October 23, 2006
A Conversation With Don Hertzfeldt
Don Hertzfeldt is one of my favorite short filmmakers. All of his films are of the hand-drawn variety, but referring to them as cartoons is a vast understatement; as he's noted, he's a filmmaker who happens to work in animation. Certainly, his films have an implicit understanding of cinematic language (the Oscar-nominated Rejected, his most well-known work, could be as easily read as an experiment in exploiting traditional comedic form as it is a satire of a crumbling commercial culture). He's one of the few filmmakers working in this medium who has carved out a singular, self-sustaining niche for himself, and who hasn't caved to the pressure of mass media (even Bill Plympton does commercials from time to time).
Don just finished up a new film, entitled Everything Will Be Okay, and is about to start work on its sequel. More presciently exciting, however, is the release of Bitter Films, Volume 1, the first official collection of his work. It's a beautiful DVD, containing every short film he's made, from L'Amour up to last year's The Meaning Of Life, all remastered in high definition from the original negatives. Even better than that are the Bitter Films Archives, an exhaustively cross-indexed catalog of notes, camera tests, discarded shorts, deleted scenes, skeletons of explorers who got lost in its depth and other odds and ends (it's so complex that the Bitter Film site has a FAQ on how best to approach it). There's also a documentary on the animation process, called Watching Grass Grow, which may cause your fingertips to spontaneously bleed.
The DVD is currently available exclusively from the Bitter Films website. As it's release date loomed late last month, I talked with Don about the DVD, his new film, new media versus traditional cinema, digital versus analog, and other thrilling topics. This interview was done for AICN, but I'm cross posting it here because, frankly, it's too good not to share.
I've been going through the DVD all morning, and it's a work of art in and of itself. How long has it been in the works? thanks, yours was some of the first feedback i'd heard about the disc. i'm happy to have confirmation the thing actually works and didn't make you go blind or something. the dvd has been in production for maybe a year and half while i worked on the new movie, though it's been in the back of my head for many years.
You're self-distributing this collection, correct? Did you have offers from other distributors to put your work out? If so, why did you choose not to go with them?
i guess when you own all ten year's worth of content and then create the dvd independently it's not much of a further leap to distribute it in-house too. online, the big retail corporations demand 40-55% of your sales and act like they're doing you a favor - so no thanks, i'm happy with our little bitter films shop. it's near impossible for an independent to survive out there without being somewhat self-sufficient like this. i've always preferred to do things my own way anyway... just like mike and i weren't happy with the state of affairs with animation festivals so we just went and created the animation show.
but i would like to see the dvd make its way onto store shelves someday. and now that it's finished i'll probably start listening to distributors in that dept. they will probably want to put 45 minutes of trailers and fbi warnings at the beginning of it though.
It's almost insanely, beautifully exhaustive. The archives are especially impressive - do you just hang on to everything from the films? Do you have all the original drawings packed away in file cabinets?
thanks, exhaustive was the goal. yeah i've hung on to all my production artwork and notes over the years, all stacked in grocery bags in giant crumpled cardboard boxes. for the dvd i went through almost every box i could find and fished out any artifact that looked interesting. i found a big bag of discarded "genre" sketches and notes from 1996 that was labeled "recycle" which i apparently never had the heart to do... it still had eraser dust stuck to its pages... vintage, near-mint eraser dust in its original packaging! mostly it's just amazing how much stuff over the years i'd forgotten... found tons of lost doodles and abandoned ideas, several old pencil tests, a dead cat, bags of deleted scene trims, even sketches from 1993 high school cartoons. all of this and more ended up amassing into those 140 pages of archives and other special features. except for the dead cat which will be on e-bay. in hindsight some of it is a little old and embarrassing to put on display but i just wanted to throw it all out there and let the viewer sort it out, as if they were going through the boxes themselves. portions of it, like many of my camera and direction notes, personally bore me to tears but maybe some of it will be interesting to animation students or the obsessed male virgins who want to rape and murder me twenty years from now. people have been asking for the dvd since 2001 so it's really been building up and the last thing i wanted to do was give them something even remotely half-assed.
