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The New Digital Storytelling Series: Kamal Sinclair

Question Bridge: Black Males

The Senior Manager at the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Story Lab, Kamal Sinclair came to interactive via an unlikely, but, in many ways, appropriate route. While many in the interactive and new media fields hail from technology and filmmaking, Sinclair began her career in a medium where she received direct feedback from audience members every night — the theater. A trained dancer, choreographer and actress, Sinclair joined the Off-Broadway production STOMP at only 18, spending the next six years on their stages. In the below interview, Sinclair describes how she went from nightly performing to Sundance, a journey that also includes becoming producer and creative collaborator on the Question Bridge: Black Males project. Following the interview, MIT Open Doc Lab has curated for Filmmaker readers a set of links to interactive pieces that illustrate some of the concepts she discusses.

Kamal Sinclair
Kamal Sinclair

MIT Open Documentary Lab: How did you become a digital storyteller?

Sinclair: My pathway into producing digital and interactive stories was created by a true convergence of broad interests, random skills, a diverse network of relationships, a personal mission to be part of social change initiatives, and varied experiences. I started out as a professional dancer/actress as early as 12 years old when I booked my first gig, a five-month tour through southeast Asia and New Zealand with an Australian company called the Wildfire Theatre Group. I came home to continue training in L.A. dance studios, the L.A. County High School for the Arts and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (Experimental Theater Wing). At 18 years old I landed a six-year gig as a cast member of the Off-Broadway hit STOMP.

Acting and dancing was wonderful, but I had broader ambitions to write, choreograph and direct. So, I established and ran a theater company for six years. I worked with an amazing group of talented multi-disciplinary multi-genre artists, including filmmakers and visual artists, that collaborated on experimental live performance and incorporated cinematic and mix-media arts. We did a lot of genre-defying/defining work in various spaces and produced critically acclaimed theater pieces that enjoyed multiple runs in New York City and toured San Francisco, Los Angeles and Southern Africa.

I was fortunate to have performed live for hundreds of thousands of people over an 18-year period. Although I loved creating live experiences and thrived off the unique synergy of sharing real space with an audience, I found myself frustrated by the limitations of this platform. You work for months (sometimes years) to craft these amazing stories and experiences, you perform them and its over. You share it with audiences as low as 80 people and as high as 10,000, but there are still so many more people beyond the brick and mortar that never know about the magic that happened in the walls of the theater. I also wanted to break the fourth wall, interact with audience and collaborate with them. Finally, my life, touring experiences and social change based service projects brought me to 23 countries and over 130 cities, which cultivated a strong drive for wanting to connect with diverse and global cultures.

How do I tell great stories, maintain the live synergy between performer and audience, break the barriers between performer and audience, and break out of the four walled box of the theater to connect with global communities? This question drove me crazy as it begged to be answered at a time (1990s) when live performance or linear broadcast media (i.e. film, TV, video, print) seemed to be the only options for telling or creating story. The Internet and mobile technologies were starting to become more broadly adopted, but we were still replicating traditional communication forms: broadcasting content or facilitating simple communication exchanges.

In 2005 my life changed significantly. I shut down the theater company, moved to Atlanta, focused my days on raising two small children and my nights on getting an MBA at Georgia State University. By 2008 I had a strategic planning consultancy and spent a lot of time concepting and implementing arts, arts education and social change initiatives through various arts and entertainment organizations. This started my journey into digital storytelling. I was doing all kinds of research in how to leverage technology for the arts: helping to build an e-learning site for the professional development of 50,000 artists in the Fractured Atlas network; researching and concepting ways of creating virtual museums and performance spaces for the Woodruff Arts Center; teaching entrepreneurship to artists at SCAD and sharing case studies on how to leverage YouTube, MySpace and Facebook; and developing business plans for a digital distribution company in the music industry that was experimenting with everything from social networking to early mobile 3D video technology. I was exposed to the amazing innovations happening in social networking, data visualization, interactive storytelling, the new pedagogy of distance learning and the expansiveness of virtual worlds.

Privately, I started concepting ways to leverage emerging social network cultures and new media technologies to answer my haunting creative question… I started filling journals and files on my computer with transmedia story designs for everything from a mixed reality “21st Century club experience”; to multiplatform, mixed reality, interactive versions of my previous plays; to a social networking site that provided very rich media profiles and network data visualizations that acted as rabbit holes into very crafted, in depth and  interactive stories about its members.

