The World(s) of Tomorrow: An Introduction to Don Hertzfeldt
Some audiences know of Don Hertzfeldt. They may not know him by name, but I’ve found plenty of people aware of his work. Short films like Rejected, Genre, and Billy’s Balloon found grand success in the early YouTube scene, foreshadowing an explosion of animated surrealism and conceptual insanity. And yet, the placement of a face to the films isn’t exactly top-priority for many. Some have even mistaken Pop Tart’s brand of stick-figure advertising for his work, a debacle which Hertzfeldt has discussed on numerous occasions. This problem could be extending from the lack of representation towards any creator of short-length programming, in the same vein as how the end credits of Pixar shorts stream by in a rabid, rushed pace in comparison to the feature following it. But Don Hertzfeldt has utilized his evolution to build his name and an unmistakable mark on independent animation.
His primary mode of creative intent can be found in the release of It’s Such a Beautiful Day, a culmination of three shorts (Everything Will Be Ok, I Am So Proud of You, and It’s Such a Beautiful Day) released over the course of five years. What began as a portrait of a sick man and the absurdities around him, flourished into an examination of death, the unknowable, and the legacy of memory. And yet, even when viewing the second episode of the three short films, Hertzfeldt’s long-term game is expertly hidden, only unleashing emotion through sudden, swift experimental tangents and the unpredictability of Bill’s (the film’s protagonist) physical and mental state. The third section only reveals its hand at the worst opportune time for your tear-ducts. This laser-sharp focus, brought to perfection through his mastery of the short-film, working so much into so little, allows a 17-minute short to feel like a 90-minute film, and it allows a 62-minute short-compilation to resemble the structure and beauty of an epic.
What was next for him was more groundbreaking and ravishing than first expected, with 2015’s World of Tomorrow streamlining his confidence with the outrageous and shaping within a boundless, vivid textural framework. Stick figures are the subject, but they’re the most familiar lines in it, contrasting against an ‘outernet’ environment of conceptual audacity and imagination. The film went on to be nominated for an Oscar as Hertzfeldt’s key themes proved fruitful for critical success. His process of creating surprise through absence of length and potent doses of feeling goes right in line with the sheer mystery of his work ethic, and what rises out of his filmography is always fresh, always evocative and fully-realized. Paying five-dollars for a rental of an animated short-film on Vimeo is something I do for no one, except Don Hertzfeldt. His mystery box of distribution and anticipation has built a cult following of its own, and so, here we are, still discussing an artist who has been seemingly working underground since the mid-1990s.
And while he isn’t quite placed near other modern masters (which is a damn shame), his newly-released sequel to World of Tomorrow, entitled World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts, should prove to be one of his most enduring works of art. Unfairly snubbed from the Academy Awards shortlist, this second episode is a triumph of Hertzfeldt’s continuous digitally-animated exploration, moving on past the sci-fi introduction of the original film to an exponential degree. While the first entry dealt with clones and their relationship to their initial, real self, World of Tomorrow Episode Two confronts the idea of the future being long-dead, returning in time to learn more about the original souls that clones of clones of clones have copied for generations. And like any Hertzfeldt work, it is twenty-two minutes of surprise, utterly unorthodox in form, humor, and narrative fluidity, and always confident in making you feel as if you’ve sat through a satisfying two-hour-feature meal. Time is meaningless in Hertzfeldt’s filmography, and that’s despite his continuous adherence to shorter runtimes. He makes you forget about the world as you enter his, even as you’re back to reality as soon as you leave it. He leaves an extraordinary impression in the briefest of achievements, lingering long after they’re over.