A matter of pride

Animator Don Hertzfeldt rejects a commercial life

On Halloween malls and parties across North America resemble the programming schedule of the Cartoon Network. A Bart Simpson chases after an Eric Cartman for his Tootsie Rolls. At the Cinnabon a man in glasses and a white shirt insists he’s Peter Griffith from Family Guy but his unconvincing laugh betrays him. A group of Futurama characters loiter outside an HMV and wait for somebody to say “Hey it’s the cast of Futurama .”

You won’t find any Don Hertzfeldt creations though. No Billy’s Balloon candy buckets. No cloud creatures yelling “Trick or Treat” while bleeding from their anuses. Since he entered the public consciousness with his Oscar-nominated short Rejected in 2001 the lanky animator has eschewed commercial success and merchandising deals for the life of an independent artist. Hertzfeldt is the kind of artist who publicly denounces advertising as an industry of lies doggedly adheres to his rules of artistic integrity and decides the best way to première his latest film I Am So Proud of You is not in theatres or on DVD but by touring with it.

Hertzfeldt spends Halloween in his California home taking a few hours to catch his breath before hitting the road again. It’s not much of a break as he prepares for a meeting on Monday conducts an e-mail interview and tries very hard not to let the hectic schedule make him sick. “I’ve done everything I can to stay healthy so they don’t have to wheel me out with a catheter and IV tube on the last night [of the tour]” he jokes. “I’m taking two vitamins a day and trying to remember to not touch my face after shaking hands.”

Embarking on a 16-city tour to première your latest animated short is enough to turn anyone into a hypochondriac but Hertzfeldt doesn’t mind. I Am So Proud of You took him two years to single-handedly produce and animate. Just him in a room wearing the same clothes he wore the week before his film existing only as stacks of notes and sketches threatening to overwhelm the floor. And then there’s the animation process — he uses a 35mm camera built in the late 1940s to shoot one frame at a time; nothing is automated.

“It’s a bit like recording music with a real guitar instead of a synthesizer that sounds just like one” says Hertzfeldt about his process. “Most animation these days is made exclusively in the digital world and it’s not how I like to work. I guess on paper it sounds a bit lonely and strange: writing animating shooting editing and conjuring up soundtracks by yourself for years in dark rooms but I seem to have a pretty good demeanour for it.”

Hertzfeldt’s latest film began as a comic strip starring a character named Bill but has transformed into a trilogy dealing with a lonely existence punctuated with existential terror and anxiety. First came 2006’s Everything Will Be OK . That film dealt with mental disorder and illness and this second instalment I Am So Proud of You will have similar thematic heft. The films seem very personal as if based on the animator’s own experiences but Hertzfeldt dismisses such notions.

“I wouldn’t really call any of it autobiography” he says. “I don’t think I’d make anyone sit through that. Plenty of little moments and scenes happened to me or maybe from conversations I’ve had but I think every writer uses those weird odds and ends from real life and spins them into their stories. I can definitely channel some of that sense of isolation in Bill’s story but I’m not very depressed or dramatic when dealing with illness and death. If anything I think Bill’s story has had more of a reassuring sort of effect on me."

The tour has sold out in almost every city thus far and the film has piqued the interest of the people in charge of handing out awards; Chris Robinson the artistic director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival was so moved after watching the film he had to be left alone. A bit hyperbolic perhaps especially for those more familiar with Hertzfedt’s more irreverent work but the film seems to have made a personal connection with audiences and it’s something Hertzfeldt watches unfold at every screening.

“Even if we’re off eating dinner while the program is screening I’m back in time to be in the room when [ I Am So Proud of You ] comes on” he says. “I think being there with the audience is really why anyone makes movies in the first place. You don’t get that immediacy or feedback when your movie plays on TV or DVD. You might get some nice letters from people but there’s a big disconnect there.”

Every tour screening is followed by Q&A sessions that sometimes run until 2 a.m. It’s a way for Hertzfeldt to show his appreciation to the people that make his work possible. After all this is all he does. Hertzfeldt has never held a day job or done any commercial work in his life. This is unheard of in the world of animation.

“It’s pretty easy to avoid when you just say no to everything” he says. “I’d be making these same shorts if I were working three jobs to support them or if I was wealthy or retired. I haven’t really had much of a master plan with this other than to just focus on making the films I want and maintaining control of them. Every day that I’m not actively working on one of my projects is a waste of time because I’m in such a lucky place to be able to do them at all.”

For the third film of his trilogy Hertzfeldt has shot a short sequence and cobbled together some bits and pieces during his time on the road. It’ll probably remain in a fetal state for awhile as he is taking a long break after the tour wraps up. Before that he still needs to get through November with his health in check. As long as he can avoid another Halloween of franchise characters and company trademarks he should get by.

GIRAF4 Animation Festival

Despite its ebullient name the fourth annual Giant Incandescent Resonating Animation Festival began without much pretension or fanfare on Wednesday November 5. As Canada’s only independent animation festival its program focuses on the artists and films that the Quickdraw Animation Society has brought to the city. The festival running through Sunday November 9 promises to be an expansive and fascinating celebration of the independent animation scene. In that spirit Fast Forward presents a guide to this year’s festival.


Friday November 7

This film won the Grand Prix at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival and at heart is an allegorical tale advocating the power of individuality but the science fiction feature Fantastic Planet is perhaps one of the most psychedelically surreal experiences ever committed to film. You have never seen anything like this.


Thursday November 6

Critical darling and musician Chad VanGaalen does more than write a pretty tune. He’s an artist in his own right illustrating all of his own album art and animating his own music videos. This is a chance for fans to take in some of his best work. And hey it’s free.


Saturday November 8

Dennis Jackson is quickly becoming one of Canada’s top stop-motion animators. His genial and charming stories have enraptured children and families since his first film Journey Through Fear. This spotlight will familiarize you with his work and the workshop offers a hands-on chance to learn the magical process of stop-motion animation. Both events are free.


Sunday November 9

The Get Animated! event is a showcase of the latest work from the Oscar-winning (70 nominations since 1941) animation studios of the National Film Board. As well the screening also includes the NFB’s special Children’s Program. This is a free event so bring your kids.