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Stick Figure Masterpiece

The Art of Don Hertzfeldt, Bard of Goleta


Somewhere not far from the heart of Old Town Goleta is a young man working minutely in film, most days mostly alone. He’s a night person and he’s an animator. And for a young man, he is very old school.

He works on a genormous electric machine called an animation stand — one of the last left in the country — built in the 1930s, on which, legend holds, the Peanuts cartoons were made. (It’s also rumored that the feature film FernGully was, too, but the young man REJECTED-big.jpgis happy to disbelieve that one.) His machine’s about five feet across, with a roller for panning effects; the camera and upright zooming column tops six feet high.

He bought it for the last two of his more and more complicated cartoons, films that last around a quarter of an hour, but, except one, take the better part of a year to make. The exception took four years, but it was called The Meaning of Life, after all. He has notes that look like physics equations and colored transparencies and pens scattered around. (He’s also new-school cool — his music-piping workspace iPod has Magnetic Fields, the Decemberists, and Neutral Milk Hotel, among others, in shuffle rotation.) He draws on paper and shoots a frame at a time; he does not use cells or employ drawing assistants, much less a computer. But he’s not a snob about it. “A lot of people think there is a ‘make art’ button on computers. But those guys,” he said, referring to almost every other American animator, “are sweating away as hard as I am.”

His name is Don Hertzfeldt, and far from being some offbeat savant, he is the only Santa Barbara-area filmmaker I know — since composer Elmer Bernstein died — nominated for an Academy Award. Hertzfeldt’s aptly titled film Rejected took him to the Oscars in 2001. Though he lost to an arty Bulgarian animator, his meta-animation masterpiece — in which characters rejected from commercials for a family learning channel succumb to a page-wrinkling apocalypse — won him more than 30 other awards at festivals around the world.

Nor is the artist/cinematographer/writer/auteur some pretensh sulky artiste with soot and angst rubbed over his features. Hertzfeldt, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Johnny Depp, is huge on college campuses, even though — or maybe because — most of his cartoons offer a hapless, darkly comic worldview. His production outfit is called, fittingly, Bitter Films (bitterfilms.com). His first animated short Ah L’Amour — made a few months after entering UCSB’s Film Department — was being shown publicly when Hertzfeldt was a sophomore and is still shown in cartoon fests.

“Spike and Mike have gotten a lot of miles out of that one,” he said, speaking of the entrepreneur team that tours regularly with its Sick & Twisted cartoon cavalcade. “And a lot of the times the men in the audience do the men’s part and the women do the women’s. It’s kind of a cult thing,” smiled the soft-spoken animator.

The surprising thing is that he’s not very well known in his own hometown. The L.A. Weekly wrote a cover story about him and there is a Web site called Find Don Hertzfeldt, but the owner of the Mercury Lounge, where he likes to go, has never heard of him. But she said she knew of the cartoons. Cult-famed Hertzfeldt, who is really neither falsely humble nor prone to self-deprecation, has his own mildly random theory about that.

“I would make a great spy,” he said one night as we ate Mexican food in Goleta. “I mean it. You know, when I get carded at Albertson’s, the guy looking at my license says, ‘Hey, I’m from Fremont, too.’ And then a week later I’m in there and the same guy says, ‘Hey, I’m from Fremont, too.’ When I’m standing in line at the bank people just step right in front of me like I’m not there.”

You and I could screen his entire oeuvre between dinner and an early bed. In short, that would be: Ah, L’Amour (1995), a brief misogynistic romp that was declared by HBO the World’s Funniest Cartoon; Genre (1996), about a rabbit who wanders through wacky film conventions like sci-fi monster and spaghetti western; Lily and Jim (1997), an awkward blind-date conversation hilariously rendered; Billy’s Balloon (1998), a Buster Keaton-esque meditation on the evil of balloons, which won at Slamdance and was in competition at Cannes. Then, after graduating college, Hertzfeldt moved out to the Ellwood area and made the amazing Rejected (2000) and last year’s four-year-in-the-making The Meaning of Life, which transcends the comic envelope and moved into visionary turf.

Besides Spike & Mike, the work has been seen on the Cartoon Channel and the Animation Show, a touring series of film that Hertzfeldt and Beavis and Butthead’s Mike Judge co-produce. He is currently editing his latest film, Everything Will Be Okay, at the same time he is mastering a much-awaited DVD collection of his others.

lily_hq.jpgAnd the films are oddly visually memorable, too. Hertzfeldt’s style is stick figure, but that’s like saying Seurat painted dots. The expressiveness of his line, the bug-eyed malcontent of his protagonists — from Billy of Billy’s Balloon to a talking banana — is strictly 21st century: intensely felt life in a mass culture not really offering even the solace of anonymity. Once seen, they are impossible to forget. If they have anything in common — and you can rule out any druggy pursuit of elegant randomness — Hertzfeldt’s stories flirt with absorbing daily activities taking place in close proximity to the void, or the unerring voice of doom. Talking to Hertzfeldt, they seem more like jokes he has seized on, but ones that keep entertaining him.

“When you work so long on one thing,” he said, “you get a lot of time to think about things. So during each of these films I’ve made, I’ve come up with the idea for the next one. It’s pretty neat, and I hope I can keep it up.”

The Evil Teachers

Don Hertzfeldt was born in 1976 in Fremont, California, to encouraging parents. His father was a Pan Am airline pilot and his mother a librarian, but now they’re retired. Openly critical of his grammar school and lukewarm about secondary school, the budding cartoonist livened his early years by making comic books. “But I had to narrate them and point to the drawings to show what happened first and second,” he said, demonstrating an early commitment to animating his creations.

