A decade of Don Hertzfeldt's acrid yet amiable animation comes to DVD at last on Bitter Films Vol. 1 1995-2005. Taylor Jessen reviews and interviews the animator.
At the Animation Show event at this year's Comic-Con, the show's producers screened some new shorts and some past favorites, and Don Hertzfeldt's Intermission in the Third Dimension and Rejected were greeted like old friends. They were also the biggest laugh-getters of the evening.
Don is a funny guy, but, like all smart comic personalities, he's not afraid to move beyond comic elements in a filmography that contains some wonderfully disparate extremes -- an alien father talks philosophy to his son in mutant dialogue with no subtitles in The Meaning of Life; a rabbit in a cowboy hat chants "Lo, I am ruptured" while doing an interpretive dance in Genre; a small child is raised high into the air and dropped, not once but four times, by a vindictive red balloon in Billy's Balloon.
The creator of the unmistakable yet intentionally generic fishstick/fluffy thing with the notoriously bleeding anus in Rejected could be directing his own series on Adult Swim right now. Instead, he's at home, making shorts for the festival circuit. And he's living off it, not just since he was nominated for an Oscar for Rejected in 2001, but since college: his senior year of which he had to take the unusual step of ducking classes at UC Santa Barbara for a week to take his latest film to Cannes.
Hertzfeldt pays the rent thanks to his webshop -- t-shirts, keychains and DVDs, including his new career-encompassing Bitter Films Vol. 1 1995-2005. But, unlike, for example, the Homestar Runner guys, he's produced less than one short per year on average for the last five years. I mean, what the hell? The hell is a combination of things -- mainly the crack timing, possibly the endearing stick figures, certainly the cartoon violence, perhaps that Swedish record of Christmas songs and, in no small part, his collaboration with actor Robert May (who's given the world such life-affirming slogans as "Tuesday is coming, did you bring your coat?" and "My head is now a giant egg!").
Young Don burst into prominence with his first 16mm animated short, Ah L'Amour, in 1995, an immediate cult hit. The next year he animated Genre, in which a put-upon rabbit is the star of an accelerating series of tiny genre movies. In 1997 he released Lily and Jim, in which Robert May and Karin Anger played the title characters in a dialogue-driven piece about the worst ever blind date; and, in 1998 he earned critical acclaim and controversy for the unsettling tiny-tots-in-hell pastoral Billy's Balloon, where balloons abuse small children, beating them, dragging them and strangling them with their strings.
Hertzfeldt's watershed short, Rejected, was released in 2000, and it told the story of one Don Hertzfeldt, animator, who had been hired by a certain Family Learning Channel, as well as the Johnson & Mills Corp. into creating some interstitials and ad campaigns. The piece purports to be a compilation of all of Don's ads and bumpers, which have been rejected, and are indeed unsuitable to the point of get-this-guy-some-Lithium. Despite the hyperbole of the oh-so-wrong-for-broadcast quality of the material, many viewers bought the premise completely: an amazing idea, considering that the animator depicted in Rejected thought it would be appropriate to advertise Johnson & Mills' Bean Lard Mulch with an ad where one stick-man rips off another stick-man's stomach, puts it on his head and does a wavy-arm dance while announcing, "I am the Queen of France!"
Rejected remains Hertzfeldt's signature short, and the pressure to create a killer follow-up may be the reason why it took four years for Don to complete his next opus. He began animating The Meaning of Life in 2000 and worked on it solidly through 2003, when he took time out to join forces with King of the Hill creator Mike Judge on The Animation Show, a touring theatrical program of animated shorts. That year he put aside The Meaning of Life to make three interstitial pieces for The Animation Show Year One, including Welcome to the Animation Show, Intermission in the Third Dimension and The End of the Show -- three goofy jubilees of insanity hosted by two fluffy things from Rejected.
