Don Hertzfeldt

Don Hertzfeldt
Don Hertzfeldt

Don Hertzfeldt at his animation desk, during production of "The Meaning of Life"
Born August 1, 1976 (1976-08-01) (age 35)
Fremont, California
Nationality United States American
Field Independent film, Animation
Training University of California, Santa Barbara
Works Billy's Balloon, Rejected, Everything Will Be OK
Influenced by Stanley Kubrick, Monty Python, David Lynch, Edward Gorey, Buster Keaton

Don Hertzfeldt (born August 1, 1976) is the creator of many short animated films, including the Academy-Award nominated Rejected and Everything Will Be OK. His animated films have received over 150 awards and have been presented around the world. Before the age of thirty, his films were already the subject of several career retrospectives. He was the youngest director named in the "They Shoot Pictures, Don't They" list of "The 100 Important Animation Directors" of all time,[1] and in 2010 he received the San Francisco International Film Festival's "Persistence of Vision" Lifetime Achievement Award at the age of 33.

The popularity of Hertzfeldt's work is unprecedented in independent animation and his films are frequently quoted and referenced in pop culture.[2] In 2009, the Sundance Film Festival noted, "If cinephiles think shorts don't generate the same sort of hype and fanbase as feature films, they obviously haven't heard of Don Hertzfeldt."[3]

In 2008 and 2009, Hertzfeldt went on a 22-city theatrical tour in support of his latest short, the 22 minute I am so proud of you. "An Evening with Don Hertzfeldt" presented a retrospective of his animated films followed by the regional premiere(s) of I am so proud of you and an onstage interview and audience chat with him.[4] At the conclusion of the tour at the Ottawa Animation Festival in October 2009, Hertzfeldt premiered a new five minute comedy called Wisdom Teeth as a surprise.

Hertzfeldt lives in Austin, Texas. He spent many years in Santa Barbara, California after attending college there. He keeps a blog on his website that has been continually updated and archived since 1999.


Early life

Hertzfeldt was born in Fremont, California where he attended local schools and drew homemade comic books. At 15, he began to teach himself animation with a small video camera.[5] Two of Hertzfeldt's teenage VHS cartoons can be seen on the "Bitter Films: Volume 1" DVD collection.

From a 2001 interview, Don says: "I watched films relentlessly growing up, and was fascinated by visual effects. My family used to make outings to animation festivals in San Francisco every year, so credit my parents for that. I ended up seeing all of those classic [independent] cartoons throughout my teenage years. But animation production for me sort of just happened as a by-product. I've been drawing things and writing things all my life, and animating my stories was always cheaper to do and looked more interesting than low budget live action."[6]

Hertzfeldt has never held any job other than creating his animated films, not even in his youth.[7] His earliest video animations found film festival exposure, and in film school at the University of California, Santa Barbara he was able to find international distribution for each of his 16mm student films.


Hertzfeldt's work commonly features hand-drawn stick figures, in stories of black humor, surrealism, and tragicomedy. Some films contain deeper existential and philosophical themes while others are more straightforwardly slapstick and absurdist. His animation is created traditionally with pen and paper, often with minimal digital aid. Hertzfeldt uses antique 16mm or 35mm film cameras to photograph his drawings and very often employs old-fashioned special effect techniques such as multiple exposures, in-camera mattes, and experimental photography (significantly used in works such as Everything Will Be OK and I am so proud of you). While some of these techniques are as established as an occasional stop-motion animation sequence (as in Intermission in the Third Dimension) or a universe of moving stars created by back-lit pin holes (The Meaning of Life), other effects are new innovations on classical methods, as seen with the rippling and blurring paper landscapes of Rejected or the in-camera compositing of multiple, split-screen windows of action in the Everything Will Be OK films.[8][9][10]

