Don Hertzfeldt is a one-of-a-kind genius. While his contemporaries balance on the cutting-edge of animation technology or push to preserve the retro charm of hand-drawn styles, he stands proudly in a niche of his own. His films are hand-drawn too, like the nostalgic works of studios like Ghibli, but his characters have no cartoonish curves or colouring. Instead they are stick figures; little more than symbols for humanity, but symbols which nevertheless contain a great deal of personality and heart.
We’ve written about Hertzfeldt’s work before here at ORWAV, exploring his masterpiece It’s Such a Beautiful Day, and in the intervening years he’s kept himself busy with, amongst other things, a notorious and defiantly idiosyncratic entry into the Simpsons couch-gag canon. Like all of his work, it’s full of wit, body horror and a profound sadness – and it’s well worth checking out below – but this short was a mere prelude to or experiment before his latest ground-breaking short, World of Tomorrow.
Released at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, World of Tomorrow duly claimed the Grand Jury Prize amongst a hail of praise that basically amounts to the thesaurus entry for the word “genius”. It’s impressive that Hertzfeldt has maintained his previous level of high quality as World of Tomorrow aptly marks a new stage in his development as an animator. This is the first time he has attempted digital animation. As he puts it, “after nearly 20 years of working with paper, pencils, 35mm film, rocks, and fire, I’d never actually drawn anything on a tablet before.” The result is mind-blowing.
World of Tomorrow defies easy categorisation, but if pushed you could just about pin it down as a politically conscious sci-fi drama exploring the power of memory. Not bad for a 16-minute short featuring stick figures. The plot begins with Emily (voiced by Hertzfeldt’s 4-year-old niece) being transported to the near future by a third-generation clone of herself – who proceeds to tell Emily about her life – and ends with the retrieval of a precious memory.
Along the way we learn about a sci-fi future that mines one of the darkest seams of jet-black comedy seen on screen. People can have their digital consciousness uploaded to a cube, which can in turn be filled with the latest books or films. Just like living forever, right? Inside a cube. With nobody to talk to except distant relatives who reply once every four years thanks to the time difference. The result is just as terrifying and far more hilarious than it sounds.
The idea of living forever is pushed further in a more political direction, with the revelation that poorer citizens can also achieve a kind of immortality too macabre and grim to spoil here. The ideas put forward aren’t necessarily blindingly original, but their flippant delivery and the primary colours and naïve geometry of the animation provide a savage contrast that really hits home.
This is Hertzfeldt’s greatest skill as a storyteller: plumbing the darkest depths of human imagination, only to end up with something beautiful and touching. It feels remiss to spoil the mini-narratives contained within World of Tomorrow, so finely constructed they feel like extended jokes. Several punchlines hit you: the first, sickening and hilarious; the second, touching and sweet; each sequence finding hope and happiness in our futile existence.
The animation itself also deserves attention, taking the riotous and almost punkish style of Hertzfeldt’s Simpsons couch gag and embellishing it with a glorious vision of the future. This is a world broken down to its binaries – a state of affairs that rather suits Hertzfeldt’s sensibilities – floating lines and triangles piercing indiscriminate blobs of colour. It is more readily comparable to a painting than any other work of animation, someone like the Surrealist Joan Miró perhaps, a label that feels appropriate given Hertzfeldt’s mischievous and disarming decision to use his niece’s regular non-sequiturs as a primary source of dialogue and humour.
You won’t have seen anything quite like World of Tomorrow. At least not since Don Hertzfeldt’s last film. It’s really quite terrifying just how much insight he packs into 16 minutes, and not at the expense of anyone’s entertainment. Watch it now. Watch it again. Watch a genius at work.