Despite a stick figure animation style, Don Hertzfeldt has captivated audiences for over two decades now with his ever-evolving films. It still looks primitive in comparison to Pixar or Disney productions but manages its own beauty and more importantly, is propelled by distinct and thoughtful writing. Two years ago, Hertzfeldt reached a peak in his career with World of Tomorrow, forming a story around audio recordings from conversations with his then-four-year-old niece Winona Mae.
As his Twitter profile brags, it made him a two-time Oscar loser. That could change this year with the release of World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts following Emily Prime and her future selves.
Cut Print Film caught up with Hertzfeldt after the premiere at Fantastic Fest to discuss his creative process and how this became an episodic adventure.
Cut Print Film: What’s behind this episode’s full title, The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts? Did that form out of what your niece gave you or was it a theme that you had in mind before recording?
Hertzfeldt: It’s hard to get into without maybe spoiling some of the plot, but the burden of other people’s thoughts is basically what I feel every time I log onto social media. The crush of it all. There’s more people broadcasting and standing on soapboxes than there are interested listeners. What’s driving that compulsion? The not being present in the present, in favor of cataloging and sharing every detail… Photos of every meal, holding up phones at shows, ignoring everyone at the dinner table to look at a device. How do we get away? What are the routes out of the outer-net? What if we were born with the burden of someone else’s thoughts already in our head?
Could you give a brief overview of the animation process you’ve used – what program you use to animate and edit?
I used all the same software I did with the first World of Tomorrow because I didn’t want them to look too different. It’s a very old version of Photoshop and a very old version of Final Cut. The trouble was, this time the visuals got so layered and intense and strange that both programs choked up and crashed just about every day. The computer really limped to the finish line, with steam coming out of the vents.
Like your animation, your use of music has slightly evolved while still holding on to the free usage of classical pieces. What was the selection process like for this? There are far more tracks than your previous shorts.
One of the pieces of music is only in there because my niece was talking about it in one of our recordings. It’s a song from Frozen. No, just kidding. For me the key piece of music this time was the Beethoven in the middle of the movie. It’s probably not the piece in the film that would jump to anyone’s mind right away, but it’s right at a point where the story could start to lose some steam and drag. So I remember it was really essential to find something that just jump-starts everything and sends us to the last act with some momentum. And I couldn’t find anything at all that worked there because I hadn’t actually planned for anything to be there. Most of the time the music pieces are things I’ve already had in mind… All the piano tracks in both World of Tomorrows is just me playing things I’d been kicking around for a while. But the Beethoven was a rare case where I was desperately going through piles of music at the last minute until I found something that fit.
There’s been a lot of praise of Julia Pott’s return here using slight intonation changes for each version of Emily. You’ve said there’s not much directing involved. What, if anything, surprised you with her performance and possibly changed your original vision?
Isn’t she great? I’m not sure if anything surprised me, she just gets it. She understands comic timing, which is not something you can easily teach or direct, and for me that was always more important than casting someone with acting experience. There’s loads of great actors out there who are just clueless about how to deliver a funny line. You kind of either have it or you don’t. There’s also kind of a weird rhythm to my dialogue that I think she innately understands. I never really thought about it much, but when I narrated It’s Such a Beautiful Day, I guess there was a certain rhythm in that delivery that I never quite realized, a very particular thing that she pointed out… Just the way the sentences build, a particular sort of emphasis I liked to place on certain words. I can’t even explain it, I just know it when I hear it. And I think she was tuned into that immediately when we did the first World of Tomorrow. Every now and then I’d make a correction, “Try emphasizing this instead of that,” and she would go, “Yeah, yeah I know exactly what you mean.”
You said after the premiere you don’t feel you put as much into the complex themes as people are giving you credit.
A movie’s “themes” are a pretty delicate thing. You first and foremost want to write a good story, you don’t necessarily want to write “themes”. So I think it’s important to have a light touch there… It’s usually more effective to just suggest those things, to ask questions without providing every answer, to set things up just far enough for the audience to fill in the gaps themselves and take it from there. Otherwise, you’re at risk of pounding them over the head and telling them what to think. You need to meet an audience halfway. So I guess there are themes in the general sense of certain ideas and questions that I’m throwing out there, but no, not everything is full of hidden meaning and complexity. I think there’s interesting things to find but it’s not a puzzle.
What’s surprised you about the responses you’ve seen? The critical acclaim is off the charts.
The main surprise so soon after finishing something you’ve lived with for so long – close to two years – is that it’s not a total bore because the audience hasn’t had to see it 9,000 times like you have. “Oh, they’re laughing at that? Oh yeah, that was funny, once.”
What’s the shelf life for a third episode? What’s the likelihood we meet Emily Prime again since you’ve said there was a drastic change in your niece’s recordings?
Episode Two was way more complicated to write because she, frankly, wouldn’t stop talking, so the audio was very, very hard to edit. In one year she went from an age of reacting to things in very simple ways, to having this explosion of imagination where she was leaping back and forth between fantasy and reality, bossing me around, giving me endless monologues about superheroes and imaginary lands, basically flying all over the place. Finding ways to make that sort of thing connect and make any narrative sense at all with the story I was trying to write on the other side was very, very tricky. There were endless rewrites straight through to the end of production, it was not even close to how easily World of Tomorrow came together. She was four in the first World of Tomorrow, and in Episode Two she was mostly five with a few recordings from age six. I have lots of unused stuff from age six and seven. She’s eight now and I suppose we’ll decide to see what we get when we hang out again in December. But I don’t know if this is a Boyhood sort of open-ended thing or what, she’s going to be the ultimate decider in that. And obviously, Julia too. Who knows. But I would expect to make at least one more episode at some point.
Lastly, do you have a release schedule in mind? Another digital release sometime this year would thrill everyone.
Yeah, things are complicated but I hope to have something to announce soon. We’ve been working on knocking together a substantial theatrical release and it’s just taken longer than I expected. A digital release everywhere will come afterwards, but I don’t know exactly when yet. As usual, I doubt we’ll have much mainstream publicity for either release, so for everyone waiting around for news I’d strongly suggest following me on Twitter, Facebook, or just bookmarking bitterfilms.com and I’ll let you know as soon as we do!