The future of animation is getting cobbled together -- slowly, very slowly -- in the kind of neighborhood where somebody might consider dumping a body. It's only a few miles from the red-tile roofs along Santa Barbara's main drag, but this industrial area of Goleta is light years away. The stretch is heavy on muffler shops, locksmiths and carpet-cleaning companies, and the cars on the streets are mostly beaters. Inside a nondescript office, shared with rock bands and student filmmakers, a shy, pasty-faced young man is producing some of the freshest films in America. He approaches his 'toons with a religious fervor, as if he were a medieval monk translating Latin by candlelight. Working until six in the morning, Don Hertzfeldt and his coconspirators at Bitter Films are making animated shorts that are simultaneously spare and hilarious, a cross between comic books and conceptual art.
Of all the animators toiling in the field's underground reaches (whose work aspires to "Spike and Mike's Festival of Sick and Twisted Animation," for instance) Hertzfeldt may be the crudest. Not personally -- he's a thoughtful, self-deprecating guy with stringy hair and a wispy goatee who could, if he got some sun, impersonate Johnny Depp. But his work seems almost calculated to anger animation purists who see their craft as a fine art. His films are made up mostly of stick figures, usually drawn in black and white. They look like notebook pages confiscated by a fifth-grade teacher.
But Hertzfeldt's as dedicated as any of the Romantic Era painters. At 25, he's an old-timer who's sworn off computers and modern technology, who inks every scene by hand, and who talks enthusiastically about film history and the importance of knowing the medium. His favorite piece of equipment is a heavy, 50-year-old iron camera that once was used to shoot Peanuts cartoons.
It's no secret that there's an animation boom. From the revival of Disney's family films, now into its second full decade, to the recent success of the cheeky Pixar Films and the Cartoon Network, to the mainstream visibility of Japanese anime, there's more good animation happening now than anytime since the 1950s. The tremendous critical and popular success of South Park has paved the way for some of this. Animators like Mike Judge (Beavis and Butt-head, King of the Hill) and Nick Park (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run) bounced from Spike and Mike's festival to major TV series and films. In a few weeks, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- always late to wake up to developments in its own industry -- will award a Best Animated Feature Oscar for the first time.
Most mainstream work is eminently polished and professional. The real spark in American animation, though, comes from Don Hertzfeldt and people like him. They're the anti-Disneys. But he stands out even among the Spike and Mike crowd. While animation may be the most commercial and certainly the most kid-centric part of the film world, Herzfeldt is pure -- a tortured artist, so full of integrity that he turns down corporate money without a second thought. He's the Stanley Kubrick of cartoons.
Despite the crudeness of his drawing, his range of cinematic references is remarkable. Lily and Jim, from 1997, chronicles what may have been the world's worst blind date with a neurotic, Woody Allen flair; it inspires wonder at what Hertzfeldt would do with an Annie Hall remake. Billy's Balloon, from 1998, creates a deadpan, silent-movie quality that recalls Buster Keaton, though with a dose of sadistic violence. And Rejected, his most recent and most celebrated film, works in the tradition of the self-conscious cartoon -- a 'toon that nods to its own making -- running from Fleischer Studio's Out of the Inkwell series to the late, great Chuck Jones' Duck Amuck. One film festival created a new category to contain Hertzfeldt's films. "He continues to shock the hell out of us," Chris Gore wrote in the magazine Film Threat, "while we laugh our asses off." Others write about his work as if it belonged in a SoHo gallery -- all the artifice stripped down to reveal nothing but pure idea.
Hertzfeldt has become a sensation at film festivals, his shorts are shown on MTV and the Independent Film Channel, and he's generated what he calls "a rather spooky cult following" that thrives on the Internet. But he's reaching the limits of what he can do as an anti-technocrat, a one-man band. His next short, his most ambitious yet, has already consumed 15 months of full-time work and seems destined to take up another 10, at least. But so far he's resisted the urge to move to Hollywood, where many of his college friends have migrated, or to make use of studio money or technology. He's begun to realize, though, that he can't dodge the studios forever.
