Conversations with Kollab: Chris Dinh talks New Media
New media, especially platforms like YouTube, WordPress, and Instagram, have redefined the entertainment industry and have allowed even the average person to create and distribute their art. Ten years ago, being a Blogger, YouTuber, Vine-famous, or even “big on Instagram” weren’t credible past-times, much less viable careers. Now in 2015, PewDiePie has earned $12 million dollars last year playing video games on YouTube, web-based sketch comedy group Smosh released a movie, and YouTube beauty guru Michelle Phan has her own book and cosmetic line.
One person who has been on the frontlines of this evolution of storytelling is actor, writer, and filmmaker Chris Dinh. Most recognizable for his work with WongFu Productions, Dinh also has done a number of independent work with friend Viet Nguyen. Most recently Dinh and Nguyen released their crowd-funded movie, Crush the Skull, a full length feature based on their shorts series with the same name.
“I’m trying to find my thing too. The thing that makes me laugh. It tends to be in that dark comedy realm. Super dark and hopefully fun. It’s just meant to be a fun ride.” Chris Dinh
While Dinh visited Boston for a Crush the Skull screening at the Boston Asian American Film Festival, Kollaboration got to sit down and talk to him about what he thought of new media and the future of storytelling.
Kollab: How do you define new media?
Chris: If I had to define it, it’s anything that is… I almost want to say anything that is digital, but not only digital, but anything that has been created organically out of a need to just express a person’s interest or passions. It can not only be YouTube, but now there’s Vine and there’s Instagram and Snapchat. Anything that you can just pick up and do yourself and tell a story that can reach an audience.
Kollab: Why did you get into new media with YouTube and all that?
Chirs: I was working at a traditional production company, it wasn’t indie, but it still worked in the traditional ways. And it’s a very slow moving system and I just felt like we would spend all this time in development, but we were never shooting anything. Then I saw how quickly people were uploading YouTube videos, and I just felt like it was exciting. I wanted to be a part of it somehow, I didn’t know how, I just wanted to be a part of it.
Kollab: How did you end up a part of it?
Chris: So I got into it because there was a film festival in New York, this really cool group of Asian Americans started it, and they started this cool thing called the 72 Hour Shoot-Out. It’s a competition, they give you perimeters, you shoot and deliver a short film within 72 hours. That was one of the first short films that we did that was digital for me, and that was my first taste of the online world. Shortly after that I met the WongFu guys and it was the right place at the right time kind of stuff. They were doing what I wanted to do, so I just wanted to hang out with them and do whatever they wanted to do.
Kollab: Crush the Skull was made entirely with new media, you started with YouTube and then you went on to Kickstarter to make the film. Was there anything about that process that surprised you?
Chris: What’s surprising about that is how hard it is. Actually, I don’t know if it was surprising, because I knew it would be really hard. Because we had just done the WongFu campaign, and then I was going out there and doing another campaign right after that. It made me feel weird to keep asking for support, I felt bad about it. But timing wise, we had no other options, we had to. But we had some amazing people come through to support us. It was both tough, and inspiring. Because you’re like, ‘Oh mygosh, we’re not going to make it,’ and then people came through for us, and then we feel super inspired by that.
“Something that maybe Asian American who have a really negative opinion of Asian american films. Like for some they just get turned off when they hear that term, and so maybe capturing some of them like, ‘Hey it could be fun! You should support it.’ The more you support it, the more fun films like this can exist.” Chris Dinh
Kollab: Being a part of independent films like Crush the Skull, you do so many different roles. Do you prefer it that way, or do you wish you had a larger crew?
Chris: I wish I had a larger crew who wore many hats. (But) it’s really fun for me. I grew up watching Charlie Chaplin, and I was so inspired to read and learn that he was the same way. They were kind of like the YouTubers of the day. They were doing everything, producing, writing, casting, composing, how cool was that? It’s so rewarding to be able to do.
Kollab: With all these platforms, the market is almost too saturated. Do you think it’s still worth it, or should they start through the traditional route?
Chris: I think that you should try everything. Maybe you tell your stories best through Vine, or YouTube, or a novel, or poetry. There’s so many ways to express yourself, it’s so cool to see what works for you. Yes there’s a lot of saturation, but there’s communities that are being created and I think that put it out there and find your community. But it’s definitely worth it to share your story.
Kollab: Because of your presence on YouTube and social media, it’s a very different connection to fans. How would you describe your relationship with fans?
Chris: I like how easy it is, and I hope that anyone who follows our stuff can just come up and say hi. Storytelling is supposed to be a way to connect with people, and it would be weird if it was like, ‘Yeah, I want to tell stories and connect with you, but I don’t want you to feel comfortable enough to come say hi.’ (At the BAFF panel on new media) when we were talking about creating our own space, people feel like they’re just consuming it, but it’s actually participating. It’s so important, not only making that content, but just the act of clicking on it and watching. That’s all a part of creating that space together for all of us to share our stories. For me, that’s how I see the relationship (with fans). We’re all in it together, and we’re creating the space together.
Kollab: Regardless of the platform, why is storytelling and creating a shared space so important?
Chris: I hope I don’t sound crazy, but someone once said that when language was created, it was when we created time travel. I always found that really fascinating because I think storytelling is very much a part of being human. You share a story because you want someone to share in that experience with you, and sometimes it’s just about sharing in that experience. Sometimes it’s I want you to know more about me, or I want to know more about you so we can become closer. We try to tell these stories so you can step into my shoes for a little bit so you can know what life is like for me or what life is like for you. I think it’s all about understanding each other a little better and stories are a great way to spread empathy.
“Empathy is how we’re going to find and settle these big huge conflicts in the world today. When we always see these other groups as “the other,” we’ll never be able to find peace or resolution. I think that’s what story is all about, in all these forms. It’s all about sharing stories so that we can relate to each other and share in these experiences.” Chris Dinh
Kollab: Now that all these new platforms are available, what do you hope to see for the future of media?
Chris: This is where I’m going to start sounding crazy. I think the future is going to be really crazy. We’re going to be able to get to a point— and it sounds like it’s really super futuristic, but it’s not because we’re super close— I’m going to be able to wear a virtual reality helmet and almost live the experience of my parents. Someone will be able to program that world so I can see what it was like growing up in Vietnam, or stepping onto the boat for the first time to escape. Language is a beautiful thing, but one day when we can totally step inside someone’s stories, literally step in through technology, then I’m going to appreciate my parent’s stories in a totally different way. I think that’s subconsciously what we’re trying to achieve in storytelling and technology. Until you can really experience it, I think that’s the future. That’s crazy talk, but at the core, that’s what story is.
Kollab: Any last general advice or words of encouragement?
Chris: For any storyteller out there who wants to start telling stories, on whatever platform that they choose, my advice would be to take it as seriously as, let’s say a doctor takes med school. All the people who are doing it at the highest levels consider any of the various ways to tell stories see it as a profession and as serious as medicine or law, or business. It’s going to be as difficult as any of those other fields, so treat it accordingly. That’ll help you have a long future in it. We see a lot of the fun outcomes, but what you don’t se is that they take it very seriously. It’s a pretty difficult journey, so be ready for that.
Cover image courtesy of Angry Asian Man