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The Persistence of Memory: Don Hertzfeldt on the ‘World of Tomorrow’ Trilogy

The Texas-based animator/cult filmmaker on the making of his mindblowing and heartbreaking trilogy — and why he switched things up for the last episode

A scene from 'World of Tomorrow: Episode 3.'

Don Hertzfeldt

Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow series began in 2015 with an odd, wistful animated sci-fi short film, largely born out of a surreal, and somewhat baffling storytelling choice: The plot of its initial “episode” would be based entirely around recorded conversations with his four-year-old niece, Winona. Her adorable, babbled musings (“I drew….a TRI-angle!!!”) became the voice of the pigtailed Emily Prime, who is visited by an older, cloned version of herself (voiced by animator Julia Plott) through time travel.

The first World of Tomorrow’s hilarious yet poignant tour of a tech-obsessed, doom-filled future earned the 44-year-old Texas-base animator his second Oscar nomination (after receiving an Academy nod for his 2000 short film Rejected), and he’s continued to build upon the universe he created with two subsequent shorts. World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts (2017) expanded the cloning and “outernet” concepts from the first film, while Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime, released late last year, broke entirely from the format altogether. Instead of young Emily, we follow David — a character briefly introduced in Episode One — as he unwillingly embarks on a perilous epic journey through space and time, led by one of Emily’s future clones.

As with many of Hertzfeldt’s projects, this trilogy has largely been a labor of love, with Hertzfeldt working solo to create his distinct, ultra-minimalist animation style. All three are currently available on his Vimeo page; this week, he wraps up a Kickstarter campaign to bring all three films in the series to Blu-Ray. (It’s a similar project to what he did for his earlier trilogy, It’s Such a Beautiful Day, whose Blu-Ray sales helped fund the restoration of five of Hertzfeldt’s older films as well as the production of World of Tomorrow.)

“Everything I’ve ever animated would have quickly withered on the independent film vine over twenty-five years ago if the audience wasn’t always there to buy a ticket,” Hertzfeldt wrote to Kickstarter backers. “I am like PBS but with more screaming. So thank you for being so wonderful.”

Although the first three World of Tomorrow shorts will receive their own Blu-Ray package, Hertzfeldt has left the door open for more installments in the series. Speaking to Rolling Stone over email, Hertzfeldt discussed his inspirations for the films’ world, how he mapped out the complex plot intricacies of Episode Three, and what World of Tomorrow fans can expect in the years to come.

This new World of Tomorrow episode feels like a pretty vast departure from the format of the previous films. What made you decide to focus this one on a new character’s origins instead?

Don Hertzfeldt

Don Hertzfeldt (Courtesy of Don Hertzfeldt)

I love the first two episodes, but I was starting to feel really tied down from not being able to actually write dialogue for one of my main characters. With my niece Winona, we captured a lot of lightning in a bottle, and she was wonderful. The downside was that whenever I needed Emily Prime to say something, all I could do was sort through this list of totally random lines that I happened to have a clean recording of. It’s a very difficult way to make a movie. One and Two set up this new universe, and Episode Three felt like my first chance to get out and really start exploring it.

There didn’t seem to be any doubt that adult Emily, or some distant version of her, would eventually try to locate a David. I have an early draft of the Episode Three script where I excitedly wrote “It’s a love story!” in the margin when I realized the direction it was going to take. In the first World of Tomorrow, David shows up, says nothing, and drops dead. I guess he’s very romantic like that, but there was plenty of open backstory there to get into. And I also liked the question of whether these people are actually in love at all, or just following the inevitable programming of these memories they inherited. Or maybe both.

Memory, and its relationship to modern technology, has been a huge theme within these films from the get-go. But Episode Three seems especially concerned with the temporality of memory, and how the ways we choose to store memory are always more fragile than we assume. What inspired you to go down that path?

My mom once told me a story about two sisters she knew who loved Elvis. When they were teenagers, the sisters waited for him outside the stage doors after a show in a big crowd of fans, and when Elvis came out to sign autographs, he kissed one of them on the cheek. Later in life, the two sisters would always argue bitterly over which one of them got the kiss. They agreed that Elvis had only kissed one of them, but each one was certain that it happened to her.

I always thought that was a really amazing example of how memories can be so weird and messy: one of the sisters had wanted the Elvis kiss so badly that she unconsciously rewrote her memory and convinced herself of it! Today my mom tells me that I’ve been remembering her story wrong for years, and the sisters never actually disagreed about the kiss. So now I guess it’s an even better example of how memories are weird and messy.

So what does it mean when so many of these important memories are proven over and over again to be so sloppy and just wrong? Even as we try to hold onto them, they’re constantly being rewritten behind the scenes. The sisters never even argued about Elvis. So maybe we’re all just making ourselves up as we go.

When I think about modern technology and memories, I think of stuff like Facebook and Instagram. It’s a presentation of someone’s experiences and memories, and they seem to be objective photos, but we all accept that many of them are exaggerated for effect and arguably inaccurate too. We’ve just sort of extended that comfortable sloppiness outside of our minds.

