May 20, 2008

clusterflock interviews: Hillman Curtis

Hillman Curtis is a designer, author, and filmmaker whose work has informed, inspired, and influenced a generation of designers interested in the possibilities of new media. His books include Making the Invisible Visible: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer and On Creating Short Films for the Web, a book that was instrumental for me as I set out to film my own documentary. His series of interviews with artists and designers continues to set the standard for video on the web. This interview was conducted via email and I am grateful for his participation.

Can you give us a brief overview of your career? How did you get started, what led you here?

I started designing in ’95 or ’96. I was a rock musician and had just been dropped by MCA records. I had made a small amount of money from a publishing deal and I took the money and bought a used Mac II. I had made all of the band’s posters and flyers and — having come to the obvious conclusion that I was through with the music business — thought I’d have a go at design. I worked my way up to an Art Director position at Macromedia and from there started hillmancurtis.

How did you get interested in video for the web? Was the distribution of video on the web always your intention?

I was a film minor in school, so I’ve always been into film. The web, along with DV cameras and digital editing software, provided an easy way to experiment with filmmaking and see if I could make any sense of it. So, it was always about the web. I have a weird distaste for the whole business side of filmmaking — festivals and distribution and all that. Which is probably a hangover from my experience with the music business. The web gave me a means of distribution that I could control. And I like the short format, which I think works best online. I like trying to pack meaning into these little moments.

Any thoughts on the convergence of filmmaking and the web?

My guess is the same as everyone else’s, which is that it’s only a matter of time before first run films have premieres online at the same time as in the theaters. In fact Mark Cuban’s film company does that now. But I also believe that theaters are going to be around for a long time, simply because that’s where you can have the best film experience.

What’s your process for interviewing designers? Is your approach different with each one? What have been the challenges?

It’s all about having a conversation and not reading off a list of questions. It takes a bit of faith because there’s the chance that the conversation will go nowhere — which actually has happened a couple of times — but it presents you with an opportunity for a story you may not have imagined — one that’s far more interesting. Most of the people I’ve interviewed have been interviewed many times before and will feed you spin if you ask the obvious questions. My job is to get past the spin.

Who are your filmmaking influences? Who are your design influences? Is there an overlap?

My film influences are too numerous to list, but I really like the period in film that starts around ’71 and goes through ’78. Films like Three Days of the Condor, All that Jazz, Manhattan, Network — and directors like Scorsese, Woody Allen, Coppola were doing really great work. I like Fellini a lot and Bergman, though I have only sampled a small amount of his vast body of work. Peter Weir was a favorite for a while. I also like PT Anderson and Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers.

My influences in design are people like Josef Müller-Brockmann, Neville Brody, Saul Bass, Paula Scher, Michael Bierut, Kyle Cooper, Stefan Sagmeister, David Carson and James Victore. So there’s minimal overlap.

I’m a huge photography fan. I don’t actually practice that craft, but the influence of photographers like Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Jeff Wall and many others readily finds it’s way into my film work.

Tell us about your books. What has the process of writing them been? Has it been different for each one?

I’m happiest about MTIV. That one was written at a wonderful time in my design career. I had recently moved to NYC and started my company. Business was booming and I was discovering the NYC design community — which is supportive and generous and populated with my heroes. I was completely caught up in the craft. I was also relatively new to the wonders of New York. All of that found it’s way into the book and, to be honest, the only thing I remember about writing that one is getting up really early, walking to my office as the city woke up, drinking four shots of espresso, and writing like a fiend.

The last book was harder…though I really like it’s tone. It’s less celebratory and more reflective of the time it was written, which was in the years immediately following 9/11.

I think the process has been the same for all three. I make an outline, hire a good editor, and carve out a few hours in my work day to write.

I love the video on the hillmancurtis home page of people staring into the camera. Can you talk about the inspiration for that? Did you have in mind the idea of portraiture, the long photograph?

Yes…that’s all about the portrait work of Thomas Ruff and Richard Avedon. I started the portraits as a means of learning how to work a video camera…not so much the technical aspects like white balance and gain and shutter speed — though that stuff was part of it — but composition, lighting, and working with subjects. This video came out of that.

What advice would you have for a filmmaker wanting to make a space for themselves on the web?

There’s a quote in my last book Creating Short Films for the Web by Stanley Kubrick that basically says “get a hold of a camera, some film, and make a movie of any kind at all”.