The Immersive Storytelling Project teaches students how to bring stories to life using the latest technology

Storytelling is an ancient art, but a group of students spent a week at Arizona State University this summer learning how to use the latest augmented reality technology to tell their own stories.

The Immersive Storytelling Project was held at the ASU Media and Immersive eXperience Center in Mesa and hosted by The Sidney Poitier New American Film School in partnership with Apple.

The weeklong event included 23 students — 10 from ASU and 13 from Morehouse College, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University, three historically black schools in Atlanta, plus Drexel University in Philadelphia. The group heard from industry experts and got hands-on experience with the MIX Center’s augmented reality technology, including the Planar LED Virtual Production Stage, Dreamscape Learn Lab and Dolby Atmos audio suites, as well as a demonstration of the Enhanced Immersion Studio.

Divided into groups, students worked with mentors from the faculty represented schools were tasked with creating short projects in various media, which were then presented on the final day.

“Educational equity is a cornerstone in continuing to build on the legacy of the great Sidney Poitier. (The project) is an important step in that direction, connecting students from diverse backgrounds and equipping them with the tools to tell compelling stories so they can bring their visions to life,” said Cheryl Boone Isaacs, director of The Sidney Poitier New American Film School.

Here’s what the students learned:

Create what you want to see

Peter Murrieta, associate director and professor of practice at Poitier Film School, has been writing and producing television for decades. He was showrunner of Disney Channel’s “Wizards of Waverly Place” and has several new shows and films in the works.

“For me, the most important thing is that a story has a beginning, middle and end, even if it’s just a trailer or a commercial,” he said, showing a diagram of a three-act story.

“When I was younger, I thought my job in every script I wrote was to show them how smart I was on every page—as clever and as complicated as I could be,” he said. “As I got older and more experienced, I learned to keep it simple: What’s my story in one sentence?”

Murrieta was often asked where he got his ideas.

“I like to think: ‘What TV show would I like to watch that’s not available?’ ‘What book would I like to watch that’s not available?’

“What comic book would I buy immediately upon entering the store that no one else is writing?”

Genius in brevity

The students created short projects over the course of a week, and Stephane Dunn, a writer, filmmaker, and professor who co-founded and directs the Film, Television, and New Media Studies program at Morehouse College, told them, “There’s something wonderful about brevity, about creating brilliant work in brevity.”

Dunn said she tries to summarize the theme of her projects in one or two words, which she did in her recent short film about a black woman who goes to Hollywood in the early 1900s. Her theme was “invisibility.”

“When I started meditating on that word, not only did I see it in the script, but it helped me improve it and see what was missing. It gave me a framework to think about ways to maximize what I had,” she said.

Building Your “Indie Muscles”

Ayoka Chenzira, Professor Emeritus and Former Chair of the Fine Arts Department at Spelman Collegeis a filmmaker, producer and director who works on both independent and commercial projects.

“I have really strong indie muscle. I write it. I direct it. I produce it. I hire everybody. I raise money. I put it in festivals. I sign distribution deals. And I start all over again,” said Chenzira, who is credited as one of the first African-American women to write, produce and direct a 35mm feature film, “Alma’s Rainbow.”

“It’s a guerrilla approach to cinema. You get in there and do it.”

According to Chenzira, who directed episodes of Queen Sugar and A League of Their Own, episodic television is different.

“You’re stepping into someone else’s vision unless you’re the creator of the show. You have to figure out how to protect the brand and also get involved,” she said.

“It’s fast. It’s like an aquarium. And you have to move through things quickly and make relationships really quickly.”

She told the students to try new things.

“Be careful not to think too myopically about production, because you need to have life experience to bring something of yourself to your work,” she said.

Bringing History to Life with Augmented Reality

Carla LynDale Bishop, assistant professor at the Poitier Film School, tells the stories of historically black communities, many of which have disappeared, using augmented reality technology.

“I see it as magic – anything you can think of, you can create,” she said.

Bishop asked students to consider why they wanted to use immersive technology.

“Before you start an immersive project, what do you want to achieve that can’t be achieved with traditional media?” she asked.

Carla Bishop, assistant professor at Poitier Film School, talks about creating the immersive media project “Mapping Blackness” during the Immersive Storytelling Project. Photo: Charlie Leight/ASU News

In 2016, Bishop created the traditional documentary “Voices of the Hill,” a history of Twinsburg Heights, a black community in Ohio that no longer exists, which turned into a community event.

“But there were so many stories on my hard drive that didn’t fit into the documentary,” she said.

“And going to film festivals wasn’t something that was accessible to the community I wanted to reach.”

She then created an interactive, extended documentary about a lost black community in Texas. That led to a community event that included a digital scavenger hunt where people could use their phones to look at historical photos and listen to stories.

Bishop described how, even though she uses the latest technology, her projects are based on the hard work of building trust and collaborating with the community to show them what matters to them.

Earlier this year, she created an augmented reality experience at the MIX Center to showcase “Mapping Blackness,” a platform she devised that recreated the history of Okemah, a neighborhood in South Phoenix in the early 1900s. Several former Okemah residents attended the event and were moved to see the stories told.

“It’s great to have a digital archive, but it’s even more important to bring the community together,” Bishop said.

Building a network

During a fireside chat between Alisha Johnson Wilder, director of the Apple Initiative for Racial Equality and Justiceand Erika Clarke, director of nonfiction programming at Apple TV+, told the fellows that spending a week together could lead to lasting connections in the profession.

“The people you know now can stay in your life for the rest of your life,” she said.

Clarke said her journey from MTV to CNN to Bravo to Spotify and now Apple TV+ was made possible by connections she made during college internships, as well as mentorship from journalist Alison Stewart early in her career at MTV.

“I got to see someone who looked like me,” Clarke said of Stewart.

“At that point, I thought, ‘I can do this. This is someone I can look up to.’ She’s been my mentor for 25 years.”

She advised students to be wary of impostor syndrome.

Early in your career, she said, you might ask yourself, “Does everyone know I don’t know what I’m doing? The most important thing is to realize that everyone else feels that way, too.”

Erika Clarke (left), director of nonfiction programming at Apple TV+, joins Alisha Johnson Wilder, director of the Racial Equity and Justice Initiative at Apple, for a fireside chat during the Immersive Storytelling Project. Photo: Charlie Leight/ASU News

Masaran Keita, a fourth-year film and media production student at ASU, said the week-long workshop was transformational.

“I was impressed to see so many successful people volunteering their time, sharing advice and inspiring me,” she said.

“It really validated my work in film and showed me the possibilities.”

Keita, who dreams of a career in sound design, has never before touched virtual reality technology.

“I learned how immersive it is. I could feel like I was transported to a completely different place, and it made me think about the stories I wanted to tell and transport my audience the way I did,” she said.

ASU Film and Media Studies student Masaran Keita talks with ASU Assistant Professor Carla Bishop during the Immersive Storytelling Project. Photo: Charlie Leight/ASU News

Her group project involved creating a virtual reality game in which the user took on the role of a new immigrant who had to find his way to the grocery store.

“The main goal was to convey the experience of fear through a simple task that an immigrant had to go through,” she said.

“Everyone’s designs were so honest. Each one is something I would love to see in real life.

“I met other student filmmakers who were just as passionate as I was. It gave me the motivation to keep going.”