Filmmaker Gary Hustwit On VR And Architecture

Filmmaker Gary Hustwit On VR And Architecture
November 12, 2016

From Gary Hustwit’s 2009 documentary film “Objectified.”  Gif via “Objectified”


In the not so distant future, you may find yourself watching a documentary from inside the film itself — that is to say, standing inside the Parthenon (for example) while still in the comfort of your own home. And when that happens, you will have Gary Hustwit to thank.


Hustwit’s virtual reality content studio, Scenic, launched earlier this year and has a number of projects in the works, but that’s only one of the many plates that the documentary filmmaker is spinning: He’s currently finishing a documentary on the legendary industrial designer Dieter Rams, which will be his fourth feature-length film. The first three—Helvetica (2007), Objectified (2009), and Urbanized (2011)—were all met with critical acclaim.


While virtual reality may seem like a leap from those types of projects, the truth is that whatever Hustwit does, he’s always at or near the forefront of something. He was, as he tells to us, "crowdfunding [movies] before that term existed," and of his first and most famous film, Helvetica, he explains how it coincided with the rise of fonts as a thing that everybody knew about:


My mom knew what a font was, suddenly. And ten years before that, in the nineties, people didn’t. It was only a thing if you were in the trade or in design. So, it was just that moment when people were becoming interested in fonts and using them all the time online.


Listen to the rest of the interview, or read it in full, below.

Asad: We like to start every interview with a basic, 101 question. At a cocktail party, how do you describe what you do?


Gary: I usually say filmmaker. I think that's the easiest one. It's probably what I do the most of, even though I really love still photography, and I'm involved in a lot of other different projects, guitar building, and other things too. Filmmaking is pretty much my full time job still. That's the easy cocktail party answer.


Zoe: Guitar making, I think that's another conversation.


Asad: Yeah.


Zoe: That's a whole other conversation. We do know here that you are involved in not only documentary filmmaking, but you've written books as well. The subject of one of your books is very apt for conversation right now, and that's Olympic architecture. It's something we're interested. We don't want it to overwhelm the conversation, but we want to know a little bit about your thoughts there specifically because the Olympics just wrapped up.


Gary: Sure, sure, sure. That project is something that I do with Jon Pack who's another photographer. We've been doing it now for almost eight years ever since the Beijing Olympics in 2008 with so much attention that games was paid on all of the money that they had spent in the Bird's Nest and all the things they built. Jon originally was just kind of wondering, "What happens to all the stuff after the games are over?" He started looking at cities that were close to New York like Montreal and Lake Placid, just scouting around and trying to see if there was a real project there, and see what was the afterlife of these venues, and the Olympic villages, and all the development that had been built.

I saw some of the early photographs that he took in 2009 and 2010, and I was just blown away by them. I pushed him into letting me collaborate on the project too. There are over 40 cities that have hosted the games. It's a lot of ground to cover, and I thought I could get involve. I think we're just basically looking at how the Olympics impacted these cities and what's left from the games after they're gone. How did the games affect the people who lived there? Did the city organically mesh with these structures afterwards? It's a very fun project. It's a very narrow lens to look at the city. I think there's so much around the Olympics in terms of obviously the sports, and just kind of amazing performances that happened. Also, the kind of a city and the country's identity sort of gets mixed up.

They always try to kind of express who they wish they were to the rest of the world because they're sort of the center of attention for those two weeks. That can either be I think a good thing or a bad thing for a city, and the people who live there depending on—


Asad: We're seeing both sides of that coin at Rio this year in a lot of ways.


Gary: Yeah. It's interesting. There's so much attention gets paid on the stadiums and these kind of white elephants and the venues, but less attention is paid to the infrastructure and the improvements that you may be don't notice that actually do impact the lives of the people who live there. In Rio, they've been wanting to re-develop the port area for decades.

When I was in Rio last, I was talking with the mayor, Eduardo Paes. He's in my film Urbanized. He was already talking about the re-developing of the port. That was a pet project of his and the previous administration. A lot of times, the Olympics give cities the resources and the reason to push through plans that had been in the works for decades.

