After looking into one’s past with the profound animation It’s Such a Beautiful Day, Don Hertzfeldt headed to the future for his next project, a short film marking his work in three years. World of Tomorrow, now available on VOD, is an exceedingly brilliant odyssey into the outer reaches of a future universe that channels our inner anxieties of loneliness. The story concerns Emily (Winona Mae), a young girl, who meets her future self in the variety of an adult clone (Julie Pott), as the latter guides us through the bleak destiny that lies ahead. Bursting with creativity and hilarity, it’s at once a hilarious and deeply affecting piece of work, deserving of its top awards at both Sundance and SXSW.
I got the opportunity to speak with Hertzfeldt ahead of the release of the short and we discussed his first foray into digital animation and how it fit within his story, working on multiple projects at once, collaborating with his niece for voice acting, the current state of independent animation, a potential sequel, what’s in store next for the director, digital distribution, and much more. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: Congrats on the movie. It was actually the last film I watched at Sundance and it was the best one there I saw.
Don Hertzfeldt: Oh, right on. Thanks. I didn’t know you saw it at the big theater in Park City.
Well, I actually got a screener of it, and so I watched it right before I was leaving. I turned off all the lights and a few other journalists watched it and we all loved it. So it was a great way to go out.
So, you’ve been animating for almost two decades now, but this is your first foray into digital animation. Did that feel like a new challenge, like you were almost animating for the first time?
Yeah, I guess you can say that. You know, the best way I’ve been able to compare it is it was like trying to read a children’s book that’s in another language. It seems very basic, like you should know this stuff, but the vocabulary’s all changed and things are in different places. It was interesting; I have a lot of animator friends who can’t stand drawing on tablets. There’s a certain tension when you draw on a piece of paper. It’s not very smooth, like drawing on glass, and to them the tablet is just way too slick. But I never had that trouble for whatever reason. I really took to it quickly. And there was a learning curve for two frustrating weeks and then I kind of got used to it, and then I really appreciated the speed of it. Just being able to power through these shots much, much quicker than I’ve ever been able to do before and I really appreciated that because film is beautiful, but it takes time, and there’s processing, and the paper, and working with camera, it’s just I’m not that young anymore. [Laughs]
I appreciated being able to power through a shot a day. It got to the point where it was almost addictive and if I didn’t get through a shot a day, I would start to get sad, because I didn’t want to fuss over this film. I didn’t storyboard anything. Digital was my excuse to try everything differently and with this one it was going to be no fussing, no storyboards. Let’s just everyday look at the script. Okay, they’re on the moon. Okay, what’s that gonna look like? I just design everything from the ground up that way, and it was interesting,. It was different, it was fast. Primarily fast. [Laughs]
The story obviously takes place in the future. Do you think that the themes and plot of the film help with that digital transition? If it was a more standard Earth-set story, do you think you might not have used digital or were you going to use digital no matter what for your next project?
That’s a good point. I think it was necessary to the look for the film to go digital. It’s not something I could have done on film, just like It’s Such a Beautiful Day’s story would not have been told the same way digitally. There’s certain effects in that story that are impossible, or would have been impossible to do digitally. So, yeah, I kind of have to go with what format supports the story you’re selling and for this it just made perfect sense to do something about the future. Here’s a guy who’s been living with film and paper for so many years, the last person still shooting animation on film, to take the plunge into this future, as well. And the fact that it’s a satire I think I was able to get away with a lot more. And The Simpsons called the same time, like two weeks after I started World of Tomorrow and I just had the future on the brain, I think. It just made sense to share some of the same blood in those veins, as well.
You said it took about a day to do a shot, so I was curious how many days did it actually end up taking for the whole thing? And did The Simpsons set your course off?
I think World of Tomorrow took about nine months, but I was doing The Simpsons at the same time, which took three or four months. So, it’s hard to say exactly to a scientific point. It was really good for me to work on more than one thing at the same time and learning that as I get older it’s really the best way that I work with juggling more than one project. It’s easier to finish one and leap right onto the next one while your brain is still in that mode. If you finish a project and you allow the creative muscle or whatever it is in your head to relax, the engine slows down, and time goes by, it’s that much harder start a new project. You need to get revved up again and kind of get in the groove. For so many years now I’ve kinda just bounced from one to the next project and lately I’m doing more than one at a time. I think it’s actually enriching all of them. There was a second part of your question, I think I forgot it already.
Ah, you answered it — just the timeline of the two projects.
Yeah, they were pretty side by side. The recording obviously came first, recording my niece [Winona Mae, who voices Emily Prime] and recording Julia Pott‘s [voice of Emily] lines opposite that.
