RIP Hillman Curtis

We pay tribute to legendary designer and filmmaker Hillman Curtis, who passed away yesterday, with this inspirational interview we conducted in 2007

The creative world lost a Flash pioneer, great designer and filmmaker yesterday. He first moved from the world of music into web design, before becoming one of the most famous Flash designers and creating some of the most visited sites on the web. Then he moved on again, this time into online filmmaking. He was an inspiration to many in the industry; we talked to him in 2007 (this article first appeared in issue 167 of .net magazine).

This is his last film:

.net: Why did you move into filmmaking?
HC: I've always wanted to make films. When I was in college, I studied creative writing and film theory, and then I just got sidetracked – in a good way. I moved into music and then into graphic design. I also got really attracted to motion graphics, but it was just a step towards seeing things move across the screen – trying to figure out how to track the eye, to work with repetition and rhythm, and eventually move into actually filming people.

It's good that I did all that Flash stuff, because it influences my style as a filmmaker, which is very economical – the same as my web and my Flash stuff. There's not a lot of fancy stuff going on. In a way, it's a huge departure, because it's a really different medium. Web design is essentially static. You can have moving stuff, but it essentially lives in a static framework. It's very structural.

.net: How do you deal with the web's limitations?
HC: Having been trained or training myself as a new media designer, or web designer, I'm aware of those limitations and I try to work within them. I'm not trying to make a 30-minute film that plays on the web. It would be a waste of time. For me, it's all about the opportunities that exist in those limitations. I do short films right now. If I do a longer film, I don't think I want to play it on the web. That's a big commitment. If it's on the web page, it has to operate within certain rules and boundaries that define that experience. If you say, “Stop interacting, stop clicking on things,” it's just not going to work for 30 minutes; saying, “Dude, stop this for five minutes” is OK. It has to be super- compelling for someone to sit there for 30 minutes.

.net: How do you make short films compelling?
HC: I think there's a huge opportunity. A lot of people will say that attention spans are shrinking. They say that people want to see a three-minute deal and they get bored after that. There's some truth to that, but I don't subscribe to it. I think there's an opportunity to convey deep emotion in five minutes. It doesn't necessarily have to do with the traditional story arc where a guy starts here, something happens, he changes, and there's some sort of resolution. What I shoot are scenes. I did one about two soldiers. It's a minute-and-a-half long, but a lot happens in that. It's not about soldiers, it's about a rite of passage and an angel, guiding someone to deal with the situation. It's just very careful writing and directing.

.net: Where do you get your inspiration from?
HC: I can't think of any web designers that I'm checking out regularly. It's more trends, neat little innovations, Web 2.0 modular design with applications that effectively reuse the space. That kind of stuff gets me going. On the film side, I run the gambit from Fellini to these new Spanish or Mexican directors that are toying with nonlinear storylines, if that's possible in a linear medium.

.net: You do a lot of work for big corporations like Yahoo and Adobe. Would you prefer the smaller ones?
HC: No, I like the big sites, I really do. I mean, it's super-hard. Just building, going through and redefining the site map is a week-long process. It's a nightmare and it's harder to get started. It's also harder to get any momentum going, because generally in these bigger corporations, there's a lot of pressure and a lot of people involved.

So, what I do is never start on the homepage. I always start with the site map and then I move to a subpage, either a landing page or even a forum page. I sort that out and then I work upwards. By the time you get to the homepage, everyone's tired of the process and a lot of your visual look and the functionality has been defined, and there's no more pressure. If you start with one of these big sites and you say, “OK, let's tackle the homepage,” you're in for a big hassle.

.net: What advice can you give to new designers?
HC: Everyone's path is different, and I realise that as I interview other designers. I realise that their relation to the craft is unique. All I can say is design with care, don't avoid things like grids (grids are important), and examine the tradition of graphic design. Don't ignore it or get aggro with some of the traditional design protocols. A lot of people believe that the grid doesn't allow them to express themselves. But your job isn't to express yourself. You express yourself to a limited degree, but your job is to express the message of the person that hired you. You can bring your creativity to this, but don't go saying, “Grids, typography and colour theory – I don't need them, I've got my own vision.” That may be so, but if those things kill your own vision, your own vision isn't very strong.

This is what I would say to interns that work for me. I pound them until they're using a grid and they recognise the strength in the organic nature of the grid; until they're examining traditional typography, leading and kerning, and they recognise the strength and the benefit in it. All that stuff is there for a reason. You have to stay open to it.