Barcelona is another case of that. If you look at somewhere like Munich, the whole subway system in Munich was built for the '72 games. Almost 50 years later, the Olympics is still impacting millions of people in these places. Even Athens which is held up as the worst of the recent Olympic legacies, they still also got a subway line and other infrastructure improvement. It's something, it's complex.


Asad: There are so many subjects that you could take on. This sounds like one that is really ripe for a documentary film, just thrown that out there. How in general do you decide? Because I feel like you've tackled some heady, nutty issues, that aren't really necessarily, easily kind of ... capturable.


Gary: Sure. I think the thing that attracted me to the Olympic City project the most was that it wasn't a film. It was just still photographs. It's very stripped down. I can just go to a city by myself for a couple of weeks, and take pictures and walk around. That's a big difference. Even on the sort of independent documentary level, I still have a cinematographer. I have sound people. I have producers. We had all the stuff. We got to edit the interviews, and put music to them, and figure out the next shoot. It's a little more pure. It just lets me take photographs, and just get better at that. I get the better at visually documenting something. Still photography, or video, or interactive project or VR, whatever, they're all tools in the kind of toolkit if you're trying to document the world around you. I'm just really curious about things. I like to explore them visually.

I might feel like a subject is worth me spending three years and making a feature film, and may be that form fits the subject matter best. It might be just, "Hey, I want to take photographs of this for a couple of days." I'll just put them online and make a little book or something, or everything in between like a VR short, or a short documentary. It's all just ways that I can explore things that I want to explore.


Zoe: To speak to Asad's point, you have done films about these things that are hard to condense and capture in a single breath if you will. I'm curious, for instance when you were working on Helvetica, how do you create a narrative arc out of what is essentially a font?


Gary: I have no idea. That film specifically, it was my first film. I really didn't know what I was doing, but I had an idea of what I wanted the film to be like. I had almost like a blueprint of it in my head about. We were going to go to different cities. We see Helvetica around in the city. Then we talk to somebody who lives there that happened to be a designer. We learn kind of a piece of the story, or of what they do, or what their take on graphic design and typography was. It's a pretty open framework. You can do a lot, I think within that structure. I think the reason that Helvetica became sort of a cult film obviously for graphic designers and type designers, no one had ever made a documentary about what they did. I think they were definitely excited.


Asad: They were all thrilled.


Gary: At the same time, that was really, really when fonts became more of a kind of mass culture thing. My mom knew what font was suddenly. Ten years before that in the 90s, people didn't. It was only a thing if you were in the trade or you were in design. It was just that moment when people were becoming interested in fonts and using them all the time online. I think that there is also a visual game that's happening within the film of this trying to spot the Helvetica when we show different street scenes where there's type. It's kind of like this Where is Waldo thing. That actually becomes really sort of powerful subliminally which I didn't take into account when I was making the film, but only afterwards when I started watching it.

If you watch it for 80 minutes and you're like, "Oh look, find the Helvetica." It changes the way you see the world when you walk outside the theater. You're still doing that. Your brain gets into this groove of trying to spot the type. That was something that I thought was just kind of like, "Oh, I'm just going to show how ubiquitous Helvetica is. That's all I was trying to do, but in fact it made it this little brain game that I think we're sort of programmed to latch on to and try to solve that puzzle. "Where is it? Oh, there's the word. What does it say?" Then the next time, "Where is it this time? Oh, there it is." You know, spotting it. Somehow repeating that for 80 minutes just messes with your head.


Zoe: It definitely does. I remember walking out and being like, "Oh, look at the MetLife Building."


Gary: It's interesting because graphic designers, I think have this, it's called typomania. They have it all the time. They can't-


Asad: There's an official word for that?


Gary: Yeah.


Asad: That's amazing.


Zoe: Typomania.


Gary: It's trying to identify the font before you even read what it is. It's just kind of a subconscious thing. You look at it and you're like, "Oh, Times New Roman," or whatever.


Asad: Right. I definitely got to a point where I was like trying to figure out if it was Arial or Helvetica.


Gary: That's really hard, it's funny.


Asad: It's difficult. I didn't get good at it.


