Remembering Hillman Curtis
In 2005, when I began the process of making Helvetica, I was searching for other design-related documentaries. I discovered there was only one filmmaker out there who was documenting designers and their work in an innovative way. Hillman Curtis’s Artist Series shorts were beautifully conceived, shot, and edited, and they really inspired me. You could tell he was passionate about documenting creativity and sharing it with other designers through these short profiles, which were always available free on his website. I was in awe of his creative output and how he balanced paid gigs with passion projects. His filmmaking style was unique, and he often put the guts of the film production process (boom microphones, lighting stands, backdrops, dolly tracks, etc.) on-screen as visual elements. In a way, his films simultaneously exposed his subject’s creative process, and his own.
He inspired countless designers through his books and conference appearances. His early Flash designs changed the way the web looked and helped open up the possibilities of online media. He explored narrative film, making 11 original short films, also viewable on his site. Hillman’s only feature-length project was the 2010 music documentary Ride, Rise, Roar about David Byrne, which my partner Jessica did the film festival publicity for. When I saw it at the SxSW premiere, I told Hillman it was one of the most well-photographed and edited concert films I’d ever seen. He was working on another feature, his collaboration with designer Stefan Sagmeister, The Happy Film, and he recently posted this short on Vimeo in which he explained his approach. “Be prepared to reinvent yourself,” was his advice to young creatives.
I first met Hillman in 2007 at the Design Thinkers conference in Toronto. We had plenty to talk about, we were both originally from Southern California, had our roots in the music scene, and in a sense we were doing the same thing with our films but in different forms. At the end of the conference, they gave the speakers a gift of an ornate hand-blown glass bottle of artisanal maple syrup. We were both flying back to New York, but Hillman didn’t have any checked baggage and realized they probably wouldn’t let him on the plane with a large vial of syrup in his carry-on. So I offered to bring it back in my suitcase, and we agreed that we’d meet up for brunch some weekend and make pancakes with the fancy syrup. Of course it slipped our minds, and every time we ran into each other after that, we were like, “The maple syrup!!!” Eventually I got his bottle back to him, but we never did have that pancake brunch.
Hillman passed away Wednesday night at the age of 51, after a three-year battle with cancer. He was someone who I truly admired, and this is a huge loss for all of us. My heart especially goes out to his wife Christina and their children.
Watch one of Hillman’s “Artist Series” short films now. It will make your day, and your life, better.