Don Hertzfeldt Acclaimed Indie Animator (Rejected, Meaning of Life, Everything Will Be OK)

For the past 12 years, Santa Barbara, Calif.-based indie animator Don Hertzfeldt has created a series of inspiring, quirky hand-drawn shorts which have delighted toon lovers and festivalgoers all over the world. In addition to acclaimed projects such as Ah, L’Amour; Genre, Lily and Jim, Billy’s Balloon, Rejected and The Meaning of Life, he also curates the popular and influential semi-annual shorts showcase The Animation Show with Mike Judge. In January, his latest short Everything Will Be OK took home the top Sundance prize in the shorts category. He was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions from us, despite the fact that he was bravely fighting a post-Sundance flu and cold!

Animation Magazine Online: First of all, congrats on winning the big Sundance prize this year. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came up with the idea behind Everything Will Be OK?

Don Hertzfeldt: [The short's main character] Bill from a comic strip I did years ago while animating Rejected. Part of the reason I split up the screen into multiple windows throughout OK was actually because I was so used to visualizing his story in these separated panels. They were weird comic strips, they never had punchlines or were even particuarly funny. It was always something like “Bill goes shopping” where he’d go to the grocery store and maybe observe people and then the last panel would say, “and then Bill went home.’ The most unpopular comic strips ever! But i got hooked on the character and while I was doing The Meaning of Life, I thought maybe Bill’s story could make an interesting art book type thing. Then I decided I knew nothing about making a book and the material eventually evolved into the movie, and his story kept on growing ‘ I couldn’t stop writing so midway through production it seemed to make the most sense to make it a bigger three part thing, with OK being the first chapter. So, right now, I’m about a couple minutes into animating chapter two.

AMO: How long did it take you to make the film? What was your budget?

D.H.: OK took about a year and a half, which at 17 minutes was record time for me. The whole piece was animated in pencils which saved me a few months not having to ink anything, and I got a lot more mileage out of the camera this time rather than pound it all out of the art desk. Meaning of Life took almost four years and was rarely any fun to work on, so I think this was sort of a reaction to that. OK was also made at the same time as we were producing the big Bitter Films DVD, and I think having multiple projects and chores to jump between somehow elevated both and kept my head fresh.

I’m not really sure actually how much it cost to make: Everything’s out of pocket so I stopped bothering to keep track of my budgets a long time ago’ I think it was mostly just processing costs this time, since the movie was all shot on film stock kindly donated by my friend Shane, who weirdly kept winning film festival awards from Kodak despite his being a computer animator.

AMO: Are you tired of seeing bad CG-animated movies produced by the big studios? What is your take on that whole scene?

D.H.: I don’t lose a lot of sleep over it. The studios were making lousy hand-drawn films long before everyone jumped on the CG bandwagon so I never really saw it as much of a shift. They just added a new dimension to horrible writing. To me it’s kind of like if all the big music labels had suddenly come out and said, “From now on, all our top 40 acts will only use synthesizers’no more guitars!” That would be kind of weird, but hell if i care, you know? I don’t listen to their music anyway. The independent scene is where all the action’s at now. Photorealism’s easily the dumbest thing to hit animation in recent memory, but it’s too easy to just blame the tools … What the studios have managed to do is make all that Godlike new technology boring, which is quite a feat when you stop to think about it.

The independents on the other hand are doing amazing, groundbreaking things with CG and CG-hybrids in their shorts, especially the kids overseas’and hand-drawn work is flourishing on the indie scene too. All the the innovations and most exciting things in the history of animation have always first taken place in shorts, and nowadays, it’s the only place left you’ll find an animator totally free to explore the field and actually express something personal, rather than serve these studio committees whose main agenda is always going to be selling toys and marketing Happy Meals!

AMO: Tell us what you think about the indie animated world in 2007?

D.H.: It seems like it’s more and more turning into an embarrassment of riches. The talent coming up from underground gets more impressive every year. We get a couple thousand submissions each season for the animation show, and Mike [Judge] and I regularly come up with dozens of personal favorites. But when you’ve only got 12-14 slots to fill an annual program with, you really get an idea of how much amazing content is regularly going unseen, simply because the market for shorts in this country is so hopelessly broken. We do our best to pack the spotlight with as many artists as we can but there’s easily enough gems out there for two to three animation shows a year!

AMO: What kind of advice would you give up and coming animators who want to make a living in the big bad world of animation?

