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Matt Hanson
Matt Hanson

Matt Hanson

APEngine’s Gary Thomas talks to Matt Hanson, founder of onedotzero, author of The End of Celluloid, creator of A Swarm of Angels, and named by Forbes magazine as one of the Ten People Who Could Change the World.

You started onedotzero in 1996, but what were you doing before that?

I was a film critic, contributing to Dazed and Confused, The Face, The Independent, The Guardian. It was kind of the hey day of independent cinema, which I loved and I got to interview iconic directors like Gus Van Sant, Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley and Tarantino…

And I loved that work and I felt they were really innovating in the form, with story, but they weren’t innovating in the form itself, in the grammar so much. And they weren’t engaging with the kind of new possibilities in digital.

Because I always had a kind of intuitive feel for media technologies, digital technology and online stuff, I got into it very early. I felt that there was a great opportunity for me to marry those two interests and move on from being a critic to actually being a producer of some sort.

So that feeling that independent film wasn’t exploring digital possibilities – did you relate that at all to the way that mainstream Hollywood – how people like James Cameron were using digital technologies?

In a way, because it was much more about desktop digital technologies. The first ‘manifesto’ that I wrote for the first onedotzero catalogue was all about the coming idea of the film studio in your flat, which people thought was ridiculous at the time…

It almost feels like pre-history.

It is. Everything online at that time was postage stamp sized QuickTime movies and you couldn’t get any better than that. I’d done some work for a magazine called Blender in New York, which now is a rock/music magazine, but at the time was a very innovative multimedia CD-Rom magazine, which was a very short-lived format – obsolete within a couple of years – but at the time it was amazing and it was actually using hypertext in a fantastic way. I feel like I’ve always had a kind of hyper textual ethos to my work and you know, now my interests are much more in transmedia. I feel that’s another evolution of it.

But at that time, for Blender, I could write an article but I could also film an interview -  you know, I did a filmed interview with Martin Donovan who was in many of Hal Hartley’s films. And you could link the interview to video recordings and audio recordings and stills or film posters that you were referring to. That was more hypertext then than what you get on the web now in a way.

So I was just like really enthused and kind of pulsating with the possibilities of all that.

But the emphasis with onedotzero was around I think a different kind of practice – graphic moving image.  And though there was a lot of narrative in there, when those people were talking about short films they were talking about work that was quite different formally to conventional narrative short films weren’t they?

Absolutely. I kind of jettisoned the idea of story in a way. When I was looking at and reviewing independent cinema, it was all about stories that weren’t being told – the visuals were actually quite normal they were normal visuals, just the subject matter was different. It wasn’t Hollywood subject matter, and the story didn’t have a Hollywood arc or whatever.  So it was like “No – I’m going to jettison story and explore the possibilities that digital technologies have in revolutionising the look of film or video,” And the best way to do that is to go for a non-traditional filmmakers, who aren’t used to telling stories. So actually you got a lot of the worst possible eye candy and moving wallpaper, but in the best possible way, completely new visual styles. And you started getting primitive storytelling on top of that – but it was very much a visual lab.

You say ‘primitive’ story, but in some cases much more sophisticated storytelling. I’m thinking in commercials and pop promos, stories – meaning – is being constructed with a whole different set of commercial constraints and different patronage, but there can be a  sophisticated creative response to those kind of constraints.

It’s a paradox. To a certain extent, especially when people were just feeling out what the tools could do. It wasn’t so much about story – they were kind of works in progress. At the time there wasn’t much digital film work out there. So the reason onedotzero came about as a name was because it was like the first version of software, the first version of a new type of festival that would not only have a very definite curatorial stamp but would really invigorate and investigate a particular area and move it forward. So starting  commissioning and producing work from the ghetto, else there wouldn’t have been any work to have.

Now you’ve got a massive proliferation and it’s more about a big frontier in terms of curation and filtering. But at that time there was a lack of content and it was about actually approaching non-traditional filmmakers to say, “Look – you can use these tools to add a timeline and it’s a whole new facet to your work”.  And that was the key catalyst in creating this new category in motion graphics – though there was no such term at the time.

That’s quite a leap though isn’t it?  Coming from an established approach to film criticism, where there is the history of cinema, to something where the form itself is developing at the same time, without any critical language or framework.

