Michael Hili And The Power Of The Handmade


Michael Hili And The Power Of The Handmade

The FINCH Director Talks The Interests That Make Him Who He Is

Most creatives have the penny drop moment when they suddenly realise what they want to do with their careers. For Michael Hili, an award-winning director of commercials and music videos whose work combines a fascination with tactile storytelling devices and potent human emotion, the moment was suitably profound.

Hili was in America, cycling down the West Coast by himself for three months. “I was in a very loaded position to think about my life,” the director laughs over the phone. He’s currently in the garage of the FINCH offices, where he is, typically for Hili, working with his hands on some props for an upcoming music video. He’s an old hand when it comes to music videos, having directed clips for the likes of The Killers, Flume, and Mark Pritchard.

“For me, it was about enjoying being affected. I was in the middle of America by myself, and I came to understand that there’s an equation going on that produces an emotion. There was a beautiful sunset, and a day of hard work, and they contributed together to a feeling. I was being manipulated by the natural world – and I was fine with it. 

“It was interesting to me that those parts together could trigger an emotional response.”

'Sleep' Directed by Michael Hili

On that same trip, Hili later found himself in New York, sitting in a cafe, listening to the sound of spoons hitting the side of teacups. It was a familiar sound, made up of lots of little textural elements, that produced an emotional response – the “feeling” of coffee. That further drilled down the same realisation for Hili: that we’re constantly producing emotional responses in the world, constantly affecting and moving other human beings through little choices and moments.

“We paint the walls of our houses certain colours,” Hili says. “We take ourselves places that feel good. We choose experiences. We edit all the time. We’re all the production designers and directors of our lives. There’s craft and technique that gets learned when you’re a filmmaker. But everyone is always making things in our own way.”

That realisation set Hili on an unique path through filmmaking and art. He started off as a production designer, and he is a NIDA graduate who has worked with Opera Australia and the Belvoir Theatre. But he was something of an outsider in the world of theatre, less interested in Bertolt Brecht and the exalted playwrights of the canon, and much more interested in how you use physical objects like painted sets to communicate the depth of human experience.

Indeed, what sets Hili apart as a filmmaker is his interest in the handmade. Take, for instance, the acclaimed music video he made for Norwegian musician Aurora. Conceived and shot in two days, the film features Aurora dancing in front of a giant red painted dot. “You can tell the dot was handpainted and not bought in a shop,” Hili says. 

“And that’s an experiment in producing something beyond the sum of the parts – if you make enough decisions with heart and humanity, you feel that in the final piece.”

Hili has an “obsession” with stop motion animation, classical painting techniques, and set design. “When you’re designing something, by the time you’ve finished making the model, you realise the door is in the wrong spot. And you would never have realised that if you haven’t spent all that time with the model, tactilely.”

Aurora 'The Seed' Directed by Michael Hili

Such an obsession creates visually unique work, like his ARIA nominated clip for the chart-topping musician Flume, his VMA-nominated video for The Killers, and his forthcoming striking piece for Brain Cancer Council, an investigation of loss and memory. But importantly for Hili, he doesn’t rest on mere hollow visual devices. He doesn’t choose his techniques just because they look good. He selects them in service of the story. His work is impressionistic, but life is impressionistic, and he’s fascinated by the truth of what makes us human.

All this makes him a unique voice in commercials. He’s already made films for clients such as the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Romance Was Born, and he’s ready to do much more. He’s drawn to the artform both because of his interest in efficiency – he likens advertisements to the brevity of the best short fiction. “One of the things that excites me about being in commercials is that it’s cool to have this dorky interest in old handmade things,” he explains.

It’s that – an interest in craft, and how it can be used to tell stories – that ignites Hili. “I’m pretty certain that I need to touch most things in the set,” he says with a laugh. “It’s how I figure things out.”