Don Hertzfeldt is arguably one of the best animators of our generation. His canon of short films span elements of absurdism, surreality, comedy, drama, and romance, oftentimes within seconds of each emotion. Mostly known for the 2000 Academy Award-nominated short, Rejected, Hertzfeldt's films are a rarity in this age of animation. Unlike his other contemporaries, he hand-animates every one of his films through old animation cameras, shooting frame by frame on to 35mm film.
While on tour for his latest film, It's Such a Beautiful Day, the final entry in a trilogy known colloquially as the "Bill trilogy," I was able to ask Don some questions about the film, his thoughts on computer animation, his rumored first full-length film, and his thoughts on Kodak's bankruptcy prior to his Evening with Don Hertzfeldt event in Chicago on February 29th.
It’s Such a Beautiful Day is the final film in the “Bill” trilogy. Looking back on it, do you feel that you’ve said everything you’ve wanted to say about Bill?
Yeah I think this wraps it up for me, I'm really satisfied with how all three came together. For some reason I never thought much about how the three would play in a row when I was actually making them... I always tried to approach them like separate individual movies that should be able to stand alone. And it wasn't until I was sitting in the film lab last autumn pre-screening the new 35mm prints for this tour that I realized I hadn't actually even bothered to watch "Everything Will be OK" or "I Am So Proud of You" a single time for reference in the two years or so it took me to make "It's Such a Beautiful Day." Maybe that was a bit stupid, and I was really relieved to see how they all connect and flow now. So yeah I don't think there's any more places to go with Bill's story. A little while ago I was sort of thinking about one other character in the story that we don't know much about yet -- I don't want to spoil the third movie by explaining this too much -- but for a second I thought maybe this would be an interesting character to go look at, in an off-shoot of the three chapters... but that probably won't happen.
Now that the “Bill” trilogy is completed, do you have any plans on releasing them together in one cohesive film for a potential “Re-mastered HD Director’s Cut Ultimate Edition” set?
Yeah, given how weirdly well the three play together now, I think at some point I'll cut out the end credits of chapters 1 and 2 and stick the three together as an unbroken whole. I'm not sure what I would call the whole unbroken thing though? Someone suggested the "Billogy" and I really don't want that to stick.
One of the aspects that really made Everything Will be OK and I Am So Proud of You so amazing were the exposure techniques you used for the “windows.” Obviously, this is one of the MANY benefits of animating traditionally through a camera. Would you ever consider computer animation?
Hey, thanks -- sure, there's nothing wrong with the computer stuff, if the look fits the story. It's just another tool. I've never really given it a try though. Maybe I'm wrong about this, but the one thing that seems like a bit of a drag is how computer animation seems great when you know exactly what you want. But I don't always know exactly what I want, and I'm not sure if directors should always get exactly what they want. Lots of the time not being able to get my first idea to work forces me to think around the problem and rewrite and conjure up alternate, usually better stuff that I'd never have otherwise thought of. Creatively, rolling with those punches is kind of good for you.
You’ve mentioned your intentions on doing a full-length film. Besides the amount of work and time being put in to the project, are there any changes you’re exploring for the project, whether they be animation techniques or overall themes/concepts?
I can't say too much about it yet, it's not related to any of the shorts but I'm sure you could say it has the same blood in its veins. Without a doubt the biggest change would be working with an actual crew and a budget. It's kind of strange in hindsight, but in 17 years of doing this I've never had a crew larger than two or three other people. It'll require a proper animation studio and a solid team of artists and I'd love the chance to collaborate, not to mention not having to draw everything over and over again in a dark sad room by myself. But these days, I really haven't got a clue where the funding for something this strange and different will come from... maybe Europe? All the short films were paid for out of pocket and unfortunately I don't think a single one of them would've ever seen the light of day if they'd had to have been traditionally "pitched."
If you HAD to choose one line of dialogue to represent your filmography, which would it be?
Hmm. I guess maybe the line about dust and moonlight in "I Am So Proud of You." I like that one.
Any thoughts on Kodak’s bankruptcy and how that would affect any future 35mm films?
Theatrical projection on film is probably only going to get rarer and rarer and until it's a real specialty thing, but the practice of shooting on film is probably not going to be leaving us very soon. There are still enough big name directors and cinematographers who insist on it, and enough young people who want to be like them. But who knows how it'll look 100 years from now when those guys are gone. My animation cameras are from the 1940s and 50s and they still run great. They're very simple, beautiful machines and will probably still run great in 2112 if cared for properly. It's strange to think that they could actually outlive 35mm itself. They will at least make fantastic conversation pieces.
I was chatting with a programmer friend at Sundance last month. Of the thousands upon thousands of film submissions they get every year, it's no surprise that over 90-something percent of them are shot digitally. Only a small fraction of those get into the festival, and only a small fraction of those - maybe 10? - usually get picked up for theatrical distribution. And those 10 will wind up being written out to film and will ultimately be preserved. The vast majority of the other movies won't ever be written to film - it's too expensive for most indies - and over the next few decades, will totally vanish. Digital is a fantastic, magical thing but it's not archival... most of these low-budget indies will turn to dust. It reminded me of how something like 90% of all the silent films ever produced are gone today. 100 years ago they weren't really thought of as anything worth keeping... the prints were trashed and recycled and there's this big gap now where those films used to be.
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. I look forward to seeing you in Chicago at the end of the month, as well as catching you at SXSW. I hope the rest of the tour goes by swimmingly. Weh!
You can catch Don and It's Such a Beautiful Day during the second half of his national tour. Dates and ticket information can be found here.
[Editor's Note: Interview was done via email. Very small grammatical edits (capitalization and italicization of titles) were made to Don's responses.]
[All photos are © 2012 Don Hertzfeldt]