#791: VR Artist Wesley Allsbrook: Pioneering Spatial Comic Book Stories

wesley-allsbrookWesley Allsbrook is an artist, art director, and writer who started as editorial illustrator and comic book creator before working at Oculus Story Studio as the lead artist on Dear Angelica. Allsbrook has been working with Quill since 2015, and she created animation vignettes within Sun Ladies, and recently collaborated with the Washington Post on 12 Seconds of Gunfire focusing on gun violence in America.

Allsbrookwas showing excerpts from Cosmoramarama at the Spatial Realities art show in Santa Monica in October 2018, and I had a chance to catch up with her to talk with her about her journey into VR, how comic books inspire her spatial storytelling, her experiments trompe-l’œil effects in 3D where she creates shallow spaces that seem deep, the open problem of closed licensing of art creating from VR art programs, future projects exploring consent of objects and the architecture of illustrated poetry spread out through spaces, and some of her thoughts on the state of the VR industry.


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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So continuing on on my series of talking to VR artists about their process, I talked to Wesley Alsbrook, who is a Quill artist. She was a lead artist on Dear Angelica, premiered at Sundance 2017. She had a lot of animation that was in Sun Ladies that was premiering at Sundance 2018. And then she had a piece that I saw at Tribeca 2019. It was called 12 Seconds of Gunfire, the true story of a school shooting that was produced in collaboration with Washington Post. So I had a chance to see some of her work that she's been working on called Cosmo Rama Rama. It was showing at the Special Realities Art Show in Los Angeles, curated by Jesse Damiani. And so I had a chance just to talk to her about her journey into making specialized art and some of the things that she's thinking about, some of the issues she's concerned about, some of the things she wants to make in the future, and some of her thoughts on the overall VR industry as a whole. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Wesley happened on Friday, October 11th, 2018 at the Spatial Realities Art Show in Santa Monica, California. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:25.384] Wesley Allsbrook: My name is Wesley Alsbrook. I am an artist, an art director, and a writer. Right now in VR, I'm working on a series called Cosmorama, and I've been working with the Washington Post for the past year on a piece about gun violence.

[00:01:40.702] Kent Bye: Great. So maybe you could tell me a bit about your journey of getting into virtual reality art.

[00:01:46.295] Wesley Allsbrook: I was mostly an editorial illustrator for about almost 10 years, living and working in New York and freelancing. And I had just sold my first comic book when Story Studio asked me to come out and do some concept art for Dear Angelica.

[00:02:04.840] Kent Bye: Right. And so you've done a lot of time in virtual reality in terms of doing spatialized art in 3D. What do you think that has done to your brain?

[00:02:15.483] Wesley Allsbrook: I think my memory's not so good. Maybe that's just kind of getting older, but sometimes you know how you have that thing, you have potentially like architectural memory where you still remember the Krebs cycle because you remember the way that it looked in your high school notes and you remember the desk you were sitting at and you remember the way the board looked and what season it was. And so maybe occupying non-contiguous spaces is not so great for me, but I think it's definitely made me better at drawing and sculpture too.

[00:02:44.940] Kent Bye: Well, it's interesting that you mention that because Dear Angelica seemed to be a piece that was all about memory and finding ways that you could use these strokes to be able to represent memory. So maybe you could talk about that process of representing memories in that piece.

[00:03:00.291] Wesley Allsbrook: I feel like that's the tagline for the piece, but that wasn't... I mean, that was the intention. The intention was to kind of slip in and out of memories and make a piece that was a comic and that was also a stream of consciousness and, I don't know, could do a lot of that work. I mean, for me, the piece was about the real difference between what you see in media and the way that real life is and how, I don't know, like real life can be like a little bit disappointing and, you know, media can save your life. But for me, it was less about kind of faithfully representing memory than making an effective comic.

[00:03:34.323] Kent Bye: Interesting. Well, we're here in Los Angeles at the Spatial Reality Show, and you have a couple of pieces here. Maybe you could tell me a bit about the work that you're showing here.

