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A Few Notes About Don Hertzfeldt

Everything Will Be OK

The dvd single of Don Hertzfeldt’s latest (and in my opinion, strongest and most intensely cinematic) short Everything Will Be OK goes on pre-order sale today at noon (Pacific time). According to his Bitter Films website, “all pre-orders will receive a free ‘everything will be ok’ FILM STRIP, clipped from a 35mm print from Don Hertzfeldt’s collection.” Additionally, a limited number of signed art prints are also available this morning for people who pre-order the dvd.

I’ll admit that when I first discovered Don’s films (around ’98 or so), I wasn’t exactly his biggest fan. His early films like Ah L’Amour and Billy’s Balloon, though amusing, were too trivial to capture my interest. It wasn’t until Rejected that I really began to warm up to his work and get past the stick figure hurdle.

Early on the difficulty I was having with his work is that it seemed like the stick-people might be the entire gimmick, that it wasn’t really about his stories, but the fact that stick figures were telling these stories. The exquisitely crafted Lily and Jim should have convinced me otherwise, but I’m slow sometimes. (Sidenote: Lily and Jim is all the more impressive when one realizes Don was only 20 years old when he made it). His new films, however, have completely erased any doubts about his capabilities as a filmmaker. While Don uses simple figures in his animation, he manages to evoke more with these frugal pencil marks than most animators do with their fully-articulated anatomy-laden characters. The real meat in Hertzfeldt’s work is his ability to use the film medium to tell engaging, funny and interesting stories, and while his drawing style is one of the more striking and obvious aspects of his work, it is only a minor component in the overall picture of his films.

Don recently told an interviewer, “I’m not the kind of guy who’s gonna struggle for weeks getting someone’s ankle to look just right, you know? Actually I don’t even draw ankles. I animate to tell these stories…” While true, the comment belies the careful attention that Hertzfeldt invests into the visual side of his shorts. His characters are often crudely drawn, but the cinematic and visual potential of the animation medium is never ignored. The humor in Rejected is equally divided between the visual and verbal, The Meaning of Life is a largely visual narrative, with the dialogue in the film used more to add mood than anything else, and the in-camera optical effects and live photography in Everything Will Be OK create an unexpectedly rich and textured visual experience.

With the graphic evolution and non-linear narrative experimentations of his previous three films — Rejected, The Meaning of Life and Everything Will Be OK — Don has clearly established himself as an animation original. If you’re familiar with Hertzfeldt’s work, you’re sure to enjoy his latest Everything Will Be OK, and if you’re not, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of the exhaustively complete Bitter Films Volume 1 dvd which contains all of his earlier shorts through The Meaning of Life. It’s a fine introduction to the work of a still-evolving filmmaker who easily ranks among the most exciting indie animators currently on the American scene.

For all things Hertzfeldt, visit BitterFilms.com

Everything Will Be OK
  • I am also a big Hertzfeldt fan, I was completely sold when I saw Ah L’Amour and Billy’s Balloon, I laughed all the way through them. I marveled at his fully realized stories told with only stick figures. I even use his films in my classes as an example of less is more. And I agree that Rejected is hilariously funny as well as something more substantial, the Oscar nomination is a testament to that (if you give credence to the Academy, which I do).

    I wish I shared you enthusiasm for his more recent films. The Meaning of Life seemed to try so hard to be profound, it forgot to be funny. Not that an animated film must be funny, but I think that’s his strength. Everything Will Be OK is a move in the right direction, but I’ve seen it three times now and although I laugh a little when it’s playing, it doesn’t leave any impression on me. Not that I can do any better, I wish I made films as successful. I think the brevity of his early films is part of their strength and the utter originality of Rejected helps make that film work.

    I look forward to any future Hertzfeldt film.

  • Don Hertzfeldt is my favorite animator right now. I’m constantly struggling to find the right balance of story, concept, and visual experience, but Don seems to have all this mastered, and still manages to defy expectations with each new film.

  • Paul Naas

    What Steve said…

  • RR

    IMHO, Don is the most important person alive right now working in animation. I don’t like to toss around the word “genius” too lightly, but it might just apply here. Without him the American independent scene would feel dead as a doornail. I love the fact that he continues to genuinely push the envelope, yet he’s 1) using stick figures and 2) an animation camera built 70 years ago and no computers.

    I think it’s telling how he never went to CalArts or any animation school. He went to a film school, and I think that’s where the big difference lies with him and his peers. He makes amazing -movies-. He seems concerned with that first and foremost, not how pretty the animation looks. And I think while a lot of animators may be able to make beautiful showreels, they have no education on how to make a -movie-.

    I never found his drawings to be “crude” either; once you get past the stick figures (it should take you all of 5 seconds), a short like “Everything will be OK” has a lot of elegance in the lines, actually.

    BTW Amid, I’m still surprised how many of you animation writers missed the boat on Hertzfeldt years ago when all the non-animation festivals like Cannes were giving him awards (for his -student- films, fer chrissake!) Instead of penalizing somebody for using minimalist characters, think of it the other way around. “Billy’s Balloon” and “Rejected” still make me nearly pass out from laughter. No other shorts make me laugh so much. “Everything will be OK” had the same effect with the added bonus of making my wife cry like a baby at the end. His movies have so much soul. Big budget studio animation has never had such an affect on either of us. It takes an amazing talent to do so much with so “little”. His work just keeps getting better and better to the point that I’m almost afraid of his next short.

  • Benjamin De Schrijver

    I wouldn’t go so far as to call him “genius”, but he’s one hell of a filmmaker. What’s also always surprising to me is how well-known he is outside the animation scene (at least among teenagers). Even here in Belgium you just have to say “my spoon is too big” and you & friends will be off for 15 minutes of laughter.