Since 1999, Hertzfeldt has photographed all his films on a 35mm Richardson animation camera stand, believed to be the same camera that photographed many of the early Peanuts cartoons in the 1960s and 1970s.[11] Built in the late 1940s, it is reportedly one of the last remaining functioning cameras of its kind left in America (if not the world), and Hertzfeldt finds it to be a crucial element in the creation of his films and their unique visuals.[12]

Discussing film and digital technology with The New York Times, Hertzfeldt noted:

I don't know why these things are always framed as a big dumb cage match: Hand-drawn versus computers, film versus digital. We have over 100 years now of amazing film technology to play with, I don't understand why any artists would want to throw any of their tools out of the box. Many people assume that because I shoot on film and animate on paper I must be doing things the hard way, when in fact my last four movies would have been visually impossible to produce digitally. The only thing that matters is what actually winds up on the big screen, not how you got it there. You could make a cartoon in crayons about a red square that falls in unrequited love with a blue circle, and there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house if you know how to tell a story.[13]

It's not unusual for Hertzfeldt to single-handedly write, direct, produce, animate, photograph, edit, perform voices, record and mix sound, and/or compose music for one of his films, at times requiring years to complete a single short. The animation alone for one of his films may often require tens of thousands of drawings.

Hertzfeldt frequently scores his pictures with classical music and opera. The music of Tchaikovsky, Bizet, Smetana, Beethoven, Richard Strauss, and Wagner have all appeared in his films. On occasion, Hertzfeldt has also scored portions of his films himself, with a guitar or keyboard.

Popularity and influence

A line around the block for An Evening with Don Hertzfeldt

Hertzfeldt's early films have been credited with being a prominent influence on surrealism and absurdism in animation in the 2000s, as well as influencing Adult Swim style animated comedy.[14] In 2008, Comedy Central noted his work as having "influenced an entire generation of filmmakers."[15]

His more recent films, such as The Meaning of Life, Everything Will Be OK, and I am so Proud of You, expanded upon his signature style of dark humor to explore deeper themes of existentialism and life and death philosophy. Critics have favorably compared these shorts to the work of Stanley Kubrick[16] and David Lynch,[17] respectively. Everything Will Be OK was described as "probably the best work he’s done in his very incredible and consistently amazing young career."[18]

Hertzfeldt's films are regularly found in film festivals around the world, touring animation programs like the Animation Show, and on DVD collections. The cartoons are also featured occasionally on television: MTV, Bravo, Via X, Sundance Channel, IFC, Showtime, and the Cartoon Network being a few channels that have carried his work internationally.

The popularity of Hertzfeldt's shorts has led to many Internet bootlegs, bringing his work to an audience of millions. Though he's unhappy with the poor quality most of these online videos offer (as well as the frequent re-editing of them), he says he is not interested in "harassing fans." In the FAQ of his website, Hertzfeldt simply notes that movies are not meant to be seen on the Internet: "If you've only seen a film downgraded on the Internet or some strange miniature device, in many ways you haven't really seen it yet. YouTube is great for home videos of your cat falling off the roof but it is not really the proper setting for "cinema"... Movies are meant to be seen in the dark, hopefully with an audience, and with your undivided attention - this last one is non-negotiable."[19] Recently however, Hertzfeldt has allowed "official" versions of The Meaning of Life and Everything will be OK to appear online in high quality on sites like MUBI and YouTube. Wisdom Teeth also debuted online after being acquired by Showtime.

Hertzfeldt prefers to not sell any of his animation artwork. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, his website Bitter Films annually auctioned off artwork instead to raise thousands of dollars for local Santa Barbara charities. Other original drawings have been occasionally given away through the Bitter Films online store through special promotions. Because Hertzfeldt also rarely does signings, his artwork is very rare for animation collectors or casual fans to own.