Many of your shorts - particularly Billy's Balloon and Rejected - have had a sort of viral success online. I know that's how I first learned about them - my brother e-mailed them to me. Just the other day, I asked a friend if they'd ever seen 'Rejected,' and she said no - but as soon as I showed it to her on the DVD, she knew exactly what it was. How do you feel about this? In a way, you work gets more exposure - but the question of attribution gets tricky.
it's an interesting thing since we've never put the films online ourselves in any form. someone could probably write a good term paper about it all. as much as the crummy quality of the bootlegs will always bother me, we couldn't possibly take them all offline if we tried - - and there comes a point when you really just can't complain that millions of people are out there enjoying your work. after all, that's why you made the movies in the first place, right? i'm not interested in harrassing fans or giving people a hard time just for watching a video online. ideally if every bootleg was an unmolested perfect copy that came with a link to our website and this dvd, i'd be happy. it's when the cartoons are randomly re-edited by preteens with the credits cut out and a description tag reading, "dis shit funny"... well, yeah that's probably gonna go. but there's always going to be people saying how much they enjoyed "the flash animation" of "doug herztflop" and well, what can you do. i guess at least they enjoyed it.
at the end of the day as the artist it's your responsibility to provide the audience with better alternatives to the bootlegs and the terribly low quality file-sharing stuff - so therefore this big dvd and theatrically, the animation show where people can see these kinds of movies as originally intended. people have had thousands of chances to see "rejected" on the big screen since 2000 so its neverending popularity as an internet virus (heh) is just one more chapter in its weird undead monkey life
I was pretty impressed by how visually rich the early shorts actually were - by how much texture there is to the image beyond the figures themselves. Can you talk about the restoration process? Was there a lot of work to be done, or was it simply a matter of doing a new transfer of the original negatives?
thanks, yeah everything was shot on 16mm or 35mm over the years so i think all the people who've only seen these cartoons online or on their cell phones (shudder) will be surprised at how beautiful the film images actually are. with the exception of the "rejected" dvd single we did years ago, i've never been happy with how any of the titles looked on TV until now. shorts like "lily and jim" were previously available on out-of-print warner dvds or fly-by-night spike and mike dvds but had always been dubbed from very ugly one-light VHS sources - just like watching a video tape, so i never understood the point of why they were making dvds.
for bitter films v1 all the titles were transferred from their original camera negatives to high definition masters - with the exception of "lily and jim", which was transferred from a first generation IP (sadly, that original camera negative was destroyed years ago by a film vault). the restoration work from there was an enormous, enormous project. it's easy to forget that many of these cartoons were no-budget, 16mm student films. so you're restoring a smaller film format where damage and hairballs show up twice as large, and there's nowhere for them to hide since the movies almost universally have plain white backgrounds. it's also a grainier format which wreaks havoc with dvd compression, especially coupled with the natural paper grain found in the artwork. plus you're dealing with inexperienced, unbalanced student lighting and bad neg cutting. and finally, after ten years of film festivals, the elements show signs of regular wear-and-tear abuse. so we had our work cut out for us... much of the restoration was akin to that done on battered old silent films. we all know how problematic DVNR restoration can be on a cartoon, so the digital restoration was largely done "by hand", one frame at a time... extremely expensive, tedious stuff. i supervised a few portions of the slow cleaning process and there remain clawmarks on the doorframe from when i'd desperately try to scratch my way out of the room and had to be restrained. but compare something like "billy's balloon" coming from this final high def source to even the version that previously appeared on the animation show DVD and it's night and day - the improvements are almost embarrassing. for a number of the titles it's also the first time ever the soundtracks are coming from restored digital sources. a short like "genre" was originally mixed on 16mm magnetic tracks and this was actually the first time in ten years it's sounded this clear.
i've never heard of indie animation getting this kind of intensive high def restoration before and i'm pretty happy overall with how it all went, i think we got closer to the experience of watching the movies on film. to that end and to stay true to their grungy roots, we even left in a handful of blemishes and spots in the older 16mm titles for good measure, so they didn't appear unnaturally clean.