D.H.: I guess to just put your head down and do your own thing. Everyone i know who’s “made it” or whatever just worked harder than everyone else. If there’s any secret formula that’s probably it. I think a lot of students worry about all the unimportant peripheral industry junk and then wind up paralyzed before they get to the first page. If you have something honest and new to say, just put in the work, beg, borrow and steal, and make your movie. I should also say what’s immediately obvious in the animation show submissions are the shorts made for dishonest reasons: the hollow stuff just produced as a calling card, as a shortcut to making a feature, to attract an agent, whatever… shorts that are desperately trying to impress some vague idea of an audience… You can smell the fear on them. These we bury out in the yard. The pieces with actual ideas and points of view really do tend to float to the top.

AMO: Tell us about the latest edition of The Animation Show this year? What kind of challenges did you face in releasing and promoting the show?

D.H.: I ‘ve always kinda felt like a helicopter pilot desperately trying to save as many films as I can from the flood before the chopper runs out of gas. The Animation Show‘ has never really raked in the dough but it’s never fallen on its face either. I guess that’s probably true of every passion project. And honestly, if we were just out to try and make a pile of cash, we’d be pretty stupid to have set up our camp around independent animated short films. From the beginning we just thought these films and artists deserve to be freed from the exhibition dungeons of the Internet and seen properly in theaters, and well, nobody else was doing it. And that’s still the case three seasons later.

Thankfully, my own involvement is creative, and I’m not directly tangling with the finances and horrors of self-distribution, but let me tell you, it’s always an uphill battle to shove indie animation into the mainstream media, with arms waving. “Shove” is definitely the right word for it, the first couple years most newspapers just had no idea what to do with us. This season has been the most interesting one : We’ve structured the release much bigger with a pre-show and mc’s in every town and the vibe of a one-night only concert kind of event. some venues get filmmakers and special guests for Q&A’s and in other cities we’ve involved ASIFA and local animation schools to get involved and show off their work. There’s been a lot going on out there, it’s got more of a film festival type spirit. We’ll always have our share of misadventures on the road but as long as audiences keep showing up to support these artists we’ll try our best to keep the zombie heart beating.

AMO: What was the most memorable reaction or feedback people have had to your recent work?

D.H. The Meaning of Life was agony to see with audiences because it was the first thing I did that wasn’t a comedy so I’d never know how i was doing: I wasn’t used to hearing dead silence during my movies; laughter at least always told me I was in good shape. So that always made me want to crawl and hide under the back row theater seats. Hearing wall-to-wall laughs again with OK is a real welcome thing but I have to say what’s made the biggest impression has been talking to the people who cry’that’s real new for me.

There were happy tears every now and then during Life, but OK really seems to touch people on these whole other bittersweet levels. And it’s a huge, weird, deeply personal privilege to feel invited into that I never feel quite sure I’m worthy of. “Did you really just let me into that room in your head? Really??’ It’s hard to describe making these sudden and deep connections with total strangers, connections you could not have made in a thousand conversations, and I guess that’s ultimately why we make movies: When it all clicks it’s a weird amazing thing.

AMO: What do you usually do in your free time when you’re not animating?

D.H.: Animation’s a strange animal, over several nights you’re very intensely focused on these moments that are maybe a couple seconds long. There’s so much material backed up and ready to burst from your head but the process of getting it out is in this freaky concentrated slow motion. I’ve kind of learned that I’m at my happiest in the off-hours when I follow these kind of calming and dull routines, I guess so I don’t have anything break into my head and distract me or waste my attention or something.

I almost always animate and write in the middle of the night and when I find spare time in the day I basically just watch loads of movies and read a lot. When the weather’s good there’s hiking. Day to day, I guess the less I have to go around and deal with grown-up problems and disrupt things, the easier it is to keep my head shelled up in the movie and those little moments. Oh, and there’s a ton of heroin! Did I mention the heroin? [He's kiddin', folks, just kiddin'!]

AMO: How do you get so disciplined to create your 2D shorts? How do you fight the demons of procrastination?

D.H.: The only other guy I know who’s able to do this independently and not have a day job is Bill Plympton and I suppose we both realize how amazingly lucky we are. I rarely feel like I’m fighting procrastination, if anything I get really stir crazy and anxious if I’m away from production for a day or two. I’d probably be making these same movies if I had to work three jobs on the side or if I were a multi-millionaire’it’s much harder for me not to work on them. I just can’t imagine that. I’ve got the freedom to tell the stories I want to and answer to nobody and there’s this great audience out there waiting for them. I don’t know if a filmmaker could ask for much more than that, you know? So, every day I’m not working on something just feels kind of stupid!

To find out more about Don’s life and career and to order his latest DVDs, visit www.bitterfilms.com