Soooo I’ve been working on something that’s a bit more serious, and I’ve wanted to come up with something a bit lighter for the interim. All of a sudden, I saw that a new Don Hertzfeldt short had been released, so that’s what I’m going to talk about.
That other video will come along eventually, I think. So keep an eye out. And as always, welcome to our new subscribers. Our little club is slowly but surely becoming … a slightly larger club than it was before.
Really quick background. Don Hertzfeldt is this guy who studied filmmaking then got into animation and he’s been releasing cool short pieces for about 20 years and some have been nominated for Oscars and he supposedly has the camera that was used to shoot the Peanuts Christmas Special.
World of Tomorrow is a series of short films that Hertzfeldt has been releasing periodically, and all three feature the voice acting of Julia Pott, a great animator in her own right who worked on Adventure Time and created a show that I really like called Summer Camp Island.
World of Tomorrow Episode 3 is brand new and it’s available to rent on Vimeo, I dunno, I didn’t see a purchase option.
Now here’s the review of Episode 3.
The overall tone here is very similar to that of Hertzfeldt’s more serious work, which really means the previous World of Tomorrow episodes and his titanic short film series, It’s Such a Beautiful Day, which, after watching for the first time, jumped up into my all-time favorite pieces of media, and to this day it’s still in there somewhere, hovering toward the very top.
But what is that tone, exactly? I guess I would describe it as a version of happy-sad comedy, which is usually used to describe the likes of Bojack, Louie, and even Insecure at certain moments.
It seems like Hertzfeldt really likes to combine weirdo storytelling elements with very genuine humor and emotion. It’s what he’s been doing for many years now, and it works tremendously. There’s definitely that postmodern aspect to a lot of his work where it feels like he’s purposely getting in the way of the viewer, but those moments never last too long before the viewer gets pulled back in with a compelling bit of storytelling or a great joke.
This point goes beyond World of Tomorrow specifically, but I think this is a fantastic way to get more people to check out work that could be classified as some variety of avant-garde. It’s such a wonderful balance that enhances both sides, the accessible and the challenging. They benefit from each other.
As for the story, I won’t be sharing any major details, but I will say that in comparison to the other World of Tomorrow shorts and It’s Such a Beautiful Day, this single entry probably gets the closest to having a direct and consistent narrative. From very early on, we know what the character’s motivations are and we watch as the character tries to achieve them, all while submerged in this ornate sci-fi future that implies a lot more detail than it explicitly provides.
I think the story also benefits from how long this short is. It’s over a thirty minutes and I’m not sure any Hertzfeldt short, on its own, has ever been this long. The runtime fits this episode really well, and that feeling was heightened by my very subjective excitement to be watching a new short from one of my favorite animators. I felt like I was being spoiled, not only because this story gets a satisfying conclusion but also because, as with any Hertzfeldt work, it’s incredibly dense.
The visual density is easy enough to notice, even just from the teaser clips for this one. You’ve got character models in his typical stick-figure style, then you’ve got digital animation and environments in almost every scene, and on top of it all there are windows of live-action video footage, which Hertzfeldt also used to great effect in the It’s Such a Beautiful Day shorts.
But that sense of density goes much farther. The sound design is also incredibly busy. Voiceover communicating important story elements gets distorted and obscured, and computer interface sound effects are very often loud and glitchy and also somehow appealing.
Most important to me, however, the conceptual density of the short. The World of Tomorrow episodes have been especially exciting for this exact reason. Yes, we can call this sci-fi, and that’s precisely what it is. But it’s a rare flavor of sci-fi that is so thoroughly packed with ideas and creativity and storytelling potential that it’s just plain overwhelming, in the best way possible.
When I look at examples of so-called classic sci-fi, a lot of it has maybe two or three cool new ideas and proceeds to lean into those ideas for the duration.
