Don Hertzfeldt Is a Genius. Probably.

James Y. Lee
Oct 26, 2020 · 8 min read
Still from “World of Tomorrow Episode Three”. Photo: Bitter Films.

He’s flayed open the absurdity of consumerism in a gut-busting, pitch-black comedic fashion. He’s depicted the dread of aging and insanity over the course of an hour with stick figures melded into circular, white voids. He’s also successfully investigated the true nature of love and life by including a variety of modern science-fiction tropes, all over the course of less than 20 minutes. The stick-figure-spearheaded, 35mm-projected, and deeply existential work of Western animator Don Hertzfeldt — self-proclaimed “two-time Academy Award loser” — is one of the few animated filmographies that remain genuinely unparalleled even by its studio-monolith contemporaries. It’s impossible to understate the brutal honesty, comedy, and unbridled imagination that all show their hands in his films despite their deceptive simplicity, and the newly released third episode of his acclaimed World of Tomorrow science fiction series is the latest in his acclaimed, deeply introspective filmography.

Starting from a career primarily based off of deeply absurdist and pitch-black humor, Hertzfeldt has gone on to create unbelievably stunning and revelatory pieces about the human condition, expressed through a genuine understanding of visual and cinematic devices rivaled only by the likes of the most prolific animators and even live-action filmmakers in the business. His first phase of work — lined up by animations with fluctuating quality, relatively sparse imagery, a discomforting sense of awkwardness, and a host of stick figures with relatively similar complexions — reached a massive height with the highly popular Academy-Award-nominated Rejected. The 9-minute short film in question is a viciously comedic satire of animated commercials, depicting Hertzfeldt’s fictionalized descent into madness as he continues to be commissioned by various companies to produce animated advertisements, and is rejected by said companies each and every time.

Still from “Rejected”. Photo: Bitter Films.

While the commissioned animations start out relatively strange yet simple — for instance, the very first skit in the short film is a man holding a comically large spoon who is suddenly interrupted by an anthropomorphic banana — they progressively become pulpier and comically disturbing, as they begin to feature increasingly graphic, bloody imagery that culminates in the chaotic two-dimensional dismantling of reality itself. Interspersed at the end of each and every one of these skits is a cordially included plug for the company that’s commissioned these animations; first, it’s the “Family Learning Channel”, then it’s Johnson and Johnson, who seemingly sells products like “Kelp Dip”, accompanied by someone in the background proudly proclaiming themselves to be a “consumer whore”.

Perhaps more interesting than Rejected itself, however, is the mindset behind its creation as well as the story that followed. Hertzfeldt has made little to no secret of his evident disdain for animated advertisements and commercials in general, having repeatedly referred to them in the past as “lies” towards their audience with purely vapid intentions — which has only likely been further reinforced by a series of ensuing Pop Tarts commercials that seem, to put it generously, highly inspired by Rejected’s style. Given the ridiculous imagery strewn throughout Rejected as well as the fictional breakdown that its animator suffers, it’s clear how much of it is a vicious, ugly indictment of commercial artificiality by turning every inch of its polish on its head.

One way or the other, Hertzfeldt’s earliest work is tinged with a sense of absurdism and a bizarre sense of comedy, for better or for worse. It wouldn’t be until the early 2000s that he would begin to layer genuinely human philosophical musings on top of this strange sense of humor, and find a genuine sense of maturity and consistency as a storyteller.

Still from “It’s Such a Beautiful Day”. Photo: Bitter Films.

Starting from 2006, Hertzfeldt would release a trilogy of short films — Everything Will Be OK, I Am So Proud Of You, and It’s Such a Beautiful Day, combined into a single 60-minute feature in 2012 with the final film’s title — centering around the plight of a nondescript stick figure named Bill, who suffers from a bizarre mental illness and remains fearful of death, aging, and insanity as he goes through the deceptive mundanity of his everyday life. Overlaid by ever-present narration provided by a one-man-show of Hertzfeldt himself, It’s Such a Beautiful Day’s minimalism is its greatest appeal in its attempts to cover such vast philosophical ground, while still infusing vestigial traces of the off-putting, idiosyncratic humor Hertzfeldt’s worked with before. Extensive musings about Bill’s regrets associated with aging, his neurotic fears associated with crippling illness, and the horrifying idea of losing his memories and, by association, his identity are ever-present throughout the film, all of which are phrased with a genuine sense of earnestness.

