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A cartoon about a clone from the future may be 2015’s best film by
Throughout this year’s Sundance Film Festival, whenever I’d run into my fellow critics, we’d go through the usual ritual exchange of, “What have you liked so far?” Passing movie titles back and forth, more often than I could count, the conversation would end with one or both of us saying, “Of course, the best thing I’ve seen is that Don Hertzfeldt cartoon, ‘World Of Tomorrow.’ I don’t expect anything to top it.”Can an animated short be the best film at a festival? Or the best of the year? Because although “World Of Tomorrow” is only 15 minutes long, it’s as funny, imaginative, and heartbreaking as anything released so far in 2015, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I could make that same claim on December 31. At Sundance, where I had a link to an online screener, I watched “World Of Tomorrow” nearly every night before I went to sleep, as a pre-bedtime devotional. I’ve done the same a few times since Hertzfeldt recently made the film available as a 30-day rental via Vimeo. For me, the brevity of “World Of Tomorrow” isn’t a stumbling block, it’s a virtue. How often is a movie this outstanding also so concise that it can be watched at least once a day?
In “World Of Tomorrow,” Hertzfeldt opens with a black-and-white side-view of the videophone that looks like nothing more than a random (and somewhat rude) assortment of lines and curves. Soon though, the screen becomes a riot of color and symbols—as though it were a window into a future that our early 21st century brains can barely understand.
Even if there were nothing to “World Of Tomorrow” but Hertzfeldt’s art, it’d still be a delight. Pause the film at random and there’s nearly always something pretty to see, whether it’s the contrast of thick-lined characters and yellowish haze when Emily 3G warns against “getting lost in memory”…
to wring out of these little stick-people, just through the slightest tilt of the head or by forming a lovely pattern just behind them.
All of the above makes “World Of Tomorrow” sound heavy, which the film definitely can be. But it’s also frequently hilarious, and cute. Emily 3G’s deadpan adds some dry wit to the scene when she recalls the first messages her grandfather sent after he was uploaded into a digital cube (“Oh. Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. Oh my God. Holy mother of God. Oh. Oh. Oh. Oh God.”) or when she recites some of the poetry written by her abandoned moon-robots (“The light is life. Robot must move. Move robot move. But why? Move move move. Robot forever move.”) It’s also unbelievably adorable every time Emily 3G tries to impart mind-blowing information to this confused-but-friendly little kid (voiced by Hertzfeldt’s equally oblivious niece Winona Mae), who responds with questions like, “Do you like my cars?”
Logically, this is what has to happen, because otherwise there’d be no Emily 3G and no movie. But I like to see this ending as a moment of divine intervention from Hertzfeldt, granting a reprieve to a character too sweet to kill. “World Of Tomorrow” is dark at times, and deeply concerned with the meaning of life, but one of the main reasons why I’ve watched it so many times—and plan to watch it so many more—is that it stares into the void and then cheerily shrugs. “What a happy day it is,” Emily Prime says as she skips out of sight. And for a moment anyway, that’s so true.
Can you name a short film off the top of your head? Something you’d identify as a short film — you know: a film, but shorter. Not a YouTube video, not a skit. A short film.
If you can’t, that’s all right. Short films have long occupied a place in the moviemaking business similar to what short stories are for writers: They’re a way to hone your skills before you attempt the big project. But in the literary world, many writers will remain short-story specialists throughout their careers, even if the form is not generally as lucrative or as popular as the novel. Very few filmmakers, on the other hand, keep on making shorts. Short films are practice — they’re rehearsal.
Forget all of that and watch World of Tomorrow, an animated piece by Don Hertzfeldt that won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Short at Sundance.
Only 16 minutes long, and available to rent on Vimeo, World of Tomorrow is about a clone who comes back from the future to visit her young original self, and to describe the loves — ranging from human to mineral — that will define that child’s soon-to-end life. If that seems absurd, don’t worry: It is. But it’s all rendered so beautifully, on both a visual and emotional level, that by the end of the short, you’ll wonder less why it’s all happening and more what this means for the development of this little girl, a barely vocal sprite, who’s just been burdened with the very adult knowledge of death and heartbreak and need.
