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Stone Island Special - The Filmmaker: Ken-Tonio Yamamoto

Stone Island Special - The Filmmaker: Ken-Tonio Yamamoto

Ken-Tonio Yamamoto is a director, filmmaker, and visual media artist based in Berlin and if you've been following brands like Stone Island, ACRONYM®, and Nike, you most definitely have seen his work before. Some of the most iconic Acronymjutsu videos and a wide variety of Stone Island content was captured through his lens.

Ken is a part of the inner circle of ACRONYM® and a creative collaborator with the figure heads of Stone Island, so there's probably no person that lives and works closer to the future of outerwear, design, and the concrete Berlin creative drive. For Biancissimo, Ken will give us a one of a kind insight into the creative world of working with Stone Island and his very own ways of being a visual media artist.

Stone Island Special - The Filmmaker: Ken-Tonio Yamamoto

Hey Ken, could you please introduce yourself to Biancissimo and tell us a little bit about your work and life in Berlin?

My name is Ken-Tonio Yamamoto and I busy myself with being a film-maker, moving-image artist and recently someone called me a romantic futurist. I mainly work in the realm of fashion and sportswear for clients like Nike, Adidas, Gore-Tex and others.  I am probably mostly known (or unknown) for my work for two innovative fashion brands: ACRONYM® and Stone Island.

Genetically I am of German-Japanese decent, though my family’s history plays against an even wider and weirder cross-cultural background than would fit into a short introduction. I just recently realized that the individual biographies within my family link me directly and personally to the history of the 20th century: from the Holocaust, traveling from Japan to the US in the 60s and living in the US, East-Germany before and after the wall, growing up in West-Germany and the personal effects of the Cold War on your family, Germany’s unification and finally the global cross-cultural pollination of the modern era. Pretty wild when I think about it.

Since you are a director, filmmaker, and visual media artist, was there any particular moment in your life when you knew where your creative journey will take you?

When I was a kid I had a keen interest (or you could call it obsession) with comic books. Because of my Japanese family I got introduced to not only European or American comic culture (TinTin or Duck Tales) but also to Japanese Manga. Two very different approaches towards the art. but as a kid I just didn’t think about the differences too much and just appreciated the emotionality of each totally unbiased.

From there I was naturally drawn towards animation and for the longest time I had the idea of being an animator at the Walt Disney Studios.

Since I was drawing my own comic books and came up with those stories myself, I thought that I would be the same for all these films that I saw. Well, later I obviously learned that there are many, many individuals involved, but I also realized that there is only a small group of people at the core of the film-making process.

The year was 1989 and the first modern Batman movie-adaptation was released. I was so incredibly hyped, because Batman was and still is one of my favorite fictional characters. Then I saw a “behind-the-scenes” documentary about the making of the movie on TV. It showed how the team build the sets, made the costumes, how the make-up was done etc. But - most importantly for me – it showed the man who apparently was in charge of it all: a young guy named Tim Burton and his job was called the “Director”. He used to be an animator at Walt Disney, then worked on some animated shorts of his own and eventually began making live-action movies. Now he was able to play with all the tools and toys of film-making.

I was sold instantly. If that is what a film-director does, then I wanted to be a film-director.

But it wasn’t until I saw “Akira”, “Blade Runner” and especially “2001 – A space odyssey” that my perception of how a film can engage me emotionally and intellectually changed forever. Three quite different approaches to the science-fiction genre, all of them had a lasting impression on me in the way they presented their ideas and concepts of our future and the existential questions of humanity.

I probably saw them when I was way too young, but by then it was too late - the seed was already planted.

Most of my favorite directors had backgrounds in any other field of film-making than actual “Film Direction”. For instance, Ridley Scott worked as an art-director for the BBC, David Fincher was working as a VFX camera operator at ILM, Martin Scorsese worked as an editor, Stanley Kubrick used to be a photographer and James Cameron worked as a production-designer amongst many other things. All were hands-on with the craft of film-making, so I thought I should focus on learning crafts that are needed to actual MAKE a film (animated or live-action). That’s how I ended up studying Animation and Post-Production, but afterwards obviously nobody wanted to let me direct films straight away. Strange. (Laughs)

Can you remember your first piece of work you were 100 percent satisfied with? 