"The overwhelming thing is that a lot of the studios are interested, but they're a little skittish about animation that doesn't fit the [kid-friendly] stereotype," says Hertzfeldt of his meetings with show-biz suits. He's in a bar near his office, draining a pint of Guinness in the late afternoon, only a few hours after waking up. "They need a lot of hooks -- they need dinosaurs, on a sinking boat, looking for Private Ryan." Though he loves old movies like Fantasia, he calls the Disneyfying of animation "a horrible thing," since U.S. studios see cuddly kid films as the only way they can sell animation. "Look at Japanese animation," he says. "They've got anime for every demographic. The Japanese view animation as a medium. There should be comedy animated movies, horror animated movies -- there's no reason they can't have every genre." The artiste, who does his grocery shopping at 4 a.m. and loves the gray look of the sky at that hour, seems a little surprised to be out in public. "I ought to do this more often," he murmurs.
A few weeks ago, Bitter Films issued a DVD of Rejected, which was nominated for a 2001 Best Animated Short Oscar that it didn't win. Releasing a sellable version of the film -- a wild and unpredictable comic short about his own disdain for commercialism -- is, ironically, Hertzfeldt's most commercially forward move yet. If Hollywood were a woman, he'd be a good-looking wallflower not sure he wants to ask her to dance. He's got a devoted cult audience, and that satisfies him for now. But how long can he hold out?
Hertzfeldt has had money thrown at him by corporations looking for commercials, TV stations looking for promotional spots -- even networks interested in extending a seven- or nine-minute short into an entire series -- and he will be showered with more offers as his fame spreads. So far he's said no to all of that. He says he'd only do a TV series if he could have complete creative control. And while he's got a pitch ready for a feature film at one of the major studios, he's insisting on doing it his way.
Is Hertzfeldt dealing himself out of the game? Spike Decker, who's run the Spike and Mike animation festivals for 24 years, thinks Hertzfeldt demonstrates good instincts with his lack of interest in the world of commerce. "He's smart for doing that, because then he has so much left in him," Decker says. "A lot of animators come out of CalArts -- they could be so prolific, but then they're owned by Disney or someone, and they're painting the fins on the Little Mermaid. You'll never see their full potential."
Hertzfeldt grew up between San Jose and Oakland in the town of Fremont, the son of an airline pilot and a county librarian. "He has been drawing badly," his online bio says, "since he was little." But filmmaking, as much as drawing or animation, compelled Hertzfeldt as a kid. "I've always wanted to make movies," he says. "For as long as I can remember; I don't know why. My earliest memories are of seeing The Empire Strikes Back in the theater. You know how you ask little kids what they want to be when they grow up, when they're four? I wanted to be the guy who animated the [giant armored] walkers." He also designed little comic books -- "thousands of pages of cartoons and never-ending series of ridiculously violent action stories," he says -- and began going with his family to the Spike and Mike animation festivals in San Francisco. There, he was exposed to the early shorts by animators Judge, Park, Bill Plympton (I Married a Strange Person) and John Lasseter of Pixar.
When Hertzfeldt was 15 he got a small camera that allowed him to do primitive frame-by-frame animation. He taught himself the process through trial and error, and calls his hours making 30-second films "the only reason I survived high school, honestly. I wasn't even popular enough to be unpopular." By his senior year, he'd achieved a certain underground fame at Mission San Jose High, thanks to teachers playing his films in class to fill dead time. "I was voted Most Likely to Go to Hollywood" -- ironic given his constant fight to keep from going there -- "so people knew who I was," he says. "But they didn't hang out with me. I wasn't beaten up or anything. I was just 'that weird guy who makes the cool cartoons.'" He pauses. "High school." Long sigh... He could be Charlie Brown in a melancholy mood.
"I always wanted to make movies, but when you're in high school, and even a freshman in film school, anything you shoot live-action is gonna look like a low-budget film, with your 18-year-old friends trying to play 40-year-olds," Hertzfeldt says. "No matter what you do. You can't control the weather, and you don't have the money you need to pull it off the way you want to. But if you animate it, you've got complete control over every aspect, you don't need a large crew and you spend about a third as much money."
So he was pushed into animation partly because he wasn't a rich kid. "You know, a lot of students spend like $20,000 of their parents' money on a live-action short that takes 'em not very far. They'll just be in the hole. But you can make a 16-mm animated film for like $500. You've got very little to lose."