In 2009, Hank Willis Thomas invited me to join the Question Bridge: Black Males project as a producer and creative collaborator. At the time, the project had ambitions to be a traditional long-form documentary or a traditional video installation. However, as we drilled down on the team’s hopes for the project I helped to concept a transmedia strategy that might better meet our goals: to facilitate dialogue among the broadest  group of black men in America; to try and remove the artist or ethnographer’s voice from the process, so the group could define and lead the conversation; to avoid censoring any single voice; and to counter monolithic stereotypes by creating a more representative expression of the diverse identities of black men in America. All my random past experiences and journals of story designs gave me enough information to architect a transmedia design that might fulfilled our artistic ambitions, educational goals and social change hopes.

Through Question Bridge, I was able to experience incredible mentorship through the Bay Area Video Coalition’s New Media Producer’s Institute, Firelight Media’s Community Engagement institute and the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Story Lab. This led to an invitation to work as a Transmedia Producer at 42 Entertainment, one of the great pioneer companies in this space, where I worked on transmedia campaigns for a major film, TV series and brand. Now, as the Senior Manager for the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Story Lab, I am honored to be supporting other artists innovating in this convergence space and learning from thought leaders creating new conventions, tools and methodologies.

MIT Open Doc Lab: Were there any projects that inspired you? If not, where did you look for inspiration?

Sinclair: One of the earliest projects to inspire me to dive deeper into this space was NPR’s StoryCorp. The idea that they brought a physical recording booth to places in random parts of America, gave regular people a simple interview framework that compelled them to tell such resonant stories, and created a national platform for us to listen, was amazing. I would sit in my driveway for half an hour just to hear the end of a story. I was also inspired by the simplicity and broad reach of some of the early viral videos on YouTube such as “Free Hugs,” “OK Go,” “The Girl Effect,” ” Where the Hell is Matt?” and Improv Everywhere’s suite of flashmob videos (i.e. their Grand Central Station Freeze). Then I started coming across things like “The Wilderness Downtown,” “The Johnny Cash Project,” Schrin Kunsthalle’s “Playing the City” and new ways of creating meaning and stories out of data through visualization (i.e. Ed Tufte). As I started getting more formally introduced to innovators in the field I fell in love with Flight Patterns, Highrise, Hip Hop Word Count, Pandemic, Sheep Market, We Feel Fine, Welcome to Pine Point, Why So Serious? and Year Zero.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: What are the most useful skills for an interactive storyteller? What are the tools of the trade?

Sinclair: I think every interactive storyteller is bringing a unique set of skills and knowledge to a collaboration, where they fill each others gaps and create unique experience with their diversity. Therefore, I hesitate to identify a specific set of skills or tools that are most useful. Some people come with highly analytical skills and coding talents that work for projects like We Feel Fine, by Jonathan Harris. Others bring low-tech skills, but highly developed sensibilities about designing interactive immersive experiences and using widely adopted existing technology platforms to congregate community, like Improv Everywhere.

However, one unique and critical skill in this digital storytelling space is understanding how to create a storyworld, rather than just a story. In telling a story the storyteller has the luxury of controlling the experience, the audience is a passive observer. This allows the storyteller to maintain a level of quality, artistic integrity and craftsmanship. In a storyworld, the crafter has to maintain the same level of quality without having the same level of control. They have to create a space for the audience to play and contribute, to have agency, to wonder according to their curiosity, to even co-author, and still insure a great experience of story. That is an amazing skill.

This skill means the storyteller has to design the right environments, strong rules of engagement, great characters, objectives and rewards. Sleep No More does this well, allowing hundreds of audience members complete autonomy in their experience of a two hour multi-space, multi-scene play. The Johnny Cash Project also does this extremely well, allowing 250,000 people to contribute their individual artwork to a single 3-minute music video tribute to Johnny Cash. In both cases the audience experience could have been disastrous, a nonsensical boring mess or a hodge-podge of crappy visuals, but the storyworlds were crafted well enough to insure consistent quality outcomes.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: When you start an interactive project, how do you put together a team?

Sinclair: I don’t think there are set models for putting together a team. All the interactive storytellers I’ve interviewed or interacted with had varied ways of developing their teams. Fundamentally, you need a member(s) who knows how to tell a good story, a member(s) that knows how to design storyworlds, user experiences and user interfaces (live and virtual), a member(s) who can create excellent visual designs (still or cinematic) and a member(s) that understands how to use or create the technology required for the story design. Sometimes all these people exist in one or two people, sometimes you need a large production team.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: Where is this community and how can people access it?

