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Cartoonists get beyond anger

Computer-generated images are putting animators on the defensive. But 'The Animation Show' calmly champions hand-drawn shorts.

September 15, 2003|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

Don Hertzfeldt says at this point, he's beyond mad.

"I started doing cartoons when I was 18. I was mad back then," says the animator, now 27. As a student at UC Santa Barbara, he made his first animated films of stick figures that dangled from balloon strings, knocked each other silly and talked backward. His hand-drawn film "Billy's Balloon" was an instant hit on the animation film circuit, and his 2000 film "Rejected" won him an Oscar nomination.

But while he knew how to make people laugh, he says, "I didn't know how to sell or make a contract. So many people rip you off, and take your rights away, give you pennies and make you feel thankful....

"Those were the angry years. Then came the bitter years."

At 40, Hertzfeldt's fellow animator Mike Judge ("King of the Hill") isn't really mad anymore. But he remembers similar struggles even after MTV had picked up his first short films from festival screenings ("Beavis and Butt-head") in the early 1990s.

He was trying to persuade Hollywood executives that his hand-drawn nitwits commenting on music videos were funny enough for a feature film. "They were telling me, 'You've got to do it live action. No one's going to pay $7 and line up around the building to see two crudely drawn animated characters going `unnh unnh,' " he says. The movie that was eventually made for $10 million, 1996's "Beavis and Butt-head Do America," grossed $65 million in the United States.

"Whatever qualities make you succeed in the executive world," Judge says wryly, "a lot of times, that gene is linked to a lack of a sense of humor."

Now that Judge and Hertzfeldt are considered among the country's top comic animators, they want to help colleagues be recognized and appreciated in a climate they say has gone from bad to worse. The pair are touring with a show they compiled of 14 animated shorts -- an eclectic mix of oldies, classics and contemporary films. Financed largely by Judge, and shepherded by Hertzfeldt, "The Animation Show" previewed in Los Angeles to an appreciative crowd in August and will return Sept. 19-25 at Laemmle's Regent Showcase in Los Angeles and Laemmle's Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.

"It's a passion project for both of us," Hertzfeldt says. "The goal is to put animated shorts into more theaters than ever before. I don't care if we bomb, we just want exposure."

Once a popular part of the moviegoing experience, hand-drawn animated shorts have hit hard times as computer-generated images put traditional 2-D animators out of work, animation festivals that showcase new talent dry up, and commercials and trailers use up screen time. Judge and Hertzfeldt "see the need for this kind of show to be done and handled by people who care," says animation historian Jerry Beck, who runs an animation Web site, www.cartoonresearch.com, out of Los Angeles.

As the better known of the two, Judge, is "really doing a service to the industry," says Allan Neuwirth, a TV producer and author of "Makin' Toons." "It gives hope to people to create shorts. And it's another opportunity for the public to view these little masterpieces."

High demand after all

Judge and Hertzfeldt started talking about a festival two years ago in Austin, Texas, where Judge resides. Judge saw a flier for a "Don and Bill Show" at a theater devoted to the short animated films of Hertzfeldt and Bill Plympton, another leading independent animator.

"The reason I started doing animation was I just loved the way animation looks projected on the big screen," says Judge, who used to attend every festival that showed the shorts. He had admired Hertzfeldt's work, which like his own was shown in theaters and on television in other countries, notably France, but rarely in the U.S. "Here in the United States, you have to launch a series to do animation," he says. "There's not a lot of places to put a short or sell it."

The "Don and Bill Show" sold out for three days, Judge says. "I saw a line, almost another theater full of people they had to turn away, both nights I went," he said. "I was thinking maybe it's just because it's Austin," a town of Hollywood ex-pats and film aficionados. "Don said no, that he had gone to Memphis and sold out a theater in a mall with just regular people who go see regular movies."

It occurred to him that, contrary to the general perception of Hollywood executives, there is a domestic audience for animated shorts. "Just a lot of places never tried playing this stuff," he says.

Stick-figure power

Despite the proliferation of cartoons on television, Hollywood executives still don't grasp the power of the form, Hertzfeldt says. "An artist is the auteur of every single frame. You're limited only to your imagination. You don't have to worry about the weather. You can do any surrealist thing you want."

Along with Plympton, Judge and Hertzfeldt are two of the top comic artists in the country, Beck says. Though their cartoons look simple and primitive, they are painstakingly hand-drawn and shot at a high-quality 24 frames per second

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