Amidst seismic change, KC’s digital storytellers work to find foothold
The business of storytelling, Frank Rose says, is experiencing a transformation the likes of which it has seldom seen.
The last such shift in storytelling came in the 1950s with the rise of television. Before that, it was the 1920s and the advent of movies. Prior to that, we have to go all the way back to the 19th century and the widespread dissemination of papers and novels to find the sort of disruption we're witnessing now.
Rose, the author of "The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories" and a correspondent for Wired, sees immense opportunity amidst that change. "For people who can engage with the future, for people who are prepared to deal with it, the rewards will be breathtaking," he said. "If you're ready to engage, the world is ready for you."
An array of people hoping to ready themselves for that future gathered on Thursday at the American Heartland Theatre in Kansas City, Mo. for the Kansas City Digital Storytelling Forum, hosted by KCSourceLink as part of One Week KC.
The forum featured talks, video presentations and panels aimed at highlighting digital storytelling in the region and establishing plans and partnerships for advancing the growth of the business in the area.
Rose (left) kicked things off with a keynote in which he chronicled the history of storytelling — from its roots in tales committed to memory and passed down orally, to its current digital incarnation. He said we're still developing a mode of storytelling that is native to the internet, and that process requires people to throw out their preconceived notions about how stories should be told.
For a good example of that, Rose pointed to Old Spice's "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" ad campaign, which became a YouTube sensation and led to fans recording their own renditions of the ads. Rose said the campaign was risky. But, anymore, a big roll of the dice is often a necessity.
"At a time when all the old rules have stopped working, when we're all feeling our own way, risk is kind of what you need to take," he said.
He also pointed to missteps by the music industry, which for years remained entrenched in an outdated way of doing business. "We're all used to thinking that the world we're in is the way things ought to be," he said. "But that's not ever the case. It's always just an accident."
The storytelling medium du jour is "dynamic and participatory," with a lower barrier to entry and higher level of interaction than any we've seen before, Rose said. “Digital media is nothing if not social," he said. "It enables you to recover the relationship between storyteller and audience that motivated (Charles) Dickens.
"In fact, it doesn't just enable you to do this. It demands you do it. It insists you do it."
“At a time when all the old rules have stopped working, when we’re all feeling our own way, risk is kind of what you need to take.” - Frank Rose
The rest of the day focused largely on people in the Kansas City area who are at the epicenter of that storytelling transformation.
A brief video interlude reminded the audience of the story of Walt Disney and his Laugh-O-Gram studios, which in the 1920s attracted a hungry bunch of young animators to 31st and Forest Ave. in the heart of Kansas City. The the studio eventually went bankrupt, but virtually all of the Hollywood animation industry can trace its roots to the Kansas City shop.
"There are other Walt Disneys out there," Dan Viets, the president of Thank You Walt Disney, Inc. said in the video. "If they get the encouragement they need, then we will all benefit tremendously."
Added Hallmark's Ron Green: "Our goal is to make Kansas City and this region the Hollywood of short narrative production."
A panel later in the day featured Bruce Branit, the founder of BranitFX, a Kansas City-based visual effects company. A Kansas City native, Branit lived and worked in Hollywood for years before realizing he could do his work anywhere he wanted. He moved home in 2004 and has continued to thrive, providing a slightly different example of how modern technology is altering the landscape modern storytelling.
"It occurred to me I hadn't seen (Hollywood clients) in a year," Branit said of the realization that drove him back to Kansas City. "They'd never come by, so why did it matter where we were?"
Credits: Photo from rjionline.org