Seeing Empire Strikes Back at age 4 turned him on, and he got his first animating-possible camera at 15. He must have done well academically because Hertzfeldt was accepted to USC’s prestigious, though very Hollywood-oriented, film school. He rejected it. “Imagine a NorCal kid like me wandering around in this South Central neighborhood,” he said.

Instead, he was immediately admitted to UCSB’s Film Department — he double majored in theater at first — and bonded strongly with Dana Driskel, the production jefe there. He was given encouragement, but taught himself almost everything about animation and how to market himself.

“I talk to people all the time who don’t get out there,” he said. “It’s almost worse to make something and then have nobody see it.” Though he entered UCSB to make films, he quickly realized that cinema required actors, equipment, and serious financing. “When I’m doing animation, it’s just me,” he said. By the time he’d graduated he already was renowned, though by no means BMOC. “I’d go to parties, but everybody in the department knew each other from working on each other’s films.” Most of the students knew who he was, though he was not so well known by them. He has been lavish in his praise of the film department.

To this date, Hertzfeldt is a man of uncommon integrity, and some might venture to say faultily so. Though pursued by television, he has only recently considered doing a very lucrative gig, and only because he finally feels he has a character he can write about. He’s kept his aesthetic clean in an era where flash animation, computer rendering, and other digital tricks have lightened the workload of special effects. The whole history of the art is craft, going back to Winsor McCay circa 1916, where the process of draw, photograph, draw, and photograph produced the first work in color on film. But then Disney added sound and other innovations like the factory approach, along with the development of cells that shortened the process, eliminating the need to redraw backgrounds. Then, when television came along and created an animation market with youth by replaying classic works from the 1930s, the mass production of animated shows, series, and feature films began in earnest and brought in more shortcuts and married the computer to the mix.

Hertzfeldt’s not opposed to such techniques per se, but they are not for him. He likes the big screen. “It’s just film and light for me,” he said. One of the big ironies concerning his integrity, though, involves his current remastering of his work onto DVD. Hertzfeldt keeps running into programs that clean “dirt” off his originals. Yet he has a strong inclination toward the squiggle, the smudge, and the “accident” in his own work. So he’s morally torn about the process of cleaning up his film work for the digital DVD presentation. He’s a lo-fi philosopher in a high-tech world.

People think they’ve seen Hertzfeldt cartoons pumping for commercial products. Think again — he won’t do advertising. The Pop-Tart commercial that looks like his work is officially negatively sanctioned. Hertzfeldt is very proud to say that only he and the equally twisted animator Bill Plympton are independent animators making it without a day job. Plympton, for a long time, made money doing MTV and insurance ads.

If he’s over-scrupulous, you might say he learned it in grade school. “Do you remember these young-author things where everyone in the class writes a book?” Hertzfeldt asked me while recalling his early years. “I remember evil teachers if I remember anything. … I wrote a story about a group of animal friends who live in a tree and they hear these weird sounds from this castle. So they go there and it’s a haunted castle, temple of doom, lava pits, sacrifice. Some of them die and there’s this adventure. The teacher is reading all of these and she gets to mine and she refuses to read it. She tells everyone to go play now and I have to talk to you about your story. And I’m young and teachers know everything. And she said, ‘Your story just won’t do. Why don’t we make some changes? What if we did this, would that be okay?’ And I said, ‘Ye-a-ah,’ meaning ‘no,’ but you can’t say no to a teacher. It ended up being 50 pages down to two pages. They heard the sound, they investigated, found nothing, went home, but to this day they still hear sounds. It was embarrassing. I don’t know if that was influential or not. People tinker. They don’t really teach that stuff in school — pop culture. Heck they didn’t even teach music anymore when I left school.”

A Map to the Star’s Minds

So you’re left with the image of a lone animator walking through the shadows of Goleta and coming out to win awards, remaster his work, but jealously guarding his silence, exile, and cunning. That’s both true and false.

Hertzfeldt is thinking about moving to Austin, where Judge lives, a place where there’s a lively music and filmmaking scene and you can actually buy a house. “I never will here,” he said, though one wonders if a couple of commercials might change those circumstances. (It would also be hard to move his big machine, he said.) He actually is thinking seriously about television, too. The new piece he is doing has a character he thinks would be easy to write situations for, and the Cartoon Channel is ready for him anytime.

“It’s surprising how much easier this one is than The Meaning of Life,” he said, “which I had to fight with the whole way.”

He showed me some of the film on his laptop. It’s good that the story is called Everything Will Be Okay. It takes place behind several windows, which are really just holes in a black piece of paper. You need to see it, but the stories seem to float and rhyme with each other.

“It’s still surprising how everybody asks me what software I’m using,” he said. “It’s all done in pencils, see? I don’t even have to ink it. If you ink something poorly you lose the immediacy. Look here: You can’t see it, but on the big screen you can. He’s sitting on a bus, thinking about the rain outside, and I put a piece of glass over the drawing and drops of water on it.”

I asked if there was a metaphorical way of thinking about these windows. “It’s hard to explain because I’ve never verbalized it. It’s like we’re sitting here right now. There’s the music and that’s one window. And there’s the conversation we’re having and that’s another window. And thinking of his next girlfriend would be another window. That’s what all of this is going for; somebody who’s maybe losing his mind. All of these windows take on equal importance and it gets harder and harder to know what’s important. So that’s exactly it.”

I asked if he thinks animation is uniquely adapted to conveying this damned thing called consciousness. “I think animation is uniquely adapted to conveying anything that’s subjective, because you can do anything. You’re not tied down to reality — obviously. You can do this sort of thing, like, well, deformed birds checking their voicemail with nice light effects going on. Anything.”

4•1•1 To pre-order Don’s DVD Bitter Films Volume 1: 1995-2005, visit bitterfilms.com.



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