Is there a lot of stuff in the cutting room with your niece? Did you have any guidence for her or kinda just let her go?
I had to let her go. I was naive to think in the beginning that I could direct a four-year-old —
— which is really just not possible. It’s like trying to herd cats. So I eventually surrendered to just recording her, being herself, and I just got an app for my iPad that could record her quietly, so I didn’t want anything too intrusive. She was in Scotland and I don’t know if you can tell, she has a little Scottish accent, and I live in Austin, so we only get to see each other maybe once a year and our recording window is really, really limited. So that was the first step and I think the key to the whole movie because I knew I needed a little girl voice. I didn’t want to fake it and if I didn’t get anything out of each session, there was no point in trying to make this thing. So we just hung out and drew pictures and played with Play-Doh and talked about the world, and her being herself and from this little set of recordings I went through and said, ‘Okay, she’s reacting to something here. What is she looking at? What is she talking about here?’ And I rewrote the story to make it all fit and I rewrote Julia’s lines, the other half of the conversation, so it would all be more seamless.
There was quite a few lines on the cutting room floor, so to speak. Just dialogue, of course. I may still find a home for it, I don’t know. I realize now that she’s five what lightning in a bottle those recordings were. Because she’s totally changed now. And this film would have been impossible to make now because then at four it’s sort of this reactions period in development. She’s looking at things, she’s asking questions. When we would walk to the park, even though the park is only a few blocks away, it would take ages. Because she would stop every few steps and say, ‘Look, flower’, and, ‘Yeah, flower.’ And we keep going. ‘Look, a car.’ ‘Yeah, it’s a car.’ And you realize, yeah, this is all new to you. This is amazing, you’re taking it all in the first time. This is so beautiful, why can’t we all see the world like this? And now that she’s five, she’s directing me now. Now she’s like, ‘Okay, I’m a princess. You’re a gorilla. We live in this ice cave and we have to go save magical rabbits from the blah blah,’ and it’s completely changed. I’m really glad now I have that set of her in that period because I’m sure when she’s a teenager she’ll be mortified by this. [Laughs] Hopefully when’s she’s older she’ll appreciate that we did this and it’s kinda a neat little artifact.
So the sequel for this movie will be vastly different is what you’re saying?
[Laughs] I’ve been circling it, you know. We’ll see, it would be great to keep revisiting. I have no idea. I just never thought of it that way but it’s not too crazy to think about.
Interesting, that’d be great. I’d love to see more of this world. Doing sci-fi here, is there any direct inspirations, either you had before making this film or just growing up?
I think the main thing directly for this film was, visually, I love the old, 50’s and 60’s sci-fi magazines and anthologies and dime store novels, I love the cover art. I love the very modern illustrations. You usually see a bold primary color and then these sharp geometric shapes that’s implying something and then in front of it all are your heroes. And they’re running from something with like a ray-gun or something. I’ve always loved the bold modern designs of the 50’s when it seemed like everything looks better designed than today. You know, a cereal box. So those covers were the direct inspiration for the look, more just these extra geometric shapes moving all these directions, and colors. I wanted the film to really, really explode with color, color, color. We made sixteen different drafts of the DCP that you screen in theaters over and over, just to get more and more color and density out of it.
Yeah, and overall also tied into that, I wanted it to look like a children’s book. I wanted it to look very flat, minimal textures, and again color. Because we’re seeing this from her point-of-view, and I kinda wanted to run away from a lot of the other pitfalls that you see in a lot of digital animation today, which is sort of running towards photorealism and so many textures. It’s almost getting a little boring. You know, I wanted to try something different.
Speaking of the current state of animation, do you find inspiration or maybe just pure enjoyment out of anything today? Or do you kinda go back to your favorites?
I love what’s going on in the independent scene, of course. It’s funny, there’s not that many people doing this, and we’ve all become a little, over the years, more closely knit. There’s more of us at film festivals and things, and by us, I mean like independent animators who are doing this and nothing else. We don’t have day jobs. It’s a very unusual job. But we end up chatting online a lot. We’re all in our own corners of the world, you know. We’re little albino rats in our underground dens doing our projects. [Laughs] It’s nice to stay in touch because it’s sort of an unusual support group; to see what everyone else is working on.