At what point did you fall in love with film?
i don't remember a specific moment when i said, "this is what i want to do". i think i've always wanted to make movies, even before i was aware of it. my brother and i each had piles and piles of giant drawing pads since we were very young, easily over 500 of them, filled with homemade superheroes and wars and monsters and comics and tremendously gory adventures, hundreds-of-issues-long bloated episodic sagas. and i wouldn't let my friends just read them, i'd narrate them and read aloud all the dialogue and do all the sound effects and point my finger from page to page directing where their eyes should go from this explosion to that one and orchestrate the whole thing like a movie. i even tried to build my own animated video game for friends to play when i was maybe 8 or 9 - this was back when playing a video game at the pizzeria was like a holiday - so i got the cardboard box with the screen-shaped hole in it and tried to copy the "star wars" arcade game where you shoot the polygon tie fighters. i hopelessly animated hundreds of drawings of different points of view and perspectives from the cockpit, pages that i'd somehow planned on very rapidly flipping up from inside the box's screen by hand, based on whichever direction my brother or somebody would move their imaginary joystick... that didn't quite work. but it seems like every early creative thing i did had something to do with drawing and movies. some of my earliest memories are in a movie theater. movies were this bigger-than-life religious thing, you sit inside this cathedral place where everybody's quiet and reverent and then the lights go off and these amazing things happen. it was before video tape or cable so the only time you ever saw a movie was in that moment in a theater, so all the kids would take in everything they possibly could. you'd remember the scenes months later, you'd reconstruct them in your head, you'd re-enact them with action figures, it was a lot like struggling to remember this amazing dream you'd had. it's very different now when the movie's on DVD three weeks later and you can freeze and analyze every dumb frame. it's almost hard to imagine how movies used to be these flickering intangible dream things that only temporarily came out in the dark. but sometimes i kinda like that better
Did you have any other aspirations or interests as a filmmaker before you turned to animation? Were there ever any live action Bitter Films?
yeah i did want to get into live action originally but it was too expensive when i was at film school - it was all 16mm and producing a solid short could run you $10-30k. i did a handful of little live action things in classes but nothing really substantial. then i learned they had an animation camera on campus that nobody was using - i'd already been doing video cartoons since i was 15 - and then i also learned i could pitch my own animation projects alongside the students in the regular production classes... and i was thinking, "this counts??" and very soon after came "ah l'amour".
Likewise, did your style of animation (i.e. stick figures) come about by accident, or was it a conscious decision? In other words, did the convenience of stick figures preceded any sort of stylistic choice, or was it the other way around?
yeah it's kinda just the way i draw so i don't know if i'd call that conscious or not? i think it does fit the films very well and adds a great deal to them - i can't imagine the movies designed any other way, at least. in hindsight i also like that it's always been honest - these are the characters, this is how they look, i'm not gonna lie to you or distract you with eye candy, let's just get to the story. look at the big picture, strip away the fat and get to the core of the thing. i don't even like using backgrounds.
i guess i feel like a filmmaker who just happens to animate. everyone else in this community seems to be the other way around which i guess is logical but i went to film school, not an art school. i'm approaching this like any other movie: story, editing, sound, characters, camera, writing all coming first. i'm not going to get excited about starting a new project because i've figured out a new way to render a falling leaf... i'm not gonna spend a thousand hours sweating over how to realistically sketch someone's ankle just right. draftsmanship is impressive but secondary to all the other basic ingredients in a movie. from the submissions that come in to the animation show, it seems there are countless talented animators out there but they don't know the first thing about how the isolated scenes they've worked so hard on should fit together, or how an audience might be affected by them. most of their work i wouldn't say is really "about" anything, the majority of what we see just plays like impersonal showreels. wow, the CG dirt looks really realistic. that sort of thing. i think a lot of students are still getting distracted by the newest tools or the latest politics... and it's difficult because there constantly seems to be more distracting bullshit going on in animation than in any other film medium. it's important to remember you can present a shakespeare play on an barren, empty stage with imaginary props and actors in black and still bring an audience to tears. this is what you build your film around, not the window dressing.
I'd like to talk about the actual process of making the films for a bit. The Watching Grass Grow documentary was pretty exhausting to watch. It made my hands hurt. What's the longest stretch you've ever spent animating?
i'm not sure, it's always been irregular and unpredictable. on a typical project i'll go for several hours straight but other days maybe not very much comes through at all. you can never force yourself if nothing's happening or you're just not feeling it. i don't any days off though... every weekend, every holiday, there's always going to be something to work on. if i can't shut my brain off then it's often an all-night marathon. in one of the pencil tests in "grass grow" - i think of the flying creatures - you can see sunlight glide across the time lapse image as the sun rises outside my window which i thought was kinda pretty.