But one of the things after a few years of onedotzero was that as the tools matured and the technology got better, more people were getting into the area because it was fantastic to really be exploring and be a nexus for this kind of spectrum of moving image which was wasn’t just experimental, it wasn’t just graphic moving image or motion design. And you saw it starting to seep through to mainstream cinematic language. In terms of an analogy though I always think of mixing metaphors – a feature film is the 800lb gorilla of moving image but it’s such a huge beast that it’s like an oil tanker that takes a while to turn around.

And while people like Hal Hartley and Tarantino were drawing on cinema, in this other area people were free to draw on any other aspect of culture that interested them?

There are two points there I think. One is that that if you’re a filmmaker – a director – it is such a massive process to create a film – particularly when it was traditional, celluloid. It was industrial and even effects wise, it was all about opticals. So it’s really difficult to innovate. And once they’d kind of got on that that ladder it was like “OK – I can make film now” and so invested in the process that they didn’t want to innovate. A lot of filmmakers who were very traditional and felt undermined by these new technologies.

Of course you always get you know the exceptions to the rule, like David Lynch, Mike Figgis, and even Wim Wenders.

So what did you leave onedotzero to do?

I felt the argument that I had constructed with onedotzero had been made. And a lot of work was going to the mainstream and it had really influenced the area. So the framework was there and I didn’t want to continue doing events and I wanted to look at more fruitful areas of creative investigation. So, to re-energise my thinking I felt I needed to withdraw from what I’d created there and go back to writing.  And become a bit more insular and do that solitary writer thing.

So there were two books – Motion Blur and The End of Celluloid – which make that step change explicit, putting to bed your interest in one area and then going forward by going back to film again?

Yes – thinking, now is the time for me to think how can we make another leap and go back to more of the mainstream area and tackle feature film again. But tackle it in this new era where digital video is prevalent and you don’t have to make an argument for the use of the technologies. And you don’t have to make an argument for the usage of the effects or new grammar.

So The End of Celluloid isn’t signalling the end of cinema?

No, signalling literally the end of celluloid as a form, but as a metaphor for the end of the insular filmmaker.

But cinema’s transforming isn’t it? All that other work – would you call that part of cinema? How would you – would you even – use the term ‘cinema’?

I use it differently all the time. And it’s really easy to use that term all the time, like “that music is cinematic” – any particular type of experience is ‘cinematic’. You travel somewhere and it felt like a cinematic experience. Does that mean that it was edited well, that it was a kind of hyper real experience? Is it to do with a heightened sense of reality?  It all depends.

But I think a really experimental piece of work can be exceptionally cinematic. I think to me it’s to do with heightened sense of reality.

With the prevalence of moving images, how do you negotiate that?

How do I negotiate user-generated content?

No, the whole mass of it all.  What distinctions are you making between…  well actually yes, how do you negotiate user-generated content?  How do we make sense of it all?

I don’t make distinctions about that. I think there’s this incredible snobbishness about it.  And I remember trying to sell stories to magazines about the emergence of user-generated content, and the response that “Oh it’s just going to be a bunch more stuff which is very low grade”, and I never thought about it like that. I always thought of it as an opportunity – yes, there will be more people making stuff so of course there will be be more things which you don’t like for whatever reason – but there are also going to be new opportunities for moving image makers and we can see that.

There are some key YouTube works which are fantastic. But perhaps we haven’t seen so much innovation in terms of the grammar – a little bit, but not enough. There’s an intimacy to that user-generated video which filmmakers really haven’t used to the fullest extent. I think that’s maturing quite rapidly, but it’s almost like somebody does a piece of work on YouTube, becomes a filmmaker, then goes to Vimeo or wherever, and this is like a hierarchy again. And then everyone wants to put it on the big screen.

I never thought about my own ambition as being to put work on the big screen. I wanted to put it on all screens and be ubiquitous about it.  And I liked doing improper things, like using Flash, which at the time was called Futuresplash, the first iteration. Realising it was back to basics and thinking, this is a tool designed for moving image on the web.  but I love fact that you could put it onto a cinema screen. I did some tests with mobile video, when the first mobile videophones came out and I loved the dirtiness of that as well, on a cinema screen.

I always thought about it the other way round too. About how you can do something which is very cinematic, which is big screen and do that for a small screen, or multi screen or whether it’s a live thing or you know how can you make a live film or whether it’s lucrative.