Blade Runner has replicants and, well, Blade Runners. Star Wars has dirty space ships and a pretty tired tale of rebelling against authority because the bad guys are bad, I guess. Even great contemporary sci-fi like Ex Machina stays pretty focused on a handful of themes and doesn’t tell us too much more about the fictional world we’re inhabiting.
Nothing wrong with this approach, and it definitely has its roots in old sci-fi fiction (think Ray Bradbury and trashy sci-fi/erotica magazines of the 50s and 60s), where each story had one central gimmick and that was about it. That one idea would get explored and then it was over.
But when it comes to the way Hertzfeldt handles sci-fi, I’m having trouble finding other media with a similar approach. The closest I can get for now is the fiction of George Saunders. Sure, a lot of his stories still revolve around a central concept, but each of those ideas is so evocative that it’s easy to imagine the world in which that story takes place.
World of Tomorrow just keeps throwing ideas at the viewer, and almost every single one of them would be 100% worthy of its own story. And some of the special enjoyment of watching Episode 3 comes from how it expands on and alters some of the excellent ideas from the two previous episodes.
Now, if this tendency to keep throwing cool sci-fi concepts at the viewer didn’t actually contribute to the story, I would probably get annoyed with it. The ideas would still add to the worldbuilding, but after a certain point it would just be unnecessary, actually getting in the way of pacing.
But so many of the sci-fi ideas DO add to the central story. You’ll also end up running into three or four ideas that don’t seem immediately relevant, then 15 minutes later they become extremely relevant.
Just one small sci-fi tidbit I’d like to share with you folks is the concept of cloning. Plenty of science fiction that has tried to tackle the subject in the past basically sends a message of, ya know what, cloning might be a bad idea and this is an important lesson for the viewer look how smart we are.
But here, cloning is a fact of life, and rather than acting as a set up for a heavy-handed moral, it just makes the story itself more interesting.
People just get cloned. That’s how they continue living. Thing is, there are plenty of problems with the cloning process, as well as with time travel, which is completely ubiquitous, at least for those who can afford it.
On their own, these concepts make the story feel like good sci-fi, but in terms of character, they offer a massive amount of creative potential.
Despite the fact that these shorts never overtly ask the viewer to consider the morality of what’s happening on screen, you can’t help but wonder how these new norms impact the characters we spend our time with. What is their sense of individuality like? Does the fourth clone of a person somehow feel less valuable than the third, than the second? How would clones interact with each other? Do they share a special sense of intimacy because they have so many of the same memories, whether natural or purchased?
In Episode 3, no character is entirely themselves, and similarly, their motivations are mixed between personal drive and instructions from somewhere else, or even from another time.
These are shades of human experience that don’t exist yet, but somehow, they still feel relatable. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had nights where I felt like the fifth clone of someone long-dead.
To sum all of this up, I’ll say that your brain will be very active when watching. It can feel difficult to keep up, but it’s just about guaranteed that, no matter how you watch, you’ll catch the most important story points.
And here’s something I feel like I should say during any positive review. I don’t think the positives I provide are meant to imply that everyone will love this game or movie or whatever. I talk about the things I like to see and that’s as far as I can go. I can’t speak to other people’s tastes.
With World of Tomorrow Episode 3 in particular, I would definitely understand if someone jumped in and hated every minute of it, especially if they’re not already used to engaging with media that’s just … different in so many ways. It’s something I talked about in that Charlie Kaufman video and it definitely applies here, too.
It’s not that I think World of Tomorrow is the ultimate example of what sci-fi should look like today or what it should look like 20 years from now.
But here, today, in October of 2020, I am grateful for what Don Hertzfeldt and World of Tomorrow have to offer. I stay engaged with the work, I laugh harder than I probably should when sitting around by myself, and I get hit hard by those sprinkled-out emotional moments that Hertzfeldt has used to build his career.
I don’t feel I’m overstepping to say that this is something special, not only in the world of animation but in sci-fi, too, and even just comedy.
Like its characters, World of Tomorrow is exploring: looking around at a very strange place and trying to figure things out. I don’t think I can ask animation to do much more than that.