Student films, 1995-1998

Hertzfeldt made four 16mm animated student films while majoring in film at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Ah, L'Amour and Genre were produced at the ages of 18 and 19. Ah, L'Amour would win the HBO Comedy Arts Festival Grand Prize for "World's Funniest Cartoon." [20]

His first dialogue short, Lily and Jim, was released in 1997, and tells the story of a disastrous blind date, rife with awkward conversations. Its partially improvised vocal performances helped the short win twenty five awards, including the Grand Prize at the New Orleans Film Festival.[21]

His last student cartoon, Billy's Balloon, is about an inexplicable attack on small children by malevolent balloons. It was nominated for the Short Film Palme d'Or at the1999 Cannes Film Festival, and won the Grand Jury Award at the 1999 Slamdance Film Festival. In total it won thirty three awards.[22]

The popularity of each student short at film and animation festivals - and eventually around the world from screening on MTV and other networks - helped fund the next one, and eventually financed the production of his first film after college.

Independent animation, 2000-2009


Soon after graduating from film school, Hertzfeldt purchased his own 35mm rostrum camera, and made his next animated short, Rejected. Released in theaters in 2000, the short won dozens of awards, was nominated for an Oscar, and is an enduring cult classic that is frequently quoted and referenced in pop culture.[23] Fans of the cartoon have been known to wear costumes, re-enact their favorite scenes in fan films, and some have had tattoos made of their favorite characters.[24] Public screenings of the short sometimes become a "Rocky Horror Picture Show-esque feedback loop" of fans reciting favorite lines back at the screen.[25] The short's enduring popularity has led the film to be described as "this generation's A Hard Day's Night".[26]

The film presents itself as a reel of rejected commercial work by a fictional version of Don Hertzfeldt. The commissioned animated vignettes grow more and more abstract and inappropriate as the animator suffers a mental breakdown, until they literally fall apart.

Although the film is of course fictional and Hertzfeldt has never done commercial work, he did receive many offers to do television commercials after Billy's Balloon garnered international attention and acclaim. Hertzfeldt is an artist with anti-corporate leanings and in appearances has often told the humorous story of how he was tempted to produce the worst possible cartoons he could come up with for the companies, make off with their money, and see if they would actually make it to air. Eventually this became the germ for Rejected's theme of a collection of cartoons so bad they were rejected by advertising agencies, leading to their creator's breakdown.

The Animation Show

In 2003, Hertzfeldt created The Animation Show with Beavis and Butt-head creator Mike Judge. It was a biennial North American touring festival that brought independent animated short films to more movie theaters than any distributor in history. The programs were personally curated by Hertzfeldt and Judge. A second Animation Show edition toured throughout 2005, featuring Hertzfeldt's short film The Meaning of Life and new films by animators like Peter Cornwell and Georges Schwizgebel. The third season of The Animation Show began its nationwide release in January 2007, featuring new work by animators Joanna Quinn and Bill Plympton, as well as Hertzfeldt's own Everything Will Be OK.

A stated goal of The Animation Show was to regularly "free the work of these independent artists from the dungeons of Internet exhibition," and bring them into proper movie theaters where most of the short films were meant to be seen. The Animation Show has meanwhile launched a supplemental DVD series of animated short films, with content that often varies from the annual theatrical programs. These DVDs are distributed by MTV.

In a March 2008 entry in his blog, Hertzfeldt announced he had decided to leave The Animation Show, after having programmed (and contributing films to) three tours. A fourth season of the program was released in theaters in summer 2008, with no involvement from him.[27]

The Meaning of Life

Almost four years in the making, Hertzfeldt's twelve minute The Meaning of Life premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and toured film and animation festivals in 2005-06. Though its abstract nature puzzled some critics, it received almost universally positive reviews. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called the film "the closest thing on film yet to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey."[28]

In the film, the evolution of the human race is traced from prehistory (mankind as blob forms), through today (mankind as teeming crowds of selfish, fighting, or lost individuals), to hundreds of millions of years into the future as our species evolves into countless new forms; all of them still behaving the same way. The film concludes in the extreme future, with two creatures (apparently an adult and child subspecies of future human), having a conversation about the meaning of life on a colorful shore.

