EVERYTHING WILL BE OK review (spoiler warning)
By J.R. Jones
February 9, 2007
FOUR STARS * * * *
IN DON HERTZFELDT'S Everything Will Be OK, which screens this weekend as part of "The Animation Show," curated by Hertzfeldt and Mike Judge, a stick-figure everyman named Bill is suddenly struck by the futility of everyday life. "Bill dropped his keys on the counter and stood there staring at them," the voice-over says, "suddenly thinking about all the times he'd thrown his keys there before and how many days of his life were wasted repeating the same tasks and rituals in his apartment." Bill's image becomes the center of a grid that shows him executing myriad mindless chores. "But then he wondered if, realistically, this was his life, and the unusual part was his time spent doing other things."
Count on an animator to appreciate repetition. Hertzfeldt generally uses 12 images per second, so a single minute of screen time requires him to draw 720 individual frames. These days many animators take advantage of computer tools, but he's stuck to the old-fashioned pen-and-paper camera animation he learned in the mid-90s as a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His most recent films, with their elaborate optical effects, have required even more painstaking effort. But the result is a dark, hilarious, and increasingly expressive body of work that's entirely his own.
Since the 1920s, the sheer amount of labor required to do animation well has shaped the genre, pushing it toward family-friendly material that can sell tickets and cover payrolls. But when you like to draw pictures of people being sawed in half vertically, you have to rely on your own resources. Hertzfeldt's earliest films have all the delight of a schoolboy's doodle, with heavy dollops of black humor and extreme violence rendered in simple black lines and judiciously applied spot color. His two-minute debut, Ah, l'Amour (1995), made when he was a freshman at UCSB, shows the hero approaching a series of women, each of whom punishes him severely. (One rips his heart from his body and breathes fire to cook it, then kicks his head off.) Hertzfeldt followed it with another gross-out exercise, Genre (1997), and the two films won a devoted cult audience.
In his next two films Hertzfeldt seemed to be looking for a narrative style, weighing the relative value of language and action. Lily and Jim (1997), which took about a year and a half to animate, began as a partly improvised dialogue between actors that chronicled a disastrous blind date. Hertzfeldt set out to master lip-sync animation, drawing up to 24 frames per second to render the faces but leaving the bodies mostly static against a gently shifting gray background. The effort exhausted him, and in Billy's Balloon (1998) he relied entirely on movement to tell the story, mastering slapstick timing as a helium balloon beats a child about the head, then pulls him far into the sky and drops him.
Hertzfeldt broke through to a mass audience with Rejected (2000), which was nominated for an Oscar and widely bootlegged online. The film bitterly satirizes the compromises of commercial animation: as Beethoven's Ninth storms on the soundtrack, intertitles announce that Hertzfeldt was commissioned to do a series of spots for the fictional Family Learning Channel, but his disturbing tableaux include such images as a pig's head sailing through the sky with a tail of octopus tentacles. Another gig making commercials for a food company also ends in disaster. "Without meaningful input and lacking any coherent narrative structure the rejected cartoons grew unstable," reads the intertitle. "They began to fall apart." The paper starts to crumple and tear, enveloping the characters like a heavy wind or nuclear blast. One character thumps at the fourth wall with her fist, causing the paper to crinkle in a star pattern. The horrifying last image is a vibrating close-up of a face silently screaming.
Rejected proved that Hertzfeldt had moved past the splatter comedy of his college years, and with his hugely ambitious The Meaning of Life (2005) he aspired to the cosmic sweep -- and chilly misanthropy -- of his hero Stanley Kubrick. It opens with a parade of greedy, angry, whiny people (more than 60 actors provided voices) striding back and forth across a horizontal baseline; as they pass and bump into each other, they grow fatter and wearier, until nuclear war wipes out the entire race. Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite accompanies an elaborate planetary ballet that was done in pastels and took months to animate, and when Hertzfeldt returns to earth it's populated by a succession of space creatures, each a mockery of the human form more hideous than the last. By the end of the production Hertzfeldt had begun experimenting heavily with optical effects requiring numerous multiple exposures, and the short culminates in a majestic series of star fields drifting lazily across a black background.
This 12-minute burlesque of evolution took almost four years to complete, and like the fictional Don Hertzfeldt of Rejected, the real one seemed to reach a breaking point. On his Web site, bitterfilms.com, he compares the creation of the crowd scene in The Meaning of Life to "etching a novel into a rock one letter at a time with your fingernails." He leads a cloistered life, drawing every night from dinner till dawn in his Santa Barbara apartment, and in interviews and online journal entries he describes the mental strain of having to focus on such detailed work hour after hour, day after day. "Bitter Films Volume One: 1995-2005," a new DVD anthology sold on his site, includes a "making of" documentary for The Meaning of Life that's nothing but an extended time-lapse sequence of him bent over his drafting table, listening to music and drawing, drawing, drawing.
