June 4, 2022

Alumni Spotlight: Ryan Cenicola '19

By Olivia Kuhn

In a world where technology is always evolving, it seems that imagination can transcend all limits to become reality. Ryan Cenicola ’19 finds opportunity in the exciting and rapidly changing medium of transmedia storytelling. Ryan has a passion for merging storytelling with technological innovation to create immersive story experiences accessible to everyone.

A year after graduating from USC’s Media Arts and Practice program, Ryan founded Cenima Studios, which specializes in the development and production of transmedia story experiences with brands working with emerging technologies such as augmented reality, virtual reality, virtual environments, and web3. Ryan joins us to talk about his company, their recent work with Coachella 2022, and what makes transmedia storytelling meaningful. 

You graduated from SCA’s Media Arts and Practice program. How did your studies prepare you as a storyteller and innovator? 

MA+P shaped my understanding of the relationship between storytelling and technology. Our professors emphasized the principles of great stories and gave us the freedom to explore the latest technologies and dig deeper into the ones that piqued our interest. 

The most important skill I learned while at MA+P was the ability to quickly learn the ins-and-outs of a new technology and incorporate it into my practice. We were taught how to view technology from first principles, to break it down into its bits and atoms, and to use those bits as raw material to craft compelling stories in unique ways. The tools available to us have developed so much since my time as a student, but this methodology has allowed Cenima Studios to remain innovative and grounded. 

In 2020, you founded Cenima Studios. What inspired you to create a company merging technology and storytelling? 

The history of storytelling is defined by advancements in technology. Working at this intersection is fun because it requires balancing the timeless art of storytelling with the risks associated with new technologies. It is a delicate dance where the story pushes the technology and the technology inspires the story.  

We want an experience to feel like magic - one that is meaningful and emotionally immersive - without calling attention to the use of the technology. To get there requires a lot of tinkering, building, testing, and trial & error. Cenima Studios is how we turn that challenge into a daily practice, where we can be students of story and collaborate on how to use innovative technology to create meaningful experiences in ways never seen before. 

What narrative mediums does your company specialize in? To you, how do these mediums pose unique ways to tell stories? 

We are lucky to live in an age of rapid technological development and to have so many platforms to experiment with as creators. With this reality comes a unique opportunity - instead of focusing on one medium at a time, we can blend many mediums together under one cohesive story. This is the transmedia storytelling approach that Cenima Studios specializes in - it helps us meet the audience where they most natively experience content and leverage that familiarity to encourage participation with newer mediums like augmented reality, virtual reality, NFTs and more. 

As a part of the Coachella Innovation team, we were fortunate to partner this year with Meta, Avonni Global, and creators from around the world to build over 20 augmented reality (AR) experiences for the festival. Rather than create 20 isolated experiences, each experience served as a plot point in our larger narrative. We spent months developing a story world that would become the Coachellaverse - an additional layer of reality filled with the creativity and artistry that makes Coachella so special.  

New platforms like AR are inspiring, but they are also unfamiliar for a large portion of modern audiences. Leveraging more familiar forms, we created a three-part video series detailing the origins of the Coachellaverse and timed the release of each video with the release of an accompanying AR experience. By tapping these new mediums, fans had agency to experience and actively explore our story. That’s the magic of modern storytelling, and it was successful in driving engagement.  

How does collaboration with other storytellers play a role in your work? 

Collaboration is key and, in my opinion, the most rewarding part of our work as storytellers. The relationships that develop through the collaborative process are what bring joy to the daily challenge of creating something beautiful. A talented, driven, and optimistic team is critical to solve the complex problems that constantly emerge with new technologies. 

You recently worked with Coachella this year on numerous projects, one being Flume’s augmented reality concert live stream with Epic Games. What was your creative process of merging live music with augmented reality? 

One of our primary goals on the Coachella Innovation team is to provide artists with the best tools for creative expression, and we believe that augmented reality is the next great canvas for live performance. AR allows artists to bring their imagination to life beyond the confines of physical space and production capabilities. We worked with an incredible team of designers and technologists from All of it Now, Push & Pull, Six Degrees, Epic Games, and YouTube to leverage the recent developments in real-time 3D technology and allow Flume to take the story of his performance to new places

It was pretty amazing to see the reaction from fans watching online as they were trying to figure out what they were seeing. “Could people really see a giant parrot above the stage?” “Was it inflatable, or an additional screen?” That is a sign we did a good job -  the technology felt like magic. It not only looked real physically through occlusion, tracking, and high quality assets, but it fit in with the larger story that Flume, Jonathan Zawada, and the rest of his creative team were trying to tell. We never want to break that immersion - we instead want to use technology to expand an artist’s toolkit and allow them to better connect with their fans both at the festival and on the livestream. As our physical and digital lives converge, and as artists continue to experiment with virtual platforms, AR will become an integral part of live performance. 

