. (See: Don't Mess with Karma series from Encorp Pacific, and Pop Tarts)
posted by filthy light thief at 9:54 AM on May 15, 2009

Can I just say I have a hard time believing Hertzfeldt didn't do those Pop Tarts commercials? I mean, I can see him denying it for artistic reasons or something, but, c'mon, really? I've loved his work for years, and own Rejected on DVD, so I do say this as a fan.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:07 AM on May 15, 2009

Malor, you might want to skip towards the end of Rejected, where there are more techniques used than more basic line-drawing. I am both happy and sad that there isn't more from his more recent shorts, because those might be more interesting for you.

MrMoonPie - he's pretty clear about his thoughts on making money from commercials. AICN, who is ever clear and straight-forward, has a quick note from a film panel, stating: Don Hertzfeldt did not do those Pop tart commercials. He is looking into ligation about it.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:25 AM on May 15, 2009

Oh man. My high school crew had a major love for "Rejected" -- our go-to source for one-liners. And yes, I'll be getting off your lawn now.
posted by the littlest brussels sprout at 10:36 AM on May 15, 2009

Me too, the littlest brussel sprout, except it was my college crew.

I've liked pretty much everything Don has done.
posted by schyler523 at 11:00 AM on May 15, 2009

Don is a brilliant story teller, i've been following his work since I saw rejected at Spike and Mikes'. I'm really happy to see how his films progressed.

I actually shed a tear at the end of The Meaning of Life. It was a really powerful film that puts existance into some perspective.
posted by joelf at 11:25 AM on May 15, 2009

Oh man. My high school crew had a major love for "Rejected" -- our go-to source for one-liners. And yes, I'll be getting off your lawn now.

Mine too! We even silkscreened our own T-shirts with quotes from his webpage. Man, I miss my "Why do you fail? Compare and Contrast" shirt.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:47 AM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think the brilliance of Rejected became even more apparent with the release of The Meaning of Life and Everything Will Be Okay. People disappointed with the lack of one-liners in his recent films are missing a big part of what Hertzfeldts films are saying.

I equate it to telling a comedian who has branched out to dramatic acting "I liked it better when you made the funny faces and fart noises!" He could have just done a short of "Im feeling fat and sassy" and "my anus is bleeding" and it would have been hilarious, but Hertzeldt is a storyteller of much greater capability than that and when you watch Rejected with the new stuff in mind, you see it as more than just random family-guy style nonsequitors.

The goofy jokes were serving a bigger story which was told in an truly inventive way, and to see this artist continue on (without selling his soul which seems to no longer be frowned upon nowadays but actually considered cool but thats another story) beyond comedy to dramatic, bizarre, even profound, is a real treat.
posted by ElmerFishpaw at 12:08 PM on May 15, 2009

At one time, Don's website stated he would send you an original signed drawing used in the filming of one of his shorts, if you merely sent him a $50 Staples gift card. By the time I had spare money, the offer was gone. It was heartbreaking.
posted by Bernt Pancreas at 12:42 PM on May 15, 2009

I went to the animation fest in Austin at this kick-ass little movie theater where they BRING YOU BEER and food. (My Gods, you Austin people have really figured it out.) Met Don at the end of the show, chatted a bit. I had an oversized spoon in my back pocket that I wanted him to sign. When I brought it out, he just muttered "Oh shit" and laughed a bit. It is currently preserved in Saran Wrap in my art bin.
PS I LOVED The Meaning of Life. So there.
posted by idiotfactory at 1:22 PM on May 15, 2009

I will never, ever understand the gross=funny mindset. I am apparently just a different species from all of you.

Ick. I wish I could scrub my brain out with a bar of soap.
posted by straight at 2:31 PM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I realize now I could have put disclaimers on the first few.

WARNING: some films may contain scenes of cartoon violence, gore, and nonsense. If you might find yourself confused at the human condition that would find this amusing, please skip to the end of Rejected for a nice display of other technical skills beyond amusingly senseless violence and non-sequiturs. Also, the Animation Show trilogy is fairly safe, if even more nonsensical.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:43 PM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

"I am a corporate whore!"
"And how!"

