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Silly Hats Only: The Animation Of Don Hertzfeldt

Silly Hats Only: The Animation Of Don Hertzfeldt

Animator Don Hertzfeldt was nominated for a best animated short Oscar this year due to his transcendent digital short, World Of Tomorrow. His abstract style takes on new and twisted dimensions in the film, as a clone brings her original version into the future on the brink of humanity’s destruction. Yet he’s been making award-winning films for years (and recently Kickstarted a very successful campaign to bring his older films to Blu-ray).

All of Hertzfelt’s films humorously explore expansive philosophical concerns while melding a unique ‘stick figure’ aesthetic with ambitious animation techniques using antique technology. Let’s talk about five films that represent his oeuvre best, but you can’t go wrong with any of them.

Lily And Jim (1997)

Lily And Jim, a film Hertzfeldt created while at the University Of California Santa Barbara, features the titular characters on a blind date that goes from awkward to just plain awful. Jim (Robert May) is your typical sadsack and Lily (Karin Anger) is an anxious girl. They both can’t seem to find the right thing to say. Hertzfeldt finds so much fodder in the sweet and sad ways people try to connect. He shows how we so easily sabotage ourselves again and again. In Lily And Jim you can’t help but laugh how ridiculous we are at romance.

Billy’s Balloon (1998)

Billy’s Balloon feels like someone’s quiet nightmare. The last short Don Hertzfeldt made while in film school follows a young boy named Billy at the punching bag-end of a red balloon’s malice. In the film, Hertzfeldt ups the ante to beautifully absurd heights. There’s an incredible mastery of comedic timing on display, and just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does and then keeps on going. Billy’s Balloon is a minimalist masterpiece of cruelty. Balloons are pure evil.

Rejected (2000)

Rejected is a self-reflexive animated adventure that is absolutely bonkers. Presented as a series of “rejected” ads, the film shows an offscreen animator losing their marbles while trying to please corporate overlords at the expense of their own artistic identity. It has developed a cult following since its release (and an Oscar nomination for best animated short in 2000) and is definitely Hertzfeldt’s most quotable film. My friends too often shouted “My spoon is too big” and “I am a banana” while we attended UCSB, “honoring” Hertzfeldt’s legacy. Rejected is a peek into the madness of making things in the modern era and is as unsettling as it is hilarious.

The Meaning Of Life (2005)

Don Hertzfeldt tackles the cosmos in The Meaning Of Life. Tracing the evolution of life on our planet, the film presents a cacophony of human beings going to and fro about their daily business before showing us a dazzling array of imaginative alien creatures doing the same. The images constantly overwhelm and astonish the senses making me giggle as much as it makes me ponder the big questions. With The Meaning Of Life, Hertzfeldt contrasts our mundane struggles with the ceaseless march of time. Even if the film may seem cynical at first blush, it still shows the beauty of our limited and fragile existence. There’s hope for us yet.

It’s Such A Beautiful Day (2011)

It’s Such A Beautiful Day is a feature-length animated film from Don Hertzfeldt that follows a man named Bill who had been sleepwalking through life until a mysterious illness forces him to change everything and reflect on how he got there. Originally debuting in three parts over the course of five years, this solipsistic odyssey presents Bill’s struggles with mental illness, memory, and that lingering feeling of regret. He attempts to reconnect with his ex, dives deep into his family history, and eventually tries to live forever. Bill’s tale feels like our own. A human life is absurd when viewed from a distance, but inside it’s thrilling, devastating, ambitious, heartbreaking, funny, and sublime. It’s Such A Beautiful Day captures it all.

Let us know your thoughts on Don Hertzfeldt’s latest short World Of Tomorrow! What other awesome animated films are you watching? Which Don Hertzfeldt film are you? Take the quiz and let us know in the comments below!

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