“I’ve tried to remember I need to be having fun”: Don Hertzfeldt on World of Tomorrow

The films of Texas-based indie animator Don Hertzfeldt are instantly recognisable not only for their ever-present stick figures, but for their dark absurdism and wonder. As the third entry in his World of Tomorrow triptych is released, he talks to Nick Bradshaw about how his work has developed over a 25-year career (and reveals four of the triptych’s musical influences).

World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime (2020)

▶︎ All three episodes of World of Tomorrow are available to rent or buy (via Vimeo) at bitterfilms.com.

By now, Don Hertzfeldt’s hapless cartoon stick figures are as distinctive a motif as Mark Rothko’s block panels, e e cummings’s lower-case poetry or Buster Keaton’s stone face; 25 years into his career, the Austin, Texas-based independent is animation’s laureate of mock-naive existential gallows humour and wonder. If his most plain-drawn student movies – Ah, L’Amour (1995), Genre (1996), Lily and Jim (1997), Billy’s Balloon (1998), mostly available on Hertzfeldt’s YouTube channel – led on the slapstick cruelty their maker could inflict on their twig figures, Hertzfeldt delighting in the power of his creative hand, his maturing works have opened up vistas of pathos and puzzlement around those long-suffering ciphers, at the same time as he embedded them in richer worlds of analogue animation technique.

The self-reflexive expressionist breakdown of Rejected (2000) anticipated the Carver-esque thumbnail epic of his 2000s trilogy It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Everything Will Be OK, 2006; I Am So Proud of You, 2008; It’s Such a Beautiful Day, 2011), a magisterially evocative portrait of the mental travails of an ailing everystickman called Bill that can be read as its creator’s battle with morbidity. And while the astral-scale satire The Meaning of Life (2006) took a Kubrickian wide-view of human evolution, it also – along with the two-minute-long time-travelling couch gag Hertzfeldt made for the opening credits of The Simpsons in 2014, and indeed the transcendent coda of It’s Such a Beautiful Day – marked a leap into the cosmic yonder that continues in his latest, newly finished triptych, World of Tomorrow.

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World of Tomorrow (the initial 17-minute World of Tomorrow was released in 2015, followed by the 22-minute Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts (2017) and the 34-minute Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime) riffs a teasingly, risibly complicated sci-fi yarn involving sad clones and their broken back-ups vaulting across space and multiple timelines in search of emotional respite and enlightenment, identity and companionship; its denouement matches Tenet for Möbius-strip time games. After Hertzfeldt’s devotion to analogue film and its optical effects, World of Tomorrow is his first digital animation – an appropriate medium, given its play with multiplicity – and teems with rich and strange CG imagery in many figurations to mirror its manifold time dimensions.

At the same time, not only does it continue to project Hertzfeldt’s stick figures across its cold universe, it redoubles his naive motif through the use of a child voice actor. Hertzfeldt’s niece Winona Mae – recorded at play between the ages of four and six gives delightful voice to Emily Prime, the innocent of the first two episodes and forbear of their several traumatised clone messengers, migrants and ‘memory tourists’, all voiced with dry dolefulness by the expat English animator Julia Pott. (Winona Mae’s exuberant babble was no longer available to Hertzfeldt for Episode Three, in which the duet turns into a demented siren recording buried by one of Emily’s clones in the memory of her future lover.)

Along with his gags and visual textures, Hertzfeldt’s way with words is one of the marvels of his movie-making, and World of Tomorrow marks another excursion on the frontiers of animation and across the imagination of an unbound artist. He sent me the following by email.

Emily Prime (right) and her clone in World of Tomorrow (2015)

Episode One opens like the framing device of a children’s story being relayed by a wise old relative, but the generational baton-passing is immediately fucked up. Was that your starting point?

I’m not sure if I’ve ever written anything from A to Z. I’ll usually come up with R one morning and then E in the shower, and then a few weeks later W, and sort of piece them all together over time. “This is a really interesting image, how can this be in a movie?” I keep piles of notes around the house, of scenes or interesting bits of dialogue, and at a certain point it just feels like it’s time to gather it all up and see what connects.

