An Evening with Don Hertzfeldt

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You know Don Hertzfeldt. He's the genius animator behind Billy's Balloon, where the world's children are suddenly attacked by their helium-filled companions. More likely you've seen his Academy Award-nominated film Rejected, where his trademark stick figures act out a series of fictional advertisements for the Family Channel and birth the phrase "My spoon is too big."

Tonight, Hertzfeldt will be showing his most epic work, the Bill trilogy, in its entirety at the Alamo Drafthouse Mason Park, including the not yet released finale It's a Beautiful Day. The three films, each running around 20 minutes, chronicle the life and breakdown of a man named Bill as he ponders the meaning of his existence through the filter of an unnamed illness in a series of short vignettes that incorporate Hertzfeldt's stick figures with brilliant, innovative multimedia footage. The first film, Everything Will be OK, was the second Oscar nomination for Hertzfeldt, and though we've seen only pieces of the middle film, I Am So Proud of You, what we've seen continues Hertzfeldt's unbroken streak of surreal excellence.

It's a Beautiful Day is Hertzfeldt's longest and most ambitious work thus far, and was filmed using one of the last remaining 35mm animation cameras in existence. This screening at Alamo may be one of the few opportunities we'll have to experience the brand-new prints of the whole existential journey on the big screen, not to mention that Hertzfeldt himself will be on hand to answer audience questions.

In the meantime, we had some questions of our own for him. Note: Hertzfeldt's answers appear without editing as per his request.

Art Attack: You continue to add more and more techniques and tricks to your work, yet you always retain the same basic stick figure forms. What is it about the figures that makes them such perfect stand-ins for humanity?

Don Hertzfeldt: thanks... i don't really know... it's just the way i draw, more or less, and maybe it's easier to project yourself into something that's sort of minimal and flawed... i think imperfections are comforting, it's hard to empathize with something that's slick and chrome, you know? there's also so much going on in these movies, with music, special effects, editing, the narration all coming at you, they'd probably be really intolerable if bill was also some overly complicated photorealistic thing. you need to give the audience a bit of space somewhere. to be honest though, i don't spend a lot of time thinking about this sort of thing... there's very little calculating, each movie just sort of comes out clumsy and new as whatever it is, and i try not to analyze it too much as i knock it into shape. so when i get asked a question like this, i often sort of have to look back at the movies myself and figure out what i was doing.

AA: In I'm So Proud of You, Bill's coworker mentions a theory that eternity is all happening at once. Isn't Bill's story more or less like that? Not so much a progression as a look at different points in his life simultaneously?

DH: sure, there's a lot of different things going on in there, and that's one of them... "proud" sort of leaps all over the place. "beautiful day" is a little more like "ok" in that it stays a bit more anchored in time. i tried to make each chapter of the story able to stand on their own, independent of the others, so if you've never heard of "ok" or "proud," you won't be confused and weirded out with part 3 - and that sort of set them each free to go in those different, strange directions. we're playing all three of them together for the first time now on the road, and while pre-screening all the new film prints in the lab a couple weeks ago, i realized i hadn't even bothered to rewatch "ok" and "proud" once in the two years since i started work on "beautiful day." maybe that was kind of dumb, but i was happy to find that they all play together much better than i thought they would. i think one day i may just cut out the credits of the first two and edit all three together seamlessly, as one long thing.

AA: Can we expect some kind of real conclusion to Bill's story in It's a Beautiful Day? Is there an ending?

DH: yes! of course. i think so. maybe i shouldn't say. but yes.

AA: What made you want to film on an old 35mm animation stand? What was significant about using it?

DH: film is just what i know... when i was in film school it was all 16mm, and right afterwards i bought my own big 35mm camera rig. so when i was younger i missed the digital boat by a few years. some of my older cartoons could've been shot digitally with today's technology and they wouldn't look very different... but most of the newer ones would have been impossible to shoot any other way than film. the experimental effects, multiple exposures, the way film reacts to light... it's not just a different way of shooting, but in the entire approach to shooting. when you work digitally with experimental images and animation, you usually need to know exactly what you want to see - every little detail on the screen needs to be artificially placed there - but sometimes it's not always good to get exactly what you want, or expect. with film, it's a little wilder and weirder - images blend together differently, lights smear differently, you can improvise with light leaks and colors and strange exposures and find yourself getting images back from the lab that you maybe wouldn't have otherwise imagined, or better. honestly, it's also just a lot more fun to work that way.

AA: We're beginning to grow more animators here in Houston. What is the best advice you can give them about getting their work out there?

DH: i've been cranking out movies for 16 years and i still feel like i'm sort of making it all up as i go. you don't have to do what everybody else does - there's more than one right answer.

All three Bill films will be screened at Alamo Drafthouse Mason Park tonight at 7:30 p.m.

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