Remaining Curious

An Interview with Hillman Curtis

Hillman Curtis was a new media legend who transformed how we think about story on the web. On April 18, 2012, Hillman lost a long battle with colon cancer. He was only 51. Hillman popped into my mind the other day and I re-familiarized myself with his work. I was always drawn to his Artist Series films, which changed the way I thought about how one might tell stories on the web. In re-watching the films, I found them as compelling today as they were when first produced.

In 2009, I had the opportunity to sit down (virtually) with Hillman and ask a few questions about the web and film. In memory of Hillman I decided to dust off the interview and post it here. My hope is that we can look back in appreciation of the foundation he set. Our work today is better because of Hillman Curtis.

Hillman was once quoted as saying, “The reason for designing new media is simple — to subtly and quietly change the world.” Cheers to that.

Thank you, Hillman.

LOCY: You are an interactive designer, filmmaker, writer, and (former) rock musician. What has been the common thread for you that runs through these various creative outlets?

CURTIS: Exploration I think. Exploring yourself and the world — working things out. I mean, with graphic or interactive design there’s a real need for problem solving and it’s most often concerned with commerce, but everything else becomes a form of personal expression. Richard Avedon once said that his portraits had more to do with him than his subjects. The artist Jim Dine said to me during one of our shoots that all art was self-portraiture. I think that’s what the common thread is.

Scene from Everything1017 by Hillman Curtis

LOCY: Your films are mainly to be experienced via the web. How do the two mediums (film and web) complement one another? How do they oppose one another?

CURTIS: I think they only complement each other. As long as you keep in mind that very few people are going to want to watch your feature-length film online. I think that the best time format for original online film falls somewhere in the five to 15 minute range. Of course we all watch feature films via Netflix or iTunes, but many of those films were made for, and played first on, the big screen, and when we watch them, we switch into that mode of watching. For my films — films meant specifically for the online community — I accept the fact that more people will watch a five-minute film than a 20-minute film. I absolutely love that limitation and opportunity. I think there are so many possibilities to tell a rich story in that timeframe.

LOCY: Has technology changed the way stories are told?

CURTIS: Not at all. Technology is powerful, but it simply can’t touch something as vital as storytelling. It’s still about moving someone and it still is about a character [or characters] experiencing something, making decisions, and changing as a result.

Scene from Bridge by Hillman Curtis

LOCY: Your films tend to be minimalistic in style. Is there intentionality here? What is the philosophy behind this choice?

CURTIS: I like two characters and a room. It makes it easy to film but challenging to write, and I think challenging for the actors. But it’s beautiful when it works and perfect for the web film format (five to 15 minutes). I have always leaned toward minimalism in everything I have done. I like to get rid of the extraneous — the beautiful picture that adds nothing or the sweeping dolly shot that gets in the way of the story. If it doesn’t directly support the theme, yank it. I really like Bridge and Embrace — two actors, one location, natural light, good, simple script, and solid acting.

LOCY: What life influences most impact your film work?

CURTIS: That’s a great question. I honestly haven’t given it that much thought. I get into certain spaces where I think about a certain theme and then I am compelled to write about it in script form. It’s not that linear though. I might be lightly vibing on say “change”… I mean in the last year who hasn’t felt approaching change, both good and bad, but necessary? And a few months later I will sit down and start writing a script, maybe without intention or direct intent, on the theme of change.

For example, I wrote two scripts over the same three or four days. One was Bridge and the other was Circles. We shot them on two consecutive Sundays. Two really different films but both born from the same sense of things changing, and both are ultimately concerned with a sense of change that you feel but don’t really understand.

Scene from Artist Series Stefan Sagmeister by Hillman Curtis

LOCY: What attracts you to the artists who you have interviewed in your Artist Series?

CURTIS: Their work. Someone like James Victore, I can look at his work all day. Same with Paula Scher. I have a huge poster of hers in my bedroom. Every morning I wake up and look over at it and am happy. Milton Glaser makes you happy if he just looks at you and really happy if he talks to you. He is the wise man you read about in fables and myths; you feel it in his presence. David Carson is an enigma; he makes beautiful work and is unable to really talk about it. You can take a still frame from any of Mark Romanek’s videos and frame it. The films themselves are brilliant. And Mr. Sagmeister is a wonderful designer and artist, thoughtful and funny, awe-inspiring. I could go on, but you get the point.

LOCY: What have you learned most from these artists?

CURTIS: To remain curious.