Ready to unleash his trademark dark humor and passion for his ongoing animation projects on the crowd at Coolidge Corner Theatre this past Monday night, Don Hertzfeldt jogged to the stage from the back of the room.
Don't know that name? That's not too surprising; The New York Times recently said that Hertzfeldt “may be the greatest filmmaker moviegoers have never heard of.” The 36-year-old is the driving force behind numerous short animated films, including Rejected, which was up for an Academy Award in 2001. He is currently on a theatrical tour premiering his newest film, It’s such a beautiful day. The film is the third and final chapter in a trilogy about a man named Bill, who has a mysterious -- and possibly fatal -- illness.
“[My] films are more powerful if you’re caught off guard,” said Hertzfeldt, who spent some time explaining why he's OK with the fact that a lot of his films are unknown to the general public. “I’ve been doing this for 17 years, and it has been one movie after another.”
Hertzfeldt also warned the future filmmakers in the 400-plus-person audience to get ready for the toughest criticism they'll ever face, noting how his own work has been widely criticized by those who feel his films are misogynist. In reality, “I’m making fun of those who are misogynistic," he said.
In the ’90s, Hertzfeldt created the two-dimensional stick figure character of Bill for a comic strip he produced. (“It wasn’t a very good comic strip,” Hertzfeldt said.) What began as an effort to share, in a dark and humorous way, what Bill observed during his daily routines turned into a trilogy that captures the essence of dealing with your own fatality.
The first chapter, Everything Will Be Okay, won the 2007 Grand Jury Prize for Short Filmmaking at Sundance Film Festival and the Lawrence Kasdan Award for Best Narrative Film at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. In total, Herzfeldt has won 34 awards for his work.
“My parents never pressured me to do something responsible with my life.” Hertzfeldt, who taught himself animation at 15 and received his bachelor’s degree in film from University of California, Santa Barbara, told the full house. “It’s so important for young artists, if you know them, to not scare them away from being creative because they will quit and not do it ever again.”
During college, Hertzfeldt made four 16mm animated shorts -- Ah, L’Amour, Genre, Lily and Jim, and Billy’s Balloon. These films were successful, and the money he received helped him finance his own studio, including an antique animation stand that he still uses to create his current films.
Hertzfeldt's talk at the theater focused in large part on his evolution in the techniques used in animation and his connection with “powerful forces” of creativity. “I write almost always as I go," Hertzfeldt said, "which is kind of stupid when you are writing a trilogy and don’t know the arch.”
Hertzfeldt's work has gained national attention for its unique blending of traditional animation with experimental optical effects. He has been offered multiple commercial deals, which he's always rejected. “It takes so much time for me to crank this stuff out and I have to really care about what I’m doing," he said. "I don’t care about paper towels or tampons.”
But what he does love is making animated films with meaning. “There are so many terrible things in life, but it is often not until something happens that you are slapped in the face and you realize what you’ve been taking for granted," Hertzfeldt said. "This is the story of Bill.”
From his time in film school to the present, Hertzfeldt has learned important lessons within his craft. “There are no shortcuts in animation whether you use a mouse or a pencil," he said. Still, he admitted that the process still surprises him sometimes.
“The subconscious is an amazing place,” Hertzfeldt said. “It’s like a party in your head that you’re not invited to.”
About Melissa -- Melissa is a Boston-based writer and has covered national issues, local events, and professional profiles. She admits proudly that her interests, such as frequent attendance of music festivals, writing about new media and technology, and worldwide sampling of regional foods and wine, extend into a passion that fuels her writing. Twitter: @melissapocek
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