Not really to be honest.  Well, there were times when I liked certain aspects of what I worked on. I mean, you just have to deal with so many things that didn’t go the way you expected them to go. But you embrace that as part of the process. You might end up with something that works much better than what you had in mind in the first place. Always be aware, because there might be that moment where an idea really works and it just flows – THAT is exciting and that’s what keeps you going!

Is there even a way of being 100 percent satisfied, or do you always strive for a new level of perfection?

Well, I like to focus on the details a lot, so for me there is always room for improvement.

But I wouldn’t call it perfection in the sense of everything being very polished and technically clean, but more in the sense of emotional precision: does the viewer feel and hopefully understand what you want to bring across at that specific moment in the film? For me this totally hinges on the exact timing of audio-visual cues within the edit and the experience of this montage triggers an emotional and intellectual response in the viewer.

So, stylistically it can be quite raw or even unfinished, but if you have the right emotional timing and if it fits the overall theme, it will work.

I always ask myself: does it feel right and –most importantly - does it flow?

In 2008, you did your first project for ACRONYM® producing 4 videos for a showroom in Tokyo. From shooting the video to creating the music and sound design, the whole video was under your creative lead. So Ken, can you please explain to us how this all happened and what this meant for your career and work?

A couple of years prior to that, I had the chance to meet Errolson from ACRONYM® in Berlin. I only knew about the brand through its limited presence in the WorldWideWeb, but I was instantly intrigued to say the least.

I felt very much at home with all the cultural references and the style that I saw in ACRONYM®. I had the feeling that I knew the world where all of this came from and lived in.

So, when we met for the first time, right off the bat, we started talking about making films that take place in the world of ACRONYM®. At that time I was working in the field of animation and although I was enjoying the work, I wasn’t really happy with the limited prospect of ever being able to extend towards live-action.

But admittedly I also had nothing to show that would prove that I could actually do that. All my work up until then was mostly animation work.

For some reason – and that still kind of baffles me today (laughs) – ACRONYM® trusted me in doing these videos. Honestly, those were the initial sparks that changed my career forever and for good. Not only was it the beginning of a great work relationship and an even bigger personal friendship with ACRONYM®, but our collaborative work introduced me to so many other amazing people and opportunities over the years. For this I will always be grateful to Errolson and Michaela, who believed in a kid who had nothing to show for him except for some big ideas.

Let's talk about Stone Island, do you still remember the first time you heard about Stone Island or got it contact with one of their products?

The very first time I saw something Stone Island related wasn’t actually a garment but media: a collection of CD-ROMs.

It must have been 1998 or 1999 and a friend of mine got those CDs because his dad just liked the packaging of them when he bought a jacket in a store that also happened to sell Stone Island. The CDs were promotional material for Stone Island’s seasonal collections at the time – a fact that totally escaped me at the time.

The stuff on those CDs was so strange but at the same time the most fascinating “artefacts” of a world I hadn’t experienced before. Through multiple videos and animations they showed a jacket that would fold and unfold by itself or the camera would actually fly into the jacket and out of it again. All of this in this semi-interactive context. It was so “future” without trying to be futuristic. Nowadays the operating system that would be required to open the files is not even around anymore.

Butit wasn’t until the mid 2000s that I got in contact with the product side of Stone Island, its design ethos and process.

When Stone Island Shadow Project was launched in 2009, you came up with a very unique idea for the launch video: three high-definition video streams synced together to one cohesive visual experience in three different stores. So, since we can't turn back time and get the real experience, could you please put into words what the whole installation was about and how it felt like?

The initial idea was to showcase the modularity of the clothing system, but not make it too mansplaining-ly boring, and present the clothes in a environment that would connect with people in a very real way. The clothes seemed “future” enough.

For instance we used the actual lighting pole systems from the flagship stores to light the film and to bridge the real world and the heightened reality of the film.