In 2009, Hertzfeldt noted, "I don't often make the same sort of movie twice in a row. It’s always been whatever's next in my head. From a commercial standpoint I guess I’ve made some pretty inscrutable decisions, like following up 'Rejected' with a sprawling abstract film about human evolution, but it's really just been whichever ideas won't go away at the time. There's always a lot of new things I’d like to try..."[29]

The Everything will be OK films

Everything Will Be OK was released in 2006 and was Hertzfeldt's most critically successful piece to date, receiving his strongest reviews. The 17-minute animated short was based on his character "Bill" from his webcomic "Temporary Anesthetics".[30] The Boston Globe called the film a "masterpiece" with the Boston Phoenix declaring Hertzfeldt a "genius."[31] The short film was a cover story on the Chicago Reader, receiving four stars from critic J.R. Jones. Variety film critic Robert Koehler named Everything Will Be OK one of the "Best Films of 2007." [32]

Everything will be OK is the first chapter of a three-part story about Bill, a young man whose daily routines, perceptions, and dreams are illustrated onscreen through multiple split-screen windows. Bill's seemingly mundane life, narrated in humorous and dramatic anecdotes, gradually grows dark as we learn he may be suffering from a possibly fatal mental disorder.

The film's scenes are often divided into multiple windows of action on the screen at once, against a background of pure black. Animated still photographs are also incorporated inside certain windows, as well as a handful of the colorful special effects and experimental film techniques that Hertzfeldt first utilized in The Meaning of Life. As with all his films, no computers were used in creating the picture; all of the multiple window effects were captured in-camera.

Everything Will Be OK won the Grand Jury Prize for Short Filmmaking at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, the Lawrence Kasdan Award for Best Narrative Film at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, the Grand Prize at the London Animation Festival, and 34 other awards.

I am so proud of you, the second chapter in the story, was released in autumn 2008. Upon its release, Hertzfeldt traveled with I am so proud of you and a selection of his other films to 22 cities on a sold-out American tour (with two stops in the UK and three in Canada). I am so proud of you also played at film festivals throughout 2009 and has to date won 27 awards.[33]

On his website, Hertzfeldt announced the title of the upcoming third and final chapter, It's such a beautiful day.

Current work

In October 2009, Hertzfeldt premiered an unannounced, new five minute comedy short entitled Wisdom Teeth at the "Evening with Don Hertzfeldt" screening at the Ottawa Animation Festival. It was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2010 and the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal, where it was awarded a Special Jury Mention.[27] In 2010, it appeared as part of a series on the Showtime Network called 'Short Stories'.

According to his blog, Chapter 3 of Everything Will Be OK, titled It's such a beautiful day will be released in autumn 2011.

According to his blog, Hertzfeldt has been developing a feature length animated project. He has also made references to working on a graphic novel.[27]

Awards and honors

In 1999, at the age of 22, Hertzfeldt was nominated for the Short Film Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Billy's Balloon, where he was the youngest director in competition. The same year Billy's Balloon won the Slamdance Film Festival Grand Jury Award.

In 2000, at the age of 23, Hertzfeldt was nominated for the Academy Award for Animated Short Film for his fifth short film, Rejected.

Hertzfeldt has had more films play in competition at the Sundance Film Festival than any other filmmaker, with five: Rejected, The Meaning of Life, Everything Will Be OK, I am so proud of you, and Wisdom Teeth.

In 2001, Hertzfeldt was named by Filmmaker Magazine as one of the "Top 25 Filmmakers to Watch."

In 2007, Hertzfeldt's Everything Will Be OK won the Jury Award for Short Filmmaking at the Sundance Film Festival, a prize rarely given to an animated film.[34]

In 2007, according to the animation industry website Cartoon Brew, Everything Will Be OK advanced to the final round of voting as a contender for an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short, but did not make the ultimate list of five nominees.

In 2007, Hertzfeldt accepted an invitation from the George Eastman House's motion picture archives to indefinitely store and preserve the historically important original film elements and camera negatives to his collected work.