At UC Santa Barbara, Hertzfeldt started out acting but dropped out of the program to become a film major. ("They removed Don because of his lack of enthusiasm" says a friend, recalling Hertzfeldt's college stage demise a little differently.) He made his first movie, a short ironically titled Ah, L'Amour, as a freshman in 1995, in an intro film-production class. Despite its technical limitations -- stick figures and virtually no sound -- Ah, L'Amour prefigures Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men, which came out two years later. Its violence is physical (a man is shot, stabbed, chainsawed, beheaded) instead of emotional, but it has a similarly bleak view of relations between the sexes. As in many of his films, he combines cute characters that recall the funny pages with what the movie ratings board would call "adult subject matter". Hertzfeldt's Web site says he's embarrassed by the film, and that he was originally "afraid of being pelted with rocks" by angry women until he realized that they were cheering louder than the men. The film made its debut off-campus at the Spike and Mike festival, and it has since become a mainstay of animation fests, where the audience often chants along to the dialogue.
When this film easily paid for its $500 cost, Hertzfeldt made another, called Genre -- a parody of Hollywood's formulas -- in 1996. The short was picked up by Scandinavian TV. "Don knows the importance of promoting his own work," says Dana Driskel, a UCSB professor who acted as adviser on the first four Hertzfeldt films. "A lot of students show their film to friends and family and then shove it into a desk drawer. He came up with a formula for taking as much money as he spent on the film and using the same amount to enter film festivals. It's a far more mature and wise approach than I usually see."
Now launched, Hertzfeldt tried a new style, a new technique, with each film. Lily and Jim, 1997's bad-date film, marked a real step forward for him: He shot live-action first and asked actors to improvise the scene of a very awkward restaurant dinner filled with painful small talk. (Long pause. "Do you have any gum?" Long pause.) The lip-syncing and other technical details were so complicated that this 13-minute short took a year and a half to produce. Arduousness aside, this also was a huge success on the festival circuit -- eventually winning 25 awards and drawing a favorable comparison to Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy by a Boston Phoenix writer. Hertzfeldt was still only a college junior.
"I liked his humor, and his ability to do a tremendous lot with a little," recalls Spike Decker of these early shorts. "And I've always liked his biting wit and sarcasm. I call him 'Hertzy the boy wonder.'" Says Beavis and Butt-head creator Judge, "I love Don's work. He has a great sense of comic timing, and a great point of view about the world."
Hertzfeldt's final college film, '98's Billy's Balloon, took the young animator to Cannes, where he was the youngest director in competition. After all the dialogue of Lily, Hertzfeldt was trying to do something that was pure action. Reviewers likened the chilly, detached short about a vengeful toy balloon to Hitchcock's The Birds and Kubrick's 2001. Others were grossed out by the violence the balloon visits on an innocent baby. "Contemptible," wrote Joe Baltake in the Sacramento Bee. "Some things are not funny, and child-abuse is one of them."
While he was getting acclaim on the international festival circuit, being celebrated and denounced in the press and flying to Europe to introduce his films, friends thought of Don mostly as a hermit. "People took on the 'your-turn-to-get-Don-out-of-the-house' role," says Rob May, who provides voices for the shorts and is now an actor in L.A. "In college, he at least had to leave the apartment to go to a class once in a while."
Hertzfeldt lives close to UCSB -- often chosen by Playboy magazine as one of America's top party campuses -- in an area he describes as a grad-student ghetto. It's not easy to imagine Don, a pale guy who sometimes goes days without changing his clothes or leaving the house, in a state university in sunny Southern California. "Every weekend [at UCSB] is like Mardi Gras," he says. "Kids all over the street, burning couches. And in my four years there I can probably count the number of parties I went to on one hand."
In person, Hertzfeldt comes off as a funny, low-key sort who's a little dazzled by real life. He's innocent, kind of naive, as if he lived in a cork-lined room. Animators are often nerds, but Hertzfeldt doesn't seem dorky as much as self-contained, someone who gets all his energy from his art. That's good, because the hours he keeps -- drawing and inking from seven or eight at night until six or seven in the morning -- makes it hard to maintain a social life. He's got a girlfriend and a few close friends, most of them in L.A., but nearly all of his time is spent working. "I've been in production on something since I was 18," he says, a little rueful. "I hear all the happiness outside my window."