For the launch in the flagship stores we cleared out of all other merchandise for the time of the event. There were 3 big HD monitors set-up next to each other. Then we had strategically placed the light poles around the store and had models wearing the collection within that space. Visually it looked like the content of the film spilled out of the screens and extended into the real world. So in the end the guests had a multi-sensoric experience of the world of the Stone Island Shadow Project.

How is it to meet Carlo and Sabina Rivetti on a regular level - actually going to start working with and for them?

I would put it that way: I am lucky enough to always be treated like I am a part of the family, which is what Stone Island essentially is: a family made up of many different people bound by passion and a drive for innovation - at the same time very local and proudly connected to the soil of their home country but also genuinely international and globally minded.

There is a mutual interest in doing great and innovative work first and above all. Of course they want to make money too, but the actual work has to come first. This is an ethos I can agree with.

From shooting the main line and seasonal collections to highlighting Stone Island key pieces and shooting a behind-the-scene series, you've probably done everything that involves Stone Island and moving images. Is there any particular piece of work you prefer the most?

I couldn’t say really. The one I prefer is usually the next one…always trying to venture a step further.

Let’s talk about your seasonal films for Stone Island. Is there any basic philosophy and look you have in mind when you start thinking about your next project for this Italian powerhouse?

There are just a couple of simple questions when we work on projects together: what’s at the core of the collection? How can we make it interesting in an audio-visual way? How to make it NOT fashionable or trendy?

You usually try and find out what the projects wants and in the process it will tell you what it needs.

But of course you will hardly find images of rugged lumberjacks on an adventure trip to Thailand or a couple strolling down Fifth Avenue at Stone Island, if you know what I mean?

Of all your videos, the Stone Island Shadow Project FW1415 is one of my favourites. For me, there always seems to be a certain vibe of masculinity crossed with futuristic utopian visions and a highly aesthetic interpretation of human movements in your films. So, what exactly do aspects of movements like shadow boxing, tai chi, or just the perfectly orchestrated dressing and undressing of products play in your creative world?

Well, the nature of the project demanded to showcase the processed details and textures of the clothes. It just felt right to do something that would present engaging visual movements for the finished film to highlight those. I just like when things flow into each other.

Nothing more, nothing less.

Designers often refer to Stone Island as a place where you get a lot of creative freedom and trust in your work and art. How does that relate to your work as a filmmaker. Are there a lot of feedback loops and changes from your very first idea to the end product or is it easier to get your original idea from a piece of paper to a moving image?

Stone Island is a very hands-on with everything they do. I mean, don’t get me wrong, they are Italians and they like to discuss a lot of things. (Laughs)

Generally it’s an open brief to me to create an initial concept that would fit the given project. Then we start talking about budgets, logistics and timings, but in the end they trust me with doing what works best for the project.

Even if that would mean changing or switching things around during the process, because in the end you never shoot what you want to shoot, but you shoot what you can shoot. Afterwards you just have to make something out of those ingredients that makes sense - simple as that.

There is this behind-the-scenes documentary series called "Stone Island - Audio/Visual" you did about six years ago, where you actually dove into the world of Stone Island like we have never seen before. Can you please tell us a little bit about your time in Ravarino and the different facilities, people, and stories of the brand you got to know?

There are way too many great people and their stories for me to choose from, but what struck me the most was how passionate every single person who works for Stone Island is about his/her line of work. Be it at the garment dye facility, the knitwear department, fabric research, sourcing etc. They work immensely hard and take huge pride in their contribution to the success of the company over the years. I would say rightly so, because essentially the people are the heart and soul of Stone Island.

Having the ACRONYM® team involved at Stone Island is something that seems just of had to happen. With the genius minds of Massimo Osti and Paul Harvey influencing the brand, Errolson and his team seemed to fit perfectly into that mindset. So, since you know both brands from the insight, how many similarities do you see in the work, products, philosophy, and state of art of between the two of them? Is Stone Island Shadow Projects kind of the connecting point of two brands that share more than just a love for technical menswear?

Well, for me apart from the obvious similarities the two brands represent two very different approaches to modernity in clothing.

