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Don Hertzfeldt Talks ‘World of Tomorrow,’ the State of Animation, His Next Feature, and More

Written by on April 1, 2015 


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.

Oh, cool.

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 —

[Both laugh]

— 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.

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