Much of the rest of his time he spends reading. He loves film history, science books by writers like Carl Sagan, conspiracy theory, and the weirder reaches of the news. "I like keeping a constant flow of information in my head," he says. "Did you read about those corpses out in Georgia? You just can't make that stuff up!" He's also partial to TV boxing, true-crime cop shows and Taxicab Confessions, the HBO specials in which drunks, prostitutes and drug dealers bare their souls to Vegas cabbies. He's recently become obsessed with finding rare DVDs -- he spends hours online looking for obscure films to purchase.
The world immediately outside doesn't seem to matter a lot to Hertzfeldt. He compares his apartment to the cluttered 'command center' that Russell Crowe's character, at his most delusional, keeps in the film A Beautiful Mind. Hertzfeldt's finally realized it's time to put a couple of plants in there. The place is full of animatronic talking Halloween dolls and vintage sci-fi things. His friend Rob May reports that the animator went more than a year without realizing that his oven pilot light had gone out. "Don needs very little to sustain him," May says. Hertzfeldt's become more introspective as he's gotten older, his friend has observed. Hertzfeldt says he knows that he drifts away as he grows more and more obsessed with his latest project, yet he adds: "I don't want to be the old curmudgeon in the cave 50 years from now."
Hertzfeldt has been snubbing corporate offers from the beginning. Turning down one -- from a TV network that asked him to create some animated program IDs -- led to his most successful and acclaimed film yet. Recalls Hertzfeldt, "I was talking to Rob [May] about it, and I said, 'This would only be fun to do if we could do anything we wanted to do, and just totally fuck with [the network], and see if they'd actually run [the spots].' So I just started coming up with these awful ideas and the worst performances and the most offensive, vile and stupid, poorly animated ideas [that were] not even related to their channel."
He'd come up not just with a new movie, but with a statement -- a kind of manifesto to himself. "After doing a film like that, I could never turn around and do real, bona fide commercial work," he says, "without selling out everybody that respected that film."
Rejected tells the story of an animator named Don Hertzfeldt who's approached by the (fictitious) Family Learning Channel to make some promotional spots -- and finds that none of his loopy ideas make the cut. (We see the spots and understand why.) As the film goes on, he's asked to design commercials, and the animator begins to lose his mind under the pressures of commercialism. The spots he makes get stranger and stranger -- bizarre ads for Kelp Dip and Bean Lard Mulch -- and the Hertzfeldt character's cartoons begin to literally fall apart, clouds dropping from cartoon skies. In a startling and ingenious conclusion, the paper itself -- on which the animation is taking place -- revolts. The real-life animator calls Rejected
"a collision between art, commercial culture and madness."
Besides marking a kind of line in the sand, the short brought him a surprising bit of mainstream recognition -- the Academy Award nomination. When Hertzfeldt talks about last year's trip to the Oscars, he could be recounting a high school assembly he felt obligated to attend. It was the first time, he says, that his parents took his work seriously. "You know, the Academy Award thing is something that's custom-made for parents. I took my mom and dad to the Oscars, and making sure they had a good time was more important than anything else. You know, it made them happy."
Hertzfeldt reports that his commercial offers have increased -- not fallen off -- since he mocked the world of commerce with Rejected.
For someone from the most technologically savvy generation in history, Hertzfeldt is oddly technophobic. He talks like the cardigan-wearing grandpa who still hasn't figured out how to set his digital clock or VCR. The readouts on his dashboard are blinking, too. "I'm no good with cars," Hertzfeldt says. "I'm no good with physical objects. My car's banged up, and smashed up, and I don't care."
Because he doesn't use computers, and because he insists on inking everything himself, Hertzfeldt must draw thousands of images for every film. There are 24 frames per second in film, and he typically illustrates "in twos," meaning he draws 12 frames every second. He animated Lily and Jim in ones, drawing 24 images for each second of the movie. (By contrast, many TV cartoons are drawn in fours.) The technique, painstaking as it is, gives his films their edgy, jittery look -- and makes Lily's bad date seem even longer than it is. "A lot of the time, that helps build the tension," he says. "The grass is moving in Billy's Balloon. It's kind of nerve-racking -- a nervous, twitchy thing."
