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All you need is a stick figure

staff note

Ever since the dawn of my movie-watching days, I have been singularly obsessed with animation. My fascination transcended fondness for the princesses in Disney films or the squishy CGI characters of early Dreamworks entries: I was fixated on the animation itself, the creation of elaborate set pieces and fluid movement from drawings alone. I grew up watching Pixar movies exclusively with the director’s commentary turned on, marveling at the innovation and invention that went into making something as commonplace as a ponytail or a garbage bag look realistic.

Dissatisfied with what I could learn from special features and Internet searches alone, I started collecting “The Art of...” books — special volumes of concept illustrations and technical explanations for a particular animated film. I soaked up every word and image, from the miniature construction diagrams used for the stop-motion environments in “Paranorman” to the piles of preliminary sketches of the characters in “The Peanuts Movie” that were eventually mapped onto three-dimensional models. Before I could blink, I had devoured every bit of trivia available about every animated film and, in the twilight of adolescence, was searching for something more substantive than fantastic foxes and neighbors named Totoro. That was when I discovered Don Hertzfeldt.

Don Hertzfeldt does not operate out of a studio. He does not use cutting-edge computer-generated images or even the evolved technology available for two-dimensional animation. Most of the characters in his pieces are stick figures, set against blank-white backgrounds. In spite of his work’s almost sterile simplicity, it is some of the most striking and gorgeous animation ever drawn, spanning the generic range from darkly hilarious ruminations on capitalism to heartbreaking dives into the generational trauma of mental illness. And nearly every single aspect of the entire production is done by Hertzfeldt himself.

Trying to cover the breadth and influence of Hertzfeldt’s work in any amount of words is an impossible task, but his filmography deserves even a cursory examination. After beginning with minutes-long short films — including the Oscar-winning “Rejected,” which quickly became a staple of early-Internet surrealist culture — he started creating longer-format pieces that would eventually culminate in his undisputed magnum opus, “It’s Such a Beautiful Day.” 

Though not quite feature-length, the movie — composed of three 20-minute short films — is a stirring examination of mental illness and what it means to be sick in our modern world on an individual, generational and eventually cosmic scale. The protagonist is a stick figure, like all of Hertzfeldt’s other characters, but he is imbued with such depth and presence by both Hertzfeldt’s droll narration and the minute yet expressive tweaks made to his simple face that he becomes more than just a flat sketch: He becomes human. 

When I found “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” I was rattled. I had always enjoyed animation on a technical level — and even come to love some animated films more than their live-action counterparts — but I never thought that just an hour of stick figures could be so breathtakingly profound. Instead of lush graphics and crystal-clear sound, “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” is interspersed with sporadic splashes of color photography and crackles with homemade foleys, designed (again) by Hertzfeldt to most accurately reflect the soundscape of daily life. 

Through this attention to sensory detail and a script packed full of lines in turns hilarious and haunting, Hertzfeldt creates an experience totally divorced from reality yet entrenched in the drudgery of the human condition. Where other animated films tried to achieve verisimilitude by using contemporary CGI technology or rotoscoping human actors, “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” finds that affecting verity by removing all the crenellations and distractions of life, reducing it and the people in it down to the few broad strokes that define them. 

Animation has always served as a flexible medium through which human stories can be told through any object or entity imaginable, yet it is Hertzfeldt’s grounded work that fully demonstrates the power of animation to go where cameras and computers cannot. His dialogue would seem cheap coming from the mouths of actors, his metaphorical notions of what it feels like to die impossible to visually conceptualize with even the most stunning CGI technology. When Bill dissociates and his neck begins to elongate, eventually sending his head into space to explore distant planets, it is easy to see the meaning behind the imagery with nothing obscuring its starkness. A simple, floating head on a squiggly line says what no film frame ever could.

As much as I love the structural intricacies of stop-motion and the cell shading that goes into two-dimensional animation, the pinnacle of animation as an art form will always begin and end with Don Hertzfeldt to me. His devotion to creating every single feature by hand and mining incredible depth from the most mundane, miserable parts of life makes his work uniquely necessary. Hertzfeldt shows us that art does not have to be conventionally beautiful or cutting-edge or complex: Sometimes, all you need is a stick figure.

Sydny Long is a Trinity junior and Recess culture editor.

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