The recent Tribeca Film Festival brought some of the most dynamic, exciting and promising new digital storytellers in the industry. Their work was featured at the newly introduced Tribeca Digital Creators Market during the most recent Tribeca Film Festival. The Tribeca Digital Content Creators Marketplace assists storytellers in the creation, sale and distribution of online series. TDCCM connects the industry’s most promising content creators with buyers, producers, agents, and brands, setting a new standard for the creation, sale and showcase of digital series and standalone content. Three of these pioneering storytellers are Stephanie Riggs, Amelia Umuhire, and Akilah Hughes and they are doing some of the most interesting and engaging work in the digital space right now.
These initiatives are tacit acknowledgement that the way we produce, consume, and distribute content has changed. The number of people who have abandoned cable to consume content solely online has increased dramatically. In addition, more and series and movies are being created by web native platforms such as Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix. Further, some web native platforms such as Hulu are finally being integrated into cable bundles as the line continues to blur between traditional television and movies and the internet. But digital content is now more than traditional consumption of video. The most innovative projects and experiences in tech, innovation, and virtual reality. Virtual reality, or VR, is now well… a reality. With headsets like the Oculus Rift finally reaching market in an accessible manner and providing a way for the consumer to not just watch content, but to immerse him or herself in it.
With an abundance of wit, cleverness, and charisma, Akilah Hughes is a comedian and producer who has mastered digital media. Her blog and Youtube channel explore issues of feminism, diversity, and culture with a light but insightful touch. Both called itsakilahobviously, they generate millions of views. Hughes has also created content for platforms such as Huffington Post and Refinery29, is a producer for Fusion and is currently a Sundance Fellow. She also has a book of essays coming out soon. Hailing from Kentucky, Hughes like many others, came to New York because of the opportunities for creatives. She says, “I didn’t want to wait until I was fifty to have successful career. In traditional media, it’s very hard to strike out on your own if you don’t have any connections and so being in the middle of nowhere Kentucky it was pretty much a long shot to ever be able to have even an acting career much less writing or a media career and so I think even the idea of moving to New York was daunting. I don’t have a community here. I didn’t know people here so social media sort of changed all of that where you can meet. Everybody in the world is a tweet or an email away and I was watching my friends in different states who had Youtube channels become very successful very young just by virtue of having a camera and connecting with whoever was willing to watch it.” She counts Mara Brock Akil, Mindy Kaling, and the ladies of Broad City as some of her favorite content creators and is currently developing her own series with assistance from Sundance Labs and Tribeca Film.
Of her decision to focus on putting her content on the web instead of in theaters or on television Rwandan-born and German raised storyteller Amelia Umuhire says “ I watched a lot of web series like Awkward Black Girl, and Broad City and I saw this pattern that a lot of female filmmakers especially that came to be show runners they first had web series. That was a good platform to get recognized quickly. At the same time it also felt very natural because that’s where I spent my time. That’s where I get most of the stuff that I watch- from the internet. So it was a pretty natural decision. It was also the easiest way to get your work out there. There are a lot of independent filmmakers on the festival circuit but then afterwards you don’t get to see them.” Umuhire’s award-winning web series, Polyglot is a window into the Afro-European experience. She describes it as, “a series that depicts the reality I know. It is fiction but it is very much based on my reality in the world and the reality of my sister and friends. The idea as well was to create a series where you can see that there is this kind of cultural fluidity that we have. I just wanted to show the normal life and challenges for people like us.” Umuhire replied to a question regarding the validity of the popularly held belief that there is less racism in Europe than in the United States by saying, “I can only speak for Germany and a bit for the U.K. but I think German society is way more racist than in the U.S.” She does not explore racial issues on her show in an overt way she says but demonstrates how it affects some of the characters on a personal level. For instance, there is a character who has a Masters degree from Africa but must work as a hairdresser when she moves to Germany. “I don’t want to tackle it in a very obvious way but just in the way that it affects people’s lives. When you immigrate you know that you will have a huge loss in status and it shouldn’t be that way. Just because you change the place where you live shouldn’t mean that you have to start from the bottom again especially not in the global system that we have.”
Another digital project creating a lot of buzz is the virtual reality installation Kanju. In Yoruba the word means “Creativity born of struggle”. The experience details the lives of Africans who are “really building and creating and improving their own circumstances for themselves.” It is truly an interactive experience where the audience is treated to 360 degree live action”. Its creator Stephanie Riggs describes Kanju as a “virtual reality documentary meaning it has no linear storyline but you go through it in a very linear fashion. One of the things I was trying to do with this piece is really try and move the storytelling language of VR forward. Right now there are a lot of storytellers who are just putting a camera in the middle of something and you can turn your head and look around while there is a voiceover. It’s sort of the standard documentary style which I’ve heard a lot of people say that it is confusing. ‘I didn’t know where to look’, ‘I didn’t know if I was missing something’ and so what I did in creating this piece was adding in the best practices of design principles to really guide the audience through an experience rather than just leaving them in places with just the voiceover. It introduces graphical elements, it introduces metaphors as a way of exploring storytelling and really pushes forward the storytelling language of the art.” For those who have never experienced virtual reality storytelling Riggs advises “looking at virtual reality as an immersive experience rather than something you have distance from. There’s a different way of consuming and enjoying content with virtual reality.” Riggs has a detailed blog of the whole process of creating Kanju and details about accessing the experience at immersiveriggs.com.