Hertzfeldt graduated from college in '98 -- six months, he says, before the digital-video revolution changed animation and moviemaking. Instead of switching to videotape like most young animators and directors, he'll shoot his 'toons on film until the last lab is closed down. He's like a rock band that swears off CDs, refusing to release albums on anything but vinyl. Mike Judge, who still inks and paints King of the Hill (his series about a twisted Texas family), says the lack of technology doesn't limit Hertzfeldt's work. "It's the very reason that his films look way better than all that other crap in the festivals," Judge says. "And your stuff is gonna look way better on a big screen if it's shot on film. Even for television, it looks better."
Hertzfeldt got his old-school sensibility from UCSB; he calls going there the best decision he's ever made. He learned nothing about how to make his work look good for studio execs -- as USC students do, for instance -- and a lot about the origins of the art. "The history starts in 1975, with Jaws," he quips dismissively of the big-name schools. Instead of studying movie marketing and computer technology, Hertzfeldt immersed himself in film theory and history. It's made him both naive and insightful, a man out of time.
Instead of using conventional cels (single images on celluloid that remain static through a shot) Hertzfeldt draws every element on screen over and over again, using cels only occasionally, for backgrounds. For each image, he draws in pencil first, makes sure it works, then erases the pencil and inks over it. Because he doesn't use a script, he improvises as he goes along, for a year at a time. "The best way I can describe it to someone who doesn't animate is that it's like a long drive in a car," he says. "You're gonna drive cross-country, so you get in the car, and let's say the drive is eight hours. Your brain turns off -- you know the way, you've mapped out the way -- so you just drive. When I animate, there are little glimmers of, 'Oh, that was kinda cool.' But it's mostly a lot of turn-your-brain-off-and-just-draw work. By the time you get to your destination eight hours later, you don't remember the entire trip." In the dead of night, when he works, there are fewer distractions. He turns on Radiohead or R.E.M. and plows through. As he drops into bed at 6 or 6:30 a.m., he can smell the coffee brewing in the apartment next door.
When all the images are inked, after he shoots them with his old Peanuts camera, he begins the long, crucial process of shaving off the fat. The difference between funny and not funny, he says, can be as little as four frames. The trick that makes his films work is their timing -- which he gets from listening to the tension and release of soul records by the likes of Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. He pays attention to the silence, the held breath, that comes before the big shout or horn break. Comedy, he says, needs the same thing -- lull, and then impact.
"A year or so into production, you go back to what you've animated, and you don't remember any of this stuff," he says. "That's the scariest part of it; I have very few memories of working on any of those films." He laughs at the jokes at his screenings, along with the audience. "To me it's almost like something that's not mine anymore."
The handmade process is intense. "I can't not work [and] that's probably not healthy," he laughs. "I'm always working on a project. I learn more and more that, when I'm not able to work, I feel dopey, and I'm just in a bad mood all the time." Vacations are even worse. "I try, but I'm restless. I don't know what it is, but I've always got to have a project to be working on, because otherwise I feel like I'm wasting time." He laughs again. "I'm very compulsive. I'm feeding something I haven't figured out yet."
His friends can't explain it either. "I've known a lot of animators over the years," says Decker. "I'm good friends with John Lasseter -- he's kind of like a big kid himself. He has five boys, and you can see that's where John gets his humor. Don is really a mystery. Still to this day I try to figure the guy out. He kind of looks like the boy next door, an innocent-looking guy. And he's not that outgoing; kind of quiet. It's kind of intriguing where it comes from."
When asked about his dark side -- what's a nice kid like you doing making brutal little films (about a baby being attacked and about sudden, intense bleeding, for example)? -- Hertzfeldt gets abstract. "Any art form is the artist working through something personally," he says. "Someone pointed out to me that the common thread in my films is innocent creatures -- suffering." He laughs. He's trying to make cartoons that resemble his favorite movies -- A Clockwork Orange, the Monty Python films -- that combine dark humor with silliness and violence. And he says he's trying to do what Andy Kaufman did in his comedy routines -- make people laugh, and then wonder about their responses. If he's got a dark side, Hertzfeldt says, he doesn't know what it is. (He does admit that insane girlfriends have inspired some of his work.) Hertzfeldt speaks warmly of friends and family (he's the rare Californian of his generation whose parents are still married) and seems pretty well adjusted for a guy who's chosen to be almost completely nocturnal. The darkness of his films, he says, comes mostly from his feelings about the medium. "I'd rather get booed violently," he says, "than get a bored response. Because it's the film's job to engage."
