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How Don Hertzfeldt made his mind-bending stick figure animation into a strange and terrific book

The two-time Oscar nominee turned the scratch material from his award-winning animations into a tale of a weird apocalypse.

A stick figure drawing of an older person.
From the book THE END OF THE WORLD by Don Hertzfeldt. 
Copyright 2019 by the author. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Don Hertzfeldt is a friendly, funny, mild-mannered guy. But if you’re familiar with any of his films — like the World of Tomorrow series, “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” or the hysterically macabre “Rejected” — that demeanor might surprise you. His animated shorts are apocalyptic and unnerving, hilarious and sometimes gruesome. They’re the stories of stick figures undergoing existential crises, living in a post-human future, or just getting knocked on the head a lot by a killer balloon. They’re absurd and surreal. I watch them over and over again.

Hertzfeldt, who lives in Austin, has been widely recognized for his animated films, nabbing two Oscar nominations for Best Animated Short Film and two Grand Jury Prizes at Sundance (where he holds the record for the director with the most films selected to compete at the festival, eight in all). He even took a crack at America’s longest-running animated family, The Simpsons, with the very strange couch gag that opened the show’s season 26 premiere in 2016.

And now he’s got a book titled — in typically Hertzfeldtian fashion — The End of the World, which his website describes as “flaccid and distressing.”

The End of the World has traveled a long and winding road to its current form — a hand-drawn graphic novel — that was published by Penguin Random House earlier this month. Hertzfeldt worked on it on and off for years; a prior iteration, published in 2013 by the indie publisher Antibookclub, was available in very limited quantities and almost instantly became a collector’s item for Hertzfeldt’s moderately sized but ravenously devoted fan base.

The book collects, essentially, a bunch of scrap material lying around in Hertzfeldt’s brain. Originally drawn on Post-It notes, the panels in The End of the World, one per page, chronicle strange moments in a not-quite-coherent universe. “For a few moments today, it will actually be tomorrow, but nobody will notice” is scrawled across one page, above a few stick figures running around looking busy. “Another aging rock star becomes a fading parody of rebellion” is scratched across another page, with a paunchy-looking stick figure standing on a stage beneath it, shimmying for a crowd of round heads.

An image of a balloon with the text “Balloons Are the Offspring of Ghosts and Tires”
From the book The End of the World by Don Hertzfeldt.
Copyright (c) 2019 by the author. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

They’re really weird, and really great. Though the panels are largely disconnected, they all make a kind of dream-logical sense. And for the new publication with Penguin Random House, Hertzfeldt has added some new material, including hints of some of his most famous works (a sequence from the 2015 installment of World of Tomorrow appears almost verbatim). The result, as Hertzfeldt told me during a recent phone interview, is like a collection of B-sides.

Hertzfeldt and I also talked about the origins of the book, the apocalypse, intuition, and art-making, among lots of other things. Our conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity, follows.

Alissa Wilkinson

So I know the origin story of this book is pretty nontraditional. Can you tell me about how it ended up in this form?

Don Hertzfeldt

It goes all the way back to when I was in film school. I was at the time one of the only animators on campus. There was a younger fellow who was animating a student project. It was months and months and months of work. I didn’t know him very well, but through the grapevine I heard that his apartment was broken into and his computer was stolen and all of his animation was gone. It was all in his hard drive and all that work was just gone. He was devastated and depressed.

I took him out to lunch. I just felt like, What a horrible thing to happen — animation kinship, or whatever. I was like, “You’ve just got to start over again. You have to start animating again and recreate this project. Maybe it can be better than it was before.” I was trying to bring him back up. He was thinking, “No, I really think maybe this is a sign. Maybe I should get into graphic novels.” That was another one of his passions.

To his credit, he didn’t listen to me, and today he’s a bestselling graphic novelist and he’s super successful. I gave him the worst advice possible.

A few years later, he got back in touch with me and asked if I wanted to contribute a piece to this graphic novel anthology he was putting together with friends of his. I thought that was a super-interesting idea.

It’s odd, because I’d been drawing forever and I’d been reading comic books forever. I still read tons of graphic novels today. But for whatever reason, even when I was a kid and I wrote my own comic books, I never did layout. I never understood layout. I never thought about it. It’s a real talent to be able to lay out a comic book page. The panels are different sizes, and some of them are circles; where to direct the eye — I just knew nothing about it and it was super intimidating.

I thought, Okay, for this anthology thing what if it was an 8.5x11” book? I could fit six Post-It notes on a frame of that size, and then I’ve already got squares. My habit while animating was — this is before I had an iPad or anything like that — I would always take notes on Post-It notes. I just had them around.

I found myself returning to [the Post-Its] over the years [after my contributions to the anthology were published], because at the time it wasn’t even a story. It was just these one-off panels, these weird little ideas that couldn’t fit into any movie I was working on. This pile of stuff just grew over the years. When I say this book took almost 10 years to make, that means one panel, and then nothing for five years, and then six panels. It was a real stop-and-start, a depository for a bunch of spare parts.

