originally posted at https://canmom.tumblr.com/post/673938...
Good evening, my friends! Tonight I moved out of my house of the last three years, but that’s no reason not to hold an Animation Night, the most important occasion in the world.
Tonight, then! We’re going to watch some films of American animator Don Hertzfeldt!
Hertzfeldt is best known of course for his short film Rejected (2001), which you may well have witnessed a good two decades ago on Youtube. Drawn and shot singlehandedly by Hertzfeldt using markers and a 35mm rostrum camera, the film relies on a blend of very 2000s ‘random’ humour, but frames it through a device that makes it a joke on the character of the animator, who allegedly submitted these increasingly edgy shorts to advertising agencies. Eventually his mind decays entirely from the repeated rejections, resulting in the paper world collapsing and slaughtering the cartoons.
But ultimately the focus is mostly on the jokes themselves: each one a short self-contained setup and punchline (often violence), with uncomfortable, bulging eyes stick figures screaming their lines (“My spoon is too big!”); gradually they start to build on each other and iterate on the jokes. The visual style is relatively simple since Hertzfeldt would have had to redraw every frame in Gertie the Dinosaur fashion, with the slight inconsistencies from frame to frame creating an inevitable ‘boiling lines’ effect that adds to the uncomfortable atmosphere.
You can watch a remaster here:
And this unsettling atmosphere and tight absurdist comic timing made it a massive hit, inspiring who even knows how many Flash cartoons (see how many films follow its idiom in animation night 10 and animation night 48) and earning Hertzfeldt a wide reputation.
So where did it come from? Hertzfeldt began animating in university at 17, with Ah, L’Amour (1995), featuring heterosexual male frustrations that’s quite literally cartoonishly misogynist at face value, but at least has some amusement in seeing the guy get guroed repeatedly for his trouble. The next year he followed it with Genre (1996), leaning on a ‘lack of ideas’ joke, but this allowed him to experiment with new styles such as pixilation. By this point he was evidently already stepping into his comedic style, and the film is a series of amusing violent skits on various genres, definitely anticipating Rejected.
Although these two films introduced many elements of his style - the rough paper texture, the boiling lines, the styles of expression, textured pen drawing and violence, Lily and Jim (1997) (youtube) was the first to start zeroing in on the tone. This was the first to introduce lipsynced dialogue, featuring two extremely insecure people on a blind date, and it’s mostly a character animation exercise, expressing the two characters’ immense awkwardness and self-sabotage through body language, glances, etc. In contrast to Ah, L’Amour, this one presents the date with total symmetry; the male character complaining that ‘women don’t under stand him’ is now evidently blustering to cover his own inability to connect.
His final student film was Billy’s Balloon (1998) (youtube), which really started to approach the unsettling tone he was known for, as a bug-eyed child is devoured by a balloon monster. This one has a number of nice direction decisions, and it’s an effective cute horror piece. Before long, this caught attention at animation festivals and on MTV, back when the channel was frequently home to experimental animation.
In the wake of this, Hertzfeldt really was approached by advertising agencies, and though he turned them down (and has generally expressing an appropriate disgust towards advertising, once calling them “nothing but lies”), this inspired the frame story of Rejected. Ironically, the style of his shorts would later be ripped off in a series of Pop Tarts ads. After a while, though, the wave broke… and well, the world mostly moved on! Hertzfeldt’s style was no longer as novel in a post-Newgrounds world, and in any case he was pretty much done with absurdist comedy. Which is not to say his subsequent work didn’t get attention - indeed, it has received almost universal acclaim from those who’ve seen it - but it tended to be back in the narrower domain of arthouse animation circles.
Following Rejected, then, Hertzfeldt spent some years working on his next film, The Meaning of Life (2005), which presents a massive long durée story of evolution from the origins of life to the far future, with the same patterns playing out over and over at different times. Alongside this, Hertzfeldt released a timelapse process video, showing the process of drawing frames, flipping, and animation tests at various stages all with intense silent concentration. The effect is evidently to try and convey something the spiritual experience of animation - at least in my interpretation, since Hertzfeldt himself does not wish to speak.
During this time, he collaborated with Mike Judge to run an animation anthology show, later joined by other independent short film animators like Joanna Quinn and Bill Plympton. For these, Hertzfeld made a handful of shorts to introduce and close out the show.
After The Meaning of Life found success, Hertzfeldt embarked on one of his longest projects: a trilogy of short films which he would subsequently edit together into a feature-length film called It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012) (the first two chapters being Everything Will Be OK and I’m So Proud Of You). The films, widely praised for being unreasonably emotionally affecting, concern a man named Bill gradually experiencing a mental breakdown which disrupts his sense of temporality and causes him to suffer various hallucinations.
Alongside these films, he produced a short called Wisdom Teeth screened by surprise at the Ottawa Animation Festival. This one returns to the gore and absurdist humour of Rejected. A man comes out of a wisdom teeth removal operation, and his friend - both speaking in a kind of German-inflected simlish - pulls out his stitches, ultimately pulling out something like his inner child.
By this point, Don Hertzfeldt definitely had a presence in the animation industry as a kind of beloved weirdo, and The Simpsons approached him for a couch gag. Hertzfeldt returned to the themes of The Meaning of Life, transporting the characters into a distant future where their forms have dissolved and relationships fallen apart but still they play their roles.
Despite the rather satirical angle on what the show had become, the showrunners seemed to appreciate it, and the weirdness of the animation left a broader impression. Hertzfeldt, meanwhile, returned to his familiar ground: spending years and years creating another series of short films, this one titled World of Tomorrow, in which Hertzfeldt’s own four-year-old niece was recorded interacting with illustrator Julia Pott performing as her clone from hundreds of years in the future. This builds into an increasingly elaborate plot in which dozens of Emily clones continue to manifest, laying out an apocalyptic timeline. The first episode was released 2015, and the last in 2020, so you can imagine the amount of work piled in. In a break from Hertzfeldt’s previous strictly pen-on-paper films, this time the animation is tradigital, but maintains his minimalist style.
So then, tonight! Since none of his films are very long, we’re gonna marathon the entire Don Hertzfeldt filmography. I admit, I’ve slept on Hertzfeldt’s later films - I just had him in my head as the Rejected guy - but it sounds like he has found an increasing emotional depth in his minimalist style and it will go to some really fascinating places. I also respect him for sticking to his guns on making art films that fit his own desires instead of playing to his audience, and definitely his hatred of advertising, even if I disagree with his stance on free film distribution and I’ve heard rumours about litigiousness against other people who draw stick figures that make me raise an eyebrow a little. (Of course, it’s America, it’s not like there’s a lot of arts council funding the way there is for short animated films in Europe! So I imagine that has an effect.)
I think this is going to be one of those Animation nights, like the ‘annecycore’ night a few weeks ago, where I’m going to come back thinking that this writeup won’t do any sort of justice to their subject. But that’s why we watch the films! So, if you will join me in about half an hour, we’ll enjoy some weird posthuman scifi and discover what unrecognised possibilities the stick figure holds.
Animation Night 89 will start at about 22:45-23:00 UK time at twitch.tv/canmom. Apologies for the late start, I started writing this up once I got out of the car and I gotta eat. We should be back to normal next week!