In 2014, DIY animator extraordinaire Don Hertzfeldt wrote a loopy sci-fi story around some ridiculously cute audio recordings he made while playing with his four-year-old niece Winona. He cast her as a pigtailed stick figure named Emily Prime, and roped in friend and animator Julia Pott to voice the time-traveling adult Emily clone who zaps into the past on a mission to retrieve something from her younger, original self (and leads Emily Prime on a whirlwind tour of the future along the way). It was just supposed to be a fun way for Hertzfeldt to teach himself how to use digital tools, but — oops! — the morbidly hilarious “World of Tomorrow” went on to earn Hertzfeldt his second Oscar nomination, and is now celebrated as one of the best short films of the 21st century. People have Emily Prime tattoos. The rest of us should get them.
Hertzfeldt never looked back. 2017’s “World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts” found him diving even deeper into the ever-expanding universe he’d created with these characters, and earlier this month he released the much-anticipated “World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime,” a 34-minute epic that follows Emily’s clones into new folds of the space-time continuum, while also providing an entry point for people who are unfamiliar with her previous adventures. Released online after the pandemic scuttled plans for a major distributor to screen it in theaters across the country, “Episode Three” is as funny, poignant, and wise as the episodes before it, and it ends on a note that suggests Hertzfeldt isn’t done looking into the future. Not even close.
Zooming in as he prepared to launch the film on Vimeo (and agonized over some lingering matte line issues that he only he might notice), Hertzfeldt spoke to IndieWire about the evolution of “World of Tomorrow,” his ambitious plans for the series, and how his late cat almost ended the whole thing.