You satirize the internet in these films, and in this one there’s a running gag about aggressive pop-up ads and sponsored content. How did you come up with this terrifying “online box” around David’s head, especially as it becomes increasingly bleak as the film goes on?

A few years ago, Google Glass and other wearable tech were supposed to be the next big thing, but they never really took off like everyone expected. One theory was that when somebody wears that sort of interactive stuff in public, we unconsciously perceive them to be submissive to the equipment and therefore weak. Seeing someone walk around with a hands-free attachment, like a VR headset, makes them unattractive to us because this person doesn’t look like they’re in control. They look beholden to this unnatural thing stuck on them. But if you see a person walking down the street actively pushing buttons on their phone, it gives us the impression of a person in command of things, because we’re [used] to seeing people use tools with their hands.

David’s box was sort of a leap from that idea, where there’s this literal cage that encloses his head when he activates a chip in his brain. He’s not a guy who’s in control. His timeline predates the first World of Tomorrow so I wanted the technology in his life to be a little more glitchy and dirty, like they’re still figuring out how to live with this stuff. There’s no outernet yet so it’s still very physical. Deleting a file from your head is painful.

world of tomorrow

A scene from the original ‘World of Tomorrow’. (Courtesy Don Hertzfeldt)

Given that you’re dealing with multiple characters’ clones — not to mention many, many fragments in the space-time continuum — how did you keep track of your story’s timeline?

I ran into a lot of brick walls. There are many Davids and Emilys running around the universe in different dimensions and the episode connects directly to the first World of Tomorrow, while also acting as both a prequel and a sequel — which to me meant I was risking wrecking that movie by proxy if this one didn’t turn out any good.

As the writing got more confusing, I got this big whiteboard where I could plot out the timelines of all the episodes, everyone’s cloning dates, and every year certain things were invented. I’d make a little progress and then reach another wall where something else didn’t add up — “Wait a minute, if this David knows this, then how does this happen?” — and went back to work until every story thread finally seemed watertight. And then my cat walked over one day and erased the whiteboard and I had to figure it out all over again. You’re probably wondering how he did that, and let me just tell you that he found a way.

Were you concerned at all that viewers would get lost?

Oh, I counted on people getting lost. When your plot is so complicated that you have to show the audience several flow charts to even understand what’s happening, you’ve sort of got that coming. But it’s OK to be confused. It’s a big ridiculous farce. Hopefully it’s something that’s fun to get lost in. All the time travel logic works out if you care to keep track, at least I think it does, but the main thing is making sure everyone’s still on board emotionally in the end for David and Emily.

The last 10 minutes of the new film are practically wordless, and contain so many plot twists near the end, but they’re also the only part of the World of Tomorrow series that feels like a straightforward narrative: “This happened to this David clone, then this happened, then this happened.” It’s a long way from all the scattered vignettes the third-generation Emily leads us through in Episode One, or the Emily clone’s constant age-jumping in Episode Two. Was that change in how you tell the story a conscious decision on your part?

It was a strange story to write. You’re dealing with two leads who spend the movie apart from each other, communicating through a one-way message. And David’s been an almost totally silent character since Episode One, so I wanted to see if I could keep him that way and direct an entire episode where the main character says nothing.

That means you’re left with Emily just monologuing, which can be a lot harder for an audience to endure than long conversations. Instead of trying to weasel around it, I just had her talk so much in the first half that David’s finally just screaming in misery. It was easily Julia’s funniest performance.

And with that out of the way, Emily could make an exit and give everyone a break so I could tell the rest of the story with only music and sound. Episode Three is twice as long as the first World of Tomorrow so I felt like I needed to really shift gears in the middle there and give everything a chance to breathe. And I loved the straightforwardness of telling the rest of the story without words. There’s a sort of pure feeling about getting to make a movie with only pictures and music, like a silent film.

Your past works like Rejected and It’s Such a Beautiful Day eschew genre for the most part, whereas World of Tomorrow embraces a lot of sci-fi conventions. What’s the best part about getting to play around with a specific genre for you?

A genre story just brings certain expectations and shortcuts that can quickly get the author and the audience on the same page. So if you’re making a western, you don’t have to spend any time in your story explaining why everyone’s on horseback. When you’re writing in a genre, you get to jump into this big shared playpen that’s already full of great toys. You’re able to hit the ground running.

And given that these are sci-fi films, do you ever think about what audiences 10 or 20 years from now will think of the trilogy when looking back on them? What do you hope the takeaway will be?

Now that you mention it, we’ve been talking to distributors lately and I’m a little afraid that if I continue to be stuck animating everything alone, 10 years from now audiences might still be wondering when Episode Four is even coming out. Maybe this will be the series we all grow old with. I wish I didn’t have to work so slowly. But if help never comes along, I also have to admit I kind of like the idea of a time travel miniseries taking 50 years to complete.

From Rolling Stone US