[00:03:44.487] Wesley Allsbrook: So, these are kind of out-of-context pieces that are taken from the show called Cosmo-Rama-Rama. Cosmo-Rama-Rama was originally at this gallery called Hands Gallery in Oakland, and the goal was to create a VR space and then to create works based on that VR space, or in fact, directly taken from that space. and to potentially sell them. And the reason that I want to do that is that if you want to own or license or profit in any way from work that you make in Quill or Medium or Tilt Brush without a commercial license, you need to be going to the legal teams at either Facebook or Google. And so I thought, oh, maybe if I can sell some things illegally, then I can push forward the conversation about artist licensing and maybe not doing work for hire contracts for artists at tech companies. So yeah, the piece looks the way that it looks, which is kind of fantastical and floaty and full of my usual themes because I like Victorian fairy painting. And well, like the reason that we think of fairies the way that we do is because of the Industrial Revolution. Right? Things were changing in terms of the way that people thought about labor. Things were kind of getting mechanized at the same time as people were really moving to cities. And this created a kind of longing for the pastoral and also for the fantastical. And we've had like fairies for like a long time and ideas about how they look. But at the same time, realistic painting was becoming a thing. And so for the first time, you get people imagining Oberyn and Titania from Shakespeare, but giving them realistic human bodies, like really kind of high-res, tactile, full-color humanity. And I think that when I think about my life in tech, I think about how I want to bring these themes into a world that, for me, is a little bit hostile.

[00:05:36.812] Kent Bye: I'm not familiar with the art lineage of this. Is there any particular inspiration that you're drawing from? You said the Victorian. How do you translate that into spatialized VR?

[00:05:47.856] Wesley Allsbrook: Well, I think of the Industrial Revolution as being a little bit like the revolution in tech. And I think of our longing for the tactile as being really intimately related to the way that Inugokia's design will. As I think probably most of your listeners know, Quill was made for the express purpose of making Dear Angelica, and the sort of MVP there was to create an illustration that you could walk through, and it needed to feel human. And for some of the creators of the piece, it did, like Quill, didn't even feel effectively kind of like human enough, like there was a desire for more texture and less of these kind of like watermarks of like working with polys. But I really like taking these old themes and bringing them into a medium that's also, in a way, harkening back to traditional painting.

[00:06:40.838] Kent Bye: Yeah, the thing that was really striking about your piece, relative to other pieces here, but generally of the other art pieces that I've seen, is that it's very dynamic. You have lots of movement, lots of flow, and it just feels like it's alive, in a way. And so maybe you could talk about that process of creating these either streams or dynamic aspects of spatial art.

[00:07:01.488] Wesley Allsbrook: Well, I mean, it looks alive, I think, because of the way that Quill handles its visuals. I think that if I try to take this asset and bring it into Unity or bring it into Unreal, I'm going to need to do a lot of optimizing work to make it both interactive and alive in a game engine. So the way that the piece was built was I made a static asset and then I built myself several layers of maybe 50 frames. I had them loop at 8 frames per second and then I actively drew back into those moving frames.

[00:07:38.532] Kent Bye: Interesting. Yeah, I was actually kind of wondering how you physically would do because there's a lot of movement throughout the entire piece. The other thing that I noticed about the piece is that I've been thinking a lot about architecture and space as I go into virtuality spaces. I do draw this connection between seeing what the overall architecture of a space is and how that forms a memory. And it was interesting how you were able to take what would usually be a perspective line and kind of shrink it in a way that's a little different, but also I found that whenever I was looking around there was something interesting to look at wherever I was looking at and I would be able to kind of move in another place and look and there'd be this artistic intention that I would see like it was very deliberate in different ways. I'm curious what your process is if you like go up and draw one side and then you go to the other side to see how it looks or how you craft that overall architecture of a piece.

[00:08:28.175] Wesley Allsbrook: I mean like that's the nature of a cosmorama. I mean that's the other thing I wanted to say is that I really like bringing trompe-l'oeil effects into painting in actual space. Trompe-l'oeil is an effect where you create space when it does not in fact exist and if you bring that kind of way of painting into virtual reality. You can create shallow spaces that feel really deep. But the way that I like to make my scenes is I block them out at a quarter scale and also gray scale and kind of like recolor throughout to achieve color unity. And I don't know, I mean like anybody who's working in VR, like I'm lucky in that I don't take the headset off. It's not like I'm building on my machine and I put the headset on to make sure everything is okay. I can change the scale of my scene. I can walk around in it. I spend hours in it. I think that making something that's pleasing is using this workflow is not that hard. A lot of people do it.

