Part retrospective, part therapy, part tutorial and part primer, Hillman Curtis’ latest book, Creating Short Films for the Web is an exploration of the author’s cinematic lust and forays into the medium, delivered in a comfortable read that is most often engaging despite the heavily detailed anecdotal and technical bent of the author.
Curtis writes about nine of his digital video projects — it is important to acknowledge “digital” as a key word in this book, since it is a very affordable medium to dip one’s toes in without losing the thousands of dollars usually spent on traditional video — and spares no details, chronicling most aspects of each from concept to completion and is equally happy to include mistakes, successes, discoveries and failures. The book has an interesting dichotomy between the objective and subjective; going from the technical aspects of setting up lighting, choosing the right microphone, writing (or not writing, in most cases) a script, to the sometimes mushy sources of inspiration that drive Curtis, the peppered lessons in design and his enjoyment of turning off the lights, opening a bottle of red wine and listening to his iPod. The content at times feels like too much information and romanticism with the subject, yet it shows the highs and lows of doing any kind of creative work paired with the mundane and special moments of creating that most of us actually go through but rarely talk about. Curtis’ openness in this book is both a plus and a minus, so depending on how empty or full your glass usually is you will swallow it differently.
The objective and technical side of the book is excellent. Curtis is not a filmmaker by training or education; what he has learned has been through trial and error and simply by doing it. And wanting to do it. So his explanations come off as buddy-tales of caution and discovery, oozing optimism for anyone interested in following their digital video dreams. When Curtis talks about technical terms and equipment, they are presented in easily understood and graspable language, many times relating it to design principles. It is in this area that the book really succeeds, as a friendly, professionally tested DIY source — specially since you can see all the final movies from the book on Curtis’ web site.
Last year, I produced a video called Why? for a presentation at AIGA San Diego’s Y conference. The basic idea was to interview designers around town and ask them why they did specific things that they did. I assumed my consumer-level video camera with no visible microphone would do the trick. I traveled around town with a tripod and interviewed designers in their preferred settings. None of them were optimally lit or soundproof: from Pentagram’s air condition system and subway rumbling below, to Jimm’s interview at a Jamaican restaurant to Chip’s dark office. I ignored — well, I wasn’t quite aware of — all the shortcomings of these spaces and spent a good fifteen to twenty hours on the interviews and another forty editing. It looked and sounded “decent” on my laptop, but when I presented the movie in a large screen and state of the art sound system you could hear every little ambient annoyance. The piece was lost on the audience. I bombed. In reading Creating Short Films for the Web I was made aware of all my mistakes— which are likely the basics taught in Filmmaking 101 — but, best of all, what are the ways that I could have gotten it right. And the way they are described, I feel I would have. (Curses on you, New Riders, for not publishing this earlier!)
In a way that project was inspired by Curtis’ Artist Series movies, which if you have seen, appear absurdly simple on any given viewing, presenting a feeling of “if he can do it, I can do it”… This book demonstrates how hard it is to make those movies look and feel so simple. And how everyone could do it.