Thanks for this post. I'm glad that Hertzfeldt has continued to produce interesting movies. And I'm especially glad that he hasn't sold out--which is what I'd been assuming since I saw commercials that looked suspiciously like his work.
posted by A dead Quaker at 5:05 PM on May 15, 2009

'I Am So Proud of You' is an astonishing piece of work - I was sobbing uncontrollably by the end of it. The guy is a major talent.
posted by jettloe at 10:15 PM on May 15, 2009

I was extremely lucky to have a chance to talk to Don a little bit, just five minutes or so, when he came through Portland in support of I Am So Proud Of You. He comes off as a little defensive at first -- like he's not sure whether you're going to gush embarrassingly or ask for your money back or what -- but inside that he is one hundred percent pure sweet guy; a man who, it is clear, spends eleven months of the year locked in a dark room by himself doing everything the hard way because he really, really, really loves animation, and because the hard way is just the Way He Has To Do It.

He sure as hell doesn't tour with his movies because he loves crowds, or answering tons of questions about what he does. He's either easily overwhelmed or he's amazing at pretending he is. But he seems really genuinely pleased and grateful for the supportive niche he's got. I really like reading his journal when he's touring around because it seems like it's maybe the only time he leaves the house, and I love seeing the different cities through his eyes.

He's developed a reputation as being kind of anti-computer-animation, but I'm not sure that's exactly 'it'. He thanks Shane Acker at the end of I Am So Proud Of You, and I asked him about that -- it turns out they're friends who met on the smaller animation festival circuit. When Acker's "9" started winning awards, a lot of the prizes were film stock; which Acker, being a straight CG guy, had no use for. So he gave it all to Hertzfeldt, and that's the film I Am So Proud Of You is shot on. He was pretty clear during the Q&A that if you're into CG, that's great, you can do all kinds of amazing things with that. Don just doesn't do it that way, needs everything to happen in-camera, because that's just his own personal crazy bent, and that feels right to me.

The other big question that came up was how he pays for the movies without a distributor or production company. Simple, he says; each one pays for the next one, barely. He only needs to make one movie that people don't like and the whole experiment is over and he's washing dishes because he has no other skills. The whole thing's a high-wire act in a way, and it fits that he's so obsessive and meticulous about everything partly because he's afraid he'll screw up and lose it all.

Like almost everyone who's 'into' him, I saw Rejected first. If you're turned off by senseless, kinda dadaist cartoon violence, you should skip Rejected. It's okay. On the other hand, if you're into it, then you may have found the new funniest thing you've ever seen in your life.

But whichever way you go on Rejected, you should know that Everything Will Be OK and I Am So Proud Of You are something else entirely. You really have to dig in if you want to understand how these came from the same mind-disease that Rejected or his earlier stuff came from. Because they're very, very different -- not only from his earlier stuff, but from anything I've seen in animation before. It's not going to be for everyone, but there's no way to know until you've seen it, because there's nothing I can think of to compare it to.

I know this whole thing sounds really fanboyish and hyperbolic, but Everything Will Be OK and I Am So Proud Of You, they are really small but at the same time really soul-bearing, in a way that -- like Chris Ware's stuff -- makes me want to leap crazily to their defense at the slightest touch.

When I was talking to Don, I wanted to mention something that had happened about twenty minutes earlier when we were watching I Am So Proud Of You in the theater. Because I had a moment where I was really shaken, out of nowhere all unexpectedly damp-eyed and emotionally raw, and I suddenly heard from across the audience a weird, crazy laugh suddenly pelt out. And at first I was angry, like some heckler was breaking the spell. But how looking back, the laughing was really just as normal a reaction as mine was. Like, both reactions were 'right'. It was a really weird moment, one I'd never had in a movie before, and I wanted to mention it to him because it was kind of amazing to me.

He said it was hard to deliberately avoid emotional 'hooks', the kind of little things that appear in movies to cue the audience that the scene is sad or nostalgic or funny. But when something resonates without that, clicks in its own way, it trips all kinds of crazy and contradictory reactions from people. He said there's also some scenes that have a huge punch in one theater but don't get any reaction at all in the next, and that it's really weird and unsettling knowing how to take all that in at first, when you're the filmmaker and hiding in the back. He also said thank you and he was glad I liked it.

He also has a really good story about breaking into a sold-out Monty Python reunion show and being mistaken for Johnny Depp. So there's that, too.
posted by churl at 12:46 AM on May 16, 2009 [5 favorites]

« Older It's Mine - No, it's Mine.   |   “Americans want their gasoline cheap but it’s not... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments