Don Hertzfeldt at his animation desk, during production of "The Meaning of Life"
August 1, 1976 |
|Education||University of California, Santa Barbara|
|Known for||Independent film, Animation|
Don Hertzfeldt (born August 1, 1976) is an American animator and independent filmmaker. He is the creator of many animated films, including It's Such a Beautiful Day, The Meaning of Life, and the Academy-Award nominated Rejected. His films have received over 200 awards and have been presented around the world.
Hertzfeldt's short films have been described as "some of the most influential animation ever created." In 2009, the Sundance Film Festival wrote, "If cinephiles think shorts don't generate the same sort of hype and fanbase as feature films, they obviously haven't heard of Don Hertzfeldt."
In his book "The World History of Animation", author Stephen Cavalier writes, "Hertzfeldt is either a unique phenomenon or perhaps an example of a new way forward for individual animators surviving independently on their own terms… he attracts the kind of fanatical support from the student and alternative crowds usually associated with indie rock bands." 
In 2012, Hertzfeldt combined his short film trilogy about a man named Bill (Everything Will Be OK, I Am So Proud of You, and It's Such a Beautiful Day), into a seamless new feature film, It's Such a Beautiful Day. The movie shared the same title as the third chapter in the series and had a limited release in autumn 2012. The L.A. Film Critics Association named it runner-up for Best Animated Feature Film of 2012 and the annual Indiewire critics poll ranked Hertzfeldt the 9th Best Film Director of 2012 (tied with Wes Anderson). The AV Club film critics ranked It's Such a Beautiful Day # 8 on their list of the Best Films of 2012. After a limited U.K. release the following year, the film was ranked # 3 on Time Out London's list of the 10 Best Films of 2013 and # 4 on The London Film Review's list of the same.
Hertzfeldt supports himself and his work from self-distribution, such as ticket sales from theatrical screenings and tours, DVD sales, and television broadcasts. He has refused all advertising work.
Hertzfeldt lives in Austin, Texas. He spent many years in Santa Barbara, California after attending college there. He has kept a continuous blog on his website since 1999.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Technique
- 3 Popularity and influence
- 4 Student films, 1995–1998
- 5 Independent animation, 2000–2012
- 6 Other work
- 7 Awards and honors
- 8 DVD releases
- 9 View on advertising
- 10 Filmography
- 11 References
- 12 External links
Hertzfeldt was born in Fremont, California where he attended Mission San Jose High School and drew homemade comic books. At 15, he began to teach himself animation with a VHS video camera. Two of Hertzfeldt's teenage VHS cartoons can be seen on the "Bitter Films: Volume 1" DVD collection.
While at film school, Hertzfeldt was drawn to animation as it was a less expensive form to work in. He could not afford to buy the multiple rolls of 16 mm film required to shoot live action. He has stated, "I think I've always approached animation from a strange angle, a bit like a regular filmmaker who just happens to animate. Editing, writing, sound—those are the things that usually come first in my head. Animation is often just the busy work I need to get through to connect the dots and tell the story." 
Hertzfeldt has never held a job other than creating his animated films. His earliest teenage video animations found film festival exposure, and in film school at the University of California, Santa Barbara he was able to find international distribution for each of his 16mm student films. He is a 1998 graduate with a B.A. in Film Studies.
Hertzfeldt's work commonly features hand-drawn stick figures, in stories of black humor, surrealism, and tragicomedy. Some films contain existential and philosophical themes while others are more straightforwardly slapstick and absurdist. His animation is created traditionally with pen and paper, often with minimal digital aid. Hertzfeldt uses antique 16 mm or 35 mm–film cameras to photograph his drawings and often employs old-fashioned special effect techniques such as multiple exposures, in-camera mattes, and experimental photography. While some of these techniques are as established as an occasional stop-motion animation sequence or a universe of moving stars created by back-lit pin holes, other effects are new innovations on classical methods, as seen with the in-camera compositing of multiple, split-screen windows of action in the Everything Will Be OK films.
Since 1999, Hertzfeldt has photographed all his films on a 35mm Richardson animation camera stand, believed to be the same camera that photographed many of the Peanuts cartoons in the 1960s and 1970s. Built in the late 1940s, it is reportedly one of the last remaining functioning cameras of its kind left in the world, and Hertzfeldt finds it to be a crucial element in the creation of his films and their unique visuals.
Discussing film and digital technology with The New York Times, Hertzfeldt noted:
I don't know why these things are always framed as a big dumb cage match: Hand-drawn versus computers, film versus digital. We have over 100 years now of amazing film technology to play with, I don't understand why any artists would want to throw any of their tools out of the box. Many people assume that because I shoot on film and animate on paper I must be doing things the hard way, when in fact my last four movies would have been visually impossible to produce digitally. The only thing that matters is what actually winds up on the big screen, not how you got it there. You could make a cartoon in crayons about a red square that falls in unrequited love with a blue circle, and there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house if you know how to tell a story.
It's not unusual for Hertzfeldt to write, direct, produce, animate, photograph, edit, perform voices, record and mix sound, and/or compose music for one of his films, at times requiring years to complete a single short. The animation for one of his films may often require tens of thousands of drawings.
Hertzfeldt frequently scores his pictures with classical music and opera. The music of Tchaikovsky, Bizet, Smetana, Beethoven, Richard Strauss, and Wagner have all appeared in his films. On occasion, Hertzfeldt has also scored portions of his films himself, with a guitar or keyboard.
Popularity and influence
Hertzfeldt's early short films have been credited with being a prominent influence on surrealism and absurdism in animation in the 2000s, as well as influencing Adult Swim style animated comedy. In 2008, Comedy Central noted his work as having "influenced an entire generation of filmmakers."
In 2012, Hertzfeldt was ranked #16 in an animation industry and historian survey of the "Top 100 Most Influential People in Animation."
Other films, such as The Meaning of Life, Everything Will Be OK, and I Am So Proud of You, expanded upon his signature dark humor to explore themes of existentialism and philosophy. Critics have favorably compared these shorts to the work of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch.
Hertzfeldt's films are regularly found in film festivals around the world, occasional touring animation programs like the Animation Show, and on DVD collections. The cartoons are also featured occasionally on television: MTV, Bravo, Via X, Sundance Channel, IFC, Showtime, and the Cartoon Network being a few channels that have carried his work internationally.
The popularity of Hertzfeldt's shorts has led to many Internet bootlegs, bringing his work to an audience of millions. Though he's unhappy with the poor quality most of these online videos offer (as well as the frequent re-editing of them), he says he is not interested in harassing fans. On his website in 2007, Hertzfeldt wrote that movies are not made to be seen on the Internet: "If you've only seen a film downgraded on the Internet or some strange miniature device, in many ways you haven't really seen it yet. YouTube is great for home videos of your cat falling off the roof, but it is not really the proper setting for "cinema"… Movies are meant to be seen in the dark, hopefully with an audience, and with your undivided attention; this last one is non-negotiable."
More recently, Hertzfeldt has allowed official versions of The Meaning of Life and Everything will be OK to appear online in high quality on sites like MUBI and YouTube. Wisdom Teeth also debuted online in HD after being acquired by Showtime.
It's Such a Beautiful Day, the feature film, was later the first movie to ever be released on-demand on Vimeo, in March 2013.
Hertzfeldt prefers not to sell his animation artwork. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, his website Bitter Films annually auctioned off artwork instead to raise thousands of dollars for local Santa Barbara charities. Other original drawings have been occasionally given away through the Bitter Films online store through special promotions. Because Hertzfeldt also rarely does signings, his artwork is rare for animation collectors and fans to own.
Student films, 1995–1998
Hertzfeldt made four 16mm animated student films while studying film at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
His first dialogue short, Lily and Jim, was released in 1997, and tells the story of a disastrous blind date. Its partially improvised vocal performances helped the short win twenty five awards, including the Grand Prize at the New Orleans Film Festival.
His final student cartoon, Billy's Balloon, is about an inexplicable attack on small children by malevolent balloons. It was nominated for the Short Film Palme d'Or at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, and won the Grand Jury Award at the 1999 Slamdance Film Festival. In total, it won thirty three awards.
The popularity of each student short at film and animation festivals—and eventually around the world from screening on MTV and other networks—helped fund the next one, and eventually financed the production of his first film after college.
Independent animation, 2000–2012
Soon after graduating from film school, Hertzfeldt purchased his own 35mm rostrum camera, and made his next animated short, Rejected. Released in theaters in 2000, the short won dozens of awards, was nominated for an Oscar, and became a cult classic that is frequently quoted and referenced in pop culture. Fans of the cartoon have been known to wear costumes, re-enact their favorite scenes in fan films, and some have had tattoos made of their favorite characters. Public screenings of the short sometimes become a "Rocky Horror Picture Show-esque feedback loop" of fans reciting favorite lines back at the screen. The short's enduring popularity has led it to be described as "this generation's A Hard Day's Night".
The film presents itself as a reel of rejected commercial work by a fictional version of Don Hertzfeldt. The commissioned animated vignettes grow more and more abstract and inappropriate as the animator suffers a mental breakdown, until they literally fall apart.
Although the film is of course fictional and Hertzfeldt has never done advertising work, he received many offers to do television commercials after Billy's Balloon drew international attention. In appearances Hertzfeldt has often told the humorous story of how he was tempted to produce the worst possible cartoons he could come up with for the companies, make off with their money, and see if they would actually make it to air. Eventually this became the germ for Rejected's theme of a collection of cartoons so bad they were rejected by advertising agencies, leading to their creator's breakdown.
The Animation Show
In 2003, Hertzfeldt created The Animation Show with Beavis and Butt-head creator Mike Judge. It was a biennial North American touring festival that brought independent animated short films to more movie theaters than any distributor in history. The programs were personally curated by Hertzfeldt and Judge. A second Animation Show edition toured throughout 2005, featuring Hertzfeldt's short film The Meaning of Life and new films by animators like Peter Cornwell and Georges Schwizgebel. The third season of The Animation Show began its nationwide release in January 2007, featuring new work by animators Joanna Quinn and Bill Plympton, as well as Hertzfeldt's own Everything Will Be OK.
A stated goal of The Animation Show was to regularly "free the work of these independent artists from the dungeons of Internet exhibition", and bring them into proper movie theaters where most of the short films were meant to be seen. The Animation Show meanwhile launched a supplemental DVD series of animated short films, with content that often varies from the annual theatrical programs. These DVDs were distributed by MTV.
In a March 2008 entry in his blog, Hertzfeldt announced he had decided to leave The Animation Show, after having programmed (and contributing films to) three tours. A fourth season of the program was released in theaters in summer 2008, with no involvement from him.
The Meaning of Life
Almost four years in the making, Hertzfeldt's twelve-minute The Meaning of Life premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and toured film and animation festivals in 2005–2006. Though its abstract nature puzzled some critics, it received mostly positive reviews. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called the film "the closest thing on film yet to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey."
In the film, the evolution of the human race is traced from prehistory (mankind as blob forms), through today (mankind as teeming crowds of selfish, fighting, or lost individuals), to hundreds of millions of years into the future as our species evolves into countless new forms; all of them still behaving the same way. The film concludes in the extreme future, with two creatures (apparently an adult and child subspecies of future human), having a conversation about the meaning of life on a colorful shore.
In 2009, Hertzfeldt noted, "I don't often make the same sort of movie twice in a row. It's always been whatever's next in my head. From a commercial standpoint I guess I’ve made some pretty inscrutable decisions, like following up 'Rejected' with a sprawling abstract film about human evolution, but it's really just been whichever ideas won't go away at the time. There's always a lot of new things I’d like to try." 
Everything will be OK, I Am So Proud of You, and It's Such a Beautiful Day
Everything Will Be OK was released in 2006 and became Hertzfeldt's most critically successful piece to date, receiving his strongest reviews. The film was described as "probably the best work he's done in his very incredible and consistently amazing young career."
The 17-minute animated short was based on the character, Bill, from his webcomic "Temporary Anesthetics". The Boston Globe called the film a "masterpiece" with the Boston Phoenix declaring Hertzfeldt a "genius". The short film was a cover story on the Chicago Reader, receiving four stars from critic J.R. Jones. Variety film critic Robert Koehler named Everything Will Be OK one of the Best Films of 2007.
Everything will be OK is the first chapter of a three-part story about Bill, a young man whose daily routines, perceptions, and dreams are illustrated onscreen through multiple split-screen windows. Bill's seemingly mundane life, narrated in humorous and dramatic anecdotes, gradually grows dark as we learn he may be suffering from a possibly fatal mental disorder.
Scenes throughout the trilogy are often divided into multiple windows of action on the screen at once, against a background of pure black. Animated still photographs are also incorporated inside certain windows, as well as a handful of the colorful special effects and experimental film techniques that Hertzfeldt first utilized in The Meaning of Life. Like many of Hertzfeldt's films, most of the trilogy's special effects were captured in-camera.
Everything Will Be OK won the Grand Jury Prize for Short Filmmaking at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, the Lawrence Kasdan Award for Best Narrative Film at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, the Grand Prize at the London Animation Festival, and 34 other awards.
I Am So Proud of You, the second chapter in the story, was released in autumn 2008. Upon its release, Hertzfeldt traveled with I Am So Proud of You and a selection of his other films to 22 cities on a sold-out American tour (with two stops in the UK and three in Canada). '"An Evening with Don Hertzfeldt" presented a 35mm selection of his work followed by an onstage interview and audience chat with him. I Am So Proud of You also played at film festivals throughout 2009 and won 27 awards.
The third and final chapter, It's Such a Beautiful Day, premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Hertzfeldt traveled with It's Such a Beautiful Day in 2011 and 2012 on another North American theatrical tour to 30 cities.
Of the trilogy, Steven Pate of The Chicagoist wrote, "There is a moment in each installment of Don Hertzfeldt's masterful trilogy of animated shorts where you feel something in your chest. It's an unmistakably cardiac event, the kind that great art can elicit when something profound and undeniably true is conveyed about the human condition. That's when you say to yourself: are stick figures supposed to make me feel this way? In the hands of a master, yes. And Hertzfeldt is to stick figures what Franz Liszt was to planks of ebony and ivory and what Ted Williams was to a stick of white ash: someone so transcendentally expert that to describe what they do in literal terms is borderline demeaning." 
In October 2009, Hertzfeldt premiered Wisdom Teeth, an unannounced, new five-minute cartoon at the "Evening with Don Hertzfeldt" screening at the Ottawa Animation Festival. It later screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2010 and the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal, where it was awarded a Special Jury Mention. In 2010, it appeared as part of a series on the Showtime Network called "Short Stories".
It's Such a Beautiful Day, the feature film
In 2012, Hertzfeldt edited together the three chapters of his short film trilogy to create a seamless new feature film of the story. His first feature film, the movie shares the same title as the third chapter of the story, It's Such a Beautiful Day, and went into limited release in movie theaters during autumn 2012.
The film was subsequently released on DVD, as well as on-demand in HD on Vimeo.
It's Such a Beautiful Day was very well received by film critics. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association named it their runner-up for Best Animated Feature Film of the year, behind Frankenweenie. Indiewire ranked Hertzfeldt the 9th best Film Director of the Year in its annual poll (tied with Wes Anderson), and the AV Club film critics ranked the film # 8 on their list of the Best Films of 2012. Slate Magazine named "It's Such a Beautiful Day" their pick for Best Animated Feature Film of 2012.
In the United Kingdom, the film was ranked # 3 on Time Out London's list of the 10 Best Films of 2013, and # 4 on The London Film Review's list of the same.
In 2014, Time Out New York ranked It's Such a Beautiful Day # 16 on their list of the "100 Best Animated Movies Ever Made." Critic Tom Huddleston described it as "one of the great outsider artworks of the modern era, at once sympathetic and shocking, beautiful and horrifying, angry and hilarious, uplifting and almost unbearably sad." 
In December 2013, Hertzfeldt's first graphic novel, The End of the World, was released by independent publisher Antibookclub. The 216 page book was described in his blog as containing many years of leftover film ideas, reshaped into an experimental new story. "If the films were albums, I guess these would be the B-sides," he wrote.
In 2013, Hertzfeldt animated a 30 second piece called "Day Sleeper" for the National Film Board of Canada. It was created using their iPad app, a tribute to experimental animator Norman McLaren.
According to his blog, Hertzfeldt has been developing a new feature length animated project. Details have yet to surface about this film.
In 2014, Hertzfeldt created a two minute "couch gag" for the premiere episode of the 26th season of The Simpsons, the longest opening gag in the show's history, even beating the previous record holder, "Homer Evolution".
Awards and honors
Hertzfeldt has had more films play in competition at the Sundance Film Festival than any other filmmaker, with six: Rejected, The Meaning of Life, Everything Will Be OK, I Am So Proud of You, Wisdom Teeth, and It's Such a Beautiful Day. He returned to the Sundance Film Festival in 2013 to serve on the Short Film Awards Jury.
In 1999, at the age of 22, Hertzfeldt was nominated for the Short Film Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Billy's Balloon, where he was the youngest director in competition. The same year Billy's Balloon won the Slamdance Film Festival Grand Jury Award.
In 2001, Hertzfeldt was named by Filmmaker Magazine as one of the "Top 25 Filmmakers to Watch."
In 2002, Hertzfeldt joined the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
In 2007, according to the animation industry website Cartoon Brew, Everything Will Be OK advanced to the final round of voting as a contender for an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short, but did not make the ultimate list of five nominees.
In 2007, Hertzfeldt accepted an invitation from the George Eastman House's motion picture archives to indefinitely store and preserve the historically important original film elements and camera negatives to his collected work.
In 2009, Rejected was the only short film named one of the "Films of the Decade" by Salon.com. In 2010, it was noted as one of the five "most innovative animated films of the past ten years" by The Huffington Post.
In April 2010, at the age of 33, Hertzfeldt received the San Francisco International Film Festival's "Persistence of Vision" Lifetime Achievement Award "for his unique contributions to film and animation," and "for challenging the boundaries of his craft."
Hertzfeldt was the youngest director named in the "They Shoot Pictures, Don't They" list of "The 100 Important Animation Directors" of all time,
In 2012, Hertzfeldt received the Ted M. Larson memorial award from the Fargo Film Festival, for his "contributions to film culture."
Hertzfeldt self-produces and self-distributes his own DVDs. With these sales, fans of his work are literally financing his next films, with no third parties in between.
Bitter Films' first DVD release was a 2001 limited edition DVD "single" of the short Rejected. The DVD included a deleted scene, audio commentary, and a few hidden pages. It is now out of print.
Don Hertzfeldt Volume One: 1995–2005 was released in 2006, collecting the first 10 years of his work. All of the short films were remastered and restored in high definition from their original film negatives. The DVD was made available only to fans via the Bitter Films website, with the first 750 pre-orderers receiving an "exclusive mystery gift" (either a 35 mm–clipping from Rejected that was autographed by Don, or a unique drawing by Don on a post-it note).
This DVD marked the first time his student films such as Genre and Lily and Jim were made widely available to the public. Many of these works were only previously found on limited-release VHS collections of animated shorts, long out of print.
The special features for Don Hertzfeldt Volume One: 1995–2005 included a time-lapse documentary of the making of The Meaning of Life called "Watching Grass Grow", The Animation Show Trilogy cartoons, Lily and Jim deleted dialogues and outtakes, Rejected trivia captions, The Meaning of Life special effects audio commentary, an over 140-page "archive" section (of rare footage from Hertzfeldt's earliest cartoons, original pencil tests, deleted sequences, abandoned footage, and sketch to scene comparisons), Lily and Jim audio commentary, Rejected audio commentary, and a retrospective booklet, with liner notes by Hertzfeldt
In 2007, Everything Will Be OK was released as another DVD "single". Special features on this release included over a hundred pages of "archival" material (sketches, storyboards, deleted materials), and a hidden feature that played a narration-free version of the film.
