An interview with Hans Lo

, 28 November 2013

Hans Lo’s music films have an aesthetic that defies the received wisdom and clichés rolled out so regularly by major studios and bloggers. Bright but slightly faded psychedelic colours pulse to a rhythm while circles and squares flash up on the screen, smashing in and out of focus. Eighties computer graphics complete a unique vision that invites countless questions about the footage he chooses to foreground. Born in Hong Kong, Lo has worked with a diverse range of musicians, from metal combo Rameses to dance producer Tensnake, as well as doing regular visuals for Simian Mobile Disco. His recent video for the title track of Teengirl Fantasy’s Nun EP, released on This is Music on November 25, is perhaps the best example of his style to date – a hypnotic, rapidly cut barrage of found footage and computer imagery that renders dramatic the apparently random images it takes in.

I meet Lo at a studio in east London that he shares with three other designers. He spent some time working out of Peckham’s Arcadia Missa complex, which he says was an inspiring time but stresses, “I’m not an artist!” This distinct lack of airs and graces turns out to be a theme of our meeting; a compliment on a recent video met with the offhand protestation, “it’s just a load of shapes flashing and stuff”.

It’s more than that, though. As previously stated, Lo is out on his own very distinctive limb, and the sources informing it are as diverse and baffling as the imagery that makes up the videos. Lo name-checks horror and sci-fi films (citing David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and John Carpenter’s They Live with particular relish), before admitting that his real interests lie outside his immediate frame of operation, scientific development and space travel taking precedent over blogging memes and pop culture tropes: “I’d love to work with NASA or something”, he says.

We head to a snack bar around the corner from the studio, and his eyes light up when I pull out my Dictaphone – a 90s Olympus cassette recorder that looks precisely like the sort of object fetishised and fleetingly glanced at on one of his videos. He admires it and tells me it looks like the sort of thing Alan Partridge might use. So much for covering technology and digital art, then.

There’s a very strong aesthetic in a lot of your videos referencing 60s art films, along with 80s and 90s computer imagery gone slightly wrong…

HL: Yeah, it’s been a consistent theme in my work. If you’d have asked me a couple of years back, I’d have said I just really like it. But I guess there’s a nostalgia for when you’re a kid and you’re immersed in a video game, and that effects the way you look at things. Anything after the 90s, I just kind of tune out –that was when I grew up, and it’s a period that’s really ingrained in me.

I’m interested in ideas about the future and the past, but not so much the present. I’ll look at science fiction stories and try to put down an aesthetic that I’m comfortable with. I wouldn’t be comfortable making something super-clean that hasn’t got any nods to psychedelia. I think it’s just trying to bridge the gap between things I’m interested in.

You tend to work with very defined shapes as well – open symbols that have infinite connotations. If you showed a picture of, say, a triangle to a hundred different people, they’d all give a different word association. Are you intentionally creating imagery into which people can read their own interpretations? Do you have an interpretation yourself?

HL: I think I use the clear shapes simply because they’re effective. I don’t tend to use triangles that often, but people have sort of got me down as ‘the circle guy’ [laughs]. It’s bloody annoying. I think circles have a primitive aesthetic. I also tend to work only in RGB, red, green and blue. Whatever you put on the screen, whatever object you use, the colours won’t distort that much. If you use pink or orange or something, every monitor or TV might read it differently.

I guess it’s about stripping it down with the shapes and the colour – there’s no point in over saturating a video. That’s when style crowds out content. People can take it how they want, but I guess it’s quite primal.

Going back to what you were saying about nostalgia, there’s something quite Ballardian about that imagery; TV and computer screens that aren’t working properly. In cinema, the blank TV screen is often used as shorthand for the nuclear apocalypse… did you make a conscious decision to allude to disaster in your work?

HL: I think sometimes it just comes out subconsciously. It’s hard to use that kind of technology. If you don’t use it in the right way, it’s just a gimmick. To get an image of an old TV screen, I’d usually either film the screen or transfer it onto VHS and then digitise it. It’s not just an effect I’ve put into it – it’s what you’d actually see from this old technology when it goes wrong.

I don’t know if you remember, but if you recorded a programme onto video, the tape would start to degenerate when you’d used it a couple of times. The more information that gets copied onto it, the weirder the picture starts to look, it’s really interesting. The colour goes sort of yellow. It’s odd that things are so quick now but it takes a lot more time and effort to get these effects. I don’t want to over-intellectualise it or anything, but I think if you’re going to use this sort of imagery, then you’ve got to put in the work and get it right. There are certain glitches in the Teengirl Fantasy video that look like they could be from the old times, from the TV. But because the idea is quite futuristic, of an alien studying random images of Earth, I didn’t feel that I needed to go through any of these processes, as the footage I was using was already digital.

Do you have any particularly strong influences?

HL: I think visually that all helps to form what I do. In terms of ideas, though, I’m interested in anything current to do with science – I’m super fascinated by space travel, quantum mechanics – anything that comes under science. It’s pretty broad – natural history… what I’m trying to say is that it’s very easy to look at other videos and come away with ideas. But I tend to look at different ideas and then try and visualise something.

My girlfriend’s mother works for CERN, so I found out about the Higgs Boson a couple of weeks before it went public, and that was obviously massively exciting. My dad is a physicist, so I think it must’ve seeped into my brain – he’s really into theories of finding alien civilisation. He has a rack of Stephen Hawking books, of Carl Sagan books… it’s only in the last five years that I’ve really noticed it. The visual side is quite easy to define – give me any horror or science fiction film and I’ll sit down and watch it.

Do you feel that making music videos gives you more scope to experiment than other types of film-making?

HL: I’m always confused about the idea of scoring something. What comes first, the imagery or the music? There’s obviously a lot more room for manoeuvre than in fashion film or whatever, an artist wants something unique. If you’re working for someone quite established, they probably already have a certain aesthetic, and the money at stake makes things quite generic. You might have someone who gives you a brief to make a film of, I dunno… a guy at a rave. You think, ‘why don’t you just do it yourself, in that case?’ There’s a scope, but I tend to work with artists who aren’t quite there yet, but have some momentum behind them. They’re finding their feet, and I’m finding my approach to videos.

Do you have any ambitions to do something longer-form in the same style?

HL: Maybe. My girlfriend’s always asking ‘why don’t you make a film?’ But at the moment, I don’t feel that keen on it. I’ve been collecting a lot of random footage, you know, of somebody playing a Gameboy, stuff floating in mid-air; stuff that on its own makes no sense. I’d love to go over it and somehow craft something out of it, but I think it’s a bit of a hassle really.

The reason that I feel more comfortable with animation is that I don’t have to worry about there being some guy in the background organising the costumes or whatever. At the moment, I don’t really have the patience to do it. I spend about a month on a video and then forget about it, but a feature film can take up to three or four years, and I just don’t really have the time for that kind of thing. A couple of years ago I found out that there’s another Hans Lo out there, he’s the creative director of Mortal Kombat. So I can’t just get on imdb and be more impressive than this other ‘Hans Lo’. I’m already immediately second-best. Maybe when he retires. **

Hans Lo makes videos in London. Teengirl Fantasy’s Nun EP is was out on This is Music, November 26.