In 2009, Rejected was the only short film named one of the "Films of the Decade" by[35] In 2010, it was noted as one of the five "most innovative animated films of the past ten years" by The Huffington Post.[36]

In April 2010, at the age of 33, Hertzfeldt was the youngest filmmaker to ever receive the San Francisco International Film Festival's "Persistence of Vision" Lifetime Achievement Award, "for his unique contributions to film and animation," and "for challenging the boundaries of his craft."[37] Past recipients of the POV award include Errol Morris, Guy Maddin, Jan Švankmajer, and Faith Hubley.

DVD releases

Bitter Films Volume One: 1995-2005

Hertzfeldt self-produces and self-distributes his own DVDs. With these sales, fans of his work are literally financing his next films, with no middle men in between.[31]

An exhaustive DVD collection of all of Hertzfeldt's films from 1995 to 2005 was released in 2006. The short films were remastered and restored in high definition from the original film negatives. The DVD was made available only to fans via the Bitter Films website, with the first 750 pre-orderers receiving an "exclusive mystery gift" (either a 35mm clipping from Rejected that was autographed by Don, or a unique drawing by Don on a post-it note).

The DVD marked the first time his student films such as Genre and Lily and Jim were made widely available to the public - many of these works were only previously found on limited-release VHS collections of animated shorts, long out of print.

The special features for Bitter Films Volume One: 1995-2005 include:

  • The documentary, Watching Grass Grow: Animating 'The Meaning of Life'
  • The Animation Show Trilogy cartoons
  • Lily and Jim deleted dialogues and outtakes
  • Rejected trivia captions
  • The Meaning of Life special effects audio commentary
  • An extensive 140+ page "Archive" section, featuring rare footage from Hertzfeldt's earliest cartoons, original pencil tests, deleted sequences, abandoned footage, and sketch to scene comparisons
  • Lily and Jim reunion commentary with the original voice actors
  • Rejected audio commentary
  • Preview of Everything Will Be OK
  • The Animation Show interviews with Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt
  • Ah, L'Amour bonus 2005 soundtrack
  • 16 page retrospective booklet, featuring liner notes by Hertzfeldt
  • Original animated menus and transitions

Bitter Films' first DVD release was a 2001 limited edition DVD "single" of the popular short Rejected. Everything Will Be OK was similarly released as a DVD "single" in 2007, and I am so proud of you in September, 2009.

View on commercialism

Hertzfeldt has been offered numerous lucrative commercial deals, including ad campaigns for Cingular Wireless and United Airlines, which he has declined. He has made various comments over the years about his distaste for corporate America and promises his fans he will never be involved with the commercial world.[19] He has said, "The goal isn’t to try and make as much money as I possibly can, the goal is to try and make good movies."

In a March 2009 blog entry, Hertzfeldt compared filmmaking to his love of hiking and exploring new places: something he does just because he "enjoys doing it and will probably always enjoy doing it." He compared doing commercials to being paid to not go explore the woods, but to walk around someone's house eight hours a day wearing a sandwich board with a picture of a product on it. "Money's not the reason I take walks. It doesn't really factor into it. I take walks because I enjoy doing it. It's something I'd do if I was rich and it's something I'd do if I were poor." [38]

Nevertheless, several international ad campaigns have borrowed heavily from his unique style and bear enough resemblance to Hertzfeldt's work as to be mistaken for it. The most well-known instance of this is a series of 2004-2009 television ads for Kellogg's Pop-Tarts, which use black and white stick figures, "squiggly" animation, surreal humor, and even an occasional crumpling paper effect, all very similar to Hertzfeldt's style. Despite all these similarities, Hertzfeldt was not involved in any way.[39] In Canada, the not-for-profit corporation Encorp has used a Hertzfeldt-like style of short animation clips on TV and the Internet to promote its "Don't Mess With Karma" campaign to encourage recycling.[40] One of the latest ad campaigns to use an art style similar to Hertzfeldt's is Krystal fast food restaurant to promote their Blitz Energy Drink.[41]



  1. ^ "100 Important Directors". Retrieved 2009-08-30. 
  2. ^ "An Evening with Don Hertzfeldt". Retrieved 2008-12-02. 
  3. ^ "THE EXISTENTIAL LIFE OF A STICK FIGURE". Retrieved 2009-02-05. 
  4. ^ "An Evening with Don Hertzfeldt". Retrieved 2008-10-06. 
  5. ^ Timberg, Scott (February 2002). "Don Hertzfeldt is the most inventive underground animator in America.". New Times LA (Los Angeles, California: New Times Media). Retrieved 2007-03-28 
  6. ^ "February through June 2001". articles and interviews archive. Retrieved 2007-03-29. 
  7. ^ Parks, Finnegan (15 October 2007). "A Conversation With Don Hertzfeldt, Part Four". A Conversation With Don Hertzfeldt. Archived from the original on 2008-02-26. Retrieved 2007-10-30. 
  8. ^ Jones, J.R.. "Truth in Doodling". magazine article. Chicago Reader. 
  9. ^ "the meaning of life". production information about the meaning of life. 
  10. ^ "rejected". production information about rejected. 
  11. ^ es. "Biography for Don Hertzfeldt". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2007-03-23. 
  12. ^ Don Hertzfeldt. bitter films volume one: 1995-2005 (audio commentary) (DVD). 
  13. ^ Anderson, John (2008-11-30). "Contemporary Animators Rely on Traditional Techniques". newspaper article (New York Times). Retrieved 2010-05-01. 
  14. ^ Clark, Craig J. (April 12, 2007). "Aqua Teen on the Big Screen: Interview with Matt Maiellaro & Dave Willis". Animation World Magazine. Animation World Network. pp. 5. Retrieved 2007-05-17. [dead link]
  15. ^ Tobey, Matt (May 29, 2008). "CC Insider Interview". Comedy Central. pp. 1. Retrieved 2008-06-01. 
  16. ^ Longino, Bob (18 March 2005). "12 animated shorts aren't made for kids". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Georgia: Cox Enterprises) 57 (77): pp. h1+h8. Retrieved 2007-10-18 
  17. ^ Reviews for Everything will be OK
  18. ^ Timmermann, Pete (July 3, 2008). "Playback STL". Retrieved 2008-07-04. 
  19. ^ a b "frequently asked questions". Retrieved 2007-01-24. 
  20. ^ "Ah, L'Amour". Bitter Films. Retrieved 15 October 2011. 
  21. ^ "Lily and Jim". Bitter Films Official Channel. Youtube. May 11, 2011. Retrieved 15 October 2011. 
  22. ^ "Billy's Balloon". Bitterfilms.ccom. Bitter Films. Retrieved 15 October 2011. 
  23. ^ Interview with Don Hertzfeldt
  24. ^ Fans displaying tattoos and cosplay
  25. ^ Quote from article about comedy
  26. ^ James Digiovanna, "Tucson Weekly", April 14, 2005
  27. ^ a b c
  28. ^ The Meaning of Life at
  29. ^ Interview with Don Hertzfeldt
  30. ^
  31. ^ a b
  32. ^ : Robert Koehler's Best of 2007
  33. ^
  34. ^ "2007 Sundance Film Festival Announces Jury and Audience Awards" (PDF). Sundance Institute. January 27, 2007. pp. 5. Retrieved 2007-03-28. 
  35. ^ "Films of the Decade". 
  36. ^ "Films of the Decade". 
  37. ^ "Lifetime Achievement Award". 
  38. ^
  39. ^ Vespe, Eric (July 27, 2006). "Killer Rabbit w/info on DARK CRYSTAL 2, PAN'S LABYRINTH, HELLBOY ANIMATED, CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE & more!!!". Ain't It Cool News. Retrieved 2006-08-08. 
  40. ^ "Don't Mess With Karma". 
  41. ^ "BLITZ from Krystal". 

External links

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