Q+A: iNK Stories
iNK Stories is a digital storytelling studio here in Dumbo that is a paving the way for a new wave of cinematic participation on every scale of the VR/gaming immersive storytelling landscape. Called “an Innovation Agent” by Fast Company, the studio recently earned the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival’s prestigious Jury ‘Storyscapes’ Award for pushing the boundaries on immersive storytelling. iNK Stories has shown their work at Sundance, Tribeca, the World Stage, and many other places.
We interviewed founders Navid Khonsari and Vassiliki Khonsari, as well as partner Andres Perez-Duarte and partner Sam Butin about their work, the impact of their stories, and why DUMBO.
Tell us about iNK Stories.
Navid: iNK Stories is digital storytelling across multiple mediums. Our team has a background in video games, virtual reality, augmented reality, and traditional film and television, which we use to create and produce the stories we tell. We let the stories dictate what that medium should be, where it would be best expressed and where it would have the greatest impact on the audience.
Vassiliki: We’re ushering in the next wave of immersive participatory cinema. We’re interested in the ecosystem of different mediums and how they intermingle to create original meaningful stories.
Where do you get inspiration for the stories?
Navid: We’ve gotten inspiration from multiple avenues. We start with stories that we’re passionate about sharing with the world. We take the steps in developing the project, getting the financing, producing the stories, and distributing the stories. We control the distribution and the publishing of the stories. We did that with a game called 1979 Revolution about the Iranian Revolution. We also do collaborations with groups that are inspired by the work we’ve done.
Vassiliki: Those groups include brands, social impact not for profits, VR companies, and many others.
As storytellers, we’re drawn to the human condition and telling it in its various forms. Part of our inspiration is to craft these character-driven stories that are bold and unique. We love stories that we can communicate to large global diverse audiences. Whether it’s in a game, or a large scale virtual reality experience, or a film, or a television series that we’re developing right now, the impetus for us is to communicate the human condition. We’ve worked on projects that have centered on the Iranian Revolution, or put you in Syria, or focus on gentrification here in Brooklyn. We came up with an interactive virtual reality series that we worked on with Google called Fire Escape. The story is centered on gentrification in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and it turns into an interactive thriller in virtual reality.
What’s really exciting for us is participating in this emerging community of interactive storytelling. We’ve been a part of the community in Europe through labs and in the US as mentors at Sundance and as advisors in Universities. It’s an exciting time to be a storyteller as a lot of barriers are being removed and we’ve been empowered through these exciting new digital tools.
When you see this measurable impact happening and see that change sparked, there really is no other feeling.
How can we experience your stories?
Vassiliki: There are multiple ways to experience the stories. 1979 Revolution, for instance, is available across platforms on consoles, mobile, Nintendo Switch, and is available in seven languages. You can access our VR work, like Fire Escape, on Google Daydream and on HTC. You can access Blindfold on the Oculus Rift. We just launched a demo of an augmented reality piece that we’ve been working on with Verizon at E3 [Electronic Entertainment Expo] three weeks ago. We also have some exciting projects that we’re going to launch soon like some large scale immersive installations.
You’ve got a great community of people who love your work. Could you tell us about your community of partners?
Vassiliki: As an independent studio we come up with our own original titles but we also work on other people’s projects. Navid, for instance, comes from the background of directing the cinematics of Rockstar Games from the early franchise of Grand Theft Auto all the way to last year directing Resident Evil 7 with Capcom. Working on these exciting projects with others, and coming up with our own original titles has given us the amazing luxury to refine our skills as storytellers and work across platforms in the best possible way. We're also working with academic institutions like Stanford University and Columbia University on a project now called 1000 Cut Journey. It’s a racial bias training piece that hopefully will be used for enterprise. This project initially premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and the universities were looking to do a 2.0 version and wanted to team up with us after seeing our work at the Tribeca Film Festival. We’ve been collaborating with them on rewriting this script and working with their research.
What is the history of iNK Stories?
Vassiliki: Navid and I came together 12 years ago. Navid was coming from the game world and my background is as a visual anthropologist and documentary filmmaker. We wanted to focus on how to push the boundaries and take on new frontiers of storytelling and engage new audiences with game mechanics and meaningful stories. We wanted to tell exceptional stories across platforms. The idea was to independently come up with our own original intellectual property. One of our first interactive titles was 1979 Revolution. We then partnered with Andres and Sam who have been with us for close to six years now. From our team we have developed this amazing writing room whereby we’re writing the stories and storyboarding so we can develop the narrative approach. We then also put on our other hat as interactive designers, game mechanic designers, and work as architects of this interactive world. The idea was to figure out how to break different boundaries and tell meaningful stories across different platforms to multiple audiences.
Your team is highly accomplished! Do you have any personal accomplishments that are memorable to you?
Andres: One of the big accomplishments for me is when 1979 Revolution was used as part of the UNESCO project. It was about how video games, particularly ones that show a portrayal of historical events, can help with peaceful conflict resolution. That was very validating for us as a company. It really transcends how we create not only entertainment but something that is making an imprint and gives a messaging on our lives, our culture, and our society.