What was fun about it when I [first published] the book in 2013, collecting all of the Post-It panels, is I didn’t do any interviews for it. I didn’t even put my name on the cover of the book. And now I’m talking about it for the first time, in many ways, so you have to forgive me if I fumble all over the place.

When the first version of the book came out, I did describe it as a collection of B-sides. Then I realized a lot of people don’t know what B-sides are anymore. When I was a teenager, I’d have my favorite bands. You have everything they’ve ever recorded, but you have to get the single, because there’s a B-side on there. It’s when you would find your favorite band at their most relaxed and unguarded, because you just put filler on the B-side. It’s an album outtake. It’s a weird cover. It’s an instrumental, maybe. It’s stuff from those sessions that they didn’t have any other thing to do with them but fill a B-side. Sometimes you’d find this amazing track and it’s just like, Wow, why didn’t this make it to the album? This is amazing! It maybe just didn’t fit. Who knows.

The book was a lot like that to me: You hunt through these B-sides and it’s trash, trash, trash, trash, trash, treasure!, trash, trash, trash, trash. Every now and then, you’re sifting through the pile, and Whoa, that’s kind of interesting. This is a neat little idea.

So this is eight to 10 years of B-sides from my movies. I’m always writing; I’m always jotting these notes down. They don’t always fit into whatever I’m working on that day. I just throw them into the heap.

So eventually, I just thought it would be a fun idea to put these out. I thought, I have enough now — maybe there’s a story in here, or something I can do to make it a little more narratively driven. So I dove back in. It really became one of those — you know those refrigerator magnet thingies, where it’s just a bunch of words, and you go to your friend’s house, and someone has constructed a poem out of these word magnets?

Alissa Wilkinson

Yeah, Magnetic Poetry?

Don Hertzfeldt

Yeah. You can move them around and create something different. Or you remove one word and the whole thing changes. It was a lot like that. So many of these are one-off panels until you put them next to each other. Then suddenly there’s a connection implied, even though these ideas could be years apart.

A lot of my work was arranging the panels in an order that made sense, even though the individual panels weren’t conceived all at once. I was cutting things out and putting things back in and moving things around, right up until that book was published. In fact, in this new edition, I couldn’t help it: I did more of that.

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s so interesting — you can see a kind of handmade quality to the book, even though it’s clearly a real book. There are smudges, and near some of the edges of the pages you can see images of a crumpled paper. I think that’s especially fun, since I’m so used to watching your work on a screen. But I guess that might be scary for you, especially because with a film you get to control the speed at which we experience the story, and with a book the reader is in control.

Don Hertzfeldt

Yeah. The Post-It notes turned out to be great, because for the book we enlarged them to fit each page, and that’s where all that texture and smudginess comes from.

Drawing on Post-Its changes how I draw, because I’m drawing on a very miniature scale. A little character on one of these pages is tiny on a Post-It note. I’m using completely different drawing abilities. It just makes them look looser and stranger compared to some of the other things I draw.

I do miss sound and I do miss being able to control the pace, but I didn’t miss the chore of animating. And the fact that you start to realize, Okay, animation is the ... What’s the word? It’s the least immediate way to make a movie or to tell a story. You work, work, work, work, but then when the final result is in front of an audience, it’s an immediate experience.

Whereas something like this, the work of making it is more immediate. I just draw this thing once and, wow, the scene is done. It’s less of an immediate experience for the reader, obviously. There’s more imagination filling in the blanks and choosing their own pace and that sort of thing.

Alissa Wilkinson

Although what’s often most fun for the reader is that you look at the page and sometimes it takes a minute for the joke to break over you. There’s one page I laughed at, near the beginning. The text is something about how a character would sometimes take a leg out of the freezer just to look at it. Then we see a little stick man looking at a table. And then there’s the leg — and it’s just a stick leg, just two lines. Of course it’s a stick leg, because this is a stick man, but there’s something very funny and macabre about it. The timing for the joke is kind of built into the image itself.

An image of two stick figures with the text “She Still Remembers Its Eyes ... Its Blinking Eyes.”
From The End of the World by Don Hertzfeldt.
Copyright (c) 2019 by the author. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Don Hertzfeldt

Yes. Oddly enough, that was a panel that I had cut from the first edition. I have no idea why. I don’t remember really putting that book together.

For this edition, I wasn’t very concerned about making changes [from the original], because this isn’t exactly Shakespeare. I took out a couple of things that bothered me. I put in many more frames that all of a sudden I like again. With films, if I’m allowed, I will also continue to edit endlessly, because it’s never going to be quite right.

Alissa Wilkinson

The tinkering impulse!

Actually, I have a weird question. A lot of panels in this book are about people losing legs. Was that intentional? Do you have a thing about people losing legs? I guess when you make a lot of images over a long period of time, your brain keeps returning to the same themes unconsciously, maybe?