I had a dream years ago about a body growing old in real time in a museum display, and that was maybe the first idea for World of Tomorrow. Around the same time I had a different dream about people sticking the faces of their dead spouses on robots, so they could still sort of be with them. They were both sort of futuristic ideas, which was interesting, since I was also eager to try out digital animation. So then it becomes a question of, how do we get to these scenes and what could they mean?

Don Hertzfeldt

One of the earliest ideas for Episode Three was an image from the climax – which I can’t spoil, but it involves people standing behind each other in a particular space. It was an incredibly complicated destination to arrive at, but I had to have it, so a lot of the episode’s writing was reverse-engineering how I could logically get the characters there. The first thing I animated for Episode Three was the ‘godbaby’ sequence, which stemmed entirely from recording my friend’s two-year-old randomly saying, “Behold!” That was just so funny and weirdly biblical to me, to hear this two-year-old, “Behold!” I don’t think I knew yet where this sequence could go, or if it would even fit into Episode Three, but I knew it could go somewhere. And slowly I connect all these dots.

The films are full of temporal overlaps and ironies. What balance of planning and design versus improv and exploration was there across the films?

Sometimes you’ll really enjoy watching a movie and when you start thinking about it on the way home you suddenly go, “Wait a minute!” and all the plot holes begin to surface. I really hoped to not make a “wait a minute!” movie. Episode Three is over-the-top complicated, it’s a parody of time-travel stories, but I still wanted its logic to be bulletproof for anyone who cares to sit down and sort it all out.

It also had to make sense in relation to the other two episodes, and to whatever comes next. Episode Three jumps around before, during and after the events of One and Two, somehow making it both a prequel and a sequel. So there was a lot of potential for me to ruin more than one movie at a time here. As I wrote, I drew all the timelines for myself on a white board just to keep track of when important things were invented, when this clone is created, whose lives might overlap, everything. I would never forgive myself if I worked on a short film for two years and it somehow still had plot holes.

Digital seems a perfect medium for these films about redundancy and flotsam and exchange and influence. How did you find the switch from analogue?

I loved it. The speed at which I could suddenly get things done just by drawing on a tablet instead of paper – plus no longer shooting it all under a giant camera was a really big deal.

I was sort of on the edge of quitting after It’s Such a Beautiful Day. I just felt drained. The analogue method brought all sorts of positive things to those movies, they couldn’t have existed otherwise, but I was starting to feel the weight of time. For so many years, the most discouraging thing about my job was facing how many years I’d lose by just making a single short film. There were just never any shortcuts. I am still constantly jealous of people in other fields who can do so much more – actors who are able to appear in three movies a year while I’m stuck crawling one frame at a time.

Emily-6 in World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts (2017)

What have you had to learn to make these films?

I’ve never allowed my production computer to be connected to the internet because the distractions would overwhelm me. And I only just realised that all this time it meant my software never got any automatic updates. I started animating World of Tomorrow in 2014, using a version of Photoshop that was somehow from 2008. I think my version of Final Cut (Pro) is also from around then. So even though I made the digital leap, I also somehow managed to stay obsolete. And it’s how all three episodes have been produced so far.

Granted, I don’t work at [George Lucas’s special effects studio] Industrial Light & Magic or anything so I don’t know how valuable this lesson is, but maybe there’s not always a great need to have to chase the coolest, newest gear.

Could you go back?

I still have the old 35mm camera stand, from the 1940s, sitting here in the house. It’s 800 pounds and seven or eight feet tall and just sort of looms at you. There’s a similar animation camera sitting next to it, one that I had to buy in a sort of emergency when I was finishing It’s Such a Beautiful Day around 2010. Both cameras were falling apart when I finished that movie. There’s a bunch of jittery flash-frames and double-exposures throughout the end of It’s Such a Beautiful Day because the camera’s animation motor was malfunctioning and not advancing the frames properly any more. With a little electrical work they could probably be put back in operation again, but I’m not actually sure if anyone still makes the 35mm stock that runs through them.

