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Categories: Features

Cameron Johnson ranks the works of award-winning hand-drawn animator Don Hertzfeldt, from “Billy’s Balloon” to “The Meaning of Life” to his latest adventure, “World of Tomorrow”.

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If there’s any one filmmaker who has defined, shaped and inspired modern animation more than anyone else, it’s Don Hertzfeldt. Distinctive for his simplistic yet expressive stick-figure drawings and astute attention to detail in every aspect of his work, Hertzfeldt is likely the most influential animator of his generation. From receiving critical acclaim for quirky 5-minute shorts in his days as a student at UC Santa Barbara to an Oscar nomination and 7 appearances at Sundance – a record – Hertzfeldt has become a massive player in animation over the course of the last 20 years, all while working independently and refusing to animate for advertisements (the most commercial he ever got was animating a segment for The Simpsons).

Initially producing humorous shorts about love and life and art with a signature tone of morbidity and pessimism (his production company is called Bitter Films), Hertzfeldt then entered a middle phase in which his work turned more anarchistic and dealt with strange, violent and random subjects in sketch format with a more surrealist feel. Recently, he’s matured into a profound storyteller whose work observes our past, present and future with a keen eye for human nature and emotion and a strong sense of character.

Hertzfeldt is majorly responsible for the great wave of homemade hand-drawn animation that has gained popularity on places like YouTube over the past decade; his influence can be clearly felt in videos like Dom Fera’s The Lazer Collection and especially tomska’s asdfmovies. A role model for animators trying to work outside of the studio system and make art on their own terms, Hertzfeldt is a modern hero whose importance is only matched by the quality and timelessness of his work.

This list ranks all ten of his released works from worst to best, though all of them are worth checking out.

10. “Billy’s Balloon”

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1998, 5-minute short

Hertzfeldt’s last short as a student at UC Santa Barbara is also his weakest, lacking the profundity of his later works and feeling somewhat aimless and underwhelming by the end. A sort of macabre response to Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon, Billy’s Balloon sees a little boy, Billy, attacked and abused by a sentient red balloon that beats him, drags him into the air and throws him back to the ground. Unlike most of Hertzfeldt’s other works, Billy’s Balloon is a silent film, and so lacks a lot of the quirkiness and depth of his usually outstanding dialogue. Still, it’s a fitting short to watch to introduce yourself to his work, as it features his signature bitterness and cynicism while also providing the odd laugh here and there. Watch it here on YouTube.

9. “Genre”

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1996, 5-minute short

The second of Hertzfeldt’s four student films, Genre is a humorous collection of sketches which sees an artist draw a curmudgeonly rabbit through a series of different film genres, from comedy to sci-fi to “abstract foreign western” and even porno. It’s short and sweet and the only Hertzfeldt film to include live-action elements that interact with the drawings in the form of the animator’s hand. It’s fun, but in the grand scheme of his work Genre seems more of an experimental gimmick film than one of his more thematically and stylistically substantial pieces. Watch it on YouTube.

8. “The Animation Show”

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2003, 8-minute short

In 2003, Hertzfeldt worked with Mike Judge (Beavis and Butthead; King of the Hill) to programme a travelling festival called The Animation Show, which aimed to broadcast animated shorts in theaters across the United States so the filmmakers wouldn’t be restricted to digital markets. The Animation Show is a collection of the three surreal shorts that bookended the first of these festivals, with one short for the beginning, intermission and end of the programme.

These shorts involve exchanges between two walking clouds (or are they pieces of popcorn?) who discuss how animation works and are then changed around against their will by the laws of animation that bind them. The shorts get more and more ridiculous towards the end, with random music interludes and fights between the cloud guys and robots. Back when I mentioned Hertzfeldt’s influence on videos like the asdfmovies, this was the sort of thing I was referring to. Check it out in YouTube.

