Over the past few years Britta Thie has emerged as one of Germany’s most unexpected young voices in independent filmmaking. With a background in fine art, her improvisational 2015 Youtube series Translantics is a document of the hyper-globalized and tech-saturated Millennial bohemians of Berlin. The world of Translantics is an aesthetic bombardment- from its futuristic styling to its mesmerizing soundtrack, casting cameos by a who’s-who of artists, musicians, designers- all held together with Britta’s free associating voiceover narration. A natural creative chameleon, Britta Thie has made art exhibitions, produced theatrical plays, and even acted in commercials – we can’t wait to see what she does next.
Where in Germany are you from?
I’m from Minden. It’s a small city in the northwest close to Hanover. It has 80,000 people living there, but it’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It’s not disconnected from culture or anything, but it’s very isolated. I was there until I left high school.
What do your parents do?
They’re both high school teachers. My mom teaches kids with disabilities like ADHD, or that can’t read or write. They’re both interested in art. My mom made this wonderful plaster sculptures that I showed in the Göttinger Kunstverein last year. They are also in the episode of Translantics where I go home.
How did the camera get introduced into your family?
My dad would film stuff with a VHS camera that he got from his high school. I found those tapes later when I was maybe 6, 7, and was fascinated by it. Then I got baptized, like really late, because my parents wanted me to make a decision about religion myself. Which never really made sense to me, but I got some money and bought a Hi8 camera.
Hi-8 is like small cassettes, right?
Yeah, little thick ones. I was also kind of obsessed with TV and would watch a lot of German dubbed American shows that I imitated later by myself in front of my camcorder.
How would you imitate them?
I would ask my friends to play in my films, I was very serious about the performance. It wasn’t like kiddie style where we would lose focus after an hour. It was very, very intense directing. I have hours and hours of material. I was super serious about it.
What were the shows that you were into growing up?
I liked Alf. He has a really amazing voice in German. Then Star Trek: The Next Generation, of course. What else? Bonanza. And films, of course, like “Bill and Ted’s excellent adventure”. That was like my favorite. And all the jokes they made, of course, which totally don’t translate. You should see it in the dubbed German version, it’s hilarious. Keanu Reeves has the same voice as David Duchovny in Germany.
What was German internet like growing up? How did you first get online?
I remember my brother who is older than me– he had this loud modem, and was playing Command & Conquer, Indiana Jones, and Monkey Island. Monkey Island is the best game, was really essential for what I call “digital puberty.” I feel like a lot of Americans don’t know it.
Yeah, it’s a strategy kind of storytelling game. I was surfing mostly on German sites. I remember you had to type in the URL every letter right, otherwise you wouldn’t land on it. Remember Alta Vista search? And I had an ICQ number, that was my first messenger.
Did you ever do theater?
I did a lot, actually. But then I got kicked out because my tits weren’t happening. It was bad, because this director was a really old school asshole. He was actually once a big director, then he did something stupid, and had to teach high school plays or something. I was supposed to have a big role in this play. Amadeus, but then he told me that my breasts weren’t there and that I couldn’t play the voluptuous lover. It was so silly.
How did you get into acting then?
I wanted to go to acting school, and checked them out…. But I was intimidated by having to be able to sing and dance. On top of that everyone who applied seemed to be such loud characters. I felt alienated by it. So I decided to do art. I had painted every day for the first ten years of my life. My mom would always put paper and pen on the table.
What’s your drawing style like?
It’s very naturalistic, but I stopped ironically as soon as I joined art school.
Where did you go to art school?
I actually started to study psychology first. I studied Psychology for a semester and hated it. Then I applied for art school in Münster. It’s a small city, a little bit like Providence, RI but without the celebrity-kids. I lived there for a year, hated it, and then applied to go to Berlin’s UDK. I got in there, studied there for two years, did an exchange semester in New York in 2010 at Cooper Union, then came back in 2011. I graduated in 2013 with a Master because I took a semester off to do modeling and stuff… It was a 7 year program.
What kind of art were you looking at?
I was always interested in the performative side- artists who would play with their own persona, like Pipilotti Rist, or Cindy Sherman, Paul McCarthy later Ryan Trecartin… theatrical or narrative things. I also gravitated towards theater, performance, film and narrative. There was something that made me feel really anxious when I looked at sculptures or stoic cryptic art. I feel always a little insecure when looking at a sculpture.
You went to Cooper Union for a year. Was that a contrast from being in Germany?
So big. It was like a real school, you would go every day, and everyone was competing, wanting to be the best… It was just a different vibe. It was so much more focused about creating a brand. In Berlin, because don’t have to pay so much, you can just do whatever you want, but you’re enrolled… You kind of have to really get your act together regarding self-discipline, because the pressure of the school wasn’t happening.
Were you into the scheduled structure?
I feel like I need a little bit of deadline stress to get shit done. In Berlin it was really tempting to just not go for a long time, because no-one cares. It’s very open.
Did you meet many Americans in Berlin? Ex-pats?
During the early 2010s felt it like a lot of smart and cool ivy-leave kids where rolling in. With places like Times Bar they created a vibrant but also quite hermetical community center.My German friends and I would learn English, silly idioms and slang from them… It was really funny. I felt like they were showing me the cool spots in my city and not the other way around. With places like Times Bar they were creating sort of a community center.
How about the contemporary art scene?
I had no idea about how different the educational system works in the US from the German system. When I came here and learned all about Ivy League culture and these divisions of different styles of schools it was really irritating to me. I still feel I can’t relate to that super elitist circle at all. I didn’t grow up in some artist loft where I was flipping through art catalogues all my youth. I have a completely different upbringing.
So you were acting and modeling before you started Translantics?
Yeah, I did some ads. I did this Stoli ad which was directed by Jonas Åkerlund who I think is directing Spring Breakers 2, haha. I did a Vodafone ad, which was crazy with a lot of CGI and stuff. I did a Lexus thing. I was only in there for a few seconds, so it felt very comfortable that you’re not the face of some shitty brand or something. You get the buyouts and can pay the rent.
I was in Philipe Grand Rieux’ “Malgret La Nuit” which was in the Rotterdam Film Festival and I play in a sci-fi series, I can’t really tell the name yet because it’s not out yet, but it is an American production. I’m playing an AI. Oh, ha, and I died in this German version of Special Victims Unit.
You also acted in that video with Alexa Karolinski too…
The Star Trek inspired fashion-film I wrote with Alexa. That was really nice. I loved that.
When I met you in 2012 you showed me video works you had done, some of which had footage in Translantics. Is that how it started? How did you end up working with Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt?
They just emailed me. A curator there sent me an email and was like “We like your online-work, we’re doing this new thing that’s called the digital art zone.” By that time I already had this concept written for a real narrative TV show. So I thought I can test out some of it out as an art project online.
When my friend and I would go out, we would always be in these weird "Translantics" moments where we felt these culture clashes. Back in the day I was dating an American, and my friend was dating a Canadian, and we would constantly get into situations where we got lost in translation about emotional interactions. We somehow always ended up being "too emotional", or "too direct" or simply "offensive or rude"… I just kind of thought it was interesting that our "filter-buble" of international creatives here in Berlin speaks only English and not German. I just wanted to talk about some of those experiences.
How would an episode be put together?
It was a highly collaborative project. The dialogue mostly improvised. I didn’t write a whole story in detail. It was more like “this is the bedroom episode, this is the Saturn episode.” It was always approached from a visual point of view. It also kind of satirizes the cheesy scenes from TV shows, like the moment when the woman didn’t get the job and she cries in the street etc but without being satire. I still wanted you laugh with the characters and not laugh at them.
What was the production style like?
It was quite chaotic. You can’t really judge it as a film… it’s definitely a very organic thing. I guess because I come from a video art background, I thought I could make an episode per month including pre- pro- and postproduction. Then I realized, “Oh my god, there is color grading, there’s sound design, there are so many layers of editing.” I didn’t even have an editor in the first episode at first, really. Only because of all the amazing people that joined in during the production it could get better. You can see a real chance throughout the episodes.
How do you see the episodes being different?
The editing gets tighter, the dialogue tighter. I wouldn’t say from worse to good, I would just say different… It was all an instant-mis-en-scene.
How did you put together your team?
They were all my best friends. Some people became friends during the production. I always wanted to work with Julia Burlingham, who co-directed the show. This piece is also her world. But Julia and Annika were my best friends, so they were on the acting team and did a wonderful job. Kevin, the DOP, I found over Facebook- He got recommended to me. And Stella, my producer and savior, I found on Craigslist. She was a runner at first, and then she turned out to be an amazing producer and helped editing. And Ville Haimala is the musician and producer, who contributed a beautiful soundtrack. I just love to work with him, his music made the show at the same time dreamy and sci-fi.
What was the learning curve like?
Every episode I learned more. I needed a shot-list, I needed to structure it. I also learned so much about working with friends.
Working with friends is complicated.
It’s beautiful, but it’s also delicate because you want everyone to feel valued. Sometimes you can’t boss friends around like you could do it with an actor. It’s important to talk about things before you shoot, and not after. Having such a low budget it can get very tricky.
What was the budget for Translantics?
We had 29.000 Euros for the whole thing.
I know. No-one knows that, but I wanted to say it finally.
Do you see Translantics as an art film, or a film that is kind of like made by artists, starring artists?
It’s both. I mean, it’s definitely an art piece. And I can only say it again and again, it is highly collaborative. A lot of dialogue was made up by my amazing actors, and they did such a good job at contributing. It’s definitely not to be reviewed as a film. It’s an episodic art film series, in which artists got the freedom to comment on themselves and to play dispersed versions of themselves.
How do you find it to work with artists?
I think it depends on who you work with. If you work with a lot of egos that don’t connect, then it can be really difficult to get something together. In my case, I just felt so nourished by everyone, so thankful and inspired.
How do you see your approach changing?
I definitely need to work on the writing without relying on other people. Like, when my friend’s have a funny idea for dialog it’s more like documenting reality to me. Now I need to really dig into my fantasy, write dialogue, make up characters find my own vulnerabilities. Something more sculptural, even though sculptures intimidate me.