Q&A: Vanessa Gould, director and producer of “Between the Folds”

Think origami is just paper planes and cranes? A determined group of theoretical scientists and fine artists have abandoned careers and graduate degrees to forge new lives as modern-day paper folders. Together they reinterpret the world in paper, creating a wild mix of sensibilities towards art, science, creativity and meaning. Inside THIRTEEN spoke with filmmaker Vanessa Gould about her fascination with this unique art form and her film “Between the Folds.”

Q. What got you interested in documenting the world of paper folding?

Well, for many years I’ve been keenly interested in ideas and forms that have roots in both art and science, the creative and the technical – music and architecture, for example. When I learned about mathematicians using paperfolding in their research, I was intrigued and loved that it had such a visually compelling quality. Soon I learned that not only mathematicians, but also artists and scientists, were finding new and substantive exploration in paperfolding – all with incredible outcomes.

Given the breadth of voices and the elemental nature of the medium – a simple paper square – I thought, “Wow, imagine the possibilities! What an amazing starting point for an artform!”

Q. Do you think origami and paper folding gets enough respect as an art form on par with other arts like painting and sculpture?

One of the things that I love about paperfolding is how special the process of arriving at a finished piece is. There’s this pure transformation that occurs when turning 2D into 3D – all while working within a set of great limitations (no cutting, no tape, no glue). It becomes an intellectual and creative challenge, where “the making” is as significant as “the product”. And, so while, admittedly, origami has not reached the elevated status of other fine arts, it’s still a young and evolving artform. I think once the broader population has the experience of witnessing firsthand the transformation that occurs behind every folded work – and acknowledges that transformation as central to the piece’s artistic merit and beauty – that then artform will be better understood. And we tried to reveal that as best we couldin the film.

Q. Is there a particular piece of origami that you saw during filming that moved you?

Well, everything that made it into the final cut moved me in one way or another. But what remains most moving to me, without a doubt, is the totality of the artform, and the scope of ideas and metaphors which it holds – transformation, untold potential, intellectual accessibility. Context is so critical in making art intellectually or emotionally moving, and when you consider the infinitely broad context of the paperfolding medium – spanning the spectrum from folk art to high art to theoretical science – that’s ultimately more moving to me than any single piece of work. And, I loved working on a documentary project where the challenge was to visually communicate the emotional content of ideas.

Q. How old is the art of paper folding, in comparison to other forms of art?

Paper has been around for centuries, and is one of the most abundant materials on earth. And so, paperfolding has happened in all kinds of forms for a long time. However, I believe the medium is earlier in its evolution than more mature forms of art like painting, sculpture or printmaking. I think paperfolding has yet to reach its evolutionary or conceptual peak, and has a very rich future ahead of it. And the fact that it has abundant practical applications makes it that much more amazing.

Q. Origami seems to involve a lot of planning and mathematics – is there room for improvisation in creating some of these intricate designs?

I think there’s plenty of room for improvisation in everything. There’s always room for thinking differently and getting creative. The scientists and mathematicians in the film are no less creative – by any measure – than the artists. That’s one of the wonderful things I witnessed while making the film and watching its subjects at work – science and math are driven by creativity. And so, any good models in paper, no matter how intricate, are also a product of creative and improvisational thinking.

Q. Can origami lend itself to practical uses beyond cute animal figures?

Hopefully the film itself is the best answer to that question!

Q&A: Adventurers Denis Belliveau and Francis O’Donnell of “In the Footsteps of Marco Polo”

Many people have big dreams, but only a few bold adventurers live them. Denis Belliveau and Francis O’Donnell took a wild idea — retrace Marco Polo’s entire 25,000-mile, land-and-sea route from Venice to China and back — and spent two years of their lives making their dream a reality. “In the Footsteps of Marco Polo” chronicles the journey of Denis — a wedding photographer — and Francis — an artist and former Marine — as they set out to follow Polo’s historic route.  I spoke with Denis and Francis about their incredible journey.

Q. So what made you and Denis decide to go on a 25,000-mile trip to retrace Marco Polo’s journey?

Francis: Well the main reason is that no one had ever retraced Marco Polo’s entire route, several Expeditions tried and failed for a lot of different reasons. Plus we love art, history, travel & adventure. What better way than to follow the path of the world’s greatest traveler? How often are you confronted with an opportunity like that?

Denis: Also there has always been controversy regarding Polo’s account. Even in his own lifetime he gained the nickname Il millione, which means the man of a million unbelievable stories! So we took his book and used it as our guide. What we would do is go to the city, place or town that Polo wrote about and try to find the things he mentioned seven hundred years ago, and see for ourselves whether his account rings true!

Q. You traveled in the same way Marco Polo traveled, only by land and sea — how long did the trip take? How did you not get sick of being with the same person for so long?

Francis: Yes, we did travel many of the same ways that the Polos did, but we also took jeeps, buses, trains, motorcycles, and even a giant containership! Our self-imposed prerequisite was “No Flying.” We felt anyone can fly into a place and gather information willy-nilly, but it’s another animal entirely to travel in chronological order – over land and sea. We flew to Venice and two years later we flew home from Venice.

Denis: I guess I’ll answer the other half of the question! Sure you get sick of each other. What we were doing just wasn’t natural! 24 -7, 365. We knew each other’s stories inside and out, so often we wouldn’t have to talk , ‘cause we could just about read eachother’s minds. There were times when we fought, literally fist fights, bloody noses and black-eyes — wow, I’m just thinking back those poor Turks or Mongols or Chinese who had to witness that! It’s just that we had a lot of pressure on us and no one else to take it out on! More than a few times we called it quits! But in the end the project was bigger than us. Plus we couldn’t let down all the people who believed in us!