They obviously share a similar interest in the “new” and in the “non retro”, but I think their vantage point are quite different. The cultural impact of both brands is topic of another discussion.

For me Stone Island was always about manifesting seemingly outrageous conceptual ideas into the physical world. Products that you would not have considered were even possible before. For instance a jacket made out of stainless steel, a washed lasered reflective jacket or a thermosensitive-color-changing jacket. They created garments by bonding this fabric to that non-fabric material and coloring it in a way that made the whole thing look like it came straight out of the movie Alien, but could actually be bought in a store and worn out on the streets. For me it was always about expanding the horizon of what you thought could possibly be created – in any shape or form.

ACRONYM® on the other hand for me was always about showing you this exiting and seemingly science-fictitious narrative in which the clothes are embedded, but actual making sure that the clothes do actually work and don’t remain some conceptual promise. Their clothes act like tools that actually change the way you navigate through our world. The clothes represent genuine design solutions to seemingly small everyday problems. Amongst many other things: how to quickly access our mobile devices, how to make sure we carry things securely, how to stow away your jacket easily, how to attach you earphones, how to take off your jacket while being strapped into a car seat, the list goes on.

They always make sure to present an aesthetic philosophy that is more closely tied to the works of Helmut Lang, Frank Miller or Richard Sapper than Michael Dudikoff, Comic-Con or Dieter Rams.

ACRONYM® represents the no-fuzz/all-killer-no-filler approach to modern wardrobe and Stone Island on the other hand stands for a “the-sky-is-the-limit”/ “what-the-actual-f**k-is-this” kind of approach. In essence both do not shy away from doings things that are hard to achieve and I think that is why both get along so well despite all the differences.

Both don’t look and feel like anything else that exists in the market today but everybody else wants a piece of them, I guess that’s also what bonds them together.

The Stone Island Shadow Project is just a natural dialogue between these unique entities in order to learn from each other and to create something that each on its own would not really be able to. This has been going on for nearly 10 years now.

Reading each credit of your videos, it becomes pretty clear that your creative work includes almost everything that is involved in the process: from concept, production & direction, photography, motion design, 3D modelling & animation to editing, everything is done by Ken-Toni Yamamoto. How important is it for you to have a creative role in almost every detail of a production and do you think that this catalogue of skills underlines your role as a true visual media artist?

To be honest the only reason why I did all these different jobs in the beginning is: I did not have enough big enough budgets to pay more people and I wouldn’t ask people to work for free unless it’s a personal project. But I had all these ideas that I wanted to get realized, so I ended up doing most of the work myself.

Generally I do believe that a firm understanding of what every single job of film-making actually means, not only gives you a good level of eye-to-eye communication with each collaborator, but also a very humbling appreciation of how hard the job actually is that you demand from them at any given point. You become a realist, but you also know where you can try and push people to exceed their own expectations and yours, too.And you don’t let anybody give you bullshit about what can be done or cannot be done. And that helps.

Nowadays I still like to do the editing myself, because I feel that it’s in the edit where the finished film is actually made, but for everything else I really like to work with like-minded collaborators. It’s more fun that way. But they have to be willing to give their best otherwise: what is the point?

What are your favourite Stone Island pieces so far, Ken?

I couldn’t name you specific pieces, but there were some phenomenal garments over the decades. I hope the best is yet to come, though.

Let´s talk about 2040! What do you think Stone Island and its products will look like in 20 years and what kind of films will you produce then?

I would hope that Stone Island would still be looking into the future in order to achieve things that were never been done before, but I wouldn’t want to give any predictions of how that might look like. I just hope there will always be some true “WTF?”-products in there.

As far as what kind of films I will be making in 2040, I also cannot really predict. Maybe I won’t be doing any films in a classical sense anymore, but working on something that would be the natural progression of that medium. We will see – there are definitely a lot more topics that I would like to talk about with my work in the future.

First and foremost though, let’s just all make sure that we all are still around and healthy in 2040. That would seriously help.

Thanks a lot for your time and work!

Thanks a lot for having me. It was a pleasure.

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