Expressive restraint

Published:  November 20, 2010
Expressive restraint

Words: Andy Polaine

For many flash designers Hillman Curtis is a leading light and early pioneer of working with Flash as a design tool. Much early Flash work was marred by distorted type, kitschy animation and pale imitations of TV and film motion graphics pushed through Flash’s clunky technology. Curtis helped change all that. His first book, Flash Web Design, was a book for designers more than developers. It explored the strengths of Flash as the foundations for a design language, working with its style and limitations rather than fighting them. The book clearly fulfilled a burning need – it sold over 120,000 copies and was translated into 17 languages.

In 1998, after three years as art director at Macromedia, Curtis started his own company and since then has worked with an array of high calibre clients, ranging throughout the technology and entertainment world. The Hillman Curtis website sports an impressive client list, but what is more striking is the level of personal attention it has been given. The descriptions of projects contain more than a little ‘problem/solution’ blurb, and explain how the relationship with the client unfolded. “The culture is very focused, small and I would say careful at the moment,” says Curtis. “I am, maybe for the first time ever, actively trying to weigh the pros and cons of a potential project. I have in the past been reactive, going where the offered project took me and now I am saying ‘no’ more – making less cash perhaps, but actively engaging in defining the type of work I want to do.”

A notable change in direction has been Curtis’ growing love of filmmaking, now the focus of his work. Though he studied with a creative writing major and film minor at college, he studied film theory rather than production. “I had never really handled a camera until 1999. I wasn’t a photographer either, so it really was new to me,” he explains. “That said, I collect photographers’ monographs and have based a lot of my early shot compositions on still photo work I admired. I think I was sort of a frustrated filmmaker. I used Flash back in ’99 to flip through sequential images taken on a consumer video camera. I tried to make it look like film using three or four images, but instead of following a motion picture route I went where the work was, motion graphics on the web and web design. I’m glad I did and I’m glad I’m doing film now. I approach film with less ambition than I approached design and music before that, and I’m happy about that.”

Most of Curtis’ films explore relationships through single moments, often between tightly shot characters or between the viewer and a solo subject. There is a sense that he is taking his time, experimenting with his use of film language and demonstrating the same thoughtful restraint that seems to be a deep part of his character. A recent series of portraits or ‘moving photographs’ has taken that restraint to its most photographically-inspired conclusion, with his subjects silently staring, unmoving, straight at the camera as if in a still photo.

His recent artist series comprises more complex short films with subjects including designers Stefan Sagmeister, Milton Glaser and David Carson, and filmmaker Mark Romanek. These are not idol films. There is no boasting from the subjects, no strained interviews. Instead they are an uncovering, and thoughtful reveal of the essence of the subjects by letting them speak for themselves, often non-verbally. No wonder that Making the Invisible Visible (MTIV) was the title of Curtis’ last book back in 2003.

It is deceptively difficult to go beyond visual luxury and technological prowess in order to reveal a universal truth that resonates. This is particularly difficult in design work because these subtler, poetic elements can become quickly squashed in the rough and tumble of commercial work and deadlines. There is also the danger of self-expression slipping into self-obsession. “At the time of writing MTIV I was a full-on designer and I experienced through the work I was doing that there was an opportunity to communicate themes and messages without relying on words so much, even though typography is such a sacred part of traditional design. I was writing about the power of colour and layout, of the consistency found in a grid, and type and placement and motion to communicate this invisible theme – that the real message or the real opportunity to communicate lay beneath the obvious messaging. I think that’s something that commercial designers have to contend with every day.

“Personal expression and sharing your experiences through your work is what artists do,” he continues. “I hope that’s what I am doing with the film work. With the artist series it’s sharing my passion for a designer or artist’s work and identifying the universal theme that tells that person’s story. With the short films it’s all about economy – something I fell in love with out of necessity as a web designer. I like the short form and I like to keep it as spare and simple as possible, so that every line the actors speak can be justified in service of the theme.”

While Hillman Curtis, the studio, continues to work on design projects, Curtis himself is now focused on the moving image. A feature length film on David Byrne and his band is close to being finished, along with more short films and plenty of commercials. The irony is that Curtis does not own a television and doesn’t think much of most ads. “I was watching TV the other day at a friend’s house and what bothered me the most were the commercials,” he says. “I limit my screen time to things I am really interested in – good films and great programs – rather than switching through the channels and settling on something.”

He makes an interesting point. Perhaps in order to make the invisible visible, you need to keep your eyes pointing in a different direction to everyone else’s.

All images copyright Hillman Curtis.

From Desktop magazine.

One Response

  1. Ah, actually all images copyright Hillman Curtis.

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