Last month, I reviewed a graphic novel/interactive documentary called KENK: A Graphic Portrait. This journalistic comic was the first release for Toronto-based multimedia production and publishing company Pop Sandbox, and it was met with a hoard of accolades and reviews within its first three months of release. I was lucky enough to snag an interview with Alex Jansen, the owner and operator of Pop Sandbox, to talk to him about the making of KENK, their second release The Next Day (also released November 2011 in the U.S.), and the trouble with hypertext fiction.
Alex, tell us about Pop Sandbox. What do you do, exactly?
“Probably 70 percent of what I do is production and 30 percent is the publishing. My background is largely in film. I studied business and then I studied film years ago, all with the idea with getting into producing. I guess when I started I felt film was the most important medium of our time for reaching a large audience. I felt really passionate about all forms of visual storytelling – so as a kid, you know, comics, film, and video games – and I decided to really focus in on film.”
So why did you move from film to books? How did it happen?
“I got a chance to do this small feature film [about sexual abuse] back in 2001. The film played at the Toronto Film Festival… and it sold and we thought ‘this is fantastic’ and then it disappeared. Here, Canadian broadcasters require a certain amount of Canadian content in order to keep their licenses. And so the way it works, not understanding distribution at that time, it falsely inflates things. So for the distributor, they saw this film where we already had a broadcaster attached. They never really got behind it in a big way. In the end… it got marketed as a sexy thriller, it was a very small push and it disappeared. So it was such a disheartening experience it made me want to understand how that piece worked.”
And how did you get that experience, learning distribution and being in control?
“There was a distributor that always stood out to me… a company called Mongrel Media. I joined them at a great time. There were six people in the company and I was the first one purely in home entertainment. It really gave me a chance to learn the distribution piece, but it was very much with the conscious idea… to go back to production but now to be able to retain the rights to take my own projects to market. And I think that’s where the whole industry’s been going anyways. There’s such a higher level of control for the creative side. The only problem is I’ve found… if you don’t understand how to get it out you lose all control.”
How did Pop Sandbox begin with KENK: A Graphic Portrait?
“I met with this absolutely compelling character [and] at that point I was still working with Mongrel… there was no way I would have been able to raise money to shoot it in HD. I had to root it even more into journalism and documentary filmmaking. We actually took as many still photos and written notes as we did filmed footage over the next year and a half. But, yeah, all with the idea of doing it as a graphic novel.”
Why did you make KENK a graphic novel? The story seems suited for an expose or full-blown documentary.
“One of my biggest frustrations is when people say the comic book could be the storyboard for the film cause I think it really demeans the whole graphic novel language and the things you can only do in that language. When you see Kenk as a film, it will be entirely different than the graphic novel [because] the graphic novel very much is a piece of journalism… and we’re doing things on the film side that cannot possibly be done as a graphic novel. I get approached by several people… what they want to do is they want to make a film but they can’t so they make a comic. And you can tell.”
Did anything surprise you about publishing KENK in dual formats – as a print comic book and as an animated film?
“I find home entertainment and publishing, it’s virtually identical. There’s different names for things but it’s not all that different at all, like how we’d be acquiring the rights or there would be some original productions we’d be involved in and then we’d be packaging it into DVD and taking it out to our wholesalers and then wrap it out to video stores – is virtually identical to how the publishing side works. So I found that there wasn’t as big of a learning curve on that end. In the production side, it was liberating in a lot of ways. I felt like here’s a medium where I could tell it as pure a vision as possible. It’s taking the same underlying material and it’s like two branches of the same tree.”
The publishing world is just exploding with the app phenomenon right now, with the iPad and Kindle Fire, because of their interactive possibilities. Did you plan an app or e-book for KENK?
“I think the idea of being to expand that deep into the story, as much as it would be fantastic for KENK, I don’t know that it would necessarily be the best suited project for it. I think that same technology could be applied more broadly so we tried to develop it as a repeatable technology with the plan of using it for our next project, The Next Day. Unfortunately, as we were developing, we just hit walls – so we did do a scaled version, more like a multimedia marketing tool, for KENK online. At the end of the day it’s just looking at the company and what our focus is. I think our focus is more so on the storytelling side and I think that would dwarf everything else cause we are quite small and pretty realistic about how many projects we are able to undertake.”
Let’s talk about The Next Day, a graphic novel and animated online documentary about survivors of near-fatal suicide attempts. How did this project start?
“It’s very similar to how KENK was conceived, across platform. We developed The Next Day simultaneously as both a print graphic novel and then an interactive animated documentary, both of them rooting from the same source material. In the case of the interactive we developed that as a co-production with the National Film Board. They had this call to be moving into the interactive world and so we put forward a proposal to develop the story. [Paul Peterson, a friend and former social worker] was interested as doing it as a documentary… but I wasn’t as excited about doing it as a straight up doc and I wanted to make sure we veered away from any ‘after-school special’ type territory. I approached him with the idea of doing it as a graphic novel, which he was very interested in.”
Did you have any trouble finding subjects to interview and participate?
“We partnered with… a mental health professional and so she worked with us in the whole process of finding participants and she was involved in the screening and making sure we were responsible in whom we ended up deciding to include. So we did a large call for applicants… we went through about 150 different outlets. Based on the response, we started to go through a screening process and figure out who in the end the stories would be telling.”
The online interactive for The Next Day reminds me of hypertext fiction – a genre of electronic literature that is interactive, immersive, and categorized by its non-linearity. Do you feel connected to this tradition or genre at all?
“I think I might be peripherally aware of this. You know, it sounds a little bit like the old text adventure stuff – as you’re going through you get the options where to click and then its takes you to the next page.”
Sort of; the genre really started with Eastgate and hypertexts like Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story. You have to click on a word to reveal the next sentence, paragraph, chapter. You keep clicking and eventually circle around, but then you have to look for the rest of the story. It’s never really done. But you develop apathy too, just clicking to find new material.
“You know, it’s a really pioneering time on the interactive side, where everyone is kind of figuring out how to best tell these stories. [But] I think this is the danger of a lot of tech-based stuff, sometimes it’s about pushing the envelope because you can push the envelope and I feel like it’s interactivity for interactivity’s sake but not for the narrative sake. It ends up becoming so novel that a lot of the time people have ruined the entire narrative experience just in the first 10 minutes in clicking virtually everything… you completely lost your story. It’s like your brain is trying to figure it out but you’re actually getting none of the story. Even with The Next Day, once you’ve started the experience you’re forced to figure out how the interface works by making one decision at the start… and that’s just to make sure that you’re intuitively learning how the interface works. But after you’ve made one decision if you wanted to just sit back and watch it like a movie you wouldn’t need to click on another thing. It will make the decisions for you if you don’t make decisions. It will default by the next logical path. You can steer it if you’d like to, but it’s kind of like being in a river: it’s gonna head downstream no matter what.”
Thanks, Alex! For information on their next project, a graphic memoir by filmmaker Nadia McLaren called Sparrow Song, you can click here.