You also helped Coachella develop their first NFT program. How was working with NFTs similar (or different) than your previous work? 

No matter the technology, the story always comes first. NFTs are an exciting new tool that allows for traceable ownership across physical-digital worlds. We wanted the NFT program to feel native to the Coachella story by offering utility that improves the guest’s festival experience and by designing creative assets that match the festival aesthetic. 

Each attendee was able to claim a free NFT seed that serves as a virtual keepsake and a key to unlock festival upgrades. At the festival, guests could use their NFT to redeem limited edition T-Shirts, food vouchers, and dedicated entry lines. A small selection of NFT seeds transformed into rare flowers that could be redeemed for premium benefits like VIP upgrades and passes for next year’s festival, adding a bit of fun to the story. 

We saw success in this program because we thought so much about how to fit this technology into the story of the show, not the other way around. We built a custom program from the ground up in a way that spoke to the festival audience and improved their experience with the help of new technology. 

Additionally, you worked on Coachella’s Fortnite collaboration. How was your experience of entering the gaming space? 

Gaming is the fastest growing and most exciting platform for storytelling today. “Gaming” can mean many things, but we like to describe it as a live, concurrent, open virtual environment where users come to play, socialize, and experience creativity together with their friends. It is an active form of storytelling, where users have agency over their experience and where no two journeys are alike. 

A music festival is a lot like this. Fans come to the festival and can explore an open field filled with diverse creative experiences. They can interact with this creativity and have agency over their journey. Within a virtual environment, we can take users to places and perform actions not possible in the physical world. We can travel to new planets, defy the laws of physics, become a giant version of ourselves - all while feeling immersed and maintaining that sense of presence that is key to a festival experience. Gaming is a natural platform on which to scale the festival experience to a global, digital audience. 

How do you stay inspired as an innovator in transmedia? Are there any challenges you have faced in creating transmedia story experiences? 

It is easy to stay inspired when technological platforms develop at such a rapid pace, giving us more tools to play with each day. It’s also easy to get caught up in the “always-on” aspect of modern technology. Sometimes a long walk and some great music are just the right recipe to re-energize creativity. 

A constant challenge is the trap of relying too much on the spectacle of the technology and not enough on the story. This is where many experiences using novel technology stumble - they are incredible at exemplifying technical capabilities, but are bite-sized, ephemeral experiences that fail to consider the audience’s emotional journey. They don’t try to tell a story or to add to a larger narrative. That’s what really sticks with you - when you can sense the artistic direction of a work and are immersed in it emotionally. The good news is that we have thousands of years of rich, multidisciplinary storytelling that we can draw from to craft great stories on new platforms. MA+P really ingrained the importance of this in me. 

In what ways do you see interactive media evolving in the future? Where do you see Cenima Studios in the future? 

Interactive media is in a constant state of evolution. As our physical and virtual lives become more indistinguishable, we will arrive as ourselves to diverse story experiences that span across multiple points of the reality spectrum.  

Cenima Studios will continue to be a growing community of creative technologists, multidisciplinary artists, and fans of great art who can uniquely spot the connections between novel technology and storytelling. 

We want to work alongside creative brands and beloved IP to craft transmedia experiences that give audiences a fresh perspective on their favorite stories. We will leverage our narrative experience and optimism about the future of technology to take fans to far away places, offer surprising encounters with a beloved character, or provide the chance to play out their own journey within a vast story universe.  

What advice would you offer to those interested in developing and creating transmedia story experiences? 

Continue to be a student of great stories in all forms. The classical myths, the prominent streaming shows, immersive themed entertainment. Those fundamental principles don’t change. Take the time to investigate what makes them great. Then, create stories that feel authentic to you, in the forms you find most interesting. Share them with your friends, and even the world.  

Cut through the buzz, noise, hype, and negativity surrounding new technologies and investigate them at a foundational level. "How can I bend this to convey meaning, to communicate what I have to say?" Trust yourself, make something beautiful, and enjoy the ride! 

If you are interested in collaborating with Cenima Studios, inquiries can be sent to ryan@cenimastudios.com.