I love classic Disney. A few years ago they released these Disney archived things on DVD in these metal tins. Yeah, one of them is for their Tomorrowland stuff. It’s from the TV show that they had in the 50’s, it’s all their science-fiction stuff. And there’s a hour-long special on there that that Ward Kimble directed called Mars and Beyond and it’s just amazing. It’s amazing that this was produced for television, and it’s brilliant. It’s science, but it’s educational and it’s crazy creative. And it’s again, that 50’s very modern design, and I like the cheesy-ness of science-fiction, also. But by and large I don’t watch a lot of animation. I went to a very traditional film school and all my heroes were live-action guys, and I never even took an animation course in school. I’m self-taught. Most of my heroes are live-action people. If I’m asked to jury animation at a film festival I’ll beg them to put me on a documentary or anything but more cartoons.
[Both laugh] With this project, World of Tomorrow, it’s been exciting to just follow your Twitter account and see you pretty much have full control over the marketing and how it’s seen. You just teased it with a little picture last fall and then it was at Sundance and now people can see it two months later. Has that freedom been nice?
Yeah. I’ve had that freedom in my career doing this thing since the 90’s. It’s one really nice luxury of, not just working alone — well, almost alone — but working with no budgets. The main investment in the film isn’t money, it’s my time. And I don’t need to pitch anything. I don’t need to raise money. I can come up with an idea for something and start animating it that weekend. That just feels very organic. It feels great. Meanwhile I’m making a new feature film and it’s going to require a big budget, a big crew, and there’s just lots of waiting. There’s lots of waiting for the funds, lots of waiting for the people to work. It’s nice to have these projects to just leap onto and just do it. And, of course, by proxy to that, you own everything. We own all the rights. We can figure out the best release pattern for each one.
With the project you mentioned, Antarctica, is that something that you feel like you’ve been building towards? Is it something you could’ve foreseen yourself getting into five years ago or has it come at the perfect time when you’re ready to take a bigger step?
Well, the script is old. The script is over five years old. It’s been a project that’s been gestating for a very long time. Back when I was writing it I didn’t have the time to leap onto it because I was ramping up the Beautiful Day stories. It’s funny, I feel much, much less intimidated by the size of it than I would have in my twenties. I feel like animating independently, especially working with film stuff, it’s so grueling and it’s so time consuming. It’s really hard to explain or describe to people who haven’t animated, but it’s months and years of your life. It’s like a time hole you enter —
— and you work, and you work, and you work, and you emerge and these friends have gotten married, these friends moved away, these guys have kids now. They look at life as the same. You’re frozen in a block of ice, because all you’ve had time to do is finish this project. So to me, approaching a project that’s like this, with actual crew, with an actual budget, I almost feel like — and I don’t wanna jinx myself here — but I almost feel like it’s going to be a bit of a vacation for me. You know, I’m putting in the same amount of time, but my hands aren’t going to be bleeding over this thing anymore, you know? I’m not going to be having to work every single day without a vacation, the weekends, constantly, as much as I used to. So I almost feel like I’ve been through basic training — the worst kind of marines basic training for animation you could imagine [laughs] and now, I can’t see it being as difficult as it used to be. It might be kind of nice.
So, Snoot Entertainment is producing Antarctica. Have you seen like The Guest or Faults, their previous movies?
The Guest, that’s the Adam Wingard film, right? I haven’t seen that one yet. I saw the one they worked on where they are making bets all night, Cheap Thrills. They were involved with that one. I actually haven’t seen The Guest yet. I should put that on my Netflix queue. That one is your favorite?
It’s a fun one. Yeah, that one and they just released a new film a few weeks ago called Faults. It’s really good.
I’m just excited for you to be working with them, because they seem like a very smart producing team.
Oh, good to know. [Laughs] I’m familiar with them of course. They’re wonderful. They seem to get it. I’m glad that someone can verify that it shows through in the work they do. I haven’t had the chance to catch up on a lot of it but I will be doing so now.
Yeah, I would recommend it. Well, thank you so much, I’m very excited to let people know they can finally watch [World of Tomorrow] soon.
[Laughs] Cool. Yeah, it’s gonna be interesting to see how the film does online. It’s an experiment for me. I’ve never released something new like this and hopefully if it does well we can follow through with more stuff like this in the future. We’ve got all the old films too on HD that haven’t been put out yet. I’m just trying to feel out how people want to consume them these days, you know? Is it more streaming? Is it something else? I think everyone in the industry is trying to figure out the same thing.
Yeah, definitely. It’s definitely a tricky area depending on the movie. I think for your short, it’s the perfect way though. I would assume, let’s hope.
I hope so. It’s going be a great experiment. There’ll be no excuses if nobody shows up for it because we’ve really done everything we can. Okay, it’ll be a clear message if nobody wants to do the streaming thing.[ Laughs]
Well, have a great day and thank you so much for talking to me.
Thanks, I appreciate it.
World of Tomorrow is now available on VOD. Listen to our discussion of it here.