Rejected: Animation vs. Commercialization



            Animation is a style of film making which allows the artist creative control beyond most physical limitations. Though the animator can bring to life nearly any image they can imagine, the greatest creative limitation often comes from restrictions imposed by a financial supporter looking to secure a maximum profit. Animator Don Hertzfeldt, an independent animator, explores the struggle between creative freedom and corporate expectations faced by animators in the short film Rejected released in 2000 (Rejected)[1]. The film is a series of surreal and bizarre animated shorts presented as a collection of cartoons made and submitted to fictional corporations which then rejected them. The short became popular for its dark and bizarre humor, but it has also held critical success and was nominated for an Academy Award for best animated short film. The film’s simple, yet highly stylized, form of animation emphasizes a theme which rejects the commercialization and industrialization of animation in favor of artistic and creative freedom.

Contrary to the famous animated work of large studios like Disney and DreamWorks Animation, Hertzfeldt’s production is small and independent. Only four people are credited at the end of the short as having been involved in the creative process, and commentary available on the DVD for the film explains that Hertzfeldt draws the entire film by hand and uses only practical effects to create his animation frame-by-frame (Bitter Films: Volume One)[2]. It was then distributed through several festival circuits, and the DVD itself is sold and distributed by himself through his distributor and production company Bitter Films. Though this forced the project into a much smaller and tighter budget, this also gave Hertzfeldt complete control of the content. By the time Rejected was released in 2000, animation had been used as a means of presenting commercials and merchandising to children with Saturday morning cartoons and animated blockbusters for decades. Hertzfeldt satirizes this industrialization of an art with such boundless creative capabilities by presenting several short clips as rejected submissions as commercials to fictional companies like “The Family Learning Channel” and “Johnson & Mills”. Each clip contains content and subject matter that is obviously too disturbing or inappropriate to be suitable as any kind of widely-broadcasted commercial. Though played in the film for comedic effect, this also shows the dissonance between the desire of a corporate studio to appeal to a specific audience in order to sell merchandise and the creative style or intent of the animator. And as all the characters and settings of the short begin to fall apart in disaster and calamity at the end of the film, Rejected shows the intricate relationship between the creative and realistic worlds. Hertzfeldt utilizes practical effects like the tearing of paper to create a hole through which the onscreen characters are pulled out of view or press helplessly against the screen in an attempt to escape. This expression of helplessness and isolation in the face of apocalyptic levels of destruction shows the devastating effect upon an artist’s work when they are forced to suppress their creativity. In this chaos, Hertzfeldt implies that when an animator’s sole motivation is to satisfy corporate requirements for financial success instead of fulfilling their artistic desires, the work itself becomes devoid of life and breaks down.

The film’s hand-drawn animation uses a minimalist and simplistic aesthetic. Nearly every scene is in black and white, with the characters being comprised of stick figures or basic shapes. This gives the short an artistic tone, denying the familiar flourish and vibrance of popular animation in favor of an avant-garde blandness. This emphasizes how dull creative work becomes when forced into the restrictions of corporate expectation. The use of traditional, single plane, hand-drawn animation also calls back to the roots of animation as a means of creating art beyond the limitations of reality. It contains a certain nostalgia, with the chaotic destruction of the animated world at the end of the film harking back to the direct influence and interaction of the animator and the animated creation seen in the works of Windsor McKay, specifically his on-screen communication with the animated dinosaur Gertie in her eponymous short (Gertie the Dinosaur)[3]. The film acknowledges itself as the construct of an artist with complete control over the work. It demonstrates the direct influence of reality upon the animated construct in its volatile deterioration of the film’s characters and set pieces. The apocalyptic level of the animated world’s destruction also glorifies the animated construct as a creation and monument with such power and grander that destroying it requires a supernatural event of mythical proportions. Hertzfeldt’s avant-garde style is able to display both the limitations reality imposes on animation and the manner with which animation surpasses those boundaries.

The film is structured into a series of short, unrelated sketches of animation acting as strange non-sequiturs followed by a commercial message. This continual interruption of a corporate advertisement gives the film a fractured pace, invoking the disruption imposed upon an animated work by the looming control of a financial power hanging over it. This is shown most directly, and most humorously, in a sketch in the film showing a baby taking its first steps. It is drawn in a very cartoonish manner and is shown to be incredibly happy and bubbly before falling down a flight of stairs as a snap-zoom out shows that it will be stumbling down for sometime and the sound of an audience applauding plays. The zoom out reinforces a sense of helplessness in the viewer as they are forced to watch this terrifying scene while having no power to stop it. The film then smash-cuts to a still picture of man and child, presumably his son, standing together near a can marked “Johnson & Mills Kelp Dip” as the son exclaims “I am a consumer whore!” and the father concurs.

Still From "Rejected." Bitter Films, 2000

Still From “Rejected.” Bitter Films, 2000

It is a juxtaposition which forces a laugh from the viewer, giving a comedic relief from the disturbing scene before. The sudden and jarring cut from a such an emotionally-charged and evocative scene to a still image also emphasizes the emptiness of advertising in a creative piece. Though the scene before is incredibly disturbing and strange, it is affecting. The commercial messages throughout the film are motionless and at best are remembered as a throwaway joke; they are not dire or critical to the emotion of the piece or the investment of the viewer. The continued trend of a dynamic animated sketch followed by the stiff, false corporate message builds to the destructive climax. When the animated world falls apart in complete devastation, the short’s narration tells the viewer that animated creations lack any structure or creative support and fall apart. The slow build of corporate and creative dissonance throughout the short is concluded with a sudden and violent end; the spectacle of the final, explosive sequence acting as both the mourning of creative freedom and a stunning example of it. This image, which Hertzfeldt uses as his finale, encapsulates the message of short, simultaneously expressing a fear of the limitations of creating art with corporate constraint and celebrating animation’s endless ability to simultaneously capture pure, destructive madness and as awe-inspiring beauty in one sequence.

Hertzfeldt’s Rejected is in equal parts a condemnation of the commercialization of art and a magnificent example of the artistic capabilities of animated film. It takes the absurdity of the notion commercialized animation and throws back a bizarre and surreal reflection of it. His tone is uniquely absurd and strange, utterly his own, and he shows how trying to fit that kind of style into a corporate mould works against everyone’s best interests. He posits that the unrestrained and limitless medium of the animated image is one that, when constrained by the formulaic expectations and desires of commercial marketing, will fall apart. But because the destruction and collapse of the animated art is completely grandiose and cataclysmic in his representation, he further displays its place as something to be idolized and admired, not used as a tool of commercialization. It is a short that is at times overwhelming in its strangeness and visual splendor, and it’s powerful denunciation of the commercial exploitation of animation is one of the most powerful and moving examples of the possibilities of the animated image that one is likely to find.

[1] Rejected. Film. Directed by Don Hertzfeldt. Santa Barbara, CA: Bitter Films, 2000.

[2] Bitter Films: Volume One. DVD. Directed by Don Hertzfeldt. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Bitter Films,, 2006.

[3] Gertie the Dinosaur. Film. Directed by Winsor McCay. Davenport, Iowa: Blackhawk Films, 1909.


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Joseph Kelley is a Cinema Studies major from Ortonville, MI. He is fascinated by film and how artists use it to explore complex social themes and philosophical ideas. He hopes to use his degree to continue film research and perhaps enter into the field of film criticism. This paper was motivated by a familiarity and interest in the director of the short, Don Hertzfeldt, as well as a particular interest in the unique ways animated films are able to convey meaning.