[00:09:23.191] Kent Bye: You mentioned something that I had never heard of before, which is that if you wanted to sell a piece of art, you had to go get legal approval through either Facebook or Google. Is that because the terms of service doesn't allow artists to be able to own their artwork that they make in these software programs?

[00:09:37.247] Wesley Allsbrook: Yeah, so there's not been anybody cracking down on this because it's more important to have people using VR than it is to police their use of it. But, like, there's no software licensing agreement available to the people who are using these things. Which just means that, you know how, like, you have a subscription to Adobe, you pay them $500 a year to use their creative suite. And in return, you're allowed to use their software, and they don't own anything that you make. We don't have anything like that for VR, and we kind of should.

[00:10:08.892] Kent Bye: So I've never read the terms of service, but they're actually taking ownership of everything you create?

[00:10:14.779] Wesley Allsbrook: Yeah.

[00:10:16.201] Kent Bye: That's really shitty.

[00:10:17.761] Wesley Allsbrook: Well, I think that, I don't know, it's the reason that a commercial license exists for Tilt Brush. You have to kind of like ask for it and pay for it. It's actually, it's affordable. But I think that it's just a thing that in the process of building the tool may not have been really thought of, but may in the future be potentially advantageous to companies like Facebook because you've just got a bunch of users making passive asset libraries for these giant companies and Yeah, it's not so cool. But I think that if there are more users for things like Quill and Medium, then we'll work something like this out. Because so many people are using them, and I think it would be a great disappointment for them to have their display of their assets policed by a company like Facebook or like Google.

[00:11:08.217] Kent Bye: Well, this is the first time that I've been to a VR art show, and I've seen on the placard, like, a price to buy a VR piece. Like, what does that mean to buy a piece of art in VR?

[00:11:18.305] Wesley Allsbrook: Well, I think that really kind of depends. A lot of people right now are working to protect digital assets with things like blockchain, which means that, like, you could keep track of the sale of the piece, and you could also, as the artist, potentially benefit from the sale of that work. Like right now, if I sell you a piece of VR art as if you share it with anybody, your art may potentially lose value if we take conventional art business practice kind of into account. But I hope that the internet can change the way that we orient around art and around intellectual property. Right now, if you buy this piece, like it's priced for the number of hours that I put in plus the gallery. And like, I feel like most things here are pretty reasonable as far as art goes, but the context is so kind of other that it may cause people to balk.

[00:12:08.948] Kent Bye: Well, there's so many logistics that come to mind, like you kind of have to own a VR hardware, you have to own the PC, and then, like, have you been able to sell a piece of VR art and, like, deal with all those logistics and figure out a way to actually give that piece of art over to somebody?

[00:12:24.408] Wesley Allsbrook: I've only really done that in the context of commercial clients. I have sold art that was created in VR and then cast in bronze, but as far as selling a digital asset alone, that's only really kind of happened when working with a client like Porsche or Discovery or whatever. And granted, like, not with Discovery, because that was Tilt Brush, but with Porsche, that was illegal. And the post work, that's probably illegal, too. But, you know,

[00:12:54.378] Kent Bye: It's like a new era. It's a wild west. It feels like we should be pushing those boundaries. I mean, I would be all for getting it out there.

[00:13:01.183] Wesley Allsbrook: Yeah, and let me be clear. The Quill team actually helped me with the work that I'm currently doing for the post. We had some issues with exporting files larger than two gigs. And we worked with them actively to be able to do bug fixes. So, you know, I really can't blame the Quill team itself or Facebook Spaces itself for this licensing issue. I just think it's a thing that hasn't been considered and, you know, could be.

[00:13:33.441] Kent Bye: Well, for you, what do you personally want to experience in VR?

[00:13:38.989] Wesley Allsbrook: Uh, depends. I mean, more direct VR creation tools. Other than that, like, I'm a big fan of the walking simulator. I really like environments that seem vast with a lerp. And that's like all I really want. I don't get sick in the headset, so it really kind of doesn't matter how awful the lerp is. I'll be fine. I was just talking with a friend. I really would like to build a sex house in VR. That's kind of an environment where everything has a sense of its own sort of like erotic threshold and only by playing the game can the map expand.

[00:14:17.473] Kent Bye: So... How do you play the game?

[00:14:19.654] Wesley Allsbrook: I don't know. Why are you asking me to explain my mechanics in this?