The Meaning of Life was finally finished in 2004 in time to take the closing position in The Animation Show Year Two. Considerably more abstract, and veering between a tone of elegy and mania, The Meaning of Life is a time-lapse tour of the human race and the many species who come and go in the billions of years after we're gone. To a Tchaikovsky soundtrack, we're left to meditate as hundreds of creatures, human and non, come and go endlessly repeating little summations of their lives' purposes, in snappy phrases like, "Give me your money" and "Stop following me," or just nature-documentary moments of flocking and musical birdcalls. After a whirlwind tour across time and space, we pause to watch a fish-like father creature and his son as the son wonders aloud about the meaning of life. The father tries to talk him out of such idle speculation, and cries "Bah!" as he leaves him to stare up at the stars.
Bitter Films Vol. 1 1995-2005 collects all these films, with many wonderful time-wasting extras; in addition to all of Hertzfeldt's shorts, there's also Spanky the Bear, a nasty little item whose existence has long been suggested, but has never been seen until now; a time-lapse documentary of Don animating The Meaning of Life called, "Watching Grass Grow;" deleted dialogue and a new reunion commentary for Lily and Jim; a special effects segment on the making of The Meaning of Life; the world's-worst-commentary commentary for Rejected; and teasers for Hertzfeldt's upcoming short Everything Will Be OK and the extras-filled Animation Show box set coming in 2007. (Full disclosure: I contributed to that box set.)
There are also 140 DVD pages of material from the Bitter Films archives, including camera notes, inspirational drawings, pencil tests, doodles and unused ideas. Everything is linked by new animated menus with oddly compelling ambient soundtracks.
The shorts to come out of Hertzfeldt's Bitter Films production company -- named after the pre-title slogan in front of his first short, Ah L'Amour -- will probably continue to skew funny for years to come because they're not the least bit topical. Popular comedy can become dated with tragic speed, but surrealism never dies, and, on a scale of one to 10 -- 10 being acid trip and one being the tax code -- "My spoon is too big" is about a 9.8 on the surreal-o-graph.
Animation World Magazine spoke with Hertzfeldt via email about the new DVD, how being an animator is like being a druggie, the danger of Python versus the safety of Bugs and bear attacks. (The interview has been edited slightly for content, as Don not only doesn't use computers in the photography of his shorts, he also doesn't use capital letters.)
Taylor Jessen: Talk about early comedy influences -- namecheck some movies, comedy albums, your first Monty Python moment.
Don Herzfeldt: Well, yeah, Python definitely. The show was on PBS all the time and I remember my dad renting all the movies when we first got a VCR. I probably saw every episode before I was 10. I also watched a lot of Mel Brooks. It seemed like High Anxiety or History of the World was on TV every other weekend. I started watching SNL when I was 13 and never missed a show all the way through college. In fact I recorded every single episode for review and study. I still have all those tapes.
As far as animation, I remember all the Bugs Bunny cartoons being funny every Saturday morning, but it was a very different kind of funny. A very safe, formulaic, old-fashioned grandpa funny compared to something like Python. When I was little, I couldn't care less if I missed a Daffy Duck ,ause I could pretty much assume it was like all the others. They were great, just dated and very familiar -- whereas missing a Python episode was something you just couldn't do. It really wasn't until I started going to animation festivals and seeing these underground indie shorts that I never knew existed that I realized just how fresh and contemporary animation could be -- and dangerous, like Python.
TJ: Dramatic movie influences?
DH: My dad introduced me to 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was maybe six or younger and I remember that as being a near-religious thing. Terrifying every time it came on, actually, not in a scary sense, but in its hugeness and power to my six-year-old brain. This thing that was so much bigger than me, spanning thousands of years and space and time. I couldn't believe that humans could have even made something like this -- it must have come from God or something. Just hearing my dad play his record of Also Sprach Zarathustra would make the hairs stand on my arm. The rest of Kubrick came tumbling soon after, thanks to the videos I'd scour from the library. David Lynch and Buster Keaton were early high school discoveries.
