KCdigiSTORY Brings Animation Back to Town

Ron Green, executive director of the Digital Storytelling Center of Kansas City, has big plans to make the city an epicenter of animated and digital storytelling.

Story by Mike Harrington

Ron Green is a man with a mission. After a 32-year career with Hallmark Cards, Green is now the executive director of the nonprofit Digital Storytelling Center of Kansas City (KCdigiSTORY Center)—and has turned his attention from creating corporate animation solutions to teaching students of all ages how to tell stories using animation and digital technology.

KCDigiSTORY’s stated vision is to make the Kansas City area a center of animation and digital storytelling. “I would love to see Kansas City, the cradle of American animation, recapture the nation’s attention as a center for animation,” says Green, who partnered with Hallmark, the University of Missouri, local community colleges and area development agencies to establish the DigiSTORYCenter. Green’s goal is to “make our region the Hollywood of short, digital narrative production.”

If current plans stay on track, the KCdigiSTORY Center will move into Kansas City’s storied Laugh-O-Gram studio in January 2018 as a tenant of the McConahay Building, now owned by another nonprofit group called Thank You Walt Disney, which is restoring the historic structure. Located on the second floor of the building, Laugh-O-Gram was a short-lived film studio that played a role in the early years of animation. It was home to many of the pioneers of animation, brought there by Walt Disney and his partner Ub Iwerks, with the inspiration to create Mickey Mouse.

In the spirit of Laugh-O-Gram, Green says he takes a “diapers to diplomas” strategy for teaching animation. Throughout the summer he worked with a team of filmmakers at the center on a digital storytelling workshop for kids.

“In 2014 we offered a stop-motion animation workshop that went very well,” he says. “This year I recruited Ken Hinson to help lead a video production workshop. Ken has been a figure in Kansas City media since he started his radio career in the 70s. He shared his expertise in video with the kids as we helped them produce a video called Operation Breakthrough: Our Story, Our Way.”

Green says it has been especially rewarding watching kids get excited about how they could combine their photos, videos, interviews and voiceovers to create a video that shared their perspective on the Operation Breakthrough experience.

“Because of time limitations, we focused on the preproduction and production phases,” he explains. “Our next challenge for the O.B. kids is to learn about video editing and post-production—where the ‘magic’ happens.”

In September, DigiSTORY launched the new KCdigiPros program, which will provide workshops, presentations, forums and other learning events for digital media professionals in the KC metro area. It will also help professionals from related industries or print industries that recognize their need to “go digital,’ Green says, citing as an example the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), which is conducting a comprehensive study of the need for publication editors to gain digital media skills.

“[The ASBPE’s] conclusion was that even as their titles plunge into the digital space, B2B (business-to-business) editors have been left largely to their own devices to gain the skills necessary to do their jobs across platforms,” Green says.

Where it all started—and where it’s going

The idea for DigiStory started in 2010 when Green helped form a “skunkworks” group of Hallmark leaders that recognized the need for the company to build up its capacity to produce animations, stop-motions and video productions.

“Hallmark’s e-greetings were creating greater demand for those talents and Hallmark Licensing was starting to produce made-for-TV animations (such as “Hoops & YoYo Ruin Christmas”) and stop-motion animation (such as “Jingle All the Way”).  Through this effort I saw the need for Hallmark and Kansas City to keep more of this type of production work here at home,” he says.

While at Hallmark, Green created the company’s Creative University program and led it for 13 years, providing a wide range of technical training solutions for more than 1,400 creative professionals.

“I had already begun thinking that upon retirement I might be interested in starting a nonprofit to help small digital media firms provide digital media training for their employees,” he says. “It was at that point that I had a ‘magic moment’ that sealed my post-Hallmark future.”

Ron Green

Having lunch at Succotash with Gary Sage, a seasoned economic development pro from the Kansas City Economic Development Corp., Green shared his nonprofit idea with Sage, who  recommended locating the center in the old Laugh-O-Gram building near 31st & Troost.

“I loved that idea,” Green says. “And when I learned that the building was the training ground for several animation pioneers in addition to Walt Disney, I knew that the building would have high symbolic value for a digital media training program.”

Green then connected with Butch Rigby and Dan Viets, the leaders of the Thank You Walt Disney nonprofit that owns the building to get the wheels turning.

“We have been cooperating on future plans for the building ever since,” Green says. “My focus has been on forming our KCdigiSTORY non-profit and building up our programs for future placement in that building. I now have a great board of directors and team of volunteers to help grow the organization.”

According to Green, Kansas City has 484 firms related to the digital storytelling industry, but only a handful of these are large enough to have a training staff or even a single fulltime trainer. And so DigiSTORY’s plan is to listen to these firms and professionals and help them fill the development gaps they are facing.

“In some cases this might be skills in a new area of digital media,” Green says. “In other cases they may need to know more about new trends or new technologies in digital media. I met with the owner of a highly esteemed KC media studio and asked how we could possibly help their staff since they are already at the top of their game in digital media. The owner responded, ‘We need better story development skills.’ So we are bringing in Michael Hauge, a highly regarded Hollywood script consultant, to conduct a one-day workshop on October 28th.”

As for the diplomas aspect of Green’s “diapers to diplomas” program, he says DigiSTORY is working to establish a Regional Digital Media Training Network among regional colleges and universities.

“Nine area colleges have expressed interest in offering credit and non-credit programs in digital media through a Laugh-O-Gram based consortium,” Green says. “Each of these programs has unique strength areas that other schools can tap into. Collectively this could be one of the best comprehensive programs in digital media and film in the country. One of these schools, the University of Missouri, starts offering a new four-year degree in digital storytelling this fall.”

So where does Green go from here? He says DigiSTORY has far too many other programs to grow and expand before they’re ready to consider any form of a fulltime school.

“Our first priority is to develop a comprehensive K-12 digital storytelling curriculum that meets Common Core and International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) standards,” he says. “We hope to develop this in partnership with the eMINTS National Center, a highly respected tech-education research and development group. We hope to find grant funding to support this curriculum development. Once this is in place, we will offer certification training to teachers and nonprofit program leaders who want to establish digital storytelling programs in their schools and organizations.”