Adding to that exhaustion (for me at least) are the prospect of the animation tests...which I assume are followed by revisions, and then more tests. Is this something you've always done, or did you realize at a certain point that it's better to be safe than sorry?
yeah unless it's a very simple scene or a very simple gesture, just about everything gets pencil tested on video first, shooting on film is expensive and time consuming. particularly in "meaning of life" where the photography was always such a giant chore - setting up every shot in that thing was difficult, so you don't want to reshoot unless you really have to.
Looking at all those infinitely complex charts and graphs and things you use to keep track of shots and frames - not to mention the notion of keeping track of hundreds of thousands of drawings needed for a film - reminds me of something I've often wondered while watching, say, some of Michel Gondry's more complicated videos. Do you think one needs to have a particularly logical and almost rhythmically attuned mindset to keep track of all the elements in an animated film? (does that even make any sense?) Or have you ever just confused the hell out of yourself?
the notes usually make sense to me since they're written in my own scribbly language.. this is one thing that's actually a fast process. i can time out scenes well enough in my head now that i can minimize editing by perfecting most of the beats in-camera.. most of those notes and math are just a quasi-intuitive shorthand for the timing. i think if another camera operator came onboard to shoot my work based on deciphering that stuff he'd probably hang himself. maybe occasionally i'll find an illegible bloody scrawl that throws me for a loop, like "blop out the third drawing 45 degrees" or something and i'll try and figure out what i meant by blop or possibly what blop is abbrieviated for.
compounded with everything else though, yeah all the elements can definitely get overwhelming if you let them - animating, writing, producing, shooting, mixing sound, writing music, directing, etc by yourself, you can't exactly finish one aspect of your role and dump the next step onto the next poor bastard on the crew. in a difficult production week i'm wearing the same clothes just so i don't have to make a decision on what to wear and finding myself following a very set daily zombie routine so as to not get distracted or waste brain power thinking about anything but the job at hand... not shaving, mumbling to myself like a hobo... twelve different stacks of scattered notes and papers across the floor yet their positions all make sense and i know where everything is. this is when friends helpfully point out, "you look tired". it's a weird focus. at one point in the deeper pit of "meaning of life" hell i remember dragging myself around to get groceries at 3 in the morning and the checkout girl says "hi how are you?" and i say "hello" and she says "here you go, have a nice night", and i suddenly can't remember the words for "goodbye" or "thanks" anymore and hear myself saying "hello" again as i leave.
Jim Healy, in his essay that accompanies the DVD, refers to the 'inherently cinematic' qualities of your work. So many filmmakers are looking at new mediums of exhibition - iPods, the internet, even cell phones - and yet you're still making film prints of all your work and putting it up there on the big screen. Is this important part of filmmaking to you, and are you afraid it's something that will be marginalized even more over the coming years?
there's always gonna be new gizmos and trends but they're trends created and driven by people who just want to sell you something... not by actual artists who think the new formats might better serve their work. i don't think about that stuff very much. movies don't belong on ipods or cell phones or the internet... they look terrible 99% of the time. just like internet animation looks terrible blown up on a big screen. it's like forcing a square into a circle. as long as there are theaters to project them i'll keep making movies for big screens. it's hard enough to make the movies look right on DVD.
Incidentally, one of those filmmakers who's looking to new media seems to be David Lynch. The last time we spoke, you mentioned that you saw him as something of an influence in your own work, and then I gathered from your blog that you know each other. Is he a fan of your work now?
well no i think i am exponentially more a fan of his work. with his new movie he's definitely excited with shooting digitally and it doesn't sound like he's interested in shooting on film again. he was never very happy with the way "eraserhead" looked until they did the remastered DVD a few years ago. and i admire how david's using the new formats to fit his tastes and vision rather than vice versa... like steering away from high def because it looks too crisp. to paraphrase, "it doesn't leave the audience any room to dream". and there's a lot of truth to that, at least in live action. i saw an article in a science magazine about high def and next generation formats of even higher resolution and it made an interesting point... these images contain so much visual information now they approach what the eye might see in real life. the brain has to work harder just making sense of what's important and it processes all that information very differently than how we usually watch movies and tv. fundamentally it's a much different viewing experience. and as with any format it all depends on what you're going to do with it, the tools have to serve the movie. obviously, overcooked detail and seeing every actor's pores doesn't automatically mean "better".
