As part of our constant growth, mirroring the film & commercial industry’s own exploration of new frontiers, Free The Bid is excited to announce the expansion of our database to include INNOVATION!!
For an introduction to the new categories and directors included in this launch, check out our Innovation 101 guide.
In order to launch the brand new Innovation section, Free The Bid has been lucky enough to enlist the help of Julia Sourikoff and Nicole McDonald. These two incredible women have been instrumental in the process of our expansion into 360, AI, AR, Experiential, Interactive, Livestreaming, and VR (and hopefully even further categories in the future, as the field itself expands). We couldn’t be happier to have them on board!
Julia Sourikoff, Executive Producer AR/VR, Tool of North America
Julia heads up the AR/VR division of the award-winning creative production partner Tool of North America. She’s produced projects for world class clients including Adidas, Intel, Ford, Oculus, and Facebook, and spearheaded the design and construction of a cutting-edge mixed reality studio at Tool’s HQ in Santa Monica. Julia was named to Adweek’s “The Creative 100” as one of “12 Innovators who are Crafting, Coding, and Advancing a More Interesting World”. She’s proud to serve as the Innovation Ambassador to Free the Bid where she’s helping the organization expand their coverage of women-led talent working in interactive disciplines. She has been invited to speak at Stanford, MIT, Apple, SXSW, Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, Sundance, Facebook Developer Conference and VRDC. Before joining Tool, Julia helped launch the Future of StoryTelling (FoST) in New York and was integral to growing the company from a small start-up to an oversubscribed thought leadership summit and online community of over half a million followers. She also produced the traveling show “Sensory Stories: An Exhibition of New Narrative Experiences,” which premiered in New York and traveled to Montreal, attracting over 40,000 visitors.
Nicole McDonald, also known as MARRYtheMOON, is an award-winning writer and director who dreams up extraordinary ways to experience stories. Her focus is on ‘cracking the code’ – discovering unique, revolutionary ways to emotionally and viscerally connect audience – to story. Leveraging new and emerging technologies as her primary creative tools, she marries interactivity and audience participation into each of her creative narratives. Her passion to use technology as a creative tool has led Nicole to produce award winning interactive experiences that have been honored at Cannes, One Show, the FWA, the Art Director’s Club, AICP, SXSW, Sundance New Frontier Lab, Sundance Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, and the Future of Storytelling.
Julia and Nicole sat down together for a free-wheeling discussion on their introduction to the work they do now, the highlights of their careers, ways to get involved in the field, and musings on the future of storytelling.
What was your path into the innovation space?
JULIA: My middle school sweetheart was in a band and I would run the lighting design for all their shows – which meant me sitting behind the drummer with a couple of power strips connected to strobe lights and LEDs from Spencer’s party store. I had unnerving stage fright, so being able to manipulate the emotion of a crowd through optics was empowering for me.
I studied economics in school while serving as editor-in-chief for a university publication, interning at Conde Nast and aspiring to be a dancer. By the time I graduated, it was clear that it was the right-brain, creative stuff that felt most purposeful and natural to me. After witnessing the pain points of big magazines in the wake of the digital takeover, I took a job at a new media publishing company that was building some of the first editorial apps for the upcoming launch of the first iPad. I rose from an entry level assistant to the first employee of an internal start-up dedicated to thought leadership in the fields of technology, art, science and enterprise. It was an incredible opportunity to get to know artists, programmers, marketers, neuroscientists, theater producers, musicians all bound together over a shared passion for how technology was changing the nature of storytelling. I produced events, exhibits, and experiential installations but really wanted to be making VR. An offer from Tool moved me from New York to Los Angeles, where I’m proudly serving as their EP of AR/VR.
NICOLE: When I was 9, I took a basic computer coding class. We worked on a monochromatic monitor, and the instructor explained that computers would someday show us more colors. Of course, he was describing RGB color monitors, but, at the time, I naively thought he meant that computers would allow us to see more colors than are in our current rainbow. My mind went wild. I made up stories of who and what lived in these unseen colors… What could they do that we couldn’t? Ever since, I’ve been captivated by technology and using it as a creative tool. I studied new-media and filmmaking in college. And my first “real” job was in games as a designer and 3D modeler, where I discovered that stories could be multi-axial continuums. I then moved on to advertising as a creative lead specializing in interactive and integrated campaigns. On the nights and weekends, I was also creating independent passion projects that focused on how our audience and our stories will blossom from interactivity and audience participation. I’m now focused on writing and directing stories that have a heartbeat and breath, that have more “colors” if you will.