Judging from his new short, Hertzfeldt has pulled back from the brink. Everything Will Be OK has a more reasonable scale than its predecessor, and the story, music, figures, and optical effects have been brought into perfect alignment. For the first time he uses an omniscient narrator to carry the story, beautifully articulating the anxious ponderings of his quotidian hero: "Bill daydreamed about all the brains in jars he used to see at school. . . . He began to think of people in a new light, how everyone's just little more than that frightened, fragile brainstem, surrounded by meat and physics, too terrified to recognize the sum of their parts, insulated in the shells of their skulls in lower-middle-class houses, afraid of change, afraid of decisions, afraid of pain, stuck in traffic, listening to terrible music."
The visual design is simple but striking: against a black screen, small irises open up to expose Hertzfeldt's familiar stick figures, and as Bill's story unfolds the slight jiggle in his form seems appropriate to the unsteady cosmos he inhabits. Other irises open up to reveal black-and-white live- action footage of trees, telephones, or buildings over the characters' heads. After Bill learns from his doctor that he's going to die, the soundtrack falls silent, and in the most poignant scene Hertzfeldt's ever produced, Bill sits alone on the examining table, slowly removes his hat, places it in his lap, and runs a hand over the top of his head. As he descends into rage, despair, and madness, the short becomes a terrifying opera of lighting effects, double exposures (flames, a blurry close-up of a dog), and some of Hertzfeldt's trademark grotesques (a man with a fish head and an open pipe for a penis).
Everything Will Be OK is impressive for its control but also for its mercy: quite unexpectedly, Bill recovers, perplexing his doctor and forcing his mother to return the casket she's already bought. In the final shot Hertzfeldt places Bill in the center iris, peering out a bus window on a rainy day as he prepares to return to his job, the image tinted light blue. Other irises open around him, framing live-action footage of rain and water splashing, while a passage from Bizet swells on the soundtrack. Bill's bus pulls out, ending the film, but for a long time afterward a sense of wonder for everyday life lingers.
"Drawing a crowd"
Hertzfeldt's films belong in the same bad company as "South Park," Adult Swim and other purveyors of dark comedy and non sequitur gags, but Hertzfeldt stands a cut above. In deceptively simple shorts such as "Rejected," both a 2001 Oscar nominee and a runaway viral success, he's more like the Hieronymous Bosch of the stick figure, the Stanley Kubrick of fuzzy characters who sing, dance and freakishly mutate. In both his own work and as co-curator for the The Animation Show, returning to Atlanta Feb. 2-3, Hertzfeldt pushes the art form and its audience into some unexpectedly serious places.
Hertzfeldt has mixed feelings about the Internet, which has made him a widely influential and imitated cult figure.
"'Rejected' and 'Billy's Balloon' have to be some of the most bootlegged shorts ever made," he remarks in a phone interview last week while attending the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. "It's heartbreaking because they were shot on 35mm film and mixed in Dolby Digital. When some 10-year-old rips it and puts it online, and it's purple, that kind of sucks. I'm not interested in harassing my fans and bumming people out, but I try to remind them that they're available on DVD. Watching bootlegs is like drinking wine after it's been through a sewer."
Part of the reason Hertzfeldt and Mike Judge, creator of "Beavis & Butt-Head" and "King of the Hill," founded The Animation Show was to stick up for animated shorts as creations for big-screen exhibition, not e-mail attachments. "We're just trying to remind people that 99 percent of these shorts were intended to be seen in theaters."
Screening at the Carter Center on Feb. 2-3, The Animation Show 3 features Hertzfeldt's latest masterpiece, "Everything Will Be OK," which made the short list (but not the final cut) for this year's Best Animated Short Oscar nominees. As the film's sad-sack hero Bill suffers from physical ailments, "Everything Will Be OK" cracks hilarious jokes while looking squarely at the meaninglessness of everyday life. It's like seeing a character from a Raymond Carver short story trapped in a "Far Side" cartoon.
Hertzfeldt can wring unexpected pathos from a stick figure, such as an unexpectedly delicate moment when Bill removes his hat and rubs his head in a doctor's office. He champions the stick figure as having intrinsic value.
"The simpler the characters, it seems the more people can project onto them," he notes. "It's like the way Charlie Brown is made of just a few lines. It's a way of letting the audience in, a way of letting them dream, so to speak." He's also not interested in the eye-candy aspects of increasingly slick computer animation: "I never went to art school or animation school, just a real traditional film school. I'm not motivated by figuring out new ways to animate a falling leaf."