Just a few months ago, Hertzfeldt was on the verge of leaving for L.A. with a gang of classmates from UCSB, including some actor friends who've provided the voices in his films. He even looked at apartments in the Valley, but he couldn't make the leap.
"I just can't stand L.A.," he says, describing the city as if it were a science-fiction nightmare. He sees only gated communities and Armed Response signs, and says the place makes him paranoid, alienated. "I have to go there for meetings. It scares me -- the traffic and the pollution. The fact that nobody seems happy, but they have to tolerate it for whatever Industry reason it is." Hertzfeldt shares the usual dumb prejudices that Bay Area natives hold against Los Angeles. But some of his problems with Hollywood, and the Industry, are better grounded.
"Early on, I fielded lots of TV offers," he says. "I was curious about the format, because [the length of a series] allows you to tell a longer, deeper story than via a regular film. Everything I came to the table with was episodic and deep and character-driven, but all the suits really just wanted The Billy's Balloon Show, or whatnot: "This week, it hits him with a lamp!"
He finds conversations with most movie people equally baffling. They're more interested in cheesy theme songs and fast-food merchandising deals: "They're not used to seeing animation as a storytelling medium -- as opposed to Phil Collins songs and cute sidekicks and Happy Meals. Fundamentally, animation isn't about drawing. And that's one mistake that almost everybody makes -- including the studios. They want the $20,000 production design and the eye-candy visuals. But animation is about movement, and through movement it's about storytelling." While some animation types see the medium as an outgrowth of painting, a fine art, to Hertzfeldt it's more like theater.
A good way to take the temperature of the latest trendy animation style is to watch TV commercials. Some animators, like Plympton, do as much commercial work as they can, figuring that it finances more serious stuff, and find the experience innocuous. Hertzfeldt got a less pleasant view of the commercial world after repeatedly turning down offers from Cingular Telephone. After going back and forth with the company's legal department and promising he wouldn't sue if they used Hertzfeldt-like images ("i can't really say i have the market cornered on stick figures," he wrote on his Web site), the commercial was made with none of his input whatsoever. But when the spot came out, the style was so close that he immediately got e-mails from fans, asking why he'd made a commercial after swearing he wouldn't. "Did you do those awful phone ads," one wrote, "or is somebody totally ripping you off?"
Hertzfeldt's frustrations aren't unique. Many of the best animators, those with distinct styles and sensibilities, work hard to keep their distance from corporate Hollywood. In the same way that independent cinema flourished in New York and Portland, Oregon, during the '90s, animators have set up shop in distant climes: Mike Judge works in Austin, Bill Plympton in New York and Nick Park a continent away in England. Those who leap into the studio system often see their work distorted, or discarded when fashions change. The surrealist painter Salvador Dali was even on the Disney payroll for a while in the 1940s, reporting to work every day in Burbank. None of his work was ever used in a Disney film.
But it can be just as bad for animators who don't go Hollywood. "You could either pick up the bucks and work for [the studios], or sit by as they appropriate your timing and sense of humor and style," says Will Ryan, past president of the International Animated Film Society and an Emmy-nominated writer/producer. "They can neutralize the effect of [your work], with or without you. If money isn't your primary interest, it might be best working on your own." Either way, Ryan says, animators should view the studio system with trepidation. Take John Kricfalusi, the animator behind Ren and Stimpy, who enjoyed some success for his show, and then saw studios like Disney and Hanna-Barbera mimic his work -- all the while claiming that they weren't stealing from him.
But what studios can offer is funding, something most animators, above or below ground, can't resist. Hertzfeldt can. "All of my friends tell me I'm crazy for turning down that money," he says. "I was talking to Mike Judge about [commercials] recently, because he once tried to do some commercial work. All he had to do was draw a dog -- for $30,000, just draw a dog. And then they criticized the dog, and said, 'I don't think you're feeling the dog.'" (The debacle was Judge's first and last foray into commercials.)
"I can't hold it against animators for doing [commercials]," Hertzfeldt says. "They've got to make a living. But I'm not doing this for the money. If I wanted money, I wouldn't have gone to film school; I would've been a lawyer or something."