What advice would you give someone interested in getting into the space?
JULIA: Surround yourself with as many practitioners as possible and build a network. My friend and I started an informal gathering of women in the industry several years ago. We’d meet for tacos or drinks every month or so, and it’s the first time I truly felt supported and recognized by peers. I dealt with a lot of imposter syndrome in my 20s and cannot stress enough how important these get-togethers were for my own personal growth and confidence. Believing in yourself is the first step to excelling in any field. Next is nurturing your understanding of that discipline by learning from people that are currently working in it. Go to meet-ups, exhibits, reach out to creators that are posting their experiments on Instagram – identify who the “community” is, then do everything you can to insert yourself into it.
NICOLE: As a creator, I think it’s extremely important to explore how a narrative will thrive in the medium. Use the technology to fortify the idea. Whether you are executing in VR, AR or even an interactive experience on a 2D display, there is always a unique opportunity to connect with our audience in ways traditional linear works can not. The innovation in storytelling today is magical. Make them feel the magic. I often think of it in simple terms of seats in a theater, how is the experience altered when seeing and hearing from multiple POVs (in the front row, way back on the balcony, or behind the curtain). Now add interactivity to it, like in immersive theater, think about what will motivate an audience member to participate, how is that integrated in to the story, and how will the narrative profit from this participation?
It can be tremendously intimidating at times, the unknowns and limitations, but you can execute the essence of ideas in many ways. I always storyboard the heck out of my concepts and create a ton of animatics (linear at first and then in the medium). Rinse and repeat. It’s super helpful in fighting the ice cream headaches this work can cause. HA.
What have been some of your career highlights?
JULIA: I’m really proud of a project I produced while at Tool called “Fall in Love”. It was the company’s first work of original IP in the VR space and there wasn’t a road map for how we would fund it. The idea was pitched to me by the director Kevin Cornish (before he was signed by Tool) and I thought it was groundbreaking. I had recently joined the team, so it was risky for me to fight for an off-roster director and a diversion of company resources to package and pitch the project. I was very supported by upper management and we went for it. It would be the first VR experience to enable the headset microphone in order to create real conversation with a live action character in VR. It was based on a study from the 90s, “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness”, that was revived by the New York Times in 2015 under the headline “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love”. Oculus was excited to explore natural language processing and loved the research tie-in, so they generously signed on as our partner to make it. It’s won a ton of awards and has been demoed on the festival circuit at Tribeca, Cannes Lions and Sundance and is available for anyone to download on the Oculus store (free!).
NICOLE: I’ve been super fortunate to work on some fantastic projects. Highlights include Cirque Du Soleil’s “Movi Kanti Revo”. I got to work directly with their incredibly talented and inspiring performers for a Chrome Experiment. In this experience, I explored new ways for users to navigate through a digital narrative using gesture and tones.
Last year I worked on a VR interactive experience called “Free the Night,” for Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Platform that was based on a childhood memory of looking up to the night skies with my father. Sadly, one year, a huge mall was constructed nearby and the amber glow of the parking lot made it impossible to view the stars from our front lawn. So I made a piece that allows you to rid the sky of light pollution by pulling up street lamps as if they are wildflowers and blowing them out like dandelions, which emit embers that are a cross between fireflies and fireworks. As the lights are extinguished, and the sky is slowly taken back, the Milky Way is revealed and we can count the shooting stars like my dad and I did way back when.
And then there’s “Hue,” an interactive film about a man who lost his ability to see color. In 2014, I had this idea based on interactive characters and through testing realized quickly how conditioned we are to approach these kind of experiences as a game. People immediately pushed the characters to the limit, trying to “break” them if you will. Which led me to think about the story and who the character was. What if he was sad? What if he needed you to help him and how by helping him would we discover something about ourselves?
The first chapter premiered at Sundance in 2017, and I just finished pre-production on the full 40 minute story. It encompasses all that I’ve learned through the years and everything I want to do in interactive filmmaking. It’s a perfect balance of a heartfelt story and seamless interactivity. It’s joyful and funny and he evolves because of us and our touch.
Hue traverses abstract themes like loneliness, sensory deprivation, and the emotional fortitude of human touch. What is it about VR that makes it a uniquely form-fitting medium to convey these ideas?
