the view from home

Will Animators Inherit the Post-Pandemic Earth?

Photo: Courtesy of Don Hertzfeldt

Animators are good at isolation. When I lived alone for years, deeply focused on a project, it wasn’t unusual to go several weeks without speaking to another person. I seemed to have been totally fine with it, too. The work was so interesting and demanding that often the only times I’d notice anything strange is when I’d buy groceries in the middle of the night and forget which words I was supposed to say to the cashier. In those years, I learned there was a really big difference between being alone and being lonely.

Most of the animators I’ve checked in on since March have reported, with a mixture of joy and a little shame, that they’ve finally been getting so much work done, free of distraction. There’s no excuse like a pandemic to help an animator weasel out of all their regular social obligations, and really flourish. We seem to have been training for this our entire ink-stained lives.

I’ve been quarantining with my girlfriend here in Austin, Texas. She is immunocompromised so we’ve had to be extra careful. The neighborhood seems to be doing OK but you don’t have to travel very far outside of town to encounter folks who say the virus can’t hurt you if you’re in a church. Sometimes the headlines reach such a frustrating boiling point that we agree to only have “good news days” in the house, where we can only bring up positive subjects to talk about so I don’t go nuts. I’ve thought about this John Prine lyric a lot, “All the news just repeats itself, like some forgotten dream that we’ve both seen.”

The summer months really blurred together as the new movie was slowly finished and I forgot which days were which. My girlfriend works with flowers so the house is always overflowing with them, in varying stages of life and death. A couple of months ago we dug out my childhood baseball gloves from the closet and decided we needed to regularly play catch in the park. So much of the world outside has ground to a halt, like a museum display, but it gets hard to tell which side of the glass we’re on.

A still from Don Hertzfeldt’s new movie, The World of Tomorrow Episode 3, now available on Vimeo. Photo: Courtesy of Don Hertzfeldt

I’ve ordered grocery deliveries for my parents out of state every week since March so they don’t have to risk going to the supermarket. They could easily figure out the delivery app for themselves but I’m sort of afraid they’d just order boring, frugal things for themselves like beans and toast on an endless loop. I read somewhere that a really important part of mental health in long-term isolation is maintaining variety in your diet. So every week I’ve been throwing in surprises for them, like slices of tiramisu and stuff. And then my girlfriend asked why we don’t ever get tiramisu and stuff for ourselves. Which is a pretty good question. I’ve now eaten more pastries and ice cream in quarantine than any other period of my life.

After two years of work, World of Tomorrow Episode 3 was finished just in time for its theatrical release to be crushed to pieces in slow motion. Not being able to play any theaters this year was a big blow. Traveling around with a movie always helped clear my head before I’d get sucked back into writing something new and disappearing again. I also seemed to get a lot of peace and closure from sitting with an audience and watching it premiere together. Two weeks ago, Episode 3 debuted online instead and now that I’m suddenly no longer tied up with it, I’m not really sure what to do with myself. I guess I could just start drawing something new, without taking a break. I could get so much work done, free of distraction.

Episode 3 was intended to be the last one in this series that I’d animate alone. In February, just before everything shut down, I was in Los Angeles visiting a bunch of studios. After twenty-five years of animating in isolation, I’ve been trying to find the funding to build a little house of artists here in Austin to help produce these episodes and other projects much faster. But now the world has flipped backwards, and working alone is the new normal.

So maybe the animators will inherit the Earth. Like a twist on an old Twilight Zone episode, we will emerge from our holes in the ground with all these exciting new projects to share, but there will be no one left alive to watch them. And we’ll eat pastries and automatically go to work on the next thing. There’s a line in World of Tomorrow Episode 3. Emily says, “But have you ever seen a group of insects drown, David? The ones that are still struggling are the ones that are still alive.” Lately I’m not sure whether we’re still struggling or just sort of floating around, waiting. Even after all the terrible things that have happened in the world, somehow the best word I can use to describe the year so far is, anticlimactic. There’s this constant feeling of dread, of having to wait indefinitely in place, for some other shoe to drop.

There’s something else I can’t stop thinking about. There are over a million people dead from the virus so far, billions of lives are turned upside-down, and the world’s economies, trillions of dollars in value, have been sent crashing to the ground. And all of this — this giant shock to human history — all of it has stemmed from the actions of one person. One person! One person doing something in China. It blows my mind. It’s the most perverse testament to the power of the individual I’ve ever heard of. It’s a stunning reminder of how every single person on the planet is hopelessly connected — inextricably dependent on each other — in invisible ways we’ll never understand, or most would want to admit. We’re all stuck together in the same boat and it is a fragile fucking boat. Every moment, there are countless unknown repercussions radiating out of every single thing we do. The butterfly effect is real, but we are the butterflies. It is beautiful and tragic in equal measure.

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Will Animators Inherit the Post-Pandemic Earth?