At the same time, however, It’s Such a Beautiful Day refuses to let its optimistic title resort to perverted irony, skillfully evading the nihilism usually associated with this brand of existentialism. There are moments of striking beauty strewn throughout; what starts out as a simplistic animation with stick figures placed in white, circular voids grows into an ornate celebration of the minute details of life, combining photos from the real world with these same pencil-drawn stick figures, synthesizing a much more distant and minimal animated reality with our very own. There are also moments of great honesty that come with such weighty revelations, and moments that use Hertzfeldt’s style to redefine the idea of “less is more.” Bill’s newfound appreciation towards the things in life he’s taken for granted — a realization that would normally be phrased in an incredibly cliché or shallow way under any other director — is brought to life in a sequence of breathtaking visual and emotional clarity, and the final five minutes of the film add onto this by one of the most original and unbelievable turns in all of animation history.

Still from “World of Tomorrow”. Photo: Bitter Films.

With Hertzfeldt now establishing himself as a director fully capable of exploring deeply earnest aspects of the human condition, it did not take long until his work would begin to veer more towards this specific direction and away from his more bizarre sense of humor, although it would continue to remain present in significantly tamer forms. The direct result of this more mature side of Hertzfeldt’s creativity is the World of Tomorrow series — an ongoing series of animated science-fiction short films with the first installment being released in 2015, depicting the lifetime-spanning journey a very young girl named Emily takes after encountering a clone of herself from an incredibly distant future. The opening few minutes of the first film are an instant indication that Hertzfeldt’s style from this point onwards has radically changed — the usual white void found in most of his work is immediately substituted for gloriously colorful and entrancing imagery, and the 35mm aesthetic associated with his work is now replaced with a crisper, modern digital format.

“Lifetime-spanning” is the only adjective worth using for the extensive ground covered in a short film whose runtime amounts to slightly less than 20 minutes. As the distant-future clone of Emily brings her original toddler self through every formative experience and love she’s ever had in her life, the film deftly combines these life-changing moments with the inclusion of a host of different modern science-fiction tropes. Cloning, time travel, teleportation, space colonization, aliens, and memory uploading are just a handful of the numerous elements included in this film, expressing the contrast between the perversely flawed nature of human innovation and the ever-constant nature of human desire. Contrast also exists in the dynamic between toddler Emily and her adult future clone — much of the latter’s musings regarding her own life as well as her surreal experiences are deeply existential and unbelievably bleak at points, but the weight of these musings seem lost on the former, who appears much more concerned with the fleeting beauty and magic of the things around her with a literally childlike curiosity.

Still from “World of Tomorrow Episode Two”. Photo: Bitter Films.

Said contrast is further expanded on in the second installment of the series, subtitled The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts, where a different and incomplete backup clone of the original Emily enlists her help yet again for an inward journey to the clone’s vastly surreal subconscious in order to properly reconfigure her dysfunctional psyche. Likewise, the third and most recent installment, subtitled The Absent Destinations of David Prime and released in October 2020, departs from the original formula and brings the “World of Tomorrow” universe to nigh-epic proportions, as it depicts the long trek of David Prime — clone Emily’s original lover — and his 34-minute-long search for Emily that delivers clever and expansive commentary on the nature of love, the difference between memory and feeling, and the sacrifices needed to fully understand both. The series as a whole has explored in detail the deeply human dimensions of the science fiction genre, and for now, it’s unbelievably exciting to speculate on the thousands of directions it — and Hertzfeldt’s career in general! — could potentially go from this already vast universe of ideas.

Don Hertzfeldt. Photo: Vanity Fair.

While Don Hertzfeldt’s short films and animations have been inclined towards a more minimalistic direction, laced with provoking imagery and dark humor, the direction his career has started to take with his more recent line of work has proven to be much more philosophically solemn, expansive, and detailed, showing signs of great maturity and change as a storyteller in almost every imaginable way. If there’s one thing that will remain the same about his filmography, however, it’s the way he navigates certain parts of the human condition and satirizes elements of the world we live in with such adept skill and emotionally honest clarity. His brilliance will always be found in his idiosyncratic, surreal, yet genuinely truthful visions for this large, incomprehensible world, and the numerous people living on it.

pop culture conversations

By FanFare

Pop culture goodness delivered right to your mailbox. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

James Y. Lee

Written by

Korean-American student screenwriter, playwright, and film critic. | Letterboxd: letterboxd.com/darthgamer/ | Twitter: https://twitter.com/killthejokes

FanFare

pop culture conversations

James Y. Lee

Written by

Korean-American student screenwriter, playwright, and film critic. | Letterboxd: letterboxd.com/darthgamer/ | Twitter: https://twitter.com/killthejokes

FanFare

pop culture conversations

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store