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Don Hertzfeldt’s WORLD OF TOMORROW – Director Interview

// Featured, Independent Animation, Interviews

Don Hertzfeldt is easily one of modern independent animation’s true heroes. On top of an established career producing some truly brilliant short film work – such as his student short Billy’s Balloon (1998), the gleefully anarchic Rejected (2001), the stomach-churningly hilarious Wisdom Teeth and many more – his independent feature It’s Such A Beautiful Day (2013) stands out as a brilliantly-conceived portrait of a man whose ailing health and life story is moving to a point that transcends its brilliantly simple and typically Hertzfeldtian stick-figure design style. As well as more abstract work in films like The Meaning of Life, his triumphant Simpsons opening credits stint and the must-own graphic novel The End of the World, Don has recently completed a new short film that both premiered and won at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Having enjoyed much acclaim since,
World of Tomorrow is today released online via Vimeo’s On-Demand service, a platform that launched with the release of It’s Such a Beautiful Day in April 2013. The film, the first of Hertzfeldt’s to be produced entirely digitally, tells the story of Emily, a child who receives a communication from a future, third-generation clone of herself, informing her of the life journey and vast array of societally ‘beneficial’ technological developments that lie ahead. Wittily combining style motifs from his recent Simpsons opener, visual concepts from End of the World and his instantly identifiable character animation style, the film more than lives up to its reputation as one of his best works to date.  Skwigly is proud to welcome Don Hertzfeldt to the site and learn more about his latest work.

First of all, congratulations on your Sundance win for World of Tomorrow. Would you say the festival has a positive attitude toward animated filmmaking in general?

thanks! and absolutely, i can’t think of another festival that’s been so supportive of my work over so many years. since 2001 i’ve had seven films there… even animation festivals have played less of my stuff. i served on the sundance shorts jury in 2013, and their programming,  docs,  animation, foreign,  is always the most interesting.

What can you tell us about the story of World of Tomorrow?

oh,  i’m really bad at summaries.  sometimes the hardest part in making a film is when i’m tasked with coming up with the impossible one-sentence synopsis for a program.  i’m always afraid of saying too much.  uh… it’s about a little girl who,  um… goes on a journey. oh that’s terrible.

I’m certain a great deal of our readership are keen to see it. Is there a distribution plan of action or are you planning to go the usual festival route to begin with?

“world of tomorrow” will be playing theaters and film festivals throughout the year,  but as it’s my first digital piece we now have the ability to bring it to audiences online much quicker than before. with the 35mm stuff there was always a long wait to get the film transferred to digital, endlessly color corrected, produce the DVDs,  etc.  so this will be releasing world-wide on march 31 via vimeo’s on-demand service.

Looking back at your recent feature It’s Such a Beautiful Day – though very different, story-wise, the overall tone of the trilogy seems to have been informed by the prior short The Meaning of Life more than your other public work. Was that film something of a game-changer in terms of your artistic direction?

i think “the meaning of life” was more of a game-changer in learning how i am least comfortable making a film. i’m happy with the final product but i was deeply unhappy making it.  it took far, far too long to finish, it was the most technically difficult thing i’ll have ever attempted,  and the story (or lack of a traditional one) did not allow me to improvise or really change anything as i went along. so it was often incredibly grueling for me to work on,  and then the amount of time i thought it would take to complete doubled.  so it was mainly a big lesson for me in how not to make a film – knowing what sort of project i am happiest making,  what sort of project best reflects my strengths – and because of that experience i’m probably a much better (and happier) filmmaker now. so it was sort of like my own personal animation boot camp. i like it,  but it can be difficult for me to watch because knowing what i had to go through sort of still hurts my heart.

Does World of Tomorrow follow in a similar vein or would you say it has an altogether different direction?

well..  maybe i’m the least qualified person to answer because i’m just too close to them to see them clearly,  but tonally i would say “world of tomorrow” is a cross between “it’s such a beautiful day”  and the thing i did for “the simpsons.”

Do you feel that your creative process is more organic when using traditional film methods?

hmmm, i don’t think so. my writing habits are the same of course,  and i still work with sound the same way, which for me is always a huge part of the process.  the main thing that working with 35mm provided that digital does not is that unlimited range of happy accidents in the form of experimental images:  running the camera back and forth over animation, lights,  effects, and shaking it all up to see what you get. the way 35mm images blend is not the same as in the digital space,  and you can meanwhile really capture something beautiful that way without needing to visualize it all first.  most of the experimental effects and double-images in “it’s such a beautiful day,”  the feature, wouldn’t have been possible without 35mm.  on the other hand,  what i am really loving about digital is the speed. i can power through animating scenes now at record speed,  and the very long process of carefully photographing every frame is also completely out of the picture.  i made “world of tomorrow” and the two minute piece for the “simpsons” at the same time,  and combined they still took exactly half the time as something like “everything will be ok” did. and of course the long waits and annoyances with the film labs are also gone.  this probably all sounds incredibly obvious to anyone today in their 20s,  but to me it feels like i’m on vacation.

Was there anything about Vimeo VOD that seemed especially appealing as an avenue for independents like yourself?

i think vimeo genuinely cares about quality of presentation, and their 90% revenue share to the filmmakers was unprecedented.  youtube is massive and wonderful but it always seems to be eating itself alive with too many advertisements and inescapable tackiness.  everyone loves itunes,  but by default they require all independents to go through an aggregator to bring their work to them,  and at the end of the day the filmmaker’s % is just too diminished.

Do you think digital distribution avenues such as this are the way forward for independent filmmaking?

independent filmmaking is in a constant state of “evolve or die.” which is good,  it probably keeps us from getting too comfortable. a question that everyone in the industry will constantly be asking from now on is,  “how do people want to watch movies these days?”  there are so many different methods to see something now and they will always be changing with new technology. “it’s such a beautiful day” had a long and healthy life in with theaters,  we did the DVD, it’s on netflix, vimeo, itunes, and in some countries, television.  as long as the quality stays high i want to give people every possible option.

World of Tomorrow features animator Julia Pott amongst its cast, how long have you been aware of her work and would it be safe to assume you’re a fan?

oddly enough, i first met julia on a stage at sundance.  we were each there with a film years ago and were called up to do a q&a together after a program.  so it was kind of cool to have “world of tomorrow” play sundance after that festival had directly introduced us.  even though she has a great voice she had never acted before.  but she’s funny… she can tell a joke,  you can immediatey tell she has really natural comic timing. so that was enough to know she could pull off the part.  i like how squashy and dreamlike her two films are. they have a nice darkness to them.  is squashy the right word?  i want her to draw a picture for my wall, but she won’t do it.

Head to Vimeo to buy or rent Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such a Beautiful Day and to rent the newly-released World of Tomorrow. For more on his work visit his website at

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