Filmmaker's surreal animation created old-fashioned way

 Don Hertzfeldt draws the art for films like  'The Meaning of Life' on paper, and shoots on 35mm film.

Don Hertzfeldt draws the art for films like "The Meaning of Life" on paper, and shoots on 35mm film.

Stick figures become multidimensional protagonists with red-blooded lives (and sometimes blood-spurting deaths) in the brilliant short films of much-lauded if proudly independent animator Don Hertzfeldt, who brings his latest existential cartoon extravaganza to Memphis for a special event at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Malco Studio on the Square.

Sponsored by Indie Memphis, the screening marks the premiere of the Austin-based animator's new film, the 23-minute "It's such a beautiful day," the capper to a trilogy about a mysterious and apparently literally erasable Everyman named Bill.

The previous films in the series, "Everything will be ok" (2006) and "I am so proud of you" (2008), also will be screened, in 35-millimeter prints, along with a selection of Hertzfeldt's earlier work. The films will be followed by an "Embarrassing Live On-Stage Interview," according to promotional material for this 30-city tour.

Hertzfeldt said he likes taking his new films on the road. "After spending ages working on a new movie, usually in solitary confinement in sad dark little rooms, I really need to see it play and talk to people. It recharges the batteries. The movies make these deep connections you'd have never otherwise known about. It's sort of like spending a lot of time making a birthday present for somebody; you really want to be there to see them open it."

Winner of numerous festival awards over the years and an Oscar nominee for 2000's "Rejected," Hertzfeldt, 35, started crafting cartoons at home when he was a kid. He began to receive serious recognition as a student filmmaker in the 1990s at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and "Billy's Balloon" (1998) screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

At about the same time Hertzfeldt was developing his art, "The Simpsons" heralded a rise in the popularity of episodic "adult" animation on television that shows no sign of abating, thanks to such hits as "South Park," "Family Guy" and the "Adult Swim" programming on the Cartoon Network. But while Hertzfeldt's pal and sometime-collaborator Mike Judge ("Beavis and Butt-head") became a multimillionaire, Hertzfeldt -- drawing on paper and shooting on 35mm film -- has continued to mine a very peculiar and distinctive form of animated storytelling that is as pared down and sometimes as harrowing as a Raymond Carver short story, but with surreal flights of sometimes-violent fancy.

"I'm not sure I'd be very happy doing one of those never-ending sitcom-type shows, where the writing resets itself after every episode," Hertzfeldt said via e-mail. "That seems like some form of madness."

In any case, "I've never had cable, so I'm not sure if I've ever seen anything on 'Adult Swim.'"

As it is, each Hertzfeldt film essentially makes enough money to pay for the next one. "Anybody who pursues independent animation for money is going to be severely, horribly depressed," he said.

Hertzfeldt's 2005 short "The Meaning of Life" ends with this boast: "No computers were used in the animation or photography of this film." The director is no Luddite, however. Although he shoots on film, "we edit digitally and all the sound is digital. It's a happy hybrid."

He said shooting on film is practical, considering the demands of his type of storytelling. "The latest films, the movies about Bill, are so full of experimental effects, multiple exposures and strange camera tricks, they'd have been simply impossible to produce, visually, any other way."

"The Meaning of Life," for example, augments Hertzfeldt's minimalistic if precise hand drawings of domestic and urban comic despair with effects that suggest the origins of the cosmos and the evolution of life. It very much anticipates a film with almost the same title, "The Tree of Life," except Terrence Malick required 139 minutes to tell his story, while Hertzfeldt needed only 12.

"When I was just a month or two away from finishing 'It's such a beautiful day,' I saw the first trailer for 'The Tree of Life,' and got a bit scared," Hertzfeldt said. "It used the same music I'd used years ago in 'Everything will be ok,' and some of the shots looked sort of similar to what I'd been doing for 'beautiful day.'

"Even though our films were about to be released at the same time and took about as long to make, I started wondering if after all this work, everyone would just think I'd gone and ripped this beautiful movie off. But thankfully, 'Tree of Life' was about something completely different. That was probably my favorite movie of last year. I'm just glad I didn't put any dinosaurs in mine."

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'An Evening with Don Hertzfeldt'

7 p.m Wednesday, Malco Studio on the Square, 2105 Court. The animator will host the premiere of his new short, "It's such a beautiful day," and screen earlier films. A public interview and question-and-answer session will follow. Tickets: $10. For advance tickets and more information, visit indiememphis.com.

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