The most successful projects are all about good timing, says Hi-ReS!'s Florian Schmitt. Sometimes it's better to be the tortoise than the hare. Graeme Aymer finds out more about the London studio challenging tradition.
One gets the impression that Hi-ReS!'s Florian Schmitt is a perfectionist and is rarely entirely happy with output for which he's responsible. But the soft-spoken German is canny enough not to slate particular areas of the company's portfolio.
"It's normal with creativity to be unhappy with what you've done," he says. "Often it's right after you've finished something that you start to think it's wrong and that you should have done it another way. But then you look at it again and you think, actually it's quite good. It's just that you can get stuck into it, so therefore you're not as objective."
It soon becomes apparent when discussing past work with the soft-spoken, one-time Ninja Tune collaborator, sometime filmmaker, that Hi-ReS! is more the tortoise than the hare. The team will take its time on a project to get the desired result.
Of the studio's work for Channel 4 and ABC - The Lost Experience, a six-month online adjunct to hit programme Lost - Schmitt's only criticism is that it ran too long. "We could have done it in two months rather than six months. Nobody's got that kind of attention span," he says. "We're dealing with Lost fans who've got a long attention span, but that was too long for us."
Similarly, says Schmitt, the site created for Darren Aronofsky's film The Fountain took way too long. "I think that was about three months in total, which isn't financially sane," he says. That's not a slight on his team's ability to do their jobs. It's simply the way Hi-ReS! sees the world.
Bending the rules
Schmitt is reluctant to criticise the Hi-ReS! creative team; indeed he - quality assurance manager, 3D modeller, animator and designer - holds his 16-strong team in the highest esteem. But Hi-ReS! has never been about high-speed. In 2000-2001, the rules of the web dictated designers created sites for people with short attention spans. But the studio's signature sites, Requiem for a Dream and Donnie Darko, challenged this thinking and asked us to take a bit more time, to stick with them a while. Why the relaxed approach? Back then, Hi-ReS! had no idea what it was doing. Finding its way in the dark, the team had only just discovered Flash. Schmitt and partner Alexandra Jugovic had arrived in London in the late 1990s to pursue music and fine art, but then stumbled upon the software. They didn't ignore the rules: they just didn't know them.
But it's harder to be so naïve when you've got that kind of experience, not to mention a payroll approaching 20 eager employees. "The one thing that's encouraging is that we can still sit down and come up with stuff that excites us, and most of the time it's stuff we haven't done before," says Schmitt.
But Hi-ReS! is certainly not a playground. It is a commercially driven concern. "The jobs are generally quite well paid," says Schmitt. "We help people sell cars, or whatever, and are very lucky that we get away with doing work that is unusual."
This means taking commissions from, and collaborating with, ad agencies, which doesn't always involve a meeting of minds, despite some positive experiences. "We've not had bad experiences, but sometimes advertising agencies will come to you with, for example, a 30-page PDF and say, 'build this for me'. And you'll just think: this isn't what we do - if you already know what it's going to look like, you might be better off asking someone else," says Schmitt. "So we generally try to be quite honest, because that's the only way that it's going to work."
But there's another reason - besides money - that Hi-ReS! remains interested in those car jobs (past work included Lexus and Saturn). Schmitt loves cars. He even started his career by training in automotive design, but quickly abandoned the course for fear of "being only allowed to design a rear-view mirror." This product-oriented training has influenced Hi-ReS!'s output. "I definitely benefited from it, in the way that I approach things," says Schmitt. "If you've studied product design you design things in a certain way. Things should be touched here, or use of various symbols to turn here etc!
"That's why a lot of my work is 3D, not in terms of CGI, but I think about work in terms of three-dimensional structures. That's why a lot of our projects have had a certain level of depth. I'm not a graphic designer; for me everything is spatial in some way."
Influences can come from any number of disparate sources. For example, when approached by singer/songwriter Beck, Schmitt aimed to create a website that could take on a number of appearances and designs, with the viewer never knowing which one would appear until he or she actually visited the page.
"I've always loved the idea of a site that you can't quite pin down and you don't really know what it is until you go there," says Schmitt. "For me, a website always has that potential. I've always thought that Beck is very much like that. He's very different from song to song and album to album."
However, it would have been difficult to follow the idea through and still include all the elements necessary for a musician's website, such as news, tour dates, a discography and the like. In the end, Hi-ReS! drew from elements from 19th-century Austrian theatre inspired by a field trip to the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, London. "We built all these microstructures and photographed it all ourselves," Schmitt explains. "It is one of my favourite projects in terms of process. It took almost a year to get it finished, but the project was really, really fun to do."
However the work is derived, Schmitt believes the secret to a successful project is quite simple. "Tell a good story and hopefully people will listen," he says.
Hi-ReS! hasn't been resting on its laurels. The diary is incredibly busy. On the Hi-ReS! project manager's books are upcoming websites for a film version of computer game Hitman, fragrance designer Issey Miyake and architect Zaha Hadid. The last of these promises something particularly innovative. "The site will be almost completely done in Papervision, which is the new 3D engine for Flash," Schmitt reveals. "Papervision is a really amazing tool. It just makes sense for us to create something that's very special for Zaha."
There will also be a search for more employees, which will potentially increase staff numbers to 20 - the acceptable limit as far as Schmitt is concerned - and he'll be pushing Nanika, an interactive installation-based company he runs with Andreas Müller. "Again it's one of those things where we're venturing into the unknown," he says.
There's an exhibition in Toronto, and work for the Nokia flagship store will appear in the UK soon. And then there's the Hi- ReS! retrospective book, released in July.
"We forget how fortunate we are to be able to do what we like, and to have people who want to do it with us," says Schmitt. Let's hope it continues...