I've really been fascinated lately by the line between the sort of 'handmade' style of filmmaking that your work represents (along with feature films like those of Andrew Bujalski, who still shoots and cuts on film). You speak very eloquently on the DVD about how you like to achieve your effects the traditional way -about how digital effects are too 'perfect' and micromanaged, and there are never any accidents, happy or otherwise. That's certainly true, and yet, at the same time, certain digital tools make the filmmaking process more efficient. Do you think there's a line between artistry and efficiency, and if so, where do you draw it? For example, do you see a difference between editing a film on a Steenbeck or on Final Cut Pro? And between editing on Final Cut and using After Effects to
aide a particularly difficult composite?
again it should be a matter of personal taste and whatever you're comfortable with. what's most important is filmmakers need to have choices. i like working with real paint and real light and like you say, the happy accidents that might come with experimenting with this camera. other people can do amazing things with computers but i find it constricting and less interesting. it's all just apples and oranges. what bothers me is how the industry stampedes one way or another based on financial incentives and next thing you know you have entire formats going extinct and fewer and fewer options for young filmmakers to choose from. the worst scenario is everyone finding themselves working from the same homogenized palette. which has been slowly happening for years, considering i've got the only operating animation camera of its kind left in existence that i know of.
i've found a happy medium with film and digital, there's no reason the two can't coexist. we've mixed sound digitally since "billy's balloon" and only started editing digitally since "the meaning of life". the only real difference i've noticed is i used to have more time to think about shots when we edited on film... but it's obviously easier to fine-tune all my microscopic timing cuts in a computer. almost all the new animated transitions on the bitter films DVD were shot digitally. and obviously the films wouldn't look their best on the DVD without these amazing digital tools. whereas i'll always prefer to capture the movies on film. you can have it both ways. i just worry that young artists ten years from now won't have any choices at all.
So much CGI looks the same - especially with all these new kiddie features and special effects blockbusters crowding the marketplace these days. But, perhaps in curating the animation show, have you seen any pieces of digital animation that's used the form in new and unexpected ways, that pushes the boundaries of what's come to be expected by CGI? Has anything ever tempted you to try it yourself?
lately i've been impressed by cg shorts that are finding new ways to blend the mediums. less of the stupid rubbery shrek characters everyone does and more of the kinds of organic effects that you'd expect from traditional animation. there's some cool hybrid painterly stuff being made out there, hand-drawn blends. the challenge for cg guys is working the flaws and organic quirks of life into such a lifeless medium... nothing on their screen is ever just left up to chance, so every little detail has to be artificially placed there. so the shorts that make you go, "wow, that was all cg?" only after you spot it in the credits are pretty impressive. really, the best use of any format is when the format is invisible. you should be so involved with the movie you don't notice or care how it was made.
You've done a magnificent job of avoiding anything that might be considered a sell-out move - doing commercial work, for example, or anything that's not entirely your own brainchild. Such solidarity seems all too rare a thing, in a world where great filmmakers do GAP commercials to pay the bills; has it been more trouble than its worth, at some times (especially in the face of those countless dollars you've mentioned passing up from time to time), or has integrity always been its own reward?
no, i've never regretted it. i like having money as much as the next guy but it's never been any motivating reason for doing this. seriously, who'd get into indie animated shorts if they were after money? if none of the films were successful and i had to work in a video store by day i'd still be trying to make them somehow in my spare time.
i can't stand commericals.. they're intrusive and insulting and antisocial. maybe i take things too personally. but we live in a dangerous corporate culture and i just don't want to contribute to any of that. i really do respect the audience too much to do something like that. i think anything i'd try to cook up for some ad would always feel like a lie and i'd lose sleep over it.
besides, it seems like a backwards way for me to approach something creatively... hey, go think of something clever to sell deodorant. it's difficult for me to create something by working backwards until i find a good idea, you know? i had an offer years ago to make an animated xmas special for tv, i could do whatever i wanted. it could have been fun but it was so out of the blue i couldn't begin to think of anything to fit that mold. i usually have the driving ideas and the specific creative impulses first and take them to completion from there. maybe one day i'll suddenly wake up with brilliant, driving idea for a toilet paper commercial but i doubt it.
