Don Hertzfeldt: the animator drawing devastating drama out of stick people

Charles Bramesco
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy

Don Hertzfeldt is surprised to hear that viewers have been watching his last few short films – the three episodes of his miniature sci-fi epic World of Tomorrow – in one sitting. “Isn’t that just exhausting?” he laughs, speaking over the phone from his home in Austin, Texas. “Mentally and emotionally?” He’s not wrong. But it is the kind of draining experience that leaves the audience restored; a gauntlet gone through for the promise of life-affirming enlightenment at the end.

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In the 44-year-old animator’s body of work, little stick figures enact meditations of crushing, cosmic profundity on time, memory, technology and love. Hertzfeldt earned his initial wave of fans in 2000, when his surreal short Rejected landed an Academy Award nomination for its absurdist gags about bleeding anuses and oversized spoons. (He likes to call himself an Oscar-losing film-maker, a tidy encapsulation of his sense of humour.)

That levity cosied up with a bruising sadness in the batch of early shorts that followed through the 00s, in which the melancholy doodle Bill contended with the deterioration of his brain and, with it, his relationships and grip on the true nature of existence. When joined as a 62-minute feature under the title It’s Such a Beautiful Day in 2012, “mentally and emotionally exhausting” most assuredly applied.

With the next major phase of his career, the ongoing World of Tomorrow era – launched in 2015 and most recently updated this month – Hertzfeldt has upped the ante in terms of both complexity and the devastating poignancy he has made his trademark. Its three instalments condense a dizzying volume of concepts and information into the length of a sitcom. Any attempt at synopsis makes the summariser sound like a mad scientist, but let’s try nevertheless.

In the first, the playful tot Emily Prime is visited by her adult clone from the future for a brief history of how the world will end; in the second, a handful of Emily’s doubles go on a sightseeing tour through such fantastical abstract locales as Triangle Land and the Bog of Reality; in the third, a tertiary character from episode one reappears to prevent his own assassination. For that latest Möbius-twisted pretzel of a story, he has done us the service of including diagrams and graphs to explain the timeline. “Part of the fun is how confusing it is!” he says. “The flowcharts help.”

Through time travel, holographic projection and flashbacks, Hertzfeldt shows his creations how everything they have ever loved will eventually be obliterated. While his works operate at a heart-mangling intensity, he is the easygoing kind of guy found in college towns such as Austin. He will not get hung up on questions of death or eternity. “People watch these more than I do. They’ve got their own interpretations. But as the person who packs the movie, I try not to unpack it too much.”

Stick with it ... World of Tomorrow.
Stick with it ... World of Tomorrow. Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy

He would rather talk process. With World of Tomorrow, “I wanted to break some old habits,” he says. After spending the first 15 years of his career working with 35mm film and old-school multiplane cameras – “The same kind they used to use at Disney!” he excitedly crows – Hertzfeldt has gone digital. After work on the first World of Tomorrow kept crashing his hard drive, he upgraded his system and made plans for a project with a team of animators and heavy-duty industry resources. That feature, given the working title Antarctica, never got off the ground, with budgets an issue. Things are looking brighter on that front these days: he has met with investors to explore a streaming home where he can continue the World of Tomorrow series at a more prolific rate.

“I’m not getting any younger,” he says. “You just want to work faster. I’m jealous of actors, of musicians, of people able to put out multiple things in one year. To take two years to make a short film is just absurd. I don’t want to use a Marvel term, but we’re expanding the universe.”

For Hertzfeldt, that means sharing this solitary process with others. Steeped as his work may be in isolation, he is ready to welcome them in to the bizarre dimension he’s built. “I don’t relish doing this alone!” he says. “I can’t be drawing little round heads by myself for the rest of my life.”

World of Tomorrow ep three is available on Vimeo