Animated stick figures give short films of Don Hertzfeldt a big heart

A longtime favorite of indie animators and festival audiences, the work of Don Hertzfeldt earned a bigger audience in 2015 thanks to Emily Prime and “World of Tomorrow.” (Photo via Bitter Films)
Animator Don Hertzfeldt makes stick figures and puts them into short films. But they’re existential stick figures, full of both comedy and tragedy, and that’s what helps make them award winners.

For the 12th straight year, Filmworks will present an exclusive Fresno screening of the Oscar-Nominated Short Films at the historic Tower Theatre on Feb. 10 and 11. The two evenings will feature five full programs of Academy Award-nominated short movies in the animation, live action, and documentary categories.

Here’s a sampling of Hertzfeldt’s work to hopefully get you in an animated mood for this year’s Oscar-nominated shorts.

“Rejected” (2000, full movie)
Straight out of film school at UC Santa Barbara, Hertzfeldt earned his first Oscar nomination for “Rejected,” which won dozens of festival awards worldwide. The 9 minute film is presented as an imagined series of bizarre television commercials rejected by the fictional Family Learning Channel and other advertisers. (Hertzfeldt has repeatedly rejected offers to do commercial work.)

“The Meaning of Life” (2005, full movie)
A juggernaut of emotion packed into a 12-minute film, Hertzfeldt took four years to make this Kubrickian ode to the evolution of humanity. Characters morph and change with the eons, repeating the same behaviors despite different forms. With darkly weird sound effects and a classical music score, it’s irresistible to compare the scope and feel of this short film to “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

“It’s Such a Beautiful Day” (2012, trailer)
This triptych stitches together ideas from Hertzfeldt’s web comics and three of his separately imagined short films — “Everything Will Be OK,” “I Am So Proud of You,” and “It’s Such a Beautiful Day.” In 62 minutes, we follow an earnest worrywart named Bill as he endearingly navigates aging, loss, and perhaps mental illness. And remember: Bill is a stick figure! Still, his ruminations can choke you up.

“World of Tomorrow” (2015, trailer)
The A.V. Club proclaimed of this masterful 15-minute short: “A cartoon about a clone from the future may be 2015’s best film.” Critics were universal in their praise of Hertzfeldt’s vision of Emily Prime, a little girl who is visited by a future version of herself and taken on a time-bending tour of her multiple lives. Filmworks first screened “World of Tomorrow” at the 2015 Fresno Film Festival as part of the traveling Sundance Film Festival Short Film Tour program, and then again at the 2016 Oscar shorts. It stands as one of the most cute, funny, heavy, and profound short films I’ve seen to date.

Jefferson Beavers serves as development director for Filmworks.