Of course, sometimes there's nothing you can do about it. I think you mention on the DVD somewhere that your work has been ripped off by advertisers. It reminds me of Bill Watterson, who never licensed out his art to anyone or anything - and yet we've got all these Christian Calvin + Hobbes bumper stickers.
yeah, it's happened many times and will no doubt continue to happen. maybe one day one of the advertising trolls will go a little too far and we'll sue the blood out of them. but i guess it's just the price you pay. i hope by now that people familiar enough with my stuff know that any commercial they ever see that looks like i was involved is just a hack job. for about 5 minutes i was tempted last year to do a new animation show short with the fluffy guys. one of them is introducing the show or whatnot, while the other has this disturbed expression on his face.... gradually his expression grows pained.... he slowly squats as the other guy continues rambling... he's straining and shaking now.... we realize he's slowly crapping something on the ground.... straining very painfully.... the other guy stops talking and stares at him. he finishes pooping out this hard, square object. "what's that?" the first guy asks... and the second guy throw his arms in the air and happy exclaims, "it's a pop tart!"
Speaking of which, when is the next installment of the Animation Show due to hit theaters?
i think we're shooting for january 07
So going back to specifics - I know you're working on post production of a new film, Everything Will Be Okay, while also animating its sequel. What
can you tell us about this one - not necessarily what it's about, but where it came from, creatively?
"ok" is actually finished now and already sneaking into a few theaters... part two is mostly written and i've animated maybe a minute of it so far. i don't know if i'd call it a proper sequel but yeah it's all going to be a three part story maybe for tv. so far it's probably the best stuff i've written. it all sprung from a comic strip i did in 1999, sort of the first primitive stumblings of the character... later his story was all going to be a book. sort of a half comic book half art book thing. i got to the point with literary agents and publishers onboard when i said to myself, "what the hell do i know about doing a book?" and so it turned into a movie and now three of them. making "ok" was the most fun i had since doing "rejected", real quick and painless and i came up with a way of presenting it that i've never really seen done before and really fits the psychology of the thing. so these will be good for me.
The preview on the DVD looks pretty technically amazing. Are you hooked on trying new animation tricks? Even though you're not going to make a new film just because you've 'figured out a new way to render a falling leaf,' does your technical acumen, at this point, inform your storytelling at all?
sure, the stories all shape themselves from every direction. i never start a project with a locked script and that improv extends to the camera and animation too... working with this camera lets me set up different shots and experiments on the run... i can suddenly decide to buy a dead octopus, animate it, and suddenly that night i have a great weird new background plate for a composite. there's an immediacy to working this way that nicely counters the millions of hours you spend at a desk drooling over the same drawings all night. being locked into a concrete thing is no fun and i always get better ideas as i go. i was still rewriting stuff with "rejected" and "ok" during the final sound mixes.. i didn't find the ending for "meaning of life" until a couple years into it. you have to let the thing shape itself to a certain extent. it keeps things interesting from a work standpoint and guarantees the best ideas will always be used. that's largely how everything since "billy's balloon" has been made.
Is this interview getting too pretentious? I love how your stuff supports both highly theoretical discussion and repeated laughter at fluffy things bleeding profusely from the ass.
yeah... well i guess it's only pretentious if everything we say is bullshit. i think maybe it's only been about 40% bullshit so far so maybe we're still in good shape. that's a good tagline actually.
Posted by David Lowery at October 23, 2006 02:50 PM
nice interview! i'll have to order this dvd...when i get paid..
Posted by: brad at October 23, 2006 06:51 PM
The image reminds me of Hidden (Cache). I started reading the posting, but couldn't finish. It looks interesting, so I'll have to come back.
Posted by: Paul Martin at October 31, 2006 05:20 AM
It took me a second to recognize the connection - but yeah, I see where you're coming from! The similarities pretty much end, though, once you see that image in its proper context. Rejected is a must-see.
Posted by: Ghostboy at October 31, 2006 03:15 PM
david. i can't believe you got to talk to don hertzfeldt.
Posted by: Jeanne at November 1, 2006 02:38 PM
I'm jealous that you went to Australia!
I'm going to be in Milwaukee at some point next week, I think. If your schedule allows it, you should come down from Madison (if that's where you still are)...
Posted by: Ghostboy at November 1, 2006 04:29 PM