Don Hertzfeldt

Geez. No? I think some of these are literally dreams that I had and then illustrated — which is true of a lot of my movie writing as well. This was a very semi-conscious effort because so much of it came from times where I’d animate all night long, and then I still had some energy left over, so let me just do a couple of these panels and toss them aside and not look at them again for three years.

This was maybe the least calculated, least constructed, most experimental thing I’ve done; there are probably as many panels that I discarded as there are panels that made it into this book. Maybe I didn’t choose the right ones. Who knows. So much of this was new territory for me.

I’m flipping through it right now and I forgot that there’s World of Tomorrow stuff in here.

Alissa Wilkinson

I was going to ask you about that. Was that all included originally?

Don Hertzfeldt

It was. That was a case of random ideas finally finding a home. The first edition of the book came out in 2013 and World of Tomorrow came out a couple years later. The scene with David and the cloned child in the museum — I like the yellow look of those Post-It notes, and it was just so attached in my head to that scene that when I went to animate it in World of Tomorrow, it’s all in yellow. I retained all of the yellow and the pencil look, because I was just so used to visualizing it that way.

I have a corral of ideas always, somewhere. It’s often my diary, where I’ll be in the middle of writing a piece and then I’ll look at my older stuff in my diary or some old drawings for inspiration, and there’ll be a line in my diary that’ll make it into that current film. I feel like your brain is always throwing out ideas and things. You’ve got to write everything down because something might be gold 10 years from now that you’re not aware of.

Alissa Wilkinson

I think some writers rely on their subconscious and others find it kind of uncomfortable, because it makes them feel so vulnerable. How about you? Do you feel vulnerable or uncomfortable?

Don Hertzfeldt

Wow. I’m more interested in the people who are uncomfortable with that. Is that common?

Alissa Wilkinson

Well, as a writer, I’ve never loved having to write a lot about myself or rely on what my subconscious unearths. I like more removal between myself and my writing, which is probably part of why I’m a critic. But other people are really, really intuitive about it. I find that to be pretty fascinating with artists.

Don Hertzfeldt

Yeah. That is super ... I think a lot of the time it’s a matter of listening. I think it’s being open to whatever is being cooked up back there. Sometimes it fits what you’re interested in writing about today and sometimes it doesn’t. That doesn’t invalidate the idea or the dream or the interesting sentence or the thought. But it’s almost like a random sentence generator: You’re constantly just coming up with nonsense.

I feel like in a way it’s like using the happy accidents that would happen in a movie production. Your actor says something unexpected that’s a better improvisation than what’s in the script. The weather didn’t cooperate, maybe this scene works better if it’s a rainy day.

Let’s say it’s a straight story script with a three-act structure, everything is plotted out. I don’t think what I could sit down and write straight like that from a blank page to completion is going to be better than the twists that can be tossed out by, like, What if I put in this thing I dreamt last night? or Would this work? In my experience, [that kind of intuition has] always improved the project.

Maybe that comes from being an animator. We know the process of animating is so awful and so time consuming. You sit and you draw, draw, draw, and it’s not fun. It often just feels like busy work. You’re just connecting the dots. For me, as a writer, anything I can do to shake that up and add a new twist and keep it feeling fresh is huge for me because if I have a script that I’m working on for years and it’s just set in stone, that’s a prison sentence. You get tired of a joke after a moment, but you’ve got to live with it animating it for weeks and weeks and weeks.

Alissa Wilkinson

It feels pretty gutsy to release a book titled The End of the World right now. The whole book strikes me as being about the apocalypse. What, for you, is its subject?

Don Hertzfeldt

Good question. I have always felt very ... Oh, boy. I don’t think the world is ending. I don’t have a very high opinion of people, very generally speaking, on a cosmic scale. I don’t think we matter that much. When we talk about the end of the world, we’re mostly talking about the end of humanity, because the world is going to be fine without us, if not better. I do feel like a passive observer sometimes to the human race doing whatever they’re doing because so little of it matters.

I think of this when I see a Saturday Night Live rerun, of all things. If you see a Saturday Night Live rerun from 1976 or something, they do “Weekend Update” and they make jokes about all of the topical things in the world that week. And it’s all of these names I’ve never heard of. It’s all of these events that just don’t really matter that much anymore. We’re not aware of them 40 years later. Yet these were the headlines of the day. I feel like we’re constantly focused on nonsense while the big picture is slipping away ...

This is really hard to express. It has nothing to do with the book. To me, the book is dreamlike. There’s no logic to these events. [In the book], it’s like the world has been hit in the head and it’s hallucinating for 200 pages.

Overall, I don’t feel stressed out by headlines. I don’t feel so depressed by them. They are depressing most of the time, but I also sort of feel a strange detachment a lot of the time that is kind of liberating, almost like you’re an alien observing these strange people ruining their planet and doing these things to each other that’s just absurd. There’s just absurdity in all of this that I think might be funny years from now, or decades from now, but isn’t always funny as it’s happening.

I hope we’ll be around to laugh at it. Maybe it’s okay if we’re not. I don’t know. I just don’t know.

The End of the World is available now.

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