Kind Of Epic Show Interviews Animator Don Hertzfeldt

Don Hertzfeldt is an animator whose films are instantly recognizable and deceptively simple. Stick figures  often shot using a wide array of analog techniques that wouldn’t have been out of place when Walt Disney or Osama Tezuka were making their classics. Over the course of his career Don has brought to life people with silly hats, spoons that are too big, homicidal balloons, talking popcorn kernels that say phrases we can’t print and one character that proudly announces he is a bannana.

It is hard to do justice to his short films by describing them. They are best experienced on the big screen and if Don has his way with himself in the audience taking in the films with you. My Dad first took me to see one of Don’s films Billy’s Balloon when it was touring with Spike and Mike’s animation festival when I was only twelve years old. It's one of my most cherished childhood memories of my father and we make it an annual tradition now to see the Oscar shorts together at our neighborhood theater because of it. For me its impossible to say what Don’s films meant. They were carmel corn and big gulps of rootbeer and all the magic that going to the movies can offer.

When my local theater the Key Cinema closed I thought I had lost my chance to see Don and his films and it felt as though a chapter had been forcefully shut tight on my childhood. Years later when he took to touring again with his most ambitious creation yet, Everything Will Be Ok, I was thrilled to get the chance to meet him and talk over animation.

You can blame Don for every anime review that you see here because its thanks to creators like him that I got an interest in learning who was behind the lens in animation and started thinking critically about animation as an art. Because if it could get my dad and me to laugh at the same jokes and cringe at the same brutal visuals then it had to be art. Don was kind enough to give us a few moments of his time online before his show this year in Indianapolis.

GC: When you encounter people quoting from your films in public how do you react? How do you feel about your lines making such a big impact on popular culture?

Don: I think it's great... really strange most of the time,  but it doesn't usually bug me or anything.   I was in a supermarket about a year ago and a group of kids were stalking down the aisles sort of weirdly keeping up with me,  quoting lines from a bunch of the movies.  At first I thought they were making fun of me and then I realized they didn't have a clue who I was.

GC: I had the chance to ask Mike Judge about a return of the animation show at New York Comic Con and he seemed hopeful that we might see more in the future do you see that as a possibility as well?

Don: Well I kinda doubt it would be possible to bring it back from the dead but I guess stranger things have happened.  I retired from programming it after the third season so I am really not sure what state it was left in.

GC: Do you feel there were any animated films that were overlooked this year at the Oscars? 

Don: My friend David O'Reilly made a pretty great short last year called "The External World." It's online somewhere.  I didn't see most of this year's nominated shorts,  but Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis' "Wild Life"  is also really worth checking out.  I think it's on the National Film Board website.

GC: What did it mean to you to be showcased in Spike and Mike and other compilations early in your career and do you think the avenues for young animators to showcase their work have grown or shrunk since then. 

Don: Back in the 90's it was enormous to get your stuff in an animation festival like that simply because it meant it would be on the big screen and in theaters across the country. For an 18 year old in film school there was sort of nothing better.  It's what we tried to do years later for filmmakers with the animation show.  Obviously, everything's sort of been shifting away from that in the years since.  It's way more rare and difficult to see a short film at all in a theater now.  When your movies on dvd or the internet millions more people can see it.  But as the director you can't be there to actually see them see it. For me it's hugely important to still play "live"  like that. To see how a movie sinks or swims in front of people. To get the energy from the room.  Otherwise you're sort of just playing to a vacuum.  It's the main reason I'm touring right now to run around a little with the new movie after sitting in the dark with it for so long.  It’'s sort of like taking a long time making a present for somebody. You want to be there to see them open it.

GC: What advice would you give to animators seeking their first audience today? Where is a good place to get a start in the industry?

Don: I don't really know, to be honest. I think most of us are just making this up as we go,  including me.  But when I was in school I just figured that a Hollywood movie would go from theaters to home video to TV  in that order and I've always tried to follow the same pattern.  I still hit the film festivals very hard because I'm still a big believer in getting these things in theaters. These days I can tour around a little too and then trickle down the media from there with  DVD, TV sales and maybe Internet someday.  But if you're an animator simply looking to land a job, not interested in making a living from indie stuff, I guess I don't see why you wouldn't leap straight to the Internet.

GC: How do you feel about the impact of the internet and social media on animation?

Don: It's been good to watch the new film make connections with people. It's almost always in strange ways you never would have expected.  people seem to be bringing a lot of really personal things into this one and usually the best time I have is when I can shut up and listen.

(The above interview was contributed by Kind of Epic Show's Gabrial Canada, who will be joining the Sequel-Buzz team very shortly.)