There is a certain level of difficulty when it comes to animation. How do you get drawings, models or even household objects to tell a convincing story, move in a realistic way and behave as people would? However perhaps the most challenging thing for an animator to do is get these inanimate 2d figures, lumps of plastercine, or a shoe to make an audience member feel. Many animators add detail to their characters, or exaggerate certain features to convey emotion, and through this method an audience member is able to tell what emotion the character is feeling. However Don Hertzfeldt in his film It’s Such a Beautiful Day, seems to accomplish the same effect, indeed improve upon it with simple stick figures drawn in pencil.
Released originally in three parts then compiled into one single film in 2012, the film follows Bill, a stick man with a hat, who has to come to terms with his own mortality and loosening grip on reality. I would go on but this is really a film that you have to experience for yourself fresh, free from spoilers and expectations. So before continuing this review, while I will try not to spoil the film, I would highly recommend going to watch It’s Such a Beautiful Day as well as any other Don Hertzfeldt works; they are all must watches for anyone who loves animation.
Like many animation auteurs Don Hertzfeldt has a recognisable style. He has a very simple handmade aesthetic in his films. That is because unlike more modern animation he continued to use analogue techniques, drawing on paper and using a 35mm camera to record his images. The simple lines seem more alive as they shift even while the character remains still. Similarly while one would assume that because of the simplistic design it would be difficult to make out different characters, but there is enough detail for an audience to follow. Plus the detail there is allows for an audience to better understand a character’s emotional state or personality.
In It’s Such a Beautiful it is key that any critique discusses the masterful use of space. The action takes place episodically; each episode starts with a space opening up to reveal Bill or another character performing an action that is being narrated. However this action does not fill the screen, rather it only takes up a small portion. This creates two interesting effects. Firstly it increases the sense of isolation and loneliness in the film. Secondly the small circles that contain the action draw attention to the audience watching the film. It is almost like the audience is peaking in through a keyhole watching Bill’s life in little episodic segments, like omnipotent voyeurs watching as a man slowly unravels before our very eyes.
Hertzfeldt uses a lot of other tricks in the film. He interweaves elements of actuality footage; shots of trees and the like, to provide a level of verisimilitude. The use of this footage seems to add more reality to the stick figures. Hertzfeldt also layers in real fire and water into some of the scenes to achieve some sort of effect; water to suggest a cold temperature and fire to show the inner plight and pain of our main character. All of this as well as inventive use of light and sound, make the film a lot more interesting to look at and meaningful.
What meaning is that though? This is where we come to spoiler territory. Bill has a brain tumour and is suffering from hallucinations and memory loss. Through a dying character, Hertzfeldt can explore notions of mortality, and humanity. Simple design allows any audience member to place themselves in Bills ill-defined and unreliable shoes, we are able to go on the same journey that Bill is going on and that is profound. The techniques that I mentioned earlier could be seen as a dissection and discussion of animation itself. He seemingly is able to blast apart all preconceived notions of the medium with figures that a small child could draw.
Despite the more serious themes Hertzfeldt isn’t afraid to have fun with his film. Peppered into the more serious sections of the film Hertzfeldt throws in absurd characters and situations as well as numerous surreal hallucinations. The film lives up to its reputation as a dark tragic comedy; Hertzfeldt seems to understand the inherent absurdity in existence and uses that to great advantage. In the hands of such a skilled director, instead of being distracting the absurdist surreal nature of the film adds to the film’s central concern, that life is short, painful, absurd and beautiful. Hertzfeldt uses impossible tales, disgusting reality, small details and strange daydreams to paint a detailed picture of the world that Bill inhabits, both externally and internally, worlds that he is slowly losing a grip on, or maybe he never had a grip on to begin with. Through his surreal adventure, Bill comes to terms with who he is, where he is going and where he has come from, and whether the answers he thought he had were even real.
I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed this film. It hits all the notes I think make a good film, it looks fantastic and speaks of something deep and personal. But there is always a sly smile, never taking itself too seriously, and telling the audience to do the same.