    I haven’t been able to see Everything Will Be OK yet, though.

  • I recall seeing “Ah, L’amour” screened at the World Animation Celebration in L.A. (late 90’s?) to a completely unsuspecting (me included) audience. It was one of those magical OMG moments where the audacity, the simplicity and the cleverness of it all aligned perfectly and created an audience reaction that would be any filmmaker’s dream.

  • Shmorky

    Even though it’s stickman animation I’ve come to love his later films. I think this is because he employs practical effects. They have a very “organic” feel… and not only do the characters boil, but so does the paper. You can see the pulp as the light shines on each wrinkled sheet.
    The paper can be folded, crumpled, poked, ripped, and all to give a unique effect as if to say “I just drew this, and it’s alive.”
    I’ve only animated directly on paper twice in my life. It’s hard work.

  • The first time I saw Hertzfeldt’s work was on the big screen of the great Fargo Theatre back in ’03. The Animation Show actually made a stop in Fargo! In a way I’m so glad I got to experience Hertzfeldt for this first time this way, as opposed to seeing his stuff so tiny online or on the tube. I never laughed so hard in my life!

    I don’t care that he’s not an master of anatomy – when he brings his simple, scribbly characters to life, it become pure comedy.

  • RR

    That’s a good point Benjamin, his fandom is way bigger outside of the familiar animation circles. Every college kid knows “my spoon is too big” even though they’ve probably never heard of Annecy. There’s galleries online of Hertzfeldt fans sporting their tattoos that you gotta see to believe.

    I saw his Animation Show in 2003 or 2004 in San Francisco. He was there to answer questions and when he came out there were all these teenage girls literally screaming his name. It was insane. I sat there totally stunned (and a bit jealous), that an animator; a guy who does 2D shorts no less; was being treated like a frigging Beatle by an audience of college kids who usually look so unimpressed by the world. Animation was young and exciting again! It made every other animator in the room feel like a rock star :) Don was swarmed afterwards and he looked painfully shy by all the attention but to his credit he stayed and talked to every one. I didn’t have any paper with me so he drew a picture on my shoe :)

  • I’ll use the word genius to describe his work. Comedy is the most difficult form of entertainment and to acheive it with such a simplistic style is well – uh- GENIUS! It’s good that Amid opened his mind after first dismissing Don’s work and realized what the rest of us know – American independant animation is not dead.

  • Nate

    I love Don’s films, but I tend to agree with Steve and I’m kinda the opposite of Amid. Right around Rejected, I started not liking his work as much. To me, he seems to be getting too caught up in form and style and getting away from comedy and story. Like Steve, I felt that The Meaning of Life was trying too hard to be profoud and was borderline pretentious, and it seemed to be that both The Meaning of Life and Everything Will Be OK were more concerned with form than anything else.

  • Bill Field

    Yep, he’s good- you could even say “CRAZY GOOD”— uh- anybody got a box of Pop Tarts?

  • RR

    It’s odd how “The Meaning of Life” seems to be the most misunderstood of his stuff. It’s by far the most straightforward movie he’s done.

    People who “don’t get it” or call it “pretentious” are bringing way too much baggage into the pic. Saying you don’t get it in the first place implies that it’s some sort of riddle that you’re supposed to “get”. It’s not a riddle or a hidden message. It’s actually a very simple movie with a very simple theme. You’re trying way too hard to decode something that’s not meant to be decoded. Don’t try to out-smart the movie, just watch it.

  • I like LILY AND JIM and some of his other shorts but thought he slipped badly on EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY. I was just waiting for it to end.

  • I respect and applaud Hertzfeldt for what he means to this industry: a singular talent who’s making hand drawn animated films — good films, I might add, and he’s doing it consistently. The first thing I ever saw of his was “Genre” and I thought it was brilliant. I then saw “Lily & Jim” at the NY Expo (where I had my own short film shown) and I was blown away by the simple brilliance by the premise of that film. And it was incredibly funny, too. “Billy’s Balloon”, ….eh, I had a hard time with that one. Maybe it’s because I had a kid at that time. I should’ve not cared since they were, after all, drawings of kids. But I couldn’t. I dunno. “Rejected” was another stroke of brilliance and I couldn’t have been happier that it was nominated for an Oscar.

    RR, I think you’re reading too much into “Meaning of Life” — it’s not a good film. Period.

    “Everything Will Be OK” is an interesting film; I need to see it again to have a full assessment of it, but I feel that Hertzfeldt is, indeed, one of the most important independent animation filmmakers today.

  • My only problem with “Meaning of Life” is that its strongest portions take place towards the beginning of the piece. Otherwise, I think it’s really an amazing film to watch, in a Fantasia sort of way.

  • I might’ve been a little harsh. What I should’ve said is that “Meaning of Life” was a miss.

  • Ms. Optimus

    “Meaning of Life” isn’t a movie that fits into the typical Internet reviews of “it ruled” or “it sucked”. It’s not an easy movie to love or an easy movie to dismiss. I was thrown the first time I saw it but that’s just because I was expecting “Rejected 2”. On repeat viewings it’s really grown on me and now it’s my 2nd favorite of his. It strikes me as a short that’s only going to get better with age. And what a wonderful risk to do a weirdo beautiful art film to follow up his big Oscar comedy.

    It’s exciting to at long last find a popular artist who’s turned down the commercial world and wants to really challenge us, rather than get boring and comfortable making the same cartoon over and over again.

    Don’s biggest hurdle right now is merely the giant shadow of his own work. If a total unknown had made “Everything will be ok” they would have given him his Oscar already.