TJ: Did the parents dump some crucial piece of A/V equipment in your lap as a child to encourage your prodigal instincts? Super 8 perhaps? I see from your home movies you had access to a video camera later on.
DH: I groveled and begged my parents for a video camera for years, one that could shoot animation. I finally got one for my 15th birthday -- criminally late! -- and very rarely was it turned off. It was still operating as late as 2000-2001, shooting pencil tests for me, before it finally collapsed to pieces.
TJ: You went to school in Santa Barbara -- is there any inherent creepiness in working professionally in the same town where you once went to college? When I revisit my old college haunts I can't help noticing that almost everyone who was in the big Graham Hall water fight of '93 has moved away.
DH: Naw, not so much.... maybe because I was working on films constantly throughout college just like I'm still doing now, so it seems nothing has really changed. And I don't really think of it much as work either I guess.
TJ: How did you first hook up with actor Robert May? Editor Rebecca Moline? Actress Karin Anger? Sound designer Tim Kehl?
DH: Rebecca was shooting another student cartoon at school, I think, at the same time we were shooting Lily and Jim, so we were often handing off the key to the animation camera room. I could be totally, completely wrong about that, but I think I'm not mixing dates up. A few months later I needed someone to shoot Billy's Balloon, so I swiped her from that crew.
Karin came in cold for the Lily and Jim audition and just nailed it, knocked it out of the park. Listening to the other actresses that day was a technicality.
Tim was the alternative sound guy in town if you had a student film to mix, but couldn't abide by the university's mixing hours. I started mixing with Tim halfway through Lily and Jim and he worked on everything else through Meaning of Life.
Robert was an assistant dental hygienist in town who worked on my gums and rarely stopped talking about the director's cut of Abyss. He was much shorter back then and refused to walk upon anything that wasn't wood or wood-paneled. After my second or third visit I discovered he did not actually work in the clinic, but just liked to hang around there, smelling the equipment and occasionally eating floss balls.
Today Rebecca and Rob have their hands full running the Animation Show office, Karin is usually out of touch for years at a time on the road having adventures and Tim has forsaken all of us and moved away to St. Kitts where he lives with monkeys. So the old production gang has somewhat disbanded, but I still find a way to work with UCSB alumni -- Brian Hamblin edited Lily and Jim back in the day and did some work on Genre and Meaning of Life, and now edited Everything Will Be OK with me.
TJ: You've mentioned in the past that you learned a lot from taking improv classes -- were they at UCSB, were you initially a theater major, and did you get asked to pick another major when they found out you were doing film on the side?
DH: No, my incoming year I was a double major -- film and acting -- but was only very serious about film. Acting was something I got into in high school and just enjoyed doing for fun. And I figured any decent director needs to know a little of what it's like from the other side.
TJ: What's your working environment like? And your work day?
DH: I guess imagine what a regular, tidy animator's workspace would look like if a family of bears suddenly tore through the door and, after a prolonged struggle, ate him. But I weirdly always know where everything is. I think you see a little bit of the room here and there on the DVD.
The last year and a half has been unusually busy, endless chores to tackle for each project and commuting to L.A. every few days. Probably the busiest crunch of months I've ever seen. And then I wound up wrapping the new movie almost the same week as the DVD so almost overnight all the work suddenly dropped off. I've begun animating the next movie, the second chapter of OK, but man I've been staggeringly lazy about it. Work tonight? No, I think I'll eat cookies and watch TV again, thanks. Taking a little time to decompress I guess. It's real weird to feel bored again.
TJ: What do your fans want from you when they meet you in person versus what they want from you as a filmmaker?
DH: A surprising number of them want sympathetic hugs... and I'm never quite sure actually if that's meant to be for my benefit or theirs.
TJ: Why so much public domain music in the shorts? Are these records from your collection or your parents' collection that you grew up with? Or is it the Kubrickian influence rearing its head?
