2015 seems like a long-time ago. Barack Obama was still President, the “face with tears of joy” emoji was named Word of the Year, I was still in my 30’s 😭 and Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow was storming the festival circuit, winning awards at Annecy, Sundance and SXSW. Seven years and one global pandemic later and the world feels a very different place, yet the fact remains that Hertzfeldt’s 17-minute animation is a modern classic, as visionary, heartfelt and relatable as it was when it was first released and now it’s finally available to watch online.
“The thing about the present, you only appreciate it when it is in the past”
If you scroll through the video’s comments section on YouTube, you can see that numerous people have already noted how World of Tomorrow is a masterpiece. The film indeed packs more depth and meaning into its 16-minute runtime than most feature films do in two hours. Sporting Hertzfeldt’s signature stick figure aesthetic, World of Tomorrow joins a little girl, known as Emily Prime, as she’s taken on a tour of the future by her third generation clone. As she’s introduced to the fate of the world and its inhabitants, remaining consistently oblivious throughout, the film’s audience are guided by the director’s surreal humour through a time of end-of-life procedures, living museum exhibits, robots with a fear of death and more.
Set in a world in which humans can meet former versions of themselves, through time-travel, we are bound for a mind-bending examination of what it means to be alive and how we can make sense of our place in the universe. Posing questions about life, death, space and time, and everything in-between, it’s an existential joyride of a film, blending comedy with surprising wisdom and sporting sentiments that wouldn’t feel out of place in the teachings of a spiritual guru.
As someone with an obsession with time, dwelling on the past and fretting about the future, this is the real beauty of Hertzfeldt’s short, as it delivers in both the entertainment and comedy stakes, but then lands its impact through its profound message. Whether you find solace in religion, spirituality, mindfulness or something else, a lot has been said about the importance of living in the present and World of Tomorrow seems to share this mindset. I’m not claiming that watching Hertzfeldt’s film will be a religious experience but with quotes like “now is the envy of all of the dead” and “it is easy to get lost in memories”, there’s a philosophical nature to this short that’s impossible to ignore.
As clone Emily guides her young relative (is that the right term?) through the impending events of her continuing life, we soon begin to understand that the inhabitants of this future seem obsessed with preservation. Again, this is a relatable concept, as we all have a special perspective on the past or a fear for the future and an obsession with nostalgia is an ever-present in every generation. In stark contrast, young Emily is only interested in the present. As her clone introduces her to the dangers of time travel and the Internet’s successor (the Outernet), she’s more interested in her cars and the pretty colours of the future. Is Hertzfeldt just playing this for laughs (young Emily provides a lot of the film’s comic relief)? Or is he trying to say something about the innocence of youth, before you’re overburdened with the anxieties of adulthood?
Whatever your perspective – heartfelt exploration of existence or just a fun watch – with World of Tomorrow Hertzfeldt really struck the sweet spot between critical acclaim and general appeal. It’s a film that both critics, juries and the public love in equal amount and has reached a sort of cult status in the seven years since it was first released. Now available online, for free, for the first time, Hertzfeldt has gone on to make another 2 episodes in the World of Tomorrow universe, which are available on Blu-ray or VoD.
we've opened a special members section on youtube, where everything i've made, new and old, can stream in one place. i'll also be talking about new projects, staring blankly at walls, and doing makeup tutorials. think of it like disney+ without any of the disney things— don hertzfeldt (@donhertzfeldt) September 22, 2022
If you’re new to the work of the American animator and love his approach, you’ll be happy to hear you can check out two of his previous shorts on S/W in Everything Will Be OK and The Meaning of Life or you can sign-up for his special members section on YouTube to stream every movie he’s made and get exclusive making-of videos and commentaries. With a back catalogue that stretches back over 25-years, Hertzfeldt’s auteur status and ever growing fan base, makes him one of the few indie-animators, let alone short filmmakers, who can live off their own work. His influence radiates through the filmmaking community, as fellow S/W programmer Georg Csarmann confirmed when we discussed our shared love of the director’s work:
“On a personal level, his Oscar-nominated Rejected from 2000 was one of the short films that made me fall in love with the medium in the first place. The pure anarchy and joy mixed with social commentary is a perfect example of how filmmakers can use the advantages of the short form to create something special that couldn’t be achieved this way as a feature. Over the years, I found it fascinating how Hertzfeldt managed to stay true to his style, which is immediately evident through his stick-figure characters, yet evolve as an artist who pushes the limits of his art form with each new entry in his oeuvre.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.