Are there any digital animators whose work affected your sense of what was possible? [The stripped-back CG animator] David OReilly?

I love David and I’ve known him for something like ten years but I’m not sure how much any of my artist friends really influence each other. We mostly just send each other photos of our cats. When I started to learn digital animation, I mostly remember bugging David with really dumb questions. I’d say, “How do I get rid of all this fucking banding?!” and he’d say, “Try the ‘reduce banding’ filter.” It’s not too exciting.

I think when we write we both have an interest in deconstructing things, but he’s always come from a more 3D/gaming sort of background. As I think he put it once, he’s more electronica and I’m more garage rock. Maybe I’m a little more electronica these days but it still feels like I’m using broken synthesisers from the 1970s.

David Prime in World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime (2020)

I suspect your taste in science fiction leans to the darkly comic – Douglas Adams? Philip K. Dick? Kurt Vonnegut? Do you also pay any heed to factual scientific speculations?

It’s embarrassing, but I almost never read fiction. I’m reading my first fiction book right now in years, Charlie Kaufman’s Antkind, and it still feels like a strange new exercise. I’ve always had a hard time explaining this, but I get super restless reading fiction and I have a lot of trouble finishing anything.

I’ve thought about it for years and I think the problem is, I feel like my brain is constantly scanning the world for new writing ideas and material, at all hours. It seems like it’s just going to do it, whether I want it to or not. And I’ve never felt that reading someone else’s fiction is going to provide me with any of those new writing ideas. I can’t really use any of it.

But reading nonfiction presents this much bigger space that could spark new things for me to pick up and run with. I think I heard something similar about stand-up comics, how they’ll voraciously read all the newspapers, searching for new material.

So I haven’t actually read most of the classic science-fiction guys. I think I might have read most of The Hitchhiker’s Guide [to the Galaxy] when I was 12 and really enjoyed it. Everyone tells me I should especially check out Kurt Vonnegut because they say we have similarities. I tried to start reading Slaughterhouse-Five a year ago but I don’t remember what happened to the book. I definitely didn’t finish it, which is all my fault and not his.

Have the requirements of working as a solo independent animator changed since the beginning of your career?

I guess they haven’t. Through all the different tools, it’s mainly been the same process. Write, draw, edit, sound.

The one thing I’ve tried to remember the most is that I need to be having fun. There’s been more than one production that I was just far too miserable working on. Maybe this is a dumb thing to say, but I don’t want to be miserable. There is not a lot of upside to being miserable. The commitment required for me to draw everything by myself just isn’t worth it if I’m not a happy person doing it. So whatever it is that I’m writing or developing, it needs to be a lot of fun for me. And lately it still is.

World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime (2020)

Don Hertzfeldt on World of Tomorrow’s musical connections

There are science-fiction ‘Easter eggs’ of different types dotted all over the World of Tomorrow movies. Here are just a few that focus on the music used in the films.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

“When Stanley Kubrick originally had plans to direct A.I., he listed the Rosenkavalier waltz in his notes to be used somewhere in the film. I don’t know if anyone knows why. When I read about this years ago, I decided I had to ‘borrow’ the idea, and it’s sort of now become the World of Tomorrow theme.”

Forbidden Planet (1956)

“The sound design for all the World of Tomorrow episodes has one foot squarely in all the theremins and ‘electronic music’ of the 1950s [Forbidden Planet famously has a theremin score by Bebe and Louis Barron]. There’s no getting around it, sci-fi needs theremins!”

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

“There’s a decades-old music argument over whether John Williams’s score for E.T. was inspired by Dvorak’s Piano Trio No 4 [the ‘Dumky’ Trio], so I thought it would be fun to use a different section of that Dvorak piece to create David’s theme in Episode Three of World of Tomorrow.”

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

“The Sleeping Beauty waltz is another classical piece in Episode Three, but I used it more as a connection to the Disney film than the ballet, because Disney added lyrics: ‘I know you, I danced with you once upon a dream…’”