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

ASU students joined others from around the country to hear from industry experts, get hands-on experience at weeklong event hosted by the Poitier Film School


People watching presentation on large screen of woman in space helmet

ASU fellow and astronaut Sian Proctor shares her story at the weeklong Immersive Storytelling Project held at the ASU Media and Immersive eXperience Center in Mesa. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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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 extended-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 with participation from 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 experts in the industry and got hands-on experience with the extended-reality technology available at the MIX Center, including the Planar LED Virtual Production Stage, Dreamscape Learn Lab and the Dolby Atmos audio suites, as well as a demonstration of the Enhanced Immersion Studio.

Divided into groups, the students worked with faculty mentors from the represented schools to create short-form projects in various media that they presented on the final day.

“Educational equity is a cornerstone of advancing the legacy of the great Sidney Poitier. The (project) is an important step in that direction, bringing together students of all backgrounds and equipping them with immersive storytelling tools to bring their visions to life,” said Cheryl Boone Isaacs, founding director of The Sidney Poitier New American Film School.

Here’s what the students learned:

Create what you want to see

Multiple Emmy Award-winning Peter Murrieta, deputy director and professor of practice in the Poitier Film School, has written and produced television shows for decades. He was the show runner for “Wizards of Waverly Place” on the Disney Channel and has several new shows and films in the works.

“The bottom line for me is the story has a beginning, middle and end, even if it’s a trailer or a commercial,” he said, showing a diagram of a three-act story arc.

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

Murrieta is often asked where he gets his ideas.

“I like to think, ‘What is the show I want to turn on and watch that is not out there?’ ‘What is the book that’s not out there?’

“ ‘What’s the comic book that no one else is writing that I would purchase the minute I walk into the store?’ ”

Genius in brevity

The students created short projects during the week, and Stephane Dunn, a writer and filmmaker and professor who co-founded and leads the Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies Program at Morehouse College, told them, “There’s something magnificent about brevity, about doing genius work in brevity.”

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

“When I began to meditate on that word, not only did I see it in the script but it helped me to revise it and see what was missing. It gave me a frame for thinking about ways to maximize what I had,” she said.

Building an ‘indie muscle’

Ayoka Chenzira, Professor Emerita and former Division Chair of the Arts at Spelman College, is a filmmaker, producer and director who works on both independent and commercial projects. 

“I have a very tough indie muscle. I write the screenplay. I direct it. I produce it. I hire everyone. I raise the money. I put it in festivals. I get distribution deals. And I start all over again,” said Chenzira, who is recognized as one of the first African American women to write, produce and direct a 35mm feature film, "Alma’s Rainbow."

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

Episodic TV is different, said Chenzira, who has directed episodes of “Queen Sugar” and “A League of Their Own.”

“You’re stepping into somebody else’s vision, unless you were the creator of the show. You have to figure out how to protect the brand and also insert yourself into it,” she said.

“It’s fast. It’s a fishbowl. And you have to navigate things quickly and form relationships really fast.”

She told the students to try new things.

“Be careful not to think too myopically about producing because you have to have life experience so you can infuse the work with you,” she said.

Bringing history to life with extended-reality technology

Carla LynDale Bishop, an assistant professor in the Poitier Film School, tells the stories of historically Black communities, many of which have vanished, using extended-reality technology.

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

Bishop told the students to consider why they want to use immersive technology.

“Before you jump into an immersive project, what is it you’re trying to do that can’t be solved in traditional media?” she said.

Black woman in white shirt and green pants giving a presentation to a student audience
Carla Bishop, assistant professor in the Poitier Film School, talks about making the immersive media project "Mapping Blackness" during the Immersive Storytelling Project. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

In 2016, Bishop created a traditional documentary, “Voices of the Hill,” a history of Twinsburg Heights, a Black community in Ohio. The screening turned into a community-wide 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, augmented reality documentary about a lost Black community in Texas. It led to a community event that included a digital scavenger hunt in which people could use their phones to see historic photos and hear stories.

Bishop described how, even though she’s using the latest technology, her projects are based on the painstaking work of building trust and working with the community to showcase what’s important to them.

Earlier this year, she created an extended-reality experience in the MIX Center to showcase “Mapping Blackness,” a platform she invented 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 by seeing the stories.

“It’s great to have a digital archive, but what’s even more meaningful is bringing a community together,” Bishop said.

Building a network

During a fireside chat between Alisha Johnson Wilder, director of Apple’s Racial Equity and Justice Initiative, and Erika Clarke, a non-fiction programming executive at Apple TV+, Clarke told the fellows that their week together could lead to a lifelong network in the profession.

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

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

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

“At that point it was, ‘I can do this. This is someone I can model myself after.’ She’s been my mentor for 25 years.”

In her advice to the students, she told them to watch out for impostor syndrome.

Early in your career, she said, you may ask yourself, "Does everyone know that I don’t know what I’m doing? The biggest thing is when you realize everyone else also has those feelings.”

Two women sitting on stage talking to audience with Apple logo behind them
Erika Clarke (left) a non-fiction programming executive at Apple TV+, joins Alisha Johnson Wilder, director of Apple's Racial Equity and Justice Initiative, for a fireside chat during the Immersive Storytelling Project. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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

“I was starstruck by all these successful people giving their time and giving words of advice and inspiration,” she said.

“It really validated my work in going into film and seeing what the possibilities could be.”

Keita, who wants a career in sound design, had never tried virtual-reality technology before.

“I learned how immersive it really is. I was able to feel the sense of being transported to a whole different place and it made me think about the stories I want to tell and transporting my audience like I was,” she said.

A black female student talks with a professor after lecture
ASU film and media studies student Masaran Keita chats with ASU Assistant Professor Carla Bishop during the Immersive Storytelling Project. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Her group project was a virtual-reality game in which the user played the role of a new immigrant who has to navigate a grocery store.

“The ultimate point was to relay the experience of anxiety in a simple task an immigrant would have to go through,” she said.

“Everyone’s projects were so heartfelt. Every single one is something I would love to see actually get made in the real world.

“I met other student filmmakers like myself who are so passionate and it gave me a drive to keep doing the work I’m doing.”

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