They say creativity is born of limitations. If that’s true, then is any animator working today more creative than Don Hertzfeldt? “The stars of his movies are all near-featureless stickmen with dots for eyes and a single line for a mouth,” writes The Guardian‘s David Jenkins in an appreciation of Hertzfeldt, whose “method of making grand existential statements with almost recklessly modest means” — animating everything himself, and doing it all with traditional hand-drawing-and-film-camera methods that at no point involve computer-generated imagery — “has made his cinematic oeuvre one of the most fascinating and enjoyable of all contemporary American directors.”
As an example Jenkins holds up 2005’s The Meaning of Life, which “tackled nothing less than the nature of organic life in the known universe, addressing the painstaking development of the human form through a series of (often highly amusing) Darwinian transmutations.”
You can glimpse its four-year-long animation process, which appears to have been almost as painstaking, in time-lapse making-of documentary Watching Grass Grow. At Short of the Week, Rob Munday writes that, though The Meaning of Life takes on “a subject already familiar to the format (evolution has also been portrayed in short film by animators Michael Mills, Claude Cloutier and I’m sure many more),” it also sees Hertzfeldt adding “his own distinct take to proceedings with his unmistakable style and injections of dark humor.”
That special brand of humor has long been familiar to the many viewers who have stumbled across Hertzfeldt’s earlier Rejected, a short composed of even shorter shorts originally commissioned — and, yes, rejected — by the Family Learning Channel. As one of the first animations to “go viral” in the Youtube era, Rejected not only made Hertzfeldt’s name but paved the way for projects at once more ambitious, more surreal, more comic, and more serious: take the 65-minute It’s Such a Beautiful Day, which follows one of his signature stickmen into prolonged neurological decline. The Meaning of Life might seem positive by comparison, but its cosmic sweep belies Hertzfeldt’s underlying critique of all that evolution has produced. As Jenkins paraphrases it, “Were we really worth all that effort?”
The Meaning of Life–which Time Out New York named the film one of the “thirty best animated short films ever made”–has been added to our list of Free Animations, a subset of our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.