Despite writing punch lines such as "Rejected's" "Angry ticks fly out of my nipples," Hertzfeldt comes across as mellow and friendly, like a prime example of the kind of personality who works out his darker emotions in his art. "Yeah, it's a way to work things out. Self-expression for any artist is a way of exorcising something. And it's why I don't do commercials. I don't have anything to express about Cheerios or Pop-Tarts."
Interview with Animation Magazine
For the past 12 years, Santa Barbara, Calif.-based indie animator Don Hertzfeldt has created a series of inspiring, quirky hand-drawn shorts which have delighted toon lovers and festivalgoers all over the world. In addition to acclaimed projects such as Ah, L'Amour; Genre, Lily and Jim, Billy's Balloon, Rejected and The Meaning of Life, he also curates the popular and influential semi-annual shorts showcase The Animation Show with Mike Judge. In January, his latest short Everything Will Be OK took home the top Sundance prize in the shorts category. He was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions from us, despite the fact that he was bravely fighting a post-Sundance flu and cold!
Animation Magazine: First of all, congrats on winning the big Sundance prize this year. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came up with the idea behind Everything Will Be OK?
Don Hertzfeldt: [The short's main character] Bill from a comic strip I did years ago while animating Rejected. Part of the reason I split up the screen into multiple windows throughout OK was actually because I was so used to visualizing his story in these separated panels. They were weird comic strips, they never had punchlines or were even particuarly funny. It was always something like "Bill goes shopping" where he'd go to the grocery store and maybe observe people and then the last panel would say, "and then Bill went home.” The most unpopular comic strips ever! But i got hooked on the character and while I was doing The Meaning of Life, I thought maybe Bill's story could make an interesting art book type thing. Then I decided I knew nothing about making a book and the material eventually evolved into the movie, and his story kept on growing … I couldn't stop writing so midway through production it seemed to make the most sense to make it a bigger three part thing, with OK being the first chapter. So, right now, I'm about a couple minutes into animating chapter two.
AMO: How long did it take you to make the film? What was your budget?
I'm not really sure actually how much it cost to make: Everything's out of pocket so I stopped bothering to keep track of my budgets a long time ago… I think it was mostly just processing costs this time, since the movie was all shot on film stock kindly donated by my friend Shane, who weirdly kept winning film festival awards from Kodak despite his being a computer animator.
AMO: Are you tired of seeing bad CG-animated movies produced by the big studios? What is your take on that whole scene?
The independents on the other hand are doing amazing, groundbreaking things with CG and CG-hybrids in their shorts, especially the kids overseas—and hand-drawn work is flourishing on the indie scene too. All the the innovations and most exciting things in the history of animation have always first taken place in shorts, and nowadays, it's the only place left you'll find an animator totally free to explore the field and actually express something personal, rather than serve these studio committees whose main agenda is always going to be selling toys and marketing Happy Meals!
AMO: Tell us what you think about the indie animated world in 2007?
AMO: What kind of advice would you give up and coming animators who want to make a living in the big bad world of animation?
AMO: Tell us about the latest edition of The Animation Show this year? What kind of challenges did you face in releasing and promoting the show?
Thankfully, my own involvement is creative, and I'm not directly tangling with the finances and horrors of self-distribution, but let me tell you, it's always an uphill battle to shove indie animation into the mainstream media, with arms waving. "Shove" is definitely the right word for it, the first couple years most newspapers just had no idea what to do with us. This season has been the most interesting one : We've structured the release much bigger with a pre-show and mc's in every town and the vibe of a one-night only concert kind of event. some venues get filmmakers and special guests for Q&A's and in other cities we've involved ASIFA and local animation schools to get involved and show off their work. There's been a lot going on out there, it's got more of a film festival type spirit. We'll always have our share of misadventures on the road but as long as audiences keep showing up to support these artists we'll try our best to keep the zombie heart beating.
AMO: What was the most memorable reaction or feedback people have had to your recent work?
There were happy tears every now and then during Life, but OK really seems to touch people on these whole other bittersweet levels. And it's a huge, weird, deeply personal privilege to feel invited into that I never feel quite sure I'm worthy of. "Did you really just let me into that room in your head? Really??” It's hard to describe making these sudden and deep connections with total strangers, connections you could not have made in a thousand conversations, and I guess that's ultimately why we make movies: When it all clicks it's a weird amazing thing.
AMO: What do you usually do in your free time when you're not animating?
I almost always animate and write in the middle of the night and when I find spare time in the day I basically just watch loads of movies and read a lot. When the weather's good there's hiking. Day to day, I guess the less I have to go around and deal with grown-up problems and disrupt things, the easier it is to keep my head shelled up in the movie and those little moments. Oh, and there's a ton of heroin! Did I mention the heroin?
AMO: How do you get so disciplined to create your 2D shorts? How do you fight the demons of procrastination?