DH: I don't know, classical music just suits the movies so well. And yeah, they're so much easier to license. Even though I know better by now I tried to get an Arcade Fire song for OK and their label wouldn't even return a fax. And the music I ended up using instead worked much better for the scene anyway. The pop song is never worth the thousands and thousands of dollars they'll demand, plus the limitations they'll chain onto your movie. You gotta be more resourceful.
One of my prouder producer moments was getting a gorgeous, key classical piece I needed for OK for 50 bucks. Fifty bucks!! There's also a great opera piece in the movie. For the rest of the film I wrote some stuff myself -- haven't done that in a while -- but sometimes you know exactly what the scene needs and it's easier to just pick up the guitar or the keyboard next to you than try to go out and find it.
TJ: This is the DVD debut of The Meaning of Life, which is an intensely complex piece of work. It makes me wonder if the complexity dragged you down or liberated you. There's an NFB documentary on the new Norman McLaren DVD box set where they run a clip from an Alexandre Alexeieff short of a witch twirling in the air. She's spinning on several axes at once. An animator asks him how he made it look so believable despite all the variables, and he says, "I suspect strongly that it's the number of parameters that's helping... if there were only one, the mistakes would be more visible." When you were animating The Meaning of Life, where did and didn't you feel the need to be a perfectionist?
DH: I've always felt like a perfectionist on every project. Probably every editor or lab I've worked with, I can guarantee I've driven them all mad more than once. There are certain things you can get away with and other things you just can't. With The Meaning of Life there just wasn't a single shot in the whole movie that I would call "easy." Terribly dense animation, optical effects required in every other shot, unprecedented sound layers, a total nightmare in every department even if I wasn't working solo.
With most of the earlier films I think I'd often cruise through on writing and gotten away with some fairly dodgy stuff on the technical side. But I'd learned so much by then that this time I knew I could composite this effect better, I knew I could animate this scene better, and so I did. And then it comes to a point when you're saying, Jesus, I worked for nine months on that shot. So now this shot has to be that much better. And it's been two years now since I began and I'm definitely not going to let this whole thing be a piece of shit now, so now I need to make x, y, and z that much better...
I didn't let myself cut a single corner. Looking back I guess it was a very purging, self-destructive thing to work on. A lot of demons were released on that one. In the end though I think it's lovely and at the same time maybe just the right amount of imperfect. Which was sort of the idea. I wasn't about to make a movie about life and death -- in some ways a nature documentary -- and sterilize the whole thing with CG.
All those in-camera processes are by nature a little bit quirky and organic. There's always gonna be flaws if you look hard enough.
TJ: I was trying to work up a logline for The Meaning of Life, and I realized I was in a bit of an odd space when I got to the climax of the short, where the -- for want of a better term I shall call -- alien fishes, perhaps a father and son, are talking, and the old man is trying to banish these foolish "meaning of life" questions from the young one's head. The sun sets, the stars come out and the child looks up -- and I realized how crucial it is to resolving the dramatic arc to know whether or not he's smiling. That the whole tone of the piece, for me at least, should hinge on whether or not he's getting satisfaction from looking up at the stars is somewhat arresting. I know you prefer to leave the interpretation of your shorts to your audience, but would you agree that the smiling/not-smiling question is a fulcrum for working out the tone?
DH: Well... yeah, I agree it's an important scene. Maybe it's a bit of a Mona Lisa smile, if such a thing can be applied to a little creature with a slit on the topside of its head. If you think he's smiling at the stars then that's probably going to cap your interpretation of the whole movie. If you see it as something else, your interpretation's going to be maybe much darker. The movie is full of those... what I think I might like best in hindsight is how much the movie depends on what you bring into it. I don't think it's a heavy-handed movie... it's not even light-handed. It's totally armless. It's simply showing you things, things that all connect, and how you react is entirely up to you. Even Billy's Balloon was ambiguous like that. I don't like everyone walking out of a theater thinking the same thing. You have to leave space in the movie for the audience -- if you hammer emotional laugh tracks in every scene and always tell them what to think, you elbow them entirely out of the frame and leave them with nothing left to do but just watch you writhe around.
