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'World Of Tomorrow' Animated Short Explores What It Means To Be Human


At first glance, it seems like a charming cartoon, stick figure animation featuring a tiny child's voice. But the content is not childish. This short animated film, which is up for an Oscar, is called "World Of Tomorrow." The message of this story, about a clone from the future speaking to her original, is difficult to describe, even for the creator, Don Hertzfeldt.

DON HERTZFELDT: It's one of those things that if I was smart enough to explain it in words, I wouldn't have had to make a movie out of it. It's a love letter to science fiction. I've loved science fiction my whole life. But I've never made a science fiction movie. And it's sort of a parody of science fiction at the same time. It's all of the things I find interesting in sci-fi amplified.

WERTHEIMER: Well, let's listen to a clip. We introduce the two main characters. First is the adult stick figure.


JULIA POTT: (As Emily) Hello, Emily.

WINONA MAE: (As Emily Prime) Hi.

POTT: (As Emily) One day, when you are old enough, you will be impregnated with a perfect clone of yourself. You will later upload all of your memories into this healthy new body.

WERTHEIMER: So we learn that the little child that you just heard there is Emily, is the real Emily, or Emily Prime, as she's called in the cartoon. And her response, really, is just chatter.


MAE: (As Emily Prime) I had lunch today.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) That sounds like a real little girl. Is this an actress being a real little girl?

HERTZFELDT: That's my 4-year-old niece being a real little girl.

WERTHEIMER: Oh, my God, really?

HERTZFELDT: Yeah, I was writing this piece, and I knew I needed a little girl, and I didn't want to fake it. And so my niece was 4 years old at the time. Her name is Winona. She lives in Scotland, and I live in Texas.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter).

HERTZFELDT: And so I don't get to see her very often. And so we get together usually for the holidays, and I have, like, five days with her. And we just hung out, and I quietly recorded her while we drew pictures and played around with toys and talked about the world. I asked her questions, and I walked away with these sessions. And it was sort of like a fun puzzle to kind of figure out what she could be looking at when they're doing these things. And then once I sorted that out, I brought in Julia Pott, who voiced the adult Emily and rewrote her lines so that they could have a conversation.

WERTHEIMER: Now what you're stuck with is that what you and your little niece created here, everybody else is interpreting, being it seems as though you're exploring what it means to be human, what it means to have memories. At one point, the Emily clone falls in love. First, she falls in love with a rock, and then she falls in love with some kind of unintelligible being from another world. And you don't want us tempted to think that you were trying to tell us that whatever it is that makes us human, you know, it persists. It continues to exist.

HERTZFELDT: Sure. I hope so. You know, I think one of the reasons I love science fiction so much is that it's - when it's ideally done right, it's a reflection on ourselves. You know, no matter what decade it comes from, it's representing the present. I think, yeah, with the cloning story, she's learning what it's like to be human. She's learning what it's like to love something, and she winds up breaking this alien thing's heart. And to me, you know, everyone goes through that at some point in adolescence, you know. There's - you meet someone when you're a young teenager, and they're never right for you, and you always wind up hurting someone on the way to figuring out all this stuff. But it was a fun writing process, you know. I not only had Winona's little bits, but science fiction, it's worldbuilding. I mean, you can get away with anything. You can do anything, and it's so free. And, you know, to be animating at the same time, it's the ultimate freedom in filmmaking because you can literally put anything on the screen that you can imagine.

WERTHEIMER: I want you to tell us about the dark ending. It's one of the funniest conversations that Emily the clone has with Emily Prime. It's about how people are coming like shooting stars out of space.

HERTZFELDT: Yeah, I'll do my best to set this clip up. So time travel is a thing. It can be very dangerous, and it's also very - it's an expensive thing to do. There's a meteor headed towards the planet, and the lower classes can't afford to escape the planet. And so they're using discount time travel to try and desperately get themselves out of the time that they're in to a safer place. And in doing so, time travel is so unpredictable, and they're using this really cheap method. All they're doing is just warping themselves into planetary orbit. And so there's a ring of dead bodies around the earth, and so our characters are looking at the night sky, and they're watching the bodies fall like shooting stars.


POTT: (As Emily) The dead bodies burn as they return to Earth and now light up our night sky.

MAE: (As Emily Prime) What's this up in the sky?

POTT: (As Emily) Dead bodies.

MAE: (As Emily Prime) Look, another one.

POTT: (As Emily) Yes, it is very pretty.

MAE: (As Emily Prime) OK.

POTT: (As Emily) No, they're all dead.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) Well, you know, several of us have watched your short film here, and we had a lot of different reactions around the building. I mean, sometimes people were laughing, and some people were just incredibly sad at the dystopia that you have painted and what happens to a central Emily when she's cloned a few times. What do you expect the audience to take away?

HERTZFELDT: That all sounds wonderful to me. It's great for me to hear, you know, those different reactions because when I travel with a movie like this, it's very similar, you know. You'll hear a line in one city get a big laugh, and then in another city, the same line kind of gets a gasp, and that's wonderful. I mean, to me, you know, after working so long on something like this, it's great to go out and meet people and see the reactions and remind yourself that, oh, yeah, you know, I wasn't just working in a cave by myself for no reason, you know. There are people waiting for this and hopefully having some sort of connection to it.

WERTHEIMER: Don Hertzfeldt's new short is called "World Of Tomorrow." It's up for an Academy award. If you want to look at it, it's on Netflix. Thank you.

HERTZFELDT: Thanks. Thanks for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.