home June 23, 2020

From Documentary Film to The Future of Storytelling

My name is Booker Sim. I’m a transdisciplinary storyteller and integrated producer with a passion for leveraging documentary practice and social and technological innovation for research, strategy and education. I’ve won Webbys, Cannes Lions, D&ADs and Canadian Screen Awards for my digital projects, and my documentary work has been seen by millions on Canada’s premier current affairs programs and made it into the Netflix top 10 in nearly 50 countries.

This is a detailed look at my experience, process and philosophy. For the quick take, check out my Selected Work portfolio, my transdisciplinary reel, my LinkedIn, scroll through the other categories on my homepage or contact [email protected].

I also encourage you to check out my blog, as the stories behind my projects are often more interesting than the projects themselves!

With all due respect to Malcolm Gladwell and Bruce Lee, in our age of convergence culture and accelerated change, forget investing 10,000 hours mastering a single old-school métier. Tomorrow’s storytellers and innovators need more like 20,000 hours of experience. I’m not suggesting burning out with hustle culture, but rather spending 2000 hours on ten passionate pursuits, including “first-lived experiences,” social causes, creative hobbies, continuing education, career changes, startup pivots, copious (qualitative) research and (field) interviews – and especially multi, cross and transdisciplinary projects with tight budgets too new for genres, disciplines or experts.

While co-creating award-winning interactive documentaries at leading digital studio Jam3 (now experience.monks), they called me “The Swiss Army Knife” – because of the broad and scrappy skill set I learned wearing multiple hats on documentary films and tech startups. A moniker I disliked at the time, but now embrace thanks to my research into MIT’s Co-Creation Studio and Open Documentary Lab in preparation for a course I teach on the future of storytelling with emerging technologies.

Gone are the days when careers and narratives move in straight lines, powered by massive budgets and led by a single “hero,” whether CEO, movie star, director or creative director. The future is non-linear and community-driven, reflected in co-created “assemblages” of meaning, utility and value for all stakeholders involved – using the mediums and methods best suited for the context and message, whether high tech or lo-fi, VR or IRL experiences. Now swap “or” for “and” to co-create community-driven transmedia assemblages, and you’re really cooking with gas.

Tethered by the rigors of a philosophy education and training in journalism and documentary film, my 20,000 hours of non-linear transdisciplinary experience includes: 

• Field producer and Swiss Army knife everything-person for two out of four episodes of OUR LIVING WORLD, an epic 2024 Netflix Originals nature series narrated by Cate Blanchett about the “living network that connects everything on Earth.” Shot in 24 countries over 3 years and featuring my team’s series opening tracking sequence of endangered rhinos sauntering through a Nepali town, the series hit Netflix’s “Top 10” in nearly 50 countries, garnering a thoughtful review in The Guardian.

• Teaching the future of non-fiction storytelling at Seneca Polytechnic, where we explore the theory of Prof. Henry Jenkins (transmedia and fandom), Alex McDowell (world building), Katerina Cizek and the MIT Co-Creation Studio (co-creation and emerging technology), Mandy Rose (interactive documentary/i-docs) and Alan Gershenfeld (games for change). 

• Current researcher, strategist and advisory board member for fandom startup Biom.studio, founded by two former Jam3 colleagues and the head of digital gaming studio ZeMind, builders of the Biom platform, which provides an elegant solution to web3’s UX/UI problem.

• Concurrently with Biom, strategy and production for premier ZeMind client work, like an app for the Unit9-produced launch of Meta’s Quest 3 VR headset with the WALKING DEAD franchise and a case study video that helped a human trafficking awareness VR game secure 2024 Webby and Canadian Screen Award nods.

• Casting, writing, co-directing and co-producing a 2023 brand doc series for Superf.ly about Microsoft users in four countries on three continents, including Ghana, bringing me back to West Africa, where I’ve spent some of the best years of my life filming and traveling, and started my career with the NFB-funded LIBERIA: THE SECRET WAR documentary. This was one of five campaigns I’ve create for Microsoft. 

• Co-writing, directing and/or producing Webby, Cannes Lion, D&AD and Canadian Screen Award-winning interactive documentaries SONS OF GALLIPOLI, CHANGE GOUT and NUCLEAR DISSENT during my four years at digital studio Jam3, along with all award submissions and case study videos for many more interactive winners I did not lead, like the NFB’s Bear 71 VR, along with R&D and brand strategy and production for clients like Google ZOO, the CBC, Disney, Visa, Mozilla and Microsoft.