TJ: Is the new DVD a magical mystery tour or tragical history tour? Did you welcome the chance to revisit these children of yours or is this just your way of kicking them out of the house once and for all?
DH: Naw -- I kicked them each out of the house a long time ago. This was an invitation home to be cleaned behind the ears and gussied up for long-term display. Going through all these boxes of old materials again for the DVD was fun. There were a lot of good memories and forgotten things in there. But the restoration job itself on the camera negatives was pretty immense and tedious. That part I won't miss -- but now they look better than I've ever seen them off the big screen. It's nice to have them all in one place with a fluffy bow on top. The DVD has been in the works or in the back of my head for so many years it's great to clear everything out at least mentally and move on to some brand new things.
TJ: The disc has a nice arc when you watch it chronologically. I suppose it traces Act One of your career -- your first proper opus, then something more complicated, then your first character-driven piece, then something very risky and surreal, then your out-of-left-field Oscar-nominated short, and finally the Serious Follow-up where you simultaneously had to prove yourself and prove that you no longer needed to prove yourself.
DH: In hindsight with all the dust settled I can see how that would appear true -- it does sort of come full circle. But in the 10 years making them I don't think there was ever much feeling of rhyme or reason or premeditated progression. Each project was pretty much raw creative impulses flying off in every direction, with I think the only caveat being I never wanted to repeat myself and get boring. Sometimes it's scary intense stuff with very little planning. I imagine it's maybe a lot like being a drug addict.
You're involved with this one thing, you're spending all your money on it, you broke up with your girlfriend and you don't care, you're living in a dump apartment and you don't care, you don't get out very much, moment to moment it's all the movie and when you finish you realize you're making your money back and now you can make another one -- and this time you've learned from your previous mistakes and you can try this, and this, and this.
TJ: The cut scene from Rejected ("I wanna drink goat's blood!") isn't on the new DVD. Was that a conscious decision in order not to usurp the Rejected DVD that's also for sale from Bitter Films?
DH: Yeah, that one was one thing that didn't really need to be revisited. And we always promised to leave a few things exclusive to the old Rejected DVD, sort of like the weird little b-sides that don't come with the big fancy album.
TJ: Right now I'd have to say your shorts and some of the Williams Street material from Adult Swim from the last few years are standard bearers for surrealism in comedy. It's the bizarre content, definitely, but more than that it's the timing. Take apart "Fire Ant" or any other insane non-sequitur episode of Space Ghost Coast to Coast and you've got an exercise in Dada where the pauses in talk and movement are so spot-on, the piece simply had to be animated -- that's the only way the comic beats could be so precise. Is that why you're animating and not shooting live action?
DH: I guess it's because the amount of control you have in animation is exponentially greater than live-action. It's the purest form of film because you are shaping every frame one at a time. You have a much better chance of matching what's in your head and you can microscopically work on every moment and beat. You can shave frames from the middle of a scene and not have a jump cut. You're forced to compromise so much more often in live action -- if your actor blows a beat or misses a cue or the sun comes out at the wrong time there's not much you can do about it. Purely technically speaking, an animated film has a better shot at being perfect.
TJ: Making animated shorts has been your meal ticket for a decade now, which is an extraordinary thing to say in the entertainment industry. Have you really never had to get a McJob yet in your career?
DH: Yeah that's true, I've never had a job other than this. I was lucky to get started very young and was winning little cash prizes for video cartoons when I was still in high school.
TJ: Do you feel because of your subject matter that you're liberated from the need to be representational, that you'll never need to take Anatomy 101? Or is it a challenge you'll want to take on someday?
