The Oscar category of animated short film doesn’t tend to get a lot of attention, but in 2001 it was host to one of the most unlikely and awesome nominations in recent Academy Award history. Alongside a tasteful watercolor-based work about a father and daughter and a stop-motion drama set in plague-era Europe was Don Hertzfeldt’s “Rejected,” a profane, hilarious and brilliantly absurd short filled with non sequitur-spouting stick figures and fluffy creatures bleeding from lower orifices, one that imagined an animator driven mad by his hopeless attempts to please corporate sponsors.
The film didn’t win, but did fuel a devoted fan base that’s followed Hertzfeldt in his staunchly independent career of crafting totally distinctive animated shorts that have grown in ambition and sophistication even as he’s continued to hand-draw his work and avoid computer influence. His last title, “Everything Will Be OK,” won the short film prize at Sundance last year with its devastating tale of a sad stick figure of an everyman named Bill whose perception is crumbling due to a mental disorder that may also be killing him. The just-completed “I Am So Proud of You” continues Bill’s story in the second part of what’s now a planned trilogy. To premiere the film, Hertzfeldt’s taking it on a 16-city tour, with stops planned everywhere from Omaha to New York — as the co-founder, alongside Mike Judge, of “The Animation Show,” he’s well aware that to find a place for animated shorts in theaters, you pretty much have to do the booking yourself.
When you began work on “Everything Will Be Ok,” had you already planned on it being the first part of a trilogy?
Not right away… in the earliest drafts of “Everything Will Be Ok,” I think Bill died at the end — which I guess might have made for an interesting trilogy anyway. I write and rewrite as I go, and some point early in there I realized there was much more to his story. it was also the most fun I’d had animating a movie in a while and I wanted to carry on, so I started work on “Proud” almost immediately after finishing “Ok.” “Proud” just wrapped up a little while ago, but I’m not nearly as ready to plunge right into part three. I had some leftover film, so a few weeks ago I shot maybe the first minute, but that’ll probably sit under the bed for a while.
Why does it seem somehow extra sad to see a stick figure contemplate his mortality?
I think it’s easier to project yourself into a simpler looking character. Maybe it’s because the drawings seem more candid or honest somehow — as some artists like to say, you have to leave room in the frame for people to dream. It’s probably why audiences will always invest more in a simple character like Charlie Brown than one of those overproduced digital fake humans.
How did you come up with the multiple window visual motif used throughout “Everything Will Be Ok” and “I Am So Proud of You”?
Bill first turned up in a few comic strips I did a long time ago, and as I was trying to figure out the movie I couldn’t stop visualizing him in those same sorts of panels and frames, it just wouldn’t go away. I was sketching around and suddenly had the idea of splitting up the screen into independent panels. I dropped everything and raced to the studio to play with the camera to see if I could figure out a way to composite the whole movie that way. (The camera is literally just shooting through little black holes that are framed and sometimes stop-motion animated an inch or so from the lens.) After that, all the rest of the writing fell into place — suddenly everything just clicked.
Are there any particular films or filmmakers you’d cite as influences? I’ve seen everything from David Lynch to “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” thrown at you in reviews.
Wow, well I wouldn’t argue with those influences, at least not in spirit… I’m not sure if I deserve them but that’s great company to have thrown your way. David’s legendary and “The Diving Bell” was easily my favorite film from last year.
“I am so proud of you” is your longest film yet at 22 minutes — I suppose this depends on the ultimate length of the third chapter, but the three parts together would seem to approach feature length. Is that how you would ever want them shown or thought of?
Not really. I’m not sure if I even rewatched “Ok” once the whole time I was working on “Proud”… which I guess is kind of strange. They share a lot of common threads, but I’ve been approaching each of the chapters as their own standalone movies. I think they’ve got to be strong enough to sink or swim independent of each other, I don’t want you to have to have seen part one to understand part two or three. We’re playing both “Ok” and “Proud” on this tour, but I’ve no idea how well the two will complement each other. “Ok” is a pretty exhausting movie to watch, and “Proud” is even more so… there’s so much going on, each of them are stuffed with ideas…having them come out in episodes, I think, is a little easier dosage for an audience to take. I’m afraid if somebody eventually watches all three of them back-to-back they might crawl under a sofa and weep.