I Am So Proud of You was released as a similar "single" in 2009. It featured a similar 148 page "archive" of production materials, as well as the hidden narration-free feature.
Don Hertzfeldt Volume 2: 2006–2011, a DVD collection of all work from 2006–2011 (including the feature film version of It's Such a Beautiful Day) was released in November 2012. Special features for the release included over 40 minutes of live Q&A material from the touring program, the cartoon Wisdom Teeth, a deleted scene from It's Such a Beautiful Day, and a 24-page booklet. Advance pre-order customers for the release also received a 35 mm–film strip clipped from a release print of It's Such a Beautiful Day, and other free gifts.
View on advertising
Hertzfeldt has been offered numerous lucrative advertising deals, including ad campaigns for Cingular Wireless and United Airlines, which he has declined. He has made various comments over the years about his distaste for corporate America and says he will never be involved with the advertising world. He has said, "The goal isn't to try and make as much money as I possibly can; the goal is to try and make good movies."
In a March 2009 blog entry, Hertzfeldt compared filmmaking to his love of hiking and exploring new places: something he does just because he "enjoys doing it and will probably always enjoy doing it." He compared doing advertising to being paid to not go explore the woods, but to walk around someone's house eight hours a day wearing a sandwich board with a picture of a product on it. "Money's not the reason I take walks. It doesn't really factor into it. I take walks because I enjoy doing it. It's something I'd do if I was rich, and it's something I'd do if I were poor." 
Nevertheless, several international ad campaigns have borrowed heavily from his unique style and bear enough resemblance to Hertzfeldt's work as to be mistaken for it. The most well-known instance of this is a series of 2004–2009 television ads for Kellogg's Pop-Tarts, which use black and white stick figures, "squiggly" animation, surreal humor, and even an occasional crumpling paper effect, all very similar to Hertzfeldt's style. Despite all these similarities, Hertzfeldt was not involved in any way. In Canada, the not-for-profit corporation Encorp has used a Hertzfeldt-like style of short animation clips on TV and the Internet to promote its "Don't Mess With Karma" campaign to encourage recycling. One of the latest ad campaigns to use an art style similar to Hertzfeldt's is Krystal fast food restaurant to promote their Blitz Energy Drink.
- Ah, L'Amour (1995)
- Genre (1996)
- Lily and Jim (1997)
- Billy's Balloon (1998)
- Rejected (2000)
- Welcome to the Show/Intermission in the Third Dimension/The End of the Show (2003) (cartoons created to book-end the first "Animation Show")
- The Meaning of Life (2005)
- Everything Will Be OK (2006)
- I Am So Proud of You (2008)
- Wisdom Teeth (2010)
- It's Such a Beautiful Day (2011)
- It's Such a Beautiful Day (2012) (feature film version)
- The Simpsons (2014) (episode "Clown in the Dumps" two minute couch gag)
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- Koch, Cameron (2014-09-29). "Last night's 'Simpsons' couch gag was the longest in the show's history". Tech Times. Retrieved 2014-10-10.
- Reilly, Claire (2014-09-29). "The mysterious voyage of Homer: Don Hertzfeldt's Simpsons couch gag". CNET. Retrieved 2014-10-10.
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- "Films of the Decade".
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- Quint (July 27, 2006). "Killer Rabbit w/info on DARK CRYSTAL 2, PAN'S LABYRINTH, HELLBOY ANIMATED, CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE & more!!!". Ain't It Cool News. Retrieved 2006-08-08. "Don Hertzfeldt did not do those Pop tart commercials. He is looking into ligation about it."
- "Don't Mess With Karma". encorp.ca.
- "BLITZ from Krystal".
- Bitter Films Home Page
- Don Hertzfeldt at the Internet Movie Database
- American Film Institute 2009 interview