He says most of the money he's made on his films he's put back into the next one. He lives, as a result, like he's still in college: He drives an 11-year-old Mercury, banged up on all four sides, that he hasn't washed in at least a year. His carpets are stained with the charcoal sticks he uses to draw backgrounds. His wardrobe is heavy on T-shirts. ("Didn't Einstein wear the same clothing for his entire life?" he says, laughing at the implied comparison. "Like he had five pairs of an identical suit. He didn't want to waste any brain power thinking about it.") Many nights, Hertzfeldt eats a bowl of rice or a loaf of sourdough bread for dinner. Whatever money he's got left over goes to buy the movie DVDs he watches almost every night before he starts work. "I think we're a medium-size indie garage band right now," he says of himself and the few people he collaborates with to produce his work. "We're not Nirvana. But it's a good place to be."
Circumstances may soon push Hertzfeldt to take the next step. His DVD of Rejected sold 1,200 copies in the first month alone, with neither promotion nor reviews. He's devoting most of this year to his next film, which has more than 60 speaking parts so far, and creating another DVD of past work. But he knows he can't do shorts forever. The time will come, he admits, when he needs to make peace -- a détente, perhaps -- with Hollywood. He just joined the Academy, and he has an agent at Endeavor in Beverly Hills. And he's got the plan for that feature film being passed around studios. Hertzfeldt wishes he could go it alone, but he can't. "Someone like Bill [Plympton] can whip out a feature on his own," he says, explaining technical differences in their work that makes his own much slower going. "He hates distributors. And he does really well for himself. He's not rolling in gold, so to speak, but he's able to continue making his stuff. But his style of animation is so different from mine -- I would require a studio to actually animate it because it would take me about 20 years to do it by myself."
Judge, who started out animating his own shorts independently before his Beavis and King of the Hill days, thinks Hertzfeldt could be in for a similar jump. "It was pretty amazing to see when he came to Austin with Bill Plympton," says Judge of The Don and Bill Show, a touring festival of Hertzfeldt and Plympton's work. "It was just Don and Bill's films. Nothing else. They barely advertised it. And it was sold out every night. And they turned away at least as many as they sold. The audience was shouting out the lines to Don's cartoons before they came on -- like at The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There haven't been that many independent animators who have connected with audiences in a big way, and usually when they do, if the studio is smart, they recognize that. They usually want to have the animator's vision preserved."
While Hertzfeldt's talent will continue to draw offers from Hollywood and elsewhere, could his attitude toward commerce stop him in his tracks? "I think he'll change," says Plympton. "I think you have to. Eventually he'll want his films to be seen by as many people as possible. You have to do that at some point. And he's still very young." Driskel, his old professor, is more concerned about the animator's workaholic lifestyle: "His anticommercial instincts are good. I'd like to see, as the years go on, that he not break his back. There might be something in his personality that drives him harder than it's fair to do to himself. It remains to be seen whether he can move through his life and be the reclusive genius forever."
For Hertzfeldt's fans, the best of all worlds could be a television show -- one with the originality of King of the Hill or South Park. Hertzfeldt could see a series with a long, labyrinthine story, but only if he had near-complete control. More than anything, the animator wants to continue in the footsteps of Kubrick, his hero. Kubrick had a longstanding relationship with Warner Bros. -- one with almost unprecedented artistic freedom -- but made most of his films from the distance of Great Britain. Thanks to sympathetic execs, he had charge of every aspect of his movies, and as a result was notoriously slow. Hertzfeldt admires the way the reclusive director was able to make uncompromising, personal films, and still reach a broad audience.
"Whatever you do, it has to have some level of popularity, of accessibility," Hertzfeldt says, dropping his reticence for a change. "I don't like these indie hipster kids who make their movies and then say, 'Well, I'm only gonna show my movie to my buddies, at midnight. I'm not gonna sell out.' They're missing the point -- cinema is for the masses! There are all those seats in the theater. Movies were made popular by immigrants, because there were language barriers, and films could play to everybody. You can't be so hip and so cool and so underground that nobody's heard of you and nobody's seen your movies. A film doesn't exist unless it's being played, unless someone's watching it. Any audience is a blessing. But you can't whitewash it so everybody likes it, like Disney does. So it's a fine line you've got to walk."