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The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts: Don Hertzfeldt Talks ‘World of Tomorrow Episode Two’

From crafting a story around the musings of a five-year-old to employing an aging technical pipeline, no filmmaking challenge is too big for Hertzfeldt.

Don Hertzfeldt’s minimalist and often absurdist stick figure work has been a fixture on the animation circuit since his debut Ah, L’Amour in 1995. Although he was a success with audiences almost from the start (to the point where he’s been able to self-fund his films) with popular and acclaimed films like Billy’s Balloon, Rejected, Lily and Jim – his work, for me at least, didn’t really start to get interesting until The Meaning of Life (2005).

With The Meaning of Life, Herztfeldt explored more impressive terrain. Poetic, playful and poignant, we encounter a world of babbling humans, aliens and, finally, a father and son alien. While these strange and familiar creatures come and go, the one thing that remains constant is the beauty and mystery of stars and suns of the universe. The meaning of life, suggests Hertzfeldt, will not be found in words, but simply in the mystifying and beguiling nature around us. All we have to do is, well, shut up and look.

Hertzfeldt followed up with an extraordinary trilogy -- Everything will Be OK (2006), I am So Proud of You (2008), and It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2011) -- later edited into the feature It’s Such a Beautiful Day. The protagonist of these films is Bill, a disconnected, ailing man who drifts through the unreliable, disorientating fragments of his past and present. Bill sees the world through small moving holes, and his many, fragmented social encounters reveal a man who is paranoid, obsessed, anxious and generally unable to connect with the world around him. It’s only after overcoming a serious illness (we assume it’s cancer) that Bill slowly begins to get it together and comes to see the beauty that life can offer when you’re looking.

World of Tomorrow (2015), Hertzfeldt’s first full foray into science-fiction film (and digital animation), was a natural next step for an artist whose previous films dabbled in elements of the genre. Here, Hertzfeldt continues his interest in identity this time via the mind of a young girl named Emily (with dialogue improvised by Hertzfeldt’s niece) who meets her cloned self from the future (voiced by Julia Pott). Through the meeting of the two selves, Hertzfeldt explores, among other themes, issues of memory, mortality, identity, the charming chaos of childhood, and well, the sometimes terrifying prospects of humanity.

Given the success of World of Tomorrow (including an Oscar nomination and several Festival awards), it’s maybe no surprise that Hertzfeldt has returned to the same world for the follow-up film, World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts (2017). This time, young Emily helps a fractured back-up clone from her future repair her mind.

As the new film begins its touring life, Hertzfeldt very generously set aside some time to offer insight into his latest film and where he sees it going:

Chris Robinson: What was the starting point of the original World of Tomorrow? I know that you were maybe doing this to teach yourself digital, but how did you stumble upon this storyline. There’s an improvised feel to it. Did your niece’s “ramblings” help guide you towards a direction?

Don Hertzfeldt: I’d always wanted to write a science fiction story and “going digital” for the first time after twenty or so years was a great excuse to do it. The story I had in mind required a little kid and I didn’t want to fake it. You usually hear adults doing child voices in cartoons and it can be funny but it never feels real. it’s not the experience of having a conversation with a four-year-old, where every other thought is sort of out of left field. And getting that sense of spontaneity in animation, which is by nature the least spontaneous way to make a movie, is a really powerful thing. So while everything Winona said was unscripted (at that age her thoughts and reactions to things were still short and tidy enough to edit around and find a way to fit into my story), I rewrote Julia’s lines so her half of the conversations made sense, but for the most part I was able to keep that movie on the path I’d intended.

CR: Was the plan always to make a second film? And do you foresee this becoming another trilogy that can than potentially be transferred into feature that might reach other markets that short films don’t always reach?

DH: I don’t often plan projects very far out in advance because one of them can take so long to finish that I sometimes feel like a different person by the time I reach the end. But about a month before World of Tomorrow was released, in late 2014, I saw my niece again and I recorded her some more, then at age five. And when I signed Julia up for the first film I signed her up for another one at the same time. So I didn’t have a story planned yet for a second one but even in those early stages I did have a feeling I might want to go back for more. It was just a good feeling making the first one, the most fun I’d had animating, maybe ever. I also knew that, like the first one, if the new round of recording with my niece yielded nothing interesting, there would be no new film to speak of anyway. I figured I’d at least see if anything interesting would come from those new sessions. but I’ve never thought of this story as a trilogy. The It’s Such a Beautiful Day story is a very complete three chapters and very clearly a closed thing. What makes World of Tomorrow interesting to me is how open and free it all is. It makes much more sense, at least right now, as a five or seven or ten-episode thing rather than a trilogy or a closed feature-length.

I think running times are thankfully becoming more and more irrelevant these days. Streaming has opened everything up, at least in the living room, and suddenly people are eager to binge-watch an entire series or just watch a great short... that eight-hour O.J. Simpson documentary, I can’t imagine that at any other length. World of Tomorrow was the first short film on Netflix and I was really heartened to find people recommending it to their friends and not even mentioning (or warning them), that it was a short. when I was in film school, we were warned to never, ever make a movie with a weird running time -- 45 minutes was considered absolutely suicidal and unsellable in all markets -- which was true back then, but I think we’re at a point now where audience’s viewing habits have been allowed to evolve -- and at the end of the day we just want to see something good. The playing field between short and long and indie and studio seems to be just a little more level. So, I’ve been kind of thinking of World of Tomorrow in those terms. It’s a different kind of narrative, right now I don’t see it becoming a tidy feature-length thing. The first two chapters mirror each other nicely but I think going forward we’re going to break away from that and really see what else is out there.