[00:14:24.018] Kent Bye: I'm trying to get a sense of what it means to play a game in a sex house. It's very provocative. I think a lot of people wonder what that means.

[00:14:29.809] Wesley Allsbrook: I think it means that you will learn what an object's consent threshold is through interactions that involve proximity and manipulation with things like touch controllers.

[00:14:43.097] Kent Bye: Oh, interesting. That's very provocative.

[00:14:45.539] Wesley Allsbrook: Thank you.

[00:14:49.340] Kent Bye: So for you, are there any things you're trying to explore, questions you're trying to answer in your work in terms of things that get you excited and to, I guess, stress test or do experiments to see what's possible?

[00:15:01.825] Wesley Allsbrook: I mean, everybody wants to do something with interactivity and co-presence. Like, that's a given. Personally, I really like the idea of exploring graphic design in a space where the graphic design doesn't refer to anything. I mean, the way that we have designed letters, to an extent, always refers to the format of print or before print, you know, like illuminated texts. And, you know, if we don't have a webpage, if we don't have A box that we need to fit text in. What are we going to build? And can we write illustrated poetry? So, not a lot of people are really super into that, but I like it. I like walking around words.

[00:15:45.837] Kent Bye: Oh, so, yeah, because I think Dear Angelica has a lot of words, and I found that, like, when I read in VR, it sort of puts me in a left-brain space. I've been thinking a lot about Chinese language, of how the characters are very visual, and that they're put into context. I feel like that's an interesting concept to be able to translate those words and concepts into spatialized objects that are then put into a context relatively to each other in a more 3D space. And then is there a natural language that can come out of that? And so there's also this process of translating space that's around you into emotion. And so it could be a lot more abstract. But when you think about poetry, think about different ways to use the medium in a nonverbal way, but to communicate this kind of visual poetry.

[00:16:32.599] Wesley Allsbrook: Yeah, I mean like think about, format is so important and structure is so important to the way that you build poems and also to the way that you build literature. And this is like a super obvious example, but you know like imagine an E.E. Cummings poem as a building. Because if you put words in space, you would actually be able to control the timing at which a reader arrived at your words with really true intentionality. Because if you're working with space, you're working with time. So I don't even really like E.E. Cummings, but I like that idea.

[00:17:07.287] Kent Bye: Interesting. Yeah, I I guess that's a question for you is like this translation of space into meaning like do you feel like there's either systems that do that or like is it artists intent you're projecting your intention of what you mean because there's a certain amount of abstraction of what these objects mean and that as you walk into a place you don't always know the context or the larger intention this seems like what you said is that this is being taken out of a context and so that maybe if I saw the full context, I'd be able to understand the narrative of some of these pieces, but what that process is of translating space into meaning.

[00:17:42.029] Wesley Allsbrook: That's kind of a broad question. That's something that like, I mean, if you want metaphors for systems that work that way, I mean, look at the transit system. Look at the way that restaurants are set up, right? Like their design has kind of like an inherent kind of gameplay element and you're meant to arrive at each location at a specific time and to spend a specific amount of time in each location. Some people even design their chairs to be not that comfortable so people don't sit around. And so I think that all of the spaces that we occupy are designed more or less to control a user's time in them. And, you know, like some users break that, like in any video game, right? But I don't know. I think that it wouldn't be that hard to stage words in an architectural way that would cause an individual to arrive at them at the intended time and at least control, intend, or interpretation to an extent. I mean, as you know, with this medium, intent is relevant only to a point. Authorial control is important only to a point. You need to leave space for your viewer.

[00:18:50.956] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think is the ultimate potential of virtual reality, and what it might be able to enable?

[00:19:00.060] Wesley Allsbrook: I don't know. I feel like I'm meant to be inspiring, and I'm not that. VR often doesn't inspire me. It mostly depresses me. And... Why is that? Well, just because... I think because of the way that people think about me. I'm really aware of the way that people think about my own career trajectory and the way that people talk about VR and the enthusiasm for VR. And it all has really not very much to do with how it is made and the people who make it. It feels uninformed and focused on the wrong things. The community is totally gross. And, you know, also spending a lot of time in a headset is not super good for you. I like doing other things. I don't just do VR. And so, I don't know. I'm not going to be the person who's going to talk about training doctors or firefighters or helping babies meditate. I don't know. I mean, I guess helping people with their trauma would be a cool thing. For me, