Animator Don Hertzfeldt draws cute little figures and then tortures them without mercy -- but with plenty of imagination. In his early short "Billy's Balloon," innocuous-looking balloons savagely pummel adorable tots on a playground. In his latest, "Everything Will Be OK," a pair of Lion King slippers become stars in the protagonist's violent hallucinations.
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 fine 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, the more people can project on 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'd never do commercials. I don't have anything to express about Cheerios or Pop-Tarts."