Hillman Curtis is a designer's designer. From motion work to web design to short films, his genre-jumping creative hunger seems rarely satisfied. Not only is his work wide-ranging, but it balances colossal corporate client projects with experimental and alternative video work and genuinely inventive storytelling.
Computer Arts: You, Brendan Dawes and other Flash video creatives have dragged design away from the web and into places like MoMA. Do you describe what you do as design, art or something else entirely?
Hillman Curtis: Well, Brendan is in MoMA which is great, and Josh Davis and Eric Natzke have done much in the art world. All use programming in their art. I went a different direction. I could never program very well and my interest was in moving images or motion graphics, so it made sense to step in the opposite direction. As far as design goes, I am still very involved in web design, larger site design and information design, but my film work is closer to art. At least that's how I approach it.
CA: What did working at Macromedia teach you?
HC: So much. When I first started I didn't have an email address and had no idea really why anyone would. I didn't know what a server was and had no idea what HTML was, not to mention design. I was pretty damn clueless about typography, grids, colour theory - everything. I worked there for almost three years and took so much in.
A year before I left to start my company, a product manager dropped a cruddy looking piece of what looked like shareware called Future Splash - it had a crab on the cover of the box for some reason, and it was the first release of what would soon become Flash. I dived into that software and that became the jump-off point for starting my business.
CA: How did you shift from motion graphics to web design?
HC: I started hillmancurtis.com almost exclusively based on Flash and motion graphics. That led to associations with larger companies like Adobe, which gave me the opportunity to design large websites. I abandoned Flash for the most part, with some exceptions, and took the business into larger website design, and from there I moved into film.
CA: What was it that drew you to motion and filmmaking?
HC: It was a combination of things. I have always been a big fan of contemporary photography but I was intimidated by the thought of trying to dive into photography myself - so many people are doing it already. So I thought maybe a video camera might be more my speed. At that time, digital video cameras were getting really good and affordable, and Final Cut Pro was just coming out. I realised I could try this thing pretty independently; I wouldn't need a crew or an editor. I could do it all by myself, and that appealed to me. The fact that I had a delivery medium - the web - at my disposal was even more encouraging.
CA: Your book MTIV: Process, Inspiration and Practice is highly successful. Are those three factors still important to you? Have you expanded on them?
HC: I actually check back on that book from time to time. I sometimes lose sight of why I am a designer or filmmaker, and it can be very easy to approach a project without considering your approach carefully - just thinking you can wing it from experience.
When I wrote the book I was just so in love with my work. I still am, but there was a newness back then that allowed me write with freshness and, well, joy.
CA: Are you still challenged to find new ways of interacting with an audience?
HC: Online video is my medium at the moment and that's all about storytelling. The web and technology in general are both very powerful, but neither can touch the power of storytelling. So, no nullification - pure expansion.
CA: What advice would you have for a filmmaker wanting to make a space for themselves on the web? Is it still possible to stand out from the crowd?
HC: I think it is. I think it's about pleasing yourself first. I know that sounds clich©d but there is no point in making films unless you are exploring themes that are important to you.
There will always be people who make YouTube-ready videos with the sole purpose of getting mega-views for a day or two. I think the opportunity is for filmmakers to express their vision, post their films, let a small audience discover their work and, perhaps, help that audience grow.
CA: Why the raw, documentary-like approach to your Artist Series compared to your motion work?
HC: It came from pure inexperience. I shot and edited the first five or six Artist Series films myself. No one else was involved. That resulted in a somewhat raw style - I prefer to maybe call it intimate... and they are very personal. I always went into the interviews with some questions I'd prepared beforehand, but so rarely used them. The interviews became conversations based on my interest in the artist's work, purely driven by my curiosity.
Much of my Flash work, if not all, was commercially driven and, therefore, less personal. They were advertisements first and I usually worked with the client to make them compelling visually, which allowed for personal expression within reason.
CA: Who are your filmmaking influences? Who are your design influences? Is there any overlap?
HC: There's no real overlap. I like pretty traditional designers like Paula Scher, Sagmeister, Milton Glaser, Saul Bass and Paul Rand, Neville Brody and so on. I also like James Victore and David Carson... I'm leaving out many, many influences here.
Film influences run the gamut and are always growing. I'm into these movies from the mid-'70s - classics like All That Jazz by Bob Fosse, Three Days of the Condor by Sidney Pollack, Network by Sidney Lumet, all of the Woody Allen films from the mid-'70s to the early '80s. I love films like 8½ by Fellini, and so many contemporary films that I won't list them. My most recent favourite was Milk by one of my favourite contemporary filmmakers, Gus Van Sant.
CA: You once said you wanted to subtly and quietly change the world - are you still aiming for that?
HC: Maybe influencing the world is better. The world is changed by many hands all working at once. I think some of my work has influenced some of those hands.
CA: Are you still doing it quietly, though?
HC: Very quietly.