Ben Vickers: HOTEL feels truly unlike anything I have previously encountered. I’m quite familiar with machinima as a cinematic genre, but HOTEL is different: self aware at every level of it’s production. Before we get into it, I’m curious to know if you identify with the machinima community.
Also, do you consider yourself a filmmaker, an artist, or are these terms irrelevant to the work you make?
Benjamin Nuel: Firstly, and to disperse any misunderstandings, HOTEL is not a machinima. It’s 3D animation, made with classic 3D software that imitates videogames. I wanted to make believe it was a machinima, that I was filming a situation being played, as in a classic first person shooter. But, it was also important to elaborate human-like attitudes with realism. It's the meeting of two kinds of styles that creates the strange feeling of HOTEL. I am a filmmaker but sometimes I also try to produce video games, because they allow for something to happen that we can't have with a film: ambulation, time stretching... I guess that we can talk of an artistic work because I am led by an experimental approach: I try things.
BV: I probably grew up spending around 80% of my teens in front of a screen playing games such as Half-Life and CounterStrike, so for me there are many very sophisticated gestures and references made to the ruleset of these games, which do not exist for an audience who has no familiarity with the rules and mechanics of such games. I’m keen to know how you imagine their viewing experience and interpretations to be?
BN: Me too! HOTEL was born from the guilt complex of spending too much time on CounterStrike. This time had to be transformed into something. The first idea grew up from the waiting times between rounds: those moments when you are dead and you are waiting for the others to finish the round. It is then that you can control a very fast camera and run through the map, go through the walls and limits of the world you are playing in. Then you discover this creepy empty space, the void.
BV: I’m interested in your process. Do you design and redesign the environment overtime or do you build the environment in advance and then work within its restrictions?
BN: In the beginning HOTEL was a video game produced at Le Fresnoy in 2008 that had no real story and consisted of a special time in which a trouble evolved from the discovery of a world. So first, a world (most of my works come from a world, a situation or a system, rather than from specific characters). This world enacts its rules and I develop my characters and my story from it.
BV: I hadn’t realised that there had been multiple iterations of HOTEL, do you consider the film shown on Vdrome to be a finished product or do you consider the possibility for further development?
BN: Yes, HOTEL was a moving form. The broadcast of the serial by Arte.tv was thought of like an event: each week an episode narrated the progressing collapse of a world. In parallel, we could visit that world and watch it’s damage from the inside. I prefer to resume the project this way, as a feature film; like an archive.
BV: What is the ideal viewing environment for such a film? We tend to experience video games on our own, on a small screen, and we benefit little from enlarging this experience to the big screen. Do you believe that a work such as this has a primary experience? If so where would you locate it?
BN: HOTEL was originally planned for a computer screen, but when I wrote the serial, I was led to give depth to very poor original numeric material. To make this, I wrote a very humanized character development and during the mise en scène it became more cinematic. The experience is now more efficient when expanded to the cinema.
BV: How do you feel when people perceive your work as ‘video game art’ or as a niche category? I’ve always found it very strange to sideline this kind of practice or approach, given that the experience of games significantly dwarfs the audience for contemporary art and in this sense opens itself out to a greater public.
BN: Absolutely. 3D real-time and gameplay are for me tools among other tools. I don’t even talk specifically to any audience. I do things very egoistically, for myself.
BV: Are there any specific scenes produced in games that have been of particular inspiration or that you are drawn to?
BN: My inspiration comes from our time, from the world we live in. Issues such as planned obsolescence, technological singularity, possible forms of non biological life are fundamental for me. But I am also influenced by certain artworks, namely Arman’s accumulations or Daniel Firman’s sculpture Simply Red. Video games (some of which I consider to be artworks) like Silent Hill 2 or films like Tarkowski’s Stalker are also key references for me.
BV: In many ways video games offer an entirely new way in which one constructs and engages with a narrative. Does it feel to you that working in this way remains a sort of unchartered territory with new undiscovered possibilities?
BN: Oh yes! Whilst making my most recent project, The Reversal, I understood that the video game was an autonomous art form which I couldn’t fully control. The Reversal is a real video game but it still lacks good gameplay, because it is unplayable. There is a specific idea behind this game, but for now it is not understandable. I have to continue working on it.