Gary: Even when we were making the film and when I was just kind of starting to become better at it, there were some things that I filmed that I thought were Helvetica but they were actually Arial.


Zoe: Make up a big cut.


Gary: Actually, it's funny because we had a screening with Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones who at that point were still working together. I just showed them a rough cut of the film. They were like, "Ah, aha, uh-uh. That's no, no, no. Avant Garde." I'm like, "Oh really? Oh, it's such a great shot." They're like, "No, no. Sorry."


Asad: For listeners who don't know, they are two very prominent typeface designers.


Gary: Yeah, two of the best in the world. Even I, when I was making it, I still had to have somebody to go through and tell me which was which. I'm trying to capture this big subject matter. That seems like a very small thing to look at, one typeface. I think a lot of times people responding to the idea of the film, they're like, "What? I can't believe they made a documentary about one font. I mean, come on." There's so much behind it. There's such a bigger story behind it. The people involved, and the graphic design, and just the different movements within it. That becomes something bigger even though it's just seemingly small thing. There's always a story behind every small thing in this world. That's really all I was doing with that. Sometimes the brief, when I'm thinking of making these films, it's just impossible. It's like you can't make a film about urban design and how cities are made and shaped. It's just impossible to do.


Zoe: It's too unscalable.


Gary: It's unscalable, but also just a snapshot of a river. It's changing every second. Stuff that I've shot at the beginning of the three-year process of making Urbanized by the end, it was completely obsolete, or changed, or something. Cities are constantly changing. Also sometimes, I always try to make a simple film. My goal is always like I just try to be with, the simplicity. Somehow I get drawn into these just ridiculously complex subjects that I know going in, I'm going to fail. It's just like trying to not fail as much as possible basically.


Zoe: To fail better.


Gary: Yeah, exactly.


Gary: That's the case. I would rather reach for something and fail than just do something that was safe, and that I knew I was going to succeed at.


Asad: Something that really struck a chord with me and you noted this. Just the many, many people that are involved in thinking about something that we all can take for granted like a typeface like Helvetica. Let's talk about Dieter Rams, since I know that that is your next subject. I don't know that a lot of folks know who he is and where he worked. Why he's such a legend in the design community?


Gary: Sure. He was in my film Objectified which was about product design and industrial design, manufacture objects. He was the Design Director at Braun, the German electronics and housewares company from the kind of 1950s into almost the 1990s. He's probably the most influential living designer. People like Jonathan Ive at Apple and many others just talk about how he's influenced them, and how his work has influenced them. The stuff that he was building, and he was definitely influenced by the Bauhaus and then the Ulm School which is the art and design school that Rams went to; about this as little design as possible, very minimal, let the form echo the function. You can look at the stuff that he was designing in the 1950s and '60s and it still looks like the future. It's this serene, white, very spare, beautiful design.

He also designed everything from the Oral-B toothbrush, to stereo systems, to furniture, to electric razors, to film projectors. The range that he got to oversee at Braun and also at Vitsoe which is the furniture company that he designed for, which I think the Braun stuff kind of overshadows the Vitsoe work a lot, because I don't know, some of those things were in production for a longer time and had been held up as iconic. The output he did for Vitsoe is just also staggering, but to look at really anything that is inside your home and/or office that he's designed something. He's designed every one of those kind of objects. If you look at them, you see his aesthetics through. There's a consistent expression of his design philosophy through everything he does. It's totally evident when you see it.


Zoe: You worked really, really closely with him to create this documentary. I think you had access to him in a way that not a lot of people did?


Gary: Yeah. He is so influential and so well-known within the design world that I had assumed that after Objectified, and then there was a big retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum as of memoir of his work. If I didn't put out this definitive book, I just assumed that somebody was doing a documentary, a comprehensive film about him. I was speaking with Mark Adams at Vitsoe who still works with Rams on a daily basis and he said, "No. No one is doing it Dieter. He just doesn't want it. He doesn't care about it. He doesn't want to deal with the media. He feels like everything has already been said in the books." My argument was, "Look, this is film. It's a different medium. We can do different things. It's also going to reach a different audience than who would buy a $100 design book." In this idea of passing his philosophy onto the next generation.

