Kai Hattermann Interview

Above: Kai Hattermann
Above: Kai Hattermann

Kai Hattermann makes films that people love to share; they bounce around the internet like rubber balls. The German-born motion designer-turned-filmmaker started his career shooting on video cameras, but nowadays he’s a big fan of DSLRs. “I’ve been shooting with them for two or three years,” he says. “Of course, there are other options but they are more expensive. With my budgets DSLRs are a perfect solution. At the beginning it’s a hassle; you need extra tools for one to behave like a normal video camera. But when you get used to it, they are great. I love them.”

He finds DSLRs are a much better solution than video cameras. “If you’re filming with a small budget, you’re using a small video camera, so the chip is smaller; so using a DSLR is better in that respect.” He is aware of the drawbacks too. “You need to play about with the contrast beforehand because the DSLR films with a lot of contrast. You have to change the settings, but after post-production the results are good. Plus you have the freedom of the lenses. It’s all about the lenses.” Is there less commercial work around for a filmmaker because photographers have the ability to shoot video? “No, I think it’s a healthy change in circumstances,” he says. “It’s like a person who studied design entering into that world. There are lots of people making films without a filmmaking background. With Vimeo, if you don’t have big-money projects there’s still plenty of space for your work.” Hattermann’s own background is in design – specifically motion design – which has led him around the world working on varied projects; from fashion and art films to commercials and documentaries.

He spent eight years in Brazil: a country that he finds cinematically inspiring for its extremes; the overwhelming gulf between rich and poor. It’s where he pursues his personal passion for social documentary. He has filmed the indigenous people of the Amazon and both human and animal inhabitants of the Pantanal wetland in Brazil, which harbours an astonishing array of plants and wildlife as well as, according to him, “some crazy characters”. Brazil’s social contrasts were also the genesis of his viral work. “All that stuff started in Brazil,” he says. “I used to go out and film on the streets then put the clips on YouTube; some of them started to get noticed.

One of his most successful viral hits is Red Light; a frenetic snapshot of two Brazilian street kids performing juggling tricks for drivers in traffic for just a handful of cents a time. Overlaid with typography, it highlights Hattermann’s background in design, as well as his filmmaking skills. Red Light did not start life as a one-minute-40-second clip. “Initially I wanted to make a mini-documentary about these street guys. You film and film and suddenly you have enough footage for 20 projects,” explains Hattermann. “The footage sat in my hard drive for a couple of years. It was one of those things where you think, ‘One rainy day, after I’ve sorted my iTunes library, I’m going to edit this.’ But you never do it so I ended up with this clip.”

The film is a slick production: from the urgent percussive soundtrack written by Hattermann’s friend, Tom Linden; to the graphics, which flit around the screen, chasing the subjects. The film was well received and nominated in the Broadcast Design category in the 2009 Rushes Soho Shorts Festival. Some of his viral films have been produced deliberately with a more homemade look. However, he says the look is not always the key to a viral success. “Viral clips can look commercial; it’s not really about that. They used to be about making you and your friends in the office laugh in a 10-second clip. But now, with Vimeo, it’s about beautiful cinematic shoots accompanied by a really good story.”

He tells me about a film on Vimeo that impressed him recently. “It was about this really cool guy whose dog was dying. I was nearly crying as I was watching it. If your heart is beating, then the viral element is working.” And what about music? “If it is a documentary about poverty in São Paulo, then it’s better to be a quiet film. But for a fast-moving clip, music is half the thing, really.” He has no idea how many people have seen his films, which travel with a force of their own. A timeless viral film is always out there and fresh exposure gives any clip a third, fourth or fifth wind. Fashion magazine Soup’s recent newsletter featured Red Light, bringing a whole new audience to the clip. Unlike some, Hattermann has not harnessed social media to drive his work further; a missed opportunity perhaps. “I should do more of that,” he says. “I think I have a Twitter account, but I never use it. It would be interesting to see what would happen if I put more effort into Facebook, Twitter and blogs.” He does still get feedback, and commissions.

A few years back he shot the shaky-cam viral Love Story, starring Hattermann as a camera-wielding voyeur. In the film, Hattermann spots a girl sunbathing on the beach, creeps up and slaps her on her toned, brown behind. A chase ensues as the incensed women runs after her assailant. It’s another short sharp hit; less sophisticated than Red Light but with the necessary impact to make it a hit. “It was on so many blogs,” says Hattermann. “People were saying such awful things about me in the comments sections. One comment would say, ‘What an asshole!’ another would say, ‘This is cool’ or ‘This is fake’; but all this discussion made me more well known. Quite a lot of people believed it; there was so much discussion. I still have friends who don’t actually know the truth.”

The sunbathing beauty is actually an actor and friend of Hattermann. The clip was spotted by an agency and Hattermann was commissioned to shoot some virals for a Sony campaign. He has starred in many of his own virals; a fact that he sounds rather sheepish about. “When I was studying design in Cologne, all I wanted to do was either make films or be an actor,” he admits, laughing. “I don’t have the drive to appear in them anymore.” While he loves the viral work and has fun doing it, like any filmmaker he would love to have the budget to create something spectacular. “Recently I’ve been doing other projects and I really miss it; it’s a great thing to do.” Hattermann also stars in She Said, She Said; an unsettling, effects-heavy clip that employs his skills in motion design and is, he says, a tribute to Andrew Kramer, who he describes as the God of Adobe After Effects. Having spent a good deal of his career producing animated clips for music videos and other films, he finds it easier to get a commission for animation than filmmaking. His design background continues to influence his style. “As a student I would make a film about the subject rather than design something. Also, for the animation and motion design, it’s helpful; especially when you play with typography.”

We talk about Gareth Edwards’ film Monsters; renowned for being high on effects but low on budget. “A film like Monsters is where the journey should end. I look up to guys like Edwards; more so than the guys who make a film with a $50 million budget.” He knows there are advantages for low-budget filmmakers who can do their own effects. “If you’ve got a project with hardly any money, it’s expensive to find a person to do the effects. But if you can take the camera and say, ‘Fuck it, let’s do it’ that’s great. You can think bigger because you can make things look really good. Even in After Effects you can resolve problems in post. In Monsters it all looks real, but you can also use the software to make it look almost perfect; so there’s a ‘trashy’ influence too.” He pauses before adding optimistically, “I hope that one day my budgets will match that look.”

He has recently started teaching at the Institute of Design (IN.D) Berlin and finds that the design students want to learn about filmmaking; a manifestation of the digital age we live in. “With After Effects it’s like how it was with Flash; all these kids are sitting up all night playing with it. There are really some talented guys on the market. “They learn how to use these tools at a really young age and know how to make their movies look big; plus they are also looking at lots of clips.” There’s one aspect that remains the same, he says, regardless of how impressive the digital skills. “You still have to learn how to tell a story. That’s the basic rule of movie making. It’s not just about the tools. I’m still learning the storytelling process,” says Hattermann, who has just begun a new project, shooting footage of his newborn son Antonio every day. “I have the production background so I have all the tools to make these things, but I think my journey’s still in progress; you’re always in progress really.”

To see more of Hattermann’s work visit www.filetroyal.com

© Eleanor O’Kane 2012

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