Animation extraordinaire and UCSB film & media studies alum Don Hertzfeldt returned to Isla Vista on Friday night to kick off Magic Lantern’s fall line up. The filmmaker premiered “I Am So Proud Of You,” part two of his devastatingly beautiful tale of a man named Bill whose seemingly normal life is interrupted by an existential crisis. Incredibly poignant in both form and content, the film is unparalleled in the history of animation.

The night began with a diverse selection of Hertzfeldt’s other short films, from the absurd “The Meaning of Life” to the classic “Rejected” to the just plain surreal “Intermission in the Third Dimension.” Magic Lantern also screened part one of the protagonist’s saga, the Sundance Film Festival award-winning and critically adored “Everything Will Be OK.” Seeing both films together is essential, but each part has enough weight to stand on its own.

“I Am So Proud Of You” delves into the history of our man Bill, who has recently gotten over a near-death illness. The film focuses on important and strange moments from Bill’s childhood – including the instance when a seal lion played soccer with him, with disastrous results – and his mother’s ever-growing insanity and obsessive-compulsive behavior. The film becomes increasingly intoxicated with death as Bill grows sick again, but it leaves enough room for a planned conclusion to the trilogy.
For those unfamiliar with Hertzfeldt’s work, his animation is incredibly basic (stick figures and photos), but it has allowed for a certain freedom in highlighting character idiosyncrasies and laying bare emotional weight without pretensions. The film is a summation of the fragile and sad moments in life and of all the quiet times when we wanted to let go. With “I Am So Proud Of You,” Hertzfeldt has created his finest work to date by revealing a new chapter in Bill’s saga that showcases the inherent sadness of human existence.

The shocked and subdued audience was treated to a Q&A afterward with the reclusive filmmaker. He took a reluctant joy at answering many in-depth questions relating to his time at UCSB’s Dept. of Film & Media Studies. He also touched on death, art and his influences, and he told an anecdote about being mistaken for Johnny Depp at a Monty Python reunion. He even took the time to answer a few extra questions after the evening’s emcee, and king of Magic Lantern, Hank Romero told him that the show was over.

Hertzfeldt took great strides to connect with film students especially, and he stressed the “old-fashioned” techniques he uses to create his films. He graduated UCSB when 16mm filmmaking was the standard, before digital technology began increasing in prominence. He emphasized that his films are made in a more traditional, completely computer-free manner than today’s CGI-animated films, which have basically become the standard for modern mainstream studio animation.

After the Q&A, Hertzfeldt was gracious enough to sign every DVD that came his way and to pose for a few pictures. In his low-key enthusiasm, he told me that he loves what he does, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He bragged about working on his films into the wee hours of the morning, proving that success isn’t just determined by social networking and big bucks. There still is a place for great talent, undeterred by marketing and genre clichés.

Santa Barbara was the first stop in touring “I Am So Proud Of You,” and if the first night is any indication, Don Hertzfeldt’s films will continue to be unusual and surreal successes.