I think one of the most interesting things about Rams is he's had this illustrious career. He's designed hundreds of objects. If you ask him if he would had this to do over, if you would still want to be a designer, he says no.


Zoe: Really?


Gary: He feels like he's contributed to this mass consumer ... A society that's just like too much junk, unnecessary products are everywhere. He feels like he's had a role in that somehow. Even though the things he's designed, I think he's tried to make them as long lasting and as environmentally sensitive as possible. He still feels like he's contributed to this thing. He would want to be an urban planner. Actually, it's what he wanted to be if he could do it over again, because he trained originally as an architect and got hired at Braun as an architect. Then, just got thrown into helping some product design ideas and just took off that way. That contradiction, I think he's interesting. He's also been talking about sustainability and environmental consciousness since the '70s. I don't think most people who, even the people who know about his work may be don't know those facets of his life.


Asad: I find that really just fascinating that he takes that stance now. He's had this long illustrious career and done such great work. He's now looking back at it mournfully.


Gary: Here's the thing at that. With modern technology, you can't design a phone now that in 20 years is going to be functional probably, but so many of Rams' things he designed in the '50s, and '60s, and '70s, they're still working. They're still working really well.


Asad: There is still, like, a really healthy appetite for them on eBay.


Gary: Yeah, definitely.


Asad: For someone who has tried a buy a Rams record player.


Gary: It's one of those things like a clock, radio, or an alarm clock from the '60s. The chances of it surviving, even stuff that was mass produced and surviving and still working now are still pretty slim. There is a total collector culture of his stuff. It's funny because my mom is in the habit of sending me packages randomly. I won't know what's in them. I'll just get a box from my mom.


Asad: That's sweet.


Gary: I open like, "What is this?"


Zoe: That's awesome.


Gary: It's always kind of like junk that she's trying to clear out of the garage. "Oh, I thought you'd like this or whatever. This is your thing when you were 12." Last month, I got a box and it was the Braun orange juicer, the electric juicer that we had when I was in high school. How a German designer of these objects kind of affects the life of some teenager in California, me, is another thing that I think is fascinating. I had a Braun alarm clock. My dad had a Braun shaver. I'm interested in our relationship to all this stuff, and by extension, the people who designed it. How does this guy in Germany end up affecting how I grew up in California?


Zoe: Wow!


Asad: We know that you have used Kickstarter to great effect in raising funds for films. How was the internet and just crowdfunding culture changed the way you conceive of your work and get it done?


Gary: Interestingly enough, we were kind of crowdfunding before Kickstarter was invented. My background is in independent music, and punk rock record labels and stuff. The idea of having a direct connection with the audience, with the people who want what you're making has been part of what I do since the late 1980s. Even when I started producing films which was in the early 2000s like I started helping friends make music documentaries, just helping produce them, or distribute them. We're already kind of going after the fans.

The first documentary that I produced was about the band Wilco. It was called I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, that was in 2002 probably. Of course they have a ton of passionate fans. We were like, "Hey, pre-order the DVD six months in advance, and we're going to give you this special poster or something." Then we use that money to actually finish the film. It was crowdfunding before that term existed.

What Kickstarter does that is so great is just sort of formalize that, and make it easy, and bring together just a group of people who are interested in getting involved in any project, in any creative project. That's the thing. It's not just the people who are interested in my films. The people who just happened to be on Kickstarter and, "Oh, Dieter Rams. I don't think I've heard of him." We'll go on and maybe get involved that way. It's created its own environment of people who want to fund this project. It's great. I've done five projects now on Kickstarter. That was our MO before Kickstarter too. I think they've just kind of codified it and made it a little more simple.


Zoe: We just have one more question. One quick question.


Gary: That's it? Geez.


Zoe: Yeah, I know. We're fast. What is next up for you?


Gary: What is next up? The Rams film, I need to finish that one. I made a film that was about the design of offices called Workplace. That's going to premier next month at the Architecture and Design Film Festival. That was fun. It was started out as kind of a project that commissioned from R/GA, the agency who was building a new office and invited me to follow along their process. Then, also talked to other people who are thinking about this stuff. It's another one of those areas where we spent so much time in offices. We spent so much of our lives in these spaces, but people don't really put that much thought into how they're designed and how that affects our lives.

