The Ann Arbor Film Festival Presents: “An Evening with Don Hertzfeldt”
Tonight at 7 p.m.
At the Michigan

The short films of Oscar-nominated animator Don Hertzfeldt employ varying degrees of seriousness. Some shorts, like his absurdist black comedy “Billy’s Balloon” (about a child’s balloon that tortures its owner), are just meant to make people laugh. Others, like his four-years-in-the-making opus “The Meaning of Life,” leave audiences amazed and in awe of the sheer creativity and animation prowess on display.

Then there’s the darker side of Hertzfeldt — the side responsible for his 2006 Sundance winner “everything will be ok” and its sequel, the just-released “i am so proud of you.”

Both films follow the sad, strange journey of Bill, a stick figure who lives every day of his life in exactly the same way until he suffers a mental breakdown and must compromise his suddenly meaningless existence with the possibility of death. The films reflect the grim thoughts of a man shaken out of his banal state of mind to confront his own mortality, and their dark nature stands in direct contrast to the bright and chipper exteriors of most mainstream animation. Yet, on closer inspection, perhaps all of Hertzfeldt’s work shares this bleak motif.

“I think all of (my films) are coming from more or less the same place,” Hertzfeldt wrote in an e-mail interview. “A friend once pointed out that the chain between all the films, beneath the comedy, is ‘quiet dread’ … which sounds like an underground goth band. But I don’t know, maybe it’s true.”

“i am so proud of you” will be holding its regional premiere tonight at 7 p.m. at the Michigan Theater, when the Ann Arbor Film Festival presents its program “An Evening with Don Hertzfeldt.” The event will showcase many selections from the filmmaker’s past and present, including “everything will be ok,” “Billy’s Balloon,” “The Meaning of Life,” his Oscar-nominated “Rejected” and the sublimely silly “Intermission in the Third Dimension,” which toured with the 2003 “The Animation Show,” produced by Mike Judge (“Office Space”). Hertzfeldt will hold a question and answer session following the screening.

Hertzfeldt shoots all of his movies on 35mm film — an increasingly rare sight in modern filmmaking — and animates everything by hand, meaning it can take him years to finish just a few minutes of footage.

He edits and mixes all the sound digitally, and he views these combined techniques as “a hybrid way of getting the best of both worlds, which I think all filmmakers do now to some degree.”

He acknowledges his specific style can only be achieved with 35mm: “I’m not exaggerating when I say that, visually, my last four films would have been impossible to create without this old camera.”

“There’s so many ways to see a movie these days, and so many different forms of media buzzing around people’s heads that any captive audience anywhere is a blessing for any filmmaker,” Hertzfeldt said, commenting on his perceived status as a fringe filmmaker and his return visits to the AAFF. “I’m just as happy to screen at a festival like Sundance or Ann Arbor as I am at Cannes or at the small local Mudberg film festival in the middle of nowhere.”

The filmmaker will next tackle the final installment in his “Bill trilogy,” and its eventual completion will almost certainly warrant another visit to the Ann Arbor Film Festival.

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