Vassiliki: To add to that too, it’s the tons of emails we get from different people who have been playing our games, watching our content and who interact with the work we’ve made and are really responding. It feels like we’ve really struck a nerve pop culture-wise and penetrated the minds and hearts of audiences in a way that people reach out and send us meaningful messages. The fact that we’re constantly receiving applications for internships and jobs is really rewarding because it feels like our content is hitting people in the right way.
Navid: I think to be honest, one of the accomplishments that I am proud of is that we spend a lot of time together, which usually leads to people not hanging out with each other. With the amount of intimate work that we do and the level of creative work that can lead to conflict, I’m proud of the fact that the four of us maintain a strong connection and strength and confidence that we have in each other.
Sam: Feedback is good. It’s fun to see people interact with our work. When we do screenings we get to see people experiencing our work and watching the engagement and positive response is a cool thing we get to experience.
Having people come out of an experience and say “Wow I learned something by accident” resonates with us.
How does the positive response help shape the way you create storytelling experiences?
Andres: We are a company that is trying to push the envelope and see how we can create awesome stories that not only entertain but have another purpose and have a bigger outcome with how we do things. Having people come out of an experience and say “Wow I learned something by accident” is what has resonated with us so much. It makes us push ourselves and become problem solvers from inception to delivery. We’ve come to realize that the heart of our projects rely on the story and how we push each other not only to deliver an outstanding piece, but something that is different and raises the bar on ourselves, on the industry, and the way people are experiencing. Nowadays experiencing digital content is not only on the TV or on your phone it’s going to a space to activating something, touch something, or see something. We look into refocusing and reaffirming the way we see the world, how we interact with it, and how we can change it as well.
Vassiliki: Our great inspiration in being industry leaders is pushing on these boundaries of telling these meaningful stories on these new platforms and connecting with audiences in both meaningful and telling ways. What becomes a 'special sauce' in our creative approach is not just telling people stories but allowing audiences agency within our stories where they can have their own personal journey to make a connection and make change.
Can you share a moment when you saw your stories create a measurable impact on audiences?
Andres: We had several ambassadors and delegates from the UN come through our work Hero and saw the impact of what our projects can be like. They saw not only how it affects the way we use technology but also how it can be used for policy-making. It’s great because we can use our stories to see how we can transcend not only talking about what’s happening in the world but also how people are perceiving these experiences. We live in a fortunate country where luckily we aren’t experiencing these atrocities but we see places like Syria or anywhere that is having massive political and social changes. We can use our stories to create something that puts this lighting in a bottle and really connects with people by being able to portray the human condition across a digital space.
Vassiliki: Our greatest achievement is when we feel like we’ve created a transformative “Ah-ha” moment for people. With Hero, our large scale immersive multisensory installation, we had people come out of it and see the shift in the way they were thinking and engaging with news. They said “I will never watch the news the same” or “I voted this way and now I will reconsider the policy on refugees”. When you see this measurable impact happening and see that change sparked, there really is no other feeling.
Have any of you been featured in any of the projects you’ve worked on?
Andres: Yeah definitely. I was an actor for an augmented reality video we shot under the DUMBO Archway. We all take turns.
Vassiliki: When you’re creating your own original stories, you have a lot of fun crafting the characters, putting in our own little secret messages, and celebrating our stories.
Navid: In one of our projects we had Sam here play a maitre’d. I was a bouncer. Andres played a waiter and a radio host.
Vassiliki: I got cut [“Team laughter”].
Navid: Yeah we are all featured. It’s kind of the nature of being an independent and creative studio. We roll up our sleeves to get the content but we also have the freedom of discovery to see what works best for the piece.
Being in DUMBO has been amazing. It’s got a real community of storytellers coming from both documentary and narrative and emerging platforms such as VR.
How did iNK Stories come to DUMBO?
Vassiliki: Well we are Brooklyn OG. We’ve been in New York for 20 years. Being in DUMBO has been amazing. It’s got a real community of storytellers coming from both documentary and narrative and emerging platforms such as VR. We’re right in the hub of where we want to be in terms of accessing high caliber artistic collaborators. It’s been exciting to bring other partners to DUMBO as well who are international and are best in class. Actually, as a good example, we have journalism students coming in on Friday who are coming in from Northwestern University in Qatar to learn about a real independent studio here in New York City. It’s exciting to bring new fresh faces to the neighborhood.
Andres: We're lucky that it's a hive for new technologies and new creative approaches so it's exciting to see the changes and see how the community comes together to look towards "What's next?". This is our family, this is our home, we love to see DUMBO thrive and see all the new projects coming out of this community.
What’s your favorite place in DUMBO?
Andres: I love the Carousel area. Cecconi’s is also one of my favorite places in DUMBO.
Vassiliki: Just sitting down there in Brooklyn Bridge Park in the little amphitheater is an amazing opportunity to be outside, have a great view of Manhattan and surround yourself with the amenities of DUMBO around you.
Navid: 68 Jay Street Bar is a great bar. You can sit inside and outside at the same time. It’s a winter bar, it’s a summer bar and it’s been around forever, at least since we’ve been here.
Sam: We shot an augmented reality project under the Archway which we used for a film shoot, which was great.