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The Twisted World of Don Hertzfeldt

There's something intensely alluring about people who creatively express their distaste for Corporate America, people who take pride in what they do - even if it's just drawing stick figures, and people with a dark, offbeat sense of humour. Don Hertzfeldt encompasses all of these traits and I couldn't be more enthralled.

My first run-in with Don came from a poorly bootlegged copy of his "Rejected Cartoons". Shortly thereafter, I realized there was a small cult following here in Toronto. Although he did not actually produce these fake commercials for a real corporation, the inspiration came from the real life temptation of having TV ad money dangled in front of his face. For the starving artist, it's often a difficult decision to protect artistic integrity over making a profit. "I laughed it off," Don relates. "I'd never, ever do a corporate ad spot. It's just not what I do."

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So Don decided to explore the question, "What would happen to an artist who was forced to sell his art for this sort of thing but got repeatedly turned down, what would happen to his head, and in turn to the art itself?"

The end product resulted in a series of crudely-drawn, dark-humoured, imaginative mock commercials that represented a satire on the advertising industry. The Boston Globe referred to it as "a journey via minimalist drawings into a bizarre world of rabbits and spaceships." Furthermore, the Vancouver Westender notes, "Hertzfeldt's twisted mind comes to life through bare-bones, but very expressive, stick-man art... What follows is the decline of the animator into total insanity and the havoc it wreaks on his cartoons." The Austin Chronicle goes so far as to say the film "virtually guarantees itself a spot in animation history."

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In general, it's an amusing concept, not to mention a very creative way of giving Corporate America the finger. And while it's earned twnety-seven film festival awards, a 2001 Academy Award nomination for "Best Animated Short Film" and international airtime, it has been ultimately shunned by American television networks.

What makes Don Hertzfeldt even more respectable as an animator is his adherence to higher standards for his work. "We've never used a computer for anything other than sound production and i doubt we ever will," he explains. "Even our special effect shots are done optically, with traditional light effects, experimental camera work, or multiple exposures. i can't imagine using a computer to make a film - it seems like an unnecessary step to me and intrusive to an organic process, like painting a picture by having to hold the brush with chopsticks." Don refuses to jump on any band wagons. As a result, over 80 hours of sound-mixing went into the project and his nine month creative process was a jumbled mess as he secretly pieced the animation together in the Warner Brothers studio in the dead of night.

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In addition to "Rejected Cartoons", Don Hertzfeldt has created numerous other witty animations. "Ahh, L'amour" is a punchy vision of his past experiences in love. "Lily And Jim" explores the awkwardness of a blind date, the painstaking small talk, and gravitation towards self-destruction.

Currently, his latest film "The Meaning of Life" is being shown in theatres and film festivals around the world. Don Hertzfeldt made his first appearance in Toronto in 1999 at the Images Festival with his comic "Billy's Balloon" and again with "Rejected Cartoons" in 2001 at the Worldwide Short Film Festival. While Don Hertzfeldt and Mike Judge (of "Beavis & Butthead" and "King Of The Hill") regretably won't be making a stop in Toronto on this year's Animation Show tour, you can hop just three quick hours over the border to catch them at The George Eastman House in Rochester NY April 8th - 10th. They will be making a personal appearance at the show in Vancouver later in the month as well.

In late 2005, Don plans to compile all of his work thus so far into a much-anticipated DVD compilation "Bitter Films Volume One".

If your curiosity is ultimately peaked, you can check out Don's rejected cartoons here. (Click on Rejected.wmv).

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However, let it be known that as a respectable and slightly insane artist, Don Hertzfeldt is adamantly against pirated versions of his cartoons. He insists that he puts a lot of time and effort into his work and likens the downloadable version to "drinking a glass of fine wine after it's been filtered through a sewer. It's really not quite the same wine after that." So I greatly encourage you to purchase this film for just $13 through his website and view it the way it was intended to be viewed.

At first glance, Don's work may appear to be dark, skewed, nonsensical madness. But look again. Underneath it all is an opinionated, industrious artistic voice at work.


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