Aside from the fact that it might make you cry, World of Tomorrow — which is done in a style you could call avant-Flash; it looks a little like the games you used to play while you were bored in Psych 101, except a thousand times more wonderful — has an impact of a different sort. If a short can suture this much visual poetry into the fabric of a quarter-hour, then the medium must be underrated. That’s efficiency. And it suggests an idyllic future: What if you could get the satisfaction of a feature film in less time than it takes you to rewatch a Gilmore Girls episode for the fifth time?
Obviously, that’s a thought experiment; most filmmakers make features because most filmmakers are not Don Hertzfeldt: It isn’t easy to fit two hours of emotion into 20 minutes. But the point still stands: This is a viable entertainment that we’re severely underemploying. Why is that? Based on the way we consume media now, we should be in the Age of the Short.
Every day, YouTube’s billion users worldwide watch hundreds of millions of hours of video. The range of what they’re watching is the breadth of human existence — I still think regularly about this great Jake Swearingen piece touching on YouTube as the Panopticon — and while art might be only a small part of that breadth, it’s there. Among all the sloth videos and Worldstar fights and confessionals, there’s room for fictionalized entertainment, and not just comedy, which has already landed because it shares well and doesn’t require a full narrative or thematic gist.
The best example of this point might be High Maintenance. Vimeo will suggest that High Maintenance is a television show, because television shows are lucrative and having a television show is prestigious, but High Maintenance is much more a collection of short films than it is an episodic series. Each piece is self-contained and autonomous, with a firm beginning, middle, and end, and while they all exist inside the same world, united by main character The Guy, the overlap is an enhancement, not a necessity.
High Maintenance has an audience in the six figures. A significant part of this has to do with the fact that High Maintenance is great, thoughtful and sweet and never glib, a truly sincere piece of work in an aggressively insincere world. Another part, though, comes from the thrill of the reset. With each episode, you have no idea what you’re in for, and that fresh beginning helps establish each character as the protagonist in his or her own world — which, of course, we all are to ourselves. Plus, you can watch each one in 15 minutes or less. It’s consumption tailored nicely to a laptop beside your cutting board or an iPad screen in bed.
Like High Maintenance’s, Hertzfeldt’s success is significantly tied to the passion of his fans, who have patronized his work in the intimate way an off-mainstream artist requires to survive in 2015. But that work deserves a wider audience, and World of Tomorrow should be the catalyst — with its coexistent wonder and darkness, bringing to mind David Lynch and Hayao Miyazaki, this is art that has a place in a tradition of entertainment, not some abstract experiment bound for MoMA. And it takes only 15 minutes. Although, fair warning: You’ll be thinking about it for longer than that.
- Kevin Lincoln grantland.com/hollywood-prospectus/world-of-tomorrow-and-short-film-in-the-youtube-era/
After looking into one’s past with the profound animation It’s Such a Beautiful Day, Don Hertzfeldt headed to the future for his next project, a short film marking his work in three years. World of Tomorrow, now available on VOD, is an exceedingly brilliant odyssey into the outer reaches of a future universe that channels our inner anxieties of loneliness. The story concerns Emily (Winona Mae), a young girl, who meets her future self in the variety of an adult clone (Julie Pott), as the latter guides us through the bleak destiny that lies ahead. Bursting with creativity and hilarity, it’s at once a hilarious and deeply affecting piece of work, deserving of its top awards at both Sundance and SXSW.I got the opportunity to speak with Hertzfeldt ahead of the release of the short and we discussed his first foray into digital animation and how it fit within his story, working on multiple projects at once, collaborating with his niece for voice acting, the current state of independent animation, a potential sequel, what’s in store next for the director, digital distribution, and much more. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: Congrats on the movie. It was actually the last film I watched at Sundance and it was the best one there I saw.