End of Celluloid was published in 2004 – has your thinking changed since then? Is Swarm of Angels a manifestation of that – of putting that kind of thinking into a coherent practice?

Yes – the subtitle of End of Celluloid is Futures in the Digital Age and I tried to encapsulate a lot of the ways that feature film might be reinvigorated by the new forms of moving image that had been investigated by particular strands and curation that went into onedotzero. Because I didn’t see feature film as being innovative enough under its various constraints, so I wanted to highlight those people that were doing innovative things with digital video, like the directors I’ve mentioned. But also people like Roger Avary, who I thought was doing something that I term accelerated cinema. A hybrid celluloid – celluloid grammar coming together with a digital video grammar.

And he did that really well, but also remixing sensibilities and computer gaming sensibilities and all the possibilities there. Trying to think that actually the filmmaker is not obsolete, but just needs to be reinvented to be a moving image-maker. And you should look at all these possibilities, as fantastic new frontiers to go into.

Well then it’s one thing for people working in what we always thought of as cinema to engage with new technologies but what you’re talking about is wresting that creativity which we can call cinema out from those you know production, distribution structures.

Yes, because I felt like there were key reasons why feature film innovation was being stifled, including the mode of production. It was so capital intensive. And there was much more expertise and craft needed to make that stuff using celluloid, technically advanced cameras and that kind of thing.

And different kinds of industry, economic models?

Yes, there was a massive industry based on making that work. And with the studios controlling that, to claw back as much of the investment, the capital investment, to make their money back. But it was stifling innovation – the whole distribution windows and having to make it for a specific genre or’s got to work internationally depending on the cost.  So how could you remix the whole process of cinema to escape these outdated and obsolete modes and practices? Could you just be unfettered… as a filmmaker and create a vision.

I guess a lot of that refinement of my thinking started manifesting itself in the idea of moving again from writing to go back to production – as a director and creator of a new type of cinematic object… which sounds quite pompous but at the same time it was very democratic, a remixing ethos, in a digital age. Something which I now think about in terms of my approach as being filmmaking in the age of participation.

Digital permeates everything. It’s not even worth commenting about now. But what is worth commenting about is the revolution in communication tools and distribution in loads and loads of connections. So it’s not so much about a film studio in your flat it; the filmmaker becomes his own studio if you like. That’s the kind of new frontier of it. A filmmaker can be a nano studio.

And in practice how is that working for you?

It’s working very well. It’s massively ambitious. It’s about creating a new collaborative practice – filmmaking is an exceptionally collaborative art form anyway. But it’s about how you can overlay open source methodologies on a credit process and also create a system to enable extreme collaboration between people and participation.

So one of the things I talk about is that the audience is obsolete and filmmakers should not think about an audience anymore because an audience is completely faceless in a way.  And you’ve got to move from audience to participators in the way you work.

And obviously this is not just happening in filmmaking. It’s happening all over and different art forms – Bourriard’s idea of relational aesthetics.  And you’ve got people  running around Tate Britain, in however many minutes, and that’s an artwork. You’ve got people on the fourth plinth and Anthony Gormley transforms it into the idea of an artwork. So I think it’s natural for filmmakers to start involving those people who are interested in their work, to create something more meaningful and engaging for them.  And it also frees up a much more kind of innovative practice I think, an innovative creative practice possibilities. Because you don’t have to think about faceless audience and you can start building a community.

Well, everyone is the audience aren’t they – everyone taking part?

Everyone taking part is the audience. And they become the distributors for your work as well.

Forbes listed you as one of the ten people who could change the world.

Don’t laugh.

I’m just smirking. would you…because it feels like a moment doesn’t it? We’re not at the end of what digital is doing – where do you see it going?

I see it becoming invisible. It’s not about digital anymore, it’s about the age of participation. So I feel that we’re not restricted by any of the old boundaries. It’s always been difficult for artists being put in boxes. I don’t think anyone really thinks in boxes anymore, apart from distributors and commissioners in the old media models, if you like.

You’ve got a choice. You can engage with those people, those commissioners, producers and distributors to help transform what they’re doing because of the need to transform it. Or you can by-pass it entirely and become your own commissioner and distributor. Build your own audience.

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