CR: In terms of both films, I also wonder how much of the vision changed from conception to final product. Was there a lot of freewheeling along the way or did you have a fairly firm vision of where you wanted the films to go?

DH: The second episode is really where my plans went off the rails. I had a vague idea of the sort of thing I wanted to write about but the audio Winona delivered (at age five, plus a few recordings from age six) went in absolutely every other direction (e.g. long monologues about triangle land, caves, bracelets, imaginary friends, all sorts of wonderful very strange stuff that had just nothing at all to do with my original ideas). There was no clear way to make any of it fit together and it turned into an extremely complicated puzzle, just trying to make sense of it all. She lives in Scotland and I only see her about once a year, so it’s not like I could easily revisit her for more material. These audio sessions are really take it or leave it, make a movie from these sessions or make nothing. so it was a very strange and uniquely difficult writing process, combing through all the audio and figuring out what she could be talking about here, and what on earth her character might mean when she says this. When it all finally came together and I was able to wrap some sort narrative around it all, it turned into something sort of weird and beautiful. It’s like writing while half-unconscious or something. I was not expecting that to happen and I’m still sort of surprised it exists.

CR: From the start you’ve always done things on your own terms. So much has changed since you came into animation and I wonder how the experience has changed for you. Has it become easier or harder for you to stick to your guns and follow your own path? How?

DH: The technology has all changed from top to bottom but I think the basic philosophy, at least for me, has been pretty much the same. When I was starting out, the big goal was to maybe get your animated short picked up by MTV or licensed by an animation festival like Spike and Mike or something. If you couldn’t figure out how to monetize your work one way or another, you couldn’t make another film. There were not very many Americans in this field to follow, so when I was a student I just tried to copy what the big studios did with their features.

First, do film festivals and theatrical stuff, then trickle down to TV deals and then figure out something for DVD or VHS. Aside from the thing I did for The Simpsons, I’ve never done any commissioned work in the twenty-odd years I’ve been doing this, so the short films always had to be profitable on their own. No way around it. To even make an animated short back then you’d need access to a giant rostrum camera -- I eventually just bought my own -- and all the 35mm film stock plus post-production was very expensive. There’s many more ways to animate something today, and many more places to get your stuff seen, but the need for the films to be self-sustaining is the same. Instead of selling something to MTV now, there’s the Netflixes of the world, Blu-rays, etc. all the screens have changed but the idea’s the same. I don’t want to animate advertisements and I’ve never been given a grant. so the only way to follow my own path has always been to not rely on other people.  

CR: Did you feel more confident this time around with the digital tools? Did that make it easier to get through the production this time or did you stumble onto some new challenges?

DH: I made the first World of Tomorrow on old versions of Photoshop and Final Cut, old at the time, maybe ten years old by now. When I was first figuring out animation on the tablet I tested out a couple of animation-centric programs and I couldn’t stand any of them. The brush options were surprisingly terrible. Photoshop easily had the best brushes and I was already fluent in it so i just landed there. Photoshop was very clunky when it came to actually watching your animation though, so I settled on drawing everything in there and exporting it all to Final Cut in frame sequences where I’d assemble and preview it all.

That did the job, but both programs crashed a lot the more I pushed them, so fast forward to a couple years later, starting work on Episode Two. I realized I really didn’t want the look of it to change drastically from the first one, so I was afraid of upgrading either program or changing this little pipeline, because once you get a new version of something or leap into an entirely different thing like After Effects, all your filters tend to change and I was wary of the second episode suddenly having a totally different feel. So production on Episode Two was mainly more difficult because that movie expanded so much visually that this old software almost never kept up. crash after crash. Made it to the finish line with smoke pouring from the computer. but moving forward now I’m feeling less tethered to having to do that -- though I have to admit I still haven’t upgraded.

CR: While some would say The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts is sci-fi, I see something more realistic and philosophical. in the sense that the film deals with identity, and specifically how identity is not a firm or necessarily reliable “thing”... it’s constantly in flux, always growing, shifting, or even devolving. All these versions of Emily can easily fit any of us. e.g. I am, yet am not, the five-year me, the 16-year-old me... the 34-year-old... and one day I won’t be this 50-year-old me either. Granted, identity seems a lot more messed up (or liberated, depending on your perspective) in this internet age when we can take on any manner of guise. So... I’m wondering if that sense of identity as fluid was on your mind at the start?

DH: It was, and I think that’s also what makes our memories, also constantly changing and growing, such powerful things. If I said, “hey Chris there’s this new technology that will allow you to live an extra hundred years,” that’s a pretty cool thing. but then if I said, “the catch is, we’d have to reboot your brain and erase everything first,” suddenly that’s a lot less attractive. When you say you want to live forever, what you really mean is you want to maintain that fluid continuity of memory and experience. it’s everything, it’s what makes us who we are. To erase that feels like murder.

Chris Robinson's picture

A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.