7. “Ah, L’Amour”

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1995, 2-minute short

Hertzfeldt’s first short film as a student and his shortest work to date, Ah, L’Amour is also his most purely bitter production, one that gives meaning to the tagline “a bitter film” almost instantly. A quick sketch about a guy who asks different girls out on dates with increasingly negative responses, Ah, L’Amour makes you wonder about the bad luck Hertzfeldt had in his own love life that could have lead him to such a cynical, but also hilarious, artistic conclusion.

Ah, L’Amour might be even more relevant today than it was 20 years ago, especially since it deals with the ideas of personal space, consent and the friend zone and certain female audiences might have a different response to the themes of the short to certain male ones. I wonder how Hertzfeldt’s personal worldview has changed since he made this. Watch it on YouTube.

6. “Wisdom Teeth”

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2010, 6-minute short

Hertzfeldt’s grossest and bloodiest short, Wisdom Teeth (actually titled Visdüm Tooten and told in German for whatever reason) involves a guy pulling out his friend’s stitches after a wisdom teeth operation. As you might guess, however, the stitches don’t pull out immediately, and the guy continues to pull the string out of his friend’s mouth for minutes while blood and various other surprises splatter everywhere. It’s a very silly and very humorous 6-minute short that has a real viral video feel, accentuated when things start to get even stranger 3 or 4 minutes into the affair. Watch it on YouTube.

5. “The Meaning of Life”

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2005, 12-minute short

That The Meaning of Life is hardly even Hertzfeldt’s own most profound film is a testament to his genius rather than any of the film’s flaws. Tracing human evolution from the primordial ooze to millions of years in the future when we grow multiple heads and learn colorful new languages, The Meaning of Life is a humbling journey that will remind many of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life.

This film was the first time Hertzfeldt really got experimenting with different background and colors rather than simply leaving it to plain black-and-white, and it took almost four years and tens of thousands of drawings to complete. Hertzfeldt would master his ability to overwhelm our senses with intense classical music and far-out visuals with a few of his later films, but The Meaning of Life remains a vital and thought-provoking part of his filmography. Watch it on YouTube.

4. “Lily and Jim”

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1997, 13-minute short

The best of Hertzfeldt’s student films, Lily and Jim is a sort of mockumentary dissection of a date gone horribly wrong. Told with overlapping flashbacks and interviews with Lily and Jim, two quiet 20-somethings who are set up on a blind date, the short is a tragedy of sorts that explores the awkwardness of small talk, and our inability to be assertive about ourselves in social situations. It’s one of Hertzfeldt’s smartest films and possibly his funniest, and also gives off the greatest impression of Hertzfeldt’s homemade style, with frames that are jumpy and colors that seem scribbled in. This ultimately adds to the character of the film rather than detract from any sense of quality or professionalism. Watch it on YouTube.

3. “Rejected”

 

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2000, 9-minute short

When I was first shown Rejected on YouTube by a friend seven or eight years ago, I thought it was hilarious, but I also thought it was just another viral video made by some random YouTuber. Little did I know that it was made by an already-successful professional animator, and nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. But after watching Hertzfeldt’s complete filmography twice over and noticing his influence on homemade internet animators, it’s easy to see how I could’ve mistaken Rejected for an online viral video, because its fingerprints are all over modern internet culture.

On the surface absurd and insane, with cloud/popcorn people bleeding out of their anuses and babies falling painfully down the stairs, Rejected is actually a very intelligent “up yours” to corporate America on the inside, a reaction to the many offers Hertzfeldt received, and himself rejected, to draw cartoons for commercials. Set up as a series of animations that he sent to (fake) companies and had sent back to him, Rejected is a sketch compilation of the highest hilarity, and one that I’ve been quoting for years. It’s just stupid enough – and clever enough – to change your life. Watch it on YouTube.