• Researching, writing, directing and producing global conflict documentaries for Canada’s premier current affairs programs The National and W5 (CTV) for host Alexandre Trudeau, featuring deep, alternative takes on conflicts and crises in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Haiti, Syria and the Horn of Africa, featuring interviews with Robert Kaplan, Noam Chomsky, Gen. Roméo Dallaire and Louise Arbour.

• Co-creating user and fan-centered transmedia about innovation, like my BEYOND THE PELOTON fan-access web series about the Tour de France-winning Cervélo TestTeam, that paved the way for Netflix’s TOUR DE FRANCE: UNCHAINED

• Directing and co-writing a founder’s education series for leading Canadian startup launchpad MaRS, and founder-centric storytelling strategy for numerous startups, including a carbon-neutral vodka distillery developing a state-of-the-art facility to transform Michigan’s dairy waste into aviation fuel with a fraction of the carbon emissions of conventional fuel, (together with leading cultural strategist Doug Cameron, founder of DCX.NYC Ad Age Agency of the Year).

• As CMO of my own MaRS-funded music tech startup Legitmix, I led lean methodology “problem space” market research, user testing, artist onboarding, PR and product launches with music industry leaders Biz3, Mad Decent, Fools Gold and Mass Appeal, featuring artists Diplo, El-p, Danny Brown and Pusha-T. All of which generated tremendous buzz in Billboard, Pitchfork, Complex, Bloomberg, The Village Voice, The Toronto Star, The Chicago Reader, The Fader, The Verge, MTV, Quartz, the MIT Technology Review, and called one of the “coolest startups in NYC” by Time Out New York

• Integrated production for Makers.to on TV commercials, interactive installations, branded music videos, fashion shoots, storytelling and content strategy for innovative nonprofits and startups, and a live-streamed global product launch in over a dozen languages – mostly last minute on tight budgets, for projects other Makers producers wouldn’t touch, often jumping in to direct or ghost direct in support of a creative director. 

• Developing deep and lasting relationships from decades immersed in the New York music scene, from the late 1990s “thug rap” era of Mobb Deep and Capone-N-Noreaga (as documented in my underground classic TRAGEDY: THE STORY OF QUEENSBRIDGE), to the Williamsburg indie rock scene of the early 2000s, to working with Mass Appeal, Turntable Lab, Giant Step, and Fools Gold Records for my Brooklyn-based Legitmix music-tech startup, to staying up with DJs and promoters at Brooklyn’s hottest clubs and hip-hop and urban music industry friends around the world.

• And threading it all together, an honours degree in philosophy from McGill University (as a top student in the highest-rated undergrad program in North America at the time, with A grades for my Hegel thesis and Heidegger graduate seminars with leading philosopher Charles Taylor), with a lifetime passion for the philosophy of technology carried into my fourth year teaching the future of non-fiction storytelling at Seneca Polytechnic

But what really sets me apart is traveling and filming in over 40 countries, including a half dozen conflict zones, where I learned to quickly understand local contexts through community-centered research and interviews and build trust with strangers with radically different experiences than my own – including trend-setting hood creators, STEM innovators, world-class athletes, world leaders, even child soldiers and the blood-thirsty warlords (like the other Charles Taylor) who manipulate their trauma. And most importantly, regular folk from the communities these “heroes” and “anti-heroes” draw meaning and power from.

Strangers turned co-creators and often lifelong friends who helped me see beyond Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” to Jeff Gomez’s “collective journey“, behind the camera as much as in front of it. Human-centric qualitative research, solving production problems on the fly, and crisis management are now second nature to me, and all about the art of empathy-powered co-creation. 

This blend of co-creation and transdisciplinary methodology is perhaps best articulated by fellow i-doc makers affiliated with MIT’s Co-Creation Studio and Open Documentary Lab, whose work I researched in-depth to prepare for my Seneca class. And thanks to whom I’ve embraced all the Swiss Army tools at my disposal, including: the philosophy of technology (together with phenomenology and assemblage theory); i-doc, transmedia, world building and fandom studies; lean startup, agile and scrum methodologies; documentary research, interview and vérité filming techniques; and, utilizing all of the above, qualitative research and strategy at the nexus of culture and technology. I’m at my best when thrown into projects with steep learning curves, limited resources, needing innovative social and technological approaches – and have me wearing multiple hats, as is this documentary way. 

All this in service of co-creating assemblages that address stakeholder needs and desires, technological innovation and disruption, power, politics and market forces and their effects on our shared Anthropocene – the ultimate collective journey storyworld on which all our lives depend. Admittedly a scope and balance I have yet to achieve in any one project, but as I articulate a process in line with MIT’s Co-Creation Studio, I have a tool kit and a vision to strive for – with those of you up to the challenge!


Selected Work

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