Q & A with Don Hertzfeldt

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Interview by Greg Carlson

Independent animator Don Hertzfeldt is modest and approachable for someone with dozens of awards from many of the most prestigious film festivals and venues in the world. A Palme D’Or nomination from the Cannes Film Festival for “Billy’s Balloon” arrived when Hertzfeldt was only 21 years old, and that remarkable feat was followed by an Academy Award nomination for “Rejected” in 2000.

Seven years later, “Everything Will Be OK” won the Sundance Film Festival’s Jury Award for Short Filmmaking. “I Am So Proud of You” presents another chapter in the ongoing story of contemplative stick-figure Bill, and is currently playing in film festivals, including the Fargo Film Festival. It will be screened at the Fargo Theatre on Saturday, March 7 during the “Best of the Festival” closing evening session, which begins at 7pm.

High Plains Reader: Your fierce advocacy of independence and do-it-yourself spirit has inspired many movie lovers and animators. How do you do it and still find the time to produce your work?

Don Hertzfeldt: It seems like lately the challenge isn’t to find time to produce the films, but just to find time for regular life. Every production is a 7-days-a-week thing, each one often taking a couple years. I only had my first real vacation since 1995 last year, but I feel so lucky to be able to do this for a living. I still feel like every day I’m not working on something is a waste of time, there are so many films backed up in my head to still make.

HPR: You save all your drawings and materials. Have you ever had to think about making room for everything that you produce?

DH: Every sketch and piece of animation art from all the films is just stashed into plastic bags and cardboard boxes. They see the light of day every now and then for DVD releases and archive material but by and large they just live in my closet now.

HPR: You continue to make your work on traditional, painstakingly photographed 16mm and 35mm motion picture film. Have you ever been tempted to use computers in your process?

DH: I try to work with hybrid film-digital methods to get the best of both worlds. It’s all drawn on paper by hand of course and shot traditionally on film, but I’m meanwhile editing and mixing sound digitally. There’s not been any temptation to introduce computers to the visual part of it simply because it wouldn’t look as good and often would be more difficult for me to produce.

There are endless misconceptions about digital filmmaking. It may often be a cheaper and easier route, but that’s not always the case. Of course you can produce many miracles that way, but film cameras produce miracles of their own. My last few films would have been visually impossible to produce without film; they’re composed so much through blended multiple exposures and experimental light effects.

HPR: On your recent tour to present “I Am So Proud of You,” did you visit anywhere you had never been before? What city surprised you?

DH: It’s kind of hard now to think of a city that didn’t surprise me in some way… I’d never toured to that extent with just my own movies before, and I had no idea what would happen; there’s always that rather convincing thought that only a dozen people will show up. Even when venues had sold out weeks in advance I was always still weirdly surprised the night of the screenings to see people actually there.

I think it’s a little harder for animators to be in tune with what their films are off doing in the world or whether connections are being made since we’re always just squirreled away in dark corners somewhere. It was a big contrast from making the movie in quiet, near-solitary confinement for about two years and then suddenly you’re jetting around and people are everywhere and there’s energy and excitement… I didn’t want to stop touring and talking to people. And also, Omaha has the most fantastic zoo I’ve ever seen.

HPR: You accepted an invitation from the George Eastman House to preserve the original film elements and camera negatives of your films. Had you done any preservation prior to this?

DH: I’d known Jim Healy at the Eastman House for years and I guess they must have a solid understanding of how difficult it can be for so many independent filmmakers to afford to properly take care of their stuff. It was really kind of them to make room. My old negatives were either getting the box-in-the-closet treatment or were stored at film labs, which are notoriously irresponsible… One lab destroyed the original camera negative to “Lily and Jim” and other elements were getting misplaced. That was kind of the signal for me it was time to gather up every last piece from around the world and find a proper home.

HPR: When the restoration on your films was undertaken, were high definition transfers made?

DH: Yeah, once we had everything together it was all re-mastered for the big Bitter Films DVD in 2006. The process took about a year and was very expensive, but again it’s just something that has to be done. Every film was transferred to high-def tapes from their original elements. I supervised all of the transfers and colors, and then every frame was carefully cleaned of dirt and scratches. Some of them were so damaged it was a bit like a silent film restoration, and when you’re working with old 16mm negatives, every little piece of dust shows up on there like a meteor.

So it’s a maddeningly meticulous job where they digitally “paint” out the blemishes one frame at a time… some frames requiring thousands of brush strokes to restore. After we finally got the films beautiful, we then dove into those artwork archives for all the special features and came up with hours of stuff. After all the years of support I really wanted to throw the kitchen sink into the DVD and make it as much of a fan’s dream as we could.

HPR: Are there any plans for your DVD collections to be offered on Blu-Ray?

DH: Well the high-def elements are all there – they were just down-converted for the regular DVD – but I wouldn’t hold my breath yet for a Blu-Ray version. I’ve got too many irons in the fire right now to revisit the old titles again and moreover, the cost of Blu-Ray production needs to go down quite a bit before you’ll probably see a lot of independent films throwing their hats into the ring. Who knows, by the time Blu-Ray is looking doable, the next format may already be rearing its head.

HPR: Hertzfeldt’s work is available on DVD at www.bitterfilms.com.

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