Q. The two of you must have gotten into some sketchy situations while you were traveling — what was the scariest moment of the journey for you?

Francis: The scariest moment for me was when it became real! What I mean is — it’s great to have an idea and say ‘I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that’ — but when other people start believing in you and giving you help of some kind or another, like sponsors, etc. … it’s like, ‘Wow! I really to put up or shut up!’ I remember waking up at 3am and going into our “War Room” and looking at the map we had plotted, with all of its geographic and geopolitical dangers , like mountains, deserts, jungles, Iran, Afghanistan … it was like ‘Oh my God !!!’

Denis: Yeah, we had a lot of very dangerous moments and close calls. We were in more than one jeep or truck that went off the road, flipped or almost went off a cliff. We were attacked by a mob in China … now that was scary! We were hit by a blinding sandstorm in the Taklamakan Desert in far western China , interrogated by the K.G.B. more then once, captured and held during a fire fight in Afghanistan … and that’s the short version! Before we left many people asked if I was afraid of this or that happening, and the fact is, anything can happen to you anywhere … I think 9/11 proved that to us all So just live your life in joy wherever it takes you!

Q. You’ve done something that most people only dream about — what advice would you give to someone who wants to take on a mission that seems impossible?

Francis: If I told you about all of the naysayers and haters who tried to knock us down & told us we couldn’t do it you would be amazed! We took all that negative energy and turned it around — I know it will sounds like a cliché, but don’t give up — if you want something bad enough, you can make it happen! And be prepared to do everything yourself – you will have to for your vision. Even after our successful expedition it still took us a long time to bring the book and film to fruition — so never give in!

Denis: That’s all true but you have to be prepared as well. Fran and I had traveled together for years in the “third world” – mostly on a shoestring budget, close to the ground, with the people. So we knew we could endure the many hardships along the way! Also we studied for over a year and a half everything we could get our hands on about Marco Polo and Asia.

Q. So are you guys going to hit the road for another trip again?

Francis: Of course we are, but first we are honoring this achievement by visiting schools, museums, clubs, societies and sharing our experience “in the footsteps of Marco Polo” in a more intimate setting, giving presentations and interviews. So if anyone would like us to visit their organization, we’d love to. please contact us through our web site and click on ‘Contact’ at the top of the page.

Denis: Nothing as ambitious again, but yes , in fact it seems we have developed a bit of a brand. Where ever we go people say “Hey it’s In the Footsteps guys!” So we are developing a series of “In the Footsteps” where we bring history to life, following the life path of some great person – but it doesn’t have to be your typical explorer, it can be an artist or a scientist. And the question being asked is — “What is the innate nature within in us all to explore? What is it that’s taken us out of the caves and to the stars?”

Q&A: Gary Hustwit, Director of “Objectified”

How does the design of a cell phone, toothbrush or couch affect your life? Did you ever stop to think about it? Director Gary Hustwit (”Helvetica”) looks at our complex relationship with manufactured objects, the people who design them and the creative process behind their work. Step inside the offices of the world’s most influential product designers to see how these objects influence us — often without our even knowing it. I spoke with director Gary Hustwit about the film.

Q. What got you interested in going “behind the scenes” into our relationship with everyday objects?

A. You know, sometimes I just look around my apartment and think, “Where did all this stuff come from? Who made it? Why did I buy all of it? Do I really need any of it?” Just basic questions that I think we all have sometimes. I also think it’s interesting how archaeologists learn about ancient civilizations mostly through the objects they leave behind. So 100 or 1,000 years from now, what will the objects designed in our lifetime say about our culture? And I was interested in the idea that we’re having a relationship with the people who design all this stuff, through the objects themselves. Maybe it’s just me, but these are the sort of ideas I obsess over!

Q. So is this a film for design nerds? What will a non-designer learn from your film?

A. Well, we all buy and consume these objects, from computers to cars to toothbrushes. So I think we can all benefit from learning about the creative processes and thinking of the people who design them. I think it’s amazing that there’s so little public discourse about the design of all these products. In the mass media, all we get are buying guides that tout the latest crop of gadgets or whatever, but no real discussion about whether or not these things should be made, or how they’re made, or how they’ll be disposed of once we’re done using them.

Q. Is there an object that you came across during filming that particularly inspired you?

A. What inspires me the most are probably the objects we take for granted and think of as the least “designed”. Have you even noticed those toothpicks with the serrated edges on one end? Do you know why they’re there, and what the story is behind them? Like Henry Ford once said, “Every object tells a story, if you know how to read it.” So I enjoy digging into these little stories behind the hundreds of objects we touch every day, that usually go unnoticed.

Q. One of the people you profile in the film has created some of the most familiar and ever-present designs in recent memory – Jonathan Ive, the designer of the iPod, iPhone, and a slew of Apple hardware. What is the source of his inspiration and creativity?

A. I think Ive embodies some of the qualities of craftsmen from hundreds of years ago, with his complete immersion in the materials and obsessive attention to detail. He’s also very focused on the manufacturing process, and the strengths and weaknesses of producing in huge volume. His team spends as much time designing the manufacturing systems that enable them to make the objects as they spend on designing the objects themselves. That’s not very glamorous, but probably a big part of Apple’s success.

Q. Objectified is the second film of a trilogy – can you tell us a bit about your first film (Helvetica) and your plans for the next film in the series?

A. I guess I just make films about things that I want to learn more about personally. Helvetica looked at the world of fonts and graphic design, which is a subject I’m fascinated by, and one that I couldn’t believe no one had done a proper documentary on. So I’m drawn to subjects that influence our lives, but that most of us don’t really think about. The third film will follow that idea as well, but I think it’s probably more ambitious than the first two films in terms of its scope. So I’m looking forward to showing it to THIRTEEN viewers a few years from now.