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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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