Don Hertzfeldt Reveals The Meaning of Life

Every now and then, in my treks through film Web sites and magazines, I come across a picture of Don Hertzfeldt, the maverick animator best known for his 2000 short film “Rejected,” as well as for co-founding The Animation Show with Mike Judge. He was usually long-haired, wearing flannel and looking stoned. This look was well-suited to the Hertzfeldt one would imagine based on his work and a few select details about his life: he was 24 years old when he was nominated for the Best Animated Short Academy Award in early 2001 (a 24-year old animator? Come on. It’s a prerequisite that they’re high), and “Rejected” is a series of purportedly turned-down commercials the Family Learning Channel commissioned Hertzfeldt to animate (which include things like a screaming stick figure’s eye socket turning into a turned-on blood spigot or a baby taking his first steps only to fall down a seemingly infinite flight of stairs). As a result of these assumptions regarding his character and the couple of pictures I saw of him several years ago, I wouldn’t have recognized him if not for his nametag when I ran into this suspiciously Johnny Depp–looking guy outside of the Animation Spotlight at the Sundance Film Festival this January.

After seeing his new short, “The Meaning of Life”—which, at four years in production and 13 minutes in duration, marks his lengthiest piece to date—some might think Hertzfeldt is trying to clean up his act and get away from the college humor that has made him a cult superstar. “I don’t ever want to make the same film twice. I think as soon as I do that I should quit,” Hertzfeldt said upon my query about the transition from comedy to a more abstract piece, which better describes “Life.” By the time I had seen “Life,” in its second public screening in the world, a reviewer had already beaten everyone else to the punch of describing the film as what it would have been like if Hertzfeldt had contributed a short to Fantasia. “Life” is very classical music-driven, and can be interpreted any number of ways. The film begins with a man being sent away from the sky to Earth, slowly rotting along the way (much like the reverse of many filmic sequences of dying people being called up to heaven), and then follows the evolution of man throughout its duration on the planet (keep in mind that this synopsis is more of an opinion of the film’s content on my part, rather than a concrete retelling of its narrative). By means of explanation why he went this direction for his new film (and in reference to the first sequence from “Rejected”), Hertzfeldt lamented, “I don’t want to be the ‘My spoon is too big’ guy…I don’t want that on my gravestone.”

Being the “My spoon is too big” guy wouldn’t be one of my primary concerns if I were him. Although it is surely hard to shed the confines of being widely known for one extremely quotable film, Hertzfeldt has quickly been recognized in his short career as one of the greatest living animators, as witnessed by his Oscar nomination and exposure in all of the world’s biggest film festivals. Unlike the vast majority of his peers, Hertzfeldt animates the old-fashioned way: with hand-drawn pictures shot under a 35mm film rig, with all special effects being done in camera. But, despite the nearly century-old process of animating this way, Hertzfeldt continues to break new ground, such as animating real holes and crumples in the paper (as he does in “Rejected”), using 3-D objects set on the page and moved around by the animated figures (as in “Intermission in the Third Dimension”), and now, messing with double, triple, and probably more exposures, which give certain objects the feel of being sources of light, which comes in handy in the animation of planets in “The Meaning of Life” (not to mention giving these parts of the film the feeling that they were computer animated).

“Every time I do something cool with Photoshop, I feel like somebody, somewhere must have done that before, because the program’s got parameters,” Hertzfeldt said about his personal feelings toward computer animation, “Everyone I talk to—not just students, but people in the industry—say, ‘Oh, yeah, I like your work,’ and their first question is, ‘What kind of software do you use?’ When I tell them I film it traditionally, I always just get a blank stare, like they have no idea how cartoons used to be made without computers.”

Hertzfeldt might be trying to get away from the hilarity of “Rejected” in favor of more thoughtful pieces. While this might surprise his fans initially, I think that neither he nor his fans have anything to worry about in terms of his continued success. And even for those who have no interest in anything but comedy, “The Meaning of Life” won’t disappoint them, as it still has more than its share of quotable non-sequiters spouted by humans running around on Earth. For example, after man gets done evolving from apes, the first things he says are (in a cheery tone), “Give me your money,” “We know what’s good for you,” and the like.

For those of you who stumbled across “Rejected” in a friend’s dorm room or on IFC or something, and whether you liked it or not, it is still worth your time to track down “The Meaning of Life” when it shows in this year’s Animation Show (at the Tivoli March 11–17, at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse beginning April 15, or in just about every major city in the U.S.) or on its own in any number of film festivals (including SXSW, or in a Hertzfeldt retrospective at SIU–C on March 4, part of the Big Muddy Film Festival). Hertzfeldt, now 28 years old, clearly has a long and fortuitous career ahead of him, and the sooner you jump on the bandwagon, the more enjoyable your life will be.

Pete Timmermann is the Film Editor for PlaybackSTL.

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