DH: Representational art has a place, but it's not for me. I'm more interested in drawings as psychology and expression, a subjective way somebody might see the world. I like little flaws in art because they reflect the flaws in life. I like children's drawings, not just the freedom and imagination in them but the painstaking struggle in the lines. There's conflict and tension there. There's so much richness and personality going on before you even get to what the story is.
CG models and perfect life drawings leave me cold. All that a realistic, representational drawing of a bicycle tells me is, "bicycle." There's so much more mood and psychology to bring to the film if your artwork communicates more than just nouns. It's why photorealism in animation is usually so boring and pointless. It's all nouns. Ninety percent of CG animation is all nouns. I can't feel anything going on behind the image.
The point of this medium is you can do literally anything, you can show us amazing things we've never seen before. I want to see animators change the language of cinema! Seriously, we have the means. Push animation deep into the wild new places where the surrealists took their reaction to photography. Rock the damn boat. If you're going to strip animation of all its subjective power and just show me what things look like in real life you might as well be shooting live action.
TJ: Would you work in a CGI environment if you could introduce a level of unpredictability into the results? Because I think it comes over pretty clearly in your commentaries on the DVD that you love so much to work with the animation camera mainly because you don't know exactly what the results will be.
DH: The beauty of this old camera is how basic it is and, in turn, how spontaneously I can work with it. So much of my process is intuitive and improvisational so having the ability and immediacy to construct things with your hands right underneath this lens is real important. Ninety-nine percent of the animators I know never shoot their own artwork, which I think is a real disadvantage. After shooting Rejected, Life and Everything Will Be OK, and creating the experimental effects in those, the camera's now grown into a part of my creative process that's nearly as important as the animation.
I wouldn't totally rule out a CG thing -- you have to always come back to whatever best serves the job. Almost all the new animated transitions on the DVD were shot digitally and I had a fine time doing them. There's a couple of purely CG menus on there too and I built and animated the main menu all in Photoshop. Every now and then I get tempted to shoot a dumb clay animation thing for the Animation Show and that would probably be digital as well. Sure, none of those are very personal projects yet, but I do have my feelers out there. I'm not a total Luddite.
TJ: Can you see yourself writing and directing a TV series someday? Obviously all your works are collaborations, but television is a much bigger clubhouse.
DH: OK is the first part of a three-chapter thing that I'll put on TV when all are finished, I guess like a mini-miniseries, and then probably all back-to-back at one point. You can tell a longer episodic story through TV, which is impossible to do with separate episodes in a semi-annual Animation Show. So maybe these are my first baby steps into that world, I don't know. I've turned down a lot of TV offers before but this is the first time I've gotten excited about characters enough to keep on writing. I guess we'll see by chapter three if there's anything left in the tank or if I kill everyone off or something.
TJ: Everything Will Be OK is inching its way across the screen-o-sphere as it makes its way from one festival to another prior to appearing in Animation Show III: The Search For Spock. Talk a little about the content -- are you mining characters and moods you explored in Temporary Anesthetics?
DH: Yeah, a few of the old Anesthetics strips were the earliest surface stabs at this character. His story was at one point going to be this art book and then it turned into OK and now it's these three shorts. So he's been kicking around and mutating since 1999. The second film/chapter is already written and I'm maybe a minute or so into animating it. So far, collectively these are looking like the best things I've written.
OK is funny, though quite dark, a little sad, a little claustrophobic. It's an overwhelming movie, there's a lot going on to take in. And now it's acted nicely as the gateway to let me do this next one, where things are pushed much farther out... a hell of a lot darker, much wilder and much, much funnier. Well knock on wood; I could screw it all up before I shoot anything. But I'm pretty jazzed on it all so far. It's been the most fun I've had working on something since Rejected.
Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. His brain recently crashed, forcing him to revert to his 1981 backup brain. Tomorrow we learn long division.