2. “World of Tomorrow”

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2015, 17-minute short

Hertzfeldt’s latest film, World of Tomorrow, is idea for idea not only his most original film, but the most original film in years, period. Centered on a carefree little girl called Emily who is taken to the future by a clone of herself, World of Tomorrow deals with ideas unlike anything dealt with by sci-fi in the past. Not only does it explore the idea of cloning as a convenience, it delves into the physical and emotional consequences cloning can have; clone Emily, for instance, has lost so much of her understanding of emotions that she now finds romantic solace in tentacled aliens and lunar rocks.

From a technical standpoint, World of Tomorrow is Hertzfeldt’s finest achievement, which of course makes sense as it’s his newest work. It’s full of the sort of unrestrained visual wonders that only the most basic forms of animation are able to dive into, and is given heartwarming energy by its two British voice actresses, Julia Pott and Winona Mae. On top of that, it’s his most easily quotable film, with astonishingly wise lines such as “I am very proud of my sadness, because it means I am more alive” and “now is the envy of all of the dead” populating every gorgeous scene.

World of Tomorrow will be considered by many to be Hertzfeldt’s finest work, and it’s certainly his most accomplished and artistically inventive. It only ranks lower on my list than one other for purely personal reasons, since I had a greater emotional reaction to my #1 choice and didn’t always agree with the cynical, cautionary tale nature of World of Tomorrow. Still, it’s an incredibly original film and I hope it wins the Best Animated Short Oscar next year. It’s an award Hertzfeldt sorely deserves. Watch it on Vimeo on Demand.

1. “It’s Such a Beautiful Day”

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2012,  62-minute feature

Hertzfeldt’s longest work is also his best, partly because it has the most time to develop its touching – and heartbreaking – ideas, but also because of the depth and emotional power of said ideas. Originally released as three separate shorts, each of them award-winning, It’s Such a Beautiful Day was then compiled into a feature film, and the finished product is Hertzfeldt’s most jaw-droppingly impassioned work yet.

The film revolves around the perfunctory life of the unassuming Bill, a daydreamer with an uneventful life who sees his loves and memories fade away around him as he suffers from memory loss in later life. A visual and aural experience jam-packed with texture and energy, It’s Such a Beautiful Day uses more techniques to get across the message of the story than any of Hertzfeldt’s works, and is his most aesthetically stunning venture. The film is done in split-screen, with multiple circular bubbles popping up around the screen to show different fleeting events, thoughts and memories in Bill’s life, and this allows for us to perfectly sync in with Bill’s mind as it becomes more and more obscured by his illness.

It’s Such a Beautiful Day is an effortlessly funny film, utilizing Hertzfeldt’s signature deadpan humor as he himself narrates Bill’s life in matter-of-fact fashion, which allows the quiet sadness of the characters to express themselves and helps us understand the story without being told what to feel. What we do feel by the end of it is incredibly sad and emotionally drained, and I can imagine many theater attendants across the world having to mop up the tears for hours after screenings of this film.

It’s Such a Beautiful Day deals with love and life and loss and teaches one of those all-important lessons – to appreciate the little things in life – in a more powerful way than I think it’s ever been taught. And then, at the end, Hertzfeldt takes us on another sci-fi journey through time and space, as Bill is imagined to live on forever exploring the Earth and space. It’s everything Hertzfeldt is the master of, all packaged into an hour of gloriously overwhelming sensory expression that can’t be missed.

It’s Such a Beautiful Day is available to stream on Netflix, and to rent on Vimeo on Demand.

Hertzfeldt’s complete filmography will be released on Blu-Ray earlier next year, thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign. Visit his site for more info on the release. 

Cameron Johnson

Cameron Johnson is a writer and filmmaker born in England, based in Michigan, USA, and currently living in Enniscrone, Ireland. He writes about all things entertainment with a speciality in film criticism. He has been working on films ever since middle school, when his shorts "Moving Stateside" and "The Random News" competed in the West Branch Children's Film Festival. Since then he's written and directed a number of his own films and worked in many different crew jobs. Follow him on Twitter @GambasUK and look at his daily film diary at letterboxd.com/gambasUK.

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