Sinclair: The beauty and difficulty with this space is that there is no single community for digital storytelling or one way to access these stories. Digital audiences are tribal, niche and referral driven. Some things will have a broad appeal and “go viral” others will only live inside a community of shared interests. The portals of entry and an understanding of your community is critical to a good story design. You also need to make sure those access points are the best choices for creating or telling your story. For example, for Issa Rae’s popular The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl, a web series on YouTube made sense as an access point. However, for Eli Horowitz’s The Silent History a single iTunes app was a great choice, and for the Year Zero Alternate Reality Game a code embedded on the Nine Inch Nails tour t-shirts was the perfect place to start.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: What’s your level of understanding of coding or programming? Do you see the relationship of director and creative technologist as analogous to director and cinematographer? (Why or why not?)

Sinclair: I have a very surface level understanding of coding or programming!! I came to this space as a user of technology, a researcher, an artists and an audience member. You don’t have to know it all, just be willing to experiment and play with collaborators that can bring various skills and knowledge to the project.

I liken this emerging field of storytelling to the early days of film. Traditional artists from theater, literature and the visual arts collaborated with technologists making moving picture tools. It took a while to figure out how to best utilize these new technologies; how to evolve new types of artists who intimately understood the technology (e.g. film director, screenplay writer, cinematographers, editors); and how to use it to enable storytelling. For example, theater directors got a hold of the camera and just replicated the POV of their theatre audiences by filming scenes as if they were in a proscenium arch, then they realized they could move the camera around to capture different POVs and capture very intimate perspectives with the close up or very large scenes that could never fit in a theater.  Writers realized that stage dialogue didn’t work so well in this more visual medium and that the right framing of a silent moment could say as much as a full monologue in a theatrical setting.

In the digital storytelling field, we are still like theater makers trying to point a movie camera on a proscenium arch…we’re just figuring it out. We are playing with new methodologies, learning from our audience, pushing the limits of what the technology can do, figuring out language and experimenting with roles.

Some projects are being driven by traditional artists collaborating with straight technologists. However, I still wouldn’t liken this to the director’s relationship to a cinematographer or editor, because cinematographers and editors are creative technologists. They know how to technically manipulate the tools, but have an artistic sensibility. Other projects involve technology-fluent artists and creative technologists, this is more comparable to a director and cinematographer. Still other projects are being produced by new “hybrid” practitioners who are completely native to this field. They have robust technology skills and an intimate (almost innate) knowledge of how to create story with these mediums.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: How do you find funding for digital interactive storytelling projects? What’s your idea of the new model of distribution?

Sinclair: I have worked on social change based projects that are funded through grants and donations. I have also worked on projects that are transmedia extensions of traditional mediums with traditional revenue thresholds (i.e. box office sales, product sales, or advertising sales). Both models have funded a lot of experimentation in the space. However, new models are evolving that are more native to the space, such as Scott Snibbe’s success with tablet apps. Brian Clark is doing some interesting analysis on emerging business models.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: What’s your vision for how to exhibit interactive projects?

Sinclair: I don’t know if I have a specific vision for exhibiting interactive projects. I applaud my colleague Shari Frilot, curator of the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier exhibitions, for pioneering this space over the last seven years and creating some interesting ways of exhibiting interactive projects.

My hope is that we continue to find varied and interesting ways of exhibiting interactive projects in real and virtual spaces. Principally, I think it is important to use each platform to create an experience or story that is unique to that platform. For example, it’s not enough to bring people into real spaces just to do things they could do from screens at home. We should ask ourselves what is the value gained from this platform?  How does it further the story? How does it create ritual or heightened experience of the story? How does it better enable the creation of the story?

MIT Open Documentary Lab: What do you think the future holds for digital storytelling?

Sinclair: Wow! My imagination runs wild with what the future could hold. Projects that blur real and virtual realities, digital images and narrative that go from multi-screen to no screen, more mobility, more immersion, even more elegant ways of translating billions of data fragments into meaningful stories about the human condition, and more interesting ways of building communities of contributors…just to name a few areas of potential innovation.


Strategies for Digital Storytelling Design

Immersion: Creating a feeling of being there.
Example: Condition One.

Location: Telling place-based stories.
Example: The Wildnerness Downtown.

Participatory: From user-contributed content to community-crafted storyworlds.
Example: The Johnny Cash Project.

Interactive: User choices chart a particular path through a complex user experience.
Example: Bear 71.

Remix: Generating new meanings from old materials.
Example: Welcome to Pine Point

Data Visualizations: Turning raw data into emotionally resonant experiences.
Example: We Feel Fine.

Shorts: Concentrated story that packs a punch.
Example: Capturing Reality.

For more on how these methods of storytelling have functioned throughout history, check out Moments of Innovation from the MIT Open Documentary Lab.

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