Also, what we do on laptops and all this digital equipment has radically changed for the past 15 years. The spaces we do it in are pretty much the same. It's about trying to bridge that on digital and physical space, and try to see how those can better interact. That comes out next month. Then doing more Olympic City photographing. That's an ongoing project to me. I think that Jon and I will be like in wheelchairs, basically wheeling around in our 80s to see what Sochi looks like in 30 years. It is a very slow project. The project itself is about time, and how it affects these cities and these places. That's something that we'll continue.

We just got back from Turin where we documented the Winter Olympics there, which is as fascinating. The Olympic village there which had been vacant for eight years after the 2006 games got taken over by African refugees. They started squatting in it. Now, there's 1,200 African refugees squatting in the Olympic village in Turin. The Italian government just sort of tolerating it. They don't know what to do, but they're not helping the situation. There's activists in Turin who are helping maintain the buildings. They've set up a school, and a barber shop, and a mosque, and all kinds of things in the former residences for the athletes. That one was fascinating. We'll continue to do that and maybe put in another book. We're trying to plan an exhibit in Amsterdam for it next year.

Guitars, I'm sort of obsessed with guitars. I've been since I was a kid. I have a friend who for 30 years has been building electric guitars. He's somebody whose band I worked with when we were in college. Now, he's turned into one of the finest luthiers on the planet. I help him. His name is Saul Koll. I help his business out too, and get to play a lot of guitars which is a great, great fringe benefit.


Asad: Win-win.


Gary: It is a win-win. Then, they're really interesting design object. They are a design but, they're also kind of this tool that an artist then takes and makes this incredible music. There is an interesting conversation happening between the player and the builder when they're kind of conceiving the instrument. I'm fascinated. I'm fascinated with the stories behind instruments too. Just the famous guitars like Willie Nelson's Trigger, and things like that. I'm super fascinated. I always think about making a film about that.


Zoe: Yeah. I was going to say, it sounds like fodder.


Asad: Yeah. You may have heard it here first, folks.


Gary: Yeah. The other thing that I've started working on which I'm also fascinated by logos and the design of identities. I think that's the next film that I'm kind of working on. Again, it's like I tried to get out of the design world in case-


Asad: Then, it just grabs you back.


Gary: It does. There are too many parts of it that I still want to explore. I'm fascinated by the people, the history of logo design, but also the people that are doing it now. Also, this other side of it, the commercialization and the logofication of our world in our daily lives and how that's changed over the past couple of decades. I like looking at that dichotomy. That will be another thing that I'm going to do next year. Other things, I'm sure.


Asad: Got a lot of doing on.


Zoe: A lot do.


Gary: Virtual reality. Sorry, I have another, a VR startup. We're doing video like VR documentaries with a bunch of different people and partners. It's another way to kind of tell a non-fiction story. It has its own set of challenges and its own set of things that it can do that traditional documentary can't. The past year, I've been shooting a lot of VR. I got a bunch of stuff coming out on this fall. Just in some of it, it's architecture and design related, but some of it is just interesting stories where being able to see everything and feel like you've got presence makes a big difference. There are things that again, that VR can do that traditional documentary can't. It can give you that sense of place.

We spend so much time as filmmakers trying to shoot a lot of specific building or area trying to get the viewer to feel like they're there. With a 360 video and just VR, that's a lot simpler. You can just put the person there, and they can look around. Then it's about, how do you now tell a story, or hold someone's attention when they can look everywhere. There is no in front of the camera, or behind the camera. It's super interesting. We're doing a lot of stuff like that too.


Zoe: We will stay tuned.


Gary: Okay. Thanks so much.


Asad: Yeah, that's super exciting.


Gary: I always love to talk about these things because I'm obsessed with them.


Asad: As are we. Awesome. Thank you so much for joining us.


Zoe: Yeah. Thank you so much for coming in.


Gary: My pleasure. Thank so much for having me.

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