So, within the first 48 hours or so of its beginning, I contributed to Don Hertzfeldt’s ongoing Kickstarter campaign to fund a Bluray release of his 2014 masterpiece short film, World of Tomorrow. Hertzfeldt, for those who don’t know, is a wonderful animator and storyteller; World of Tomorrow‘s just the latest (and probably best) work in a hilarious, gorgeous, heart-rending oeuvre.
(I’m going to talk mostly about the pretty/sad bits, but the “funny” part is equally important, and equally brilliant. Just saying.)
He also happens to work mostly with stick figures:
This is obviously cruder than your average Disney/Pixar creation, but to me the simplicity is part of the beauty. One of the small, wonderful things about good animation is how it exploits and exaggerates the human face’s natural plasticity — facial expressions are weird, contortion-prone things, and smart animation takes advantage of its ability to reach more deeply to the core of those expressions than the human face, which for all its plasticity is bounded by bones and physics and details.
Hertzfeldt, in this respect at least, removes more details than most. He executes extreme minimalism perfectly. Just look at that screencap. The still frame works as a joke itself, because the frozen expressions are so perfect: the horrified silly-hat-wearers, the pleasantly oblivious man in the normal hat. Three circles and a line per face, but each has a specificity that the brain recognizes immediately. You don’t need noses or chins or proportional eyeballs, just a knowledge of how the parts you do have work in concert. Reacting to this is intuitive, but crafting it isn’t.
Many of Hertzfeldt’s characters look harried to me, the rough lines around their eyes suggesting stress and sleeplessness and ennui, regardless of their facial expressions. It might just be a fortunate side effect of his medium, but it’s something almost all of his films address deliberately.
Hertzfeldt does a lot of other great, interesting things with his medium — his “special effects” range from incorporating other visual media to manipulating the paper on which the frames have been drawn. He knows both his medium’s tools and its limitations, and uses the latter as the former. World of Tomorrow has many utterly gorgeous, artistically rendered backdrops and landscapes, but most of them are made particularly effective because of the stark way they’re thrown against Hertzfeldt’s stick figure protagonists:
That image can make you feel lonely, small, crude against the enormity of the universe. So does the film, sometimes, even/especially in its funniest moments.
Watching the Kickstarter campaign tear through stretch goals, earning (so far) more than six times its initial goal, has been heartening but, in a way, not too surprising. Hertzfeldt’s work has always felt primal to me, his art style cutting closer and more deeply than most animation I watch, because it’s so focused on the few details it chooses to display.
There are 24 hours left to contribute to the campaign (and, in doing so, pre-order a copy of this film, which is really, truly wonderful): https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1072409840/hertzfeldt-on-blu-ray
If you’d like to watch the movie right now (you should!), Vimeo has it on demand: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/worldoftomorrow