NICOLE: “Hue,” was originally developed for tablets because at the time touch wasn’t available in VR. There is something so profoundly moving when he responds when we interact with him. And when I saw him in VR for the first time I truly understood the power of the medium. I once read about how gobsmacked audience members were when the color appeared in the Wizard of Oz, the first full color theatrical film. It was kind of like that, breathtaking.
VR is the culmination of all the creative “brushes” we have in our tech art kit if you will. It’s the perfect medium to tell Hue’s story, as it allows us to create a truly immersive fantastical world that sheds any linear limitations. I play with scale to promote empathy. He’s intentionally small so we approach him gently. His environments spiral up all around us and appear at different moments in the story, to promote exploration and emotionally directive discovery. The art direction has a watercolor quality to it in the beginning, to visualize how he feels on the inside. As color returns to his world it gets more detailed…like we’re seeing it ourselves for the first time. And to top it all off, there’s our touch, our connection with him. Hue is a sophisticated interactive character, who responds to us realistically. In the story we are Hue’s best friend, and it’s through our physical contact with him that he rediscovers life’s full spectrum. With our help, his disposition changes and eventually he even shows us the hidden beauty in his surroundings.
As storytellers, the intimacy we have with our audience in VR is particularly exciting AND the idea that we can create immersive worlds that haven’t ever existed is even more so…
In your experience, how does the bid process differ between interactive and live action briefs? Do you have any tips to share for directors about to engage in their first non-traditional pitch?
NICOLE: Good question! Along with your standard approach, art direction, etc. you’ll want to be as thorough as possible by mapping out the experience from beginning to end. It’ll help identify any hiccups your little dream may encounter, as there will be many. But fear not, there is always a MacGyver solution! Before I meet with developers or producers, I create an architecture map and a simple storyboard so I can start to form the idea and see it in the “space”. Then I bring in a Lead developer, who I think of as the Director of Photography, and we discuss execution and tech and flush out a more robust map. Producers then come in (your AD basically) and help put realistic timelines and parameters in place. Since there isn’t an established production process for a lot of this work, make sure you surround yourself with people who are hybrids, who are good problem solvers and understand how to create in the space. Godspeed!
JULIA: My number one piece of advice is to not over-complicate things! Make sure that the story doesn’t get swallowed up under the weight of technology. For roomscale formats like AR, VR and 360, create sketches and user diagrams that convey the scale and spatial layout of the experience relative to the user’s placement in that world. Think in terms of physical and full-body storytelling and consider how all of the senses perceive the work (sound design is a crucial detail!). You also have to have a deployment strategy, you can’t just assume that interactive work will find its way out into the world. If it’s distributed on specialized hardware (like VR headsets) how are you going to market it on social feeds and other screen-based formats? Make sure to clarify the client’s goals early on – is it about reaching the widest audience possible or generating press?
Do you tend to work with the same team from project to project or do you like to bring in new collaborators? How do you find great people to work with?
JULIA: I’m lucky to work at a place that has an abundance of world class talent across production, development, design and creativity. It’s a collaborative environment where band members come together and everyone just jams. For finding new talent in the innovation space, I look to Twitter and Instagram feeds, where independent artists are posting their AR Kit projects, or art incubators like New Inc at The New Museum. From my past life running festivals, I’m lucky to have access to some of the most respected innovation curators in the world, and I’m constantly dropping quick notes to learn who or what people are excited about. Academic communities are also really great for finding up-and-comers.
What do you do when you have writers’/creators’ block? How do you get into a creative zone?
NICOLE: I listen to music. It helps me visualize my ideas. I lie on the floor and close my eyes, and I can see the story unfold in my mind. Or if that doesn’t work, I try not to stress about it, it’ll come…sometimes you have to walk around it, to “find” it.
What predictions do you have about the future of storytelling and how do you see technology driving creativity?
JULIA: Creator tools are becoming increasingly user-friendly and intuitive, and democratizing the process of creation in media once reserved exclusively for technical experts. If you have access to a computer and internet, you can learn how to build just about anything. Innovation-driven artists crave new canvases to work with and new ways of expressing themselves. It demands no ego, because often you’re starting over every time to create something that’s never been done. I think over time you develop an elasticity in the creative process that not only allows you to jump from executing on one medium to the next, but also enables you to see connection points between media that will inform your ideas.
NICOLE: My hope is that we move toward creating more interactive films that are as powerful and connective as the greats in linear filmmaking. That our audience feels more because of their agency in the story, and they take those feelings with them – after the headsets are off and when the smartphones are put away, that they are more connected to the natural world, and see it with all those new colors we added to their lens.