"I traffic emotion," Hicks quietly explains. "That's my game, that's what I feel people go to the cinema for, to experience other emotions. Cinema is not an intellectual medium, it's an emotional one." The director holds talent and casting in high regard-they form the most important component of his arsenal. He studied drama at Australia's Flinders University, learning lessons that have become invaluable to him behind the lens. "Working with actors became the thing I really enjoyed to do-whether you're working on a big or small story, it's important," he notes. "You're looking for nuance and a feeling, so you have to find ways to work with actors to achieve that." Such a search is palpable on one for AT&T Wireless, which with simple, dialogue-free vignettes, skillfully conveys the drawn-out tension of a couple's fight. That was "about trying to stage the scene as though it's a bigger one," Hicks explains. "Sometimes it's a bit of a mystery to some of the people on the crew or from the agency, but I'll often block like I would for a movie. I won't say, 'Let's do this shot of you here by the sink.' I'd say, 'Let's walk this through, how did you get there?' I'm trying to create a moment of reality, and often shoot a whole slice, knowing we only want certain pieces. But they exist as parts of a larger moment. We haven't just fabricated a few seconds in isolation. I try to get a more organic thing happening."
But how do you manage to draw emotion from talent made out of wood? On one PBS spot, a horseman marionette wielding a tiny saber slices his own tethers, valiantly galloping away to independence. The puppet doesn't even talk, yet in a way, he reads as warm-bodied as any human thespian. "You have your boards and you carefully try to structure the story," Hicks explains. "But the reality is you go on a little voyage with the camera to find what works. 'Let's look at it from this angle-look there, see the glint in the eye!' It's understanding what are the elements of an image that contribute to its emotional quotient, knowing how the play of light combined with a move of the camera on the object in frame suddenly achieves a sort of life. Some of these things you can't visualize at your desk. That's where the relationship with the cameraman comes to fore." Hicks conveys his own vision with the help of carefully chosen partners, including editors like Hank Corwin, Chicago DP Dion Beebe and production designer Barbara Ling, from the Batman films, who brought in the Batmobile's masterminds to craft the "Big Race" soapbox H2. "The collaboration is really the nature of the whole process," Hicks notes. "Nobody does this by themselves. As the arbiter of taste and the director of where we're all going, I love working with people who bring a lot to the table."
Overall, Hicks is a meticulous weaver who takes precise, quiet steps rather than big bold ones. "You can move people by overt manipulation, cranking up the violins, or you can work at it through nuance and gesture and trying to touch a common chord of humanity," he notes. "I'm not one for big special effects. Other people handle that brilliantly, but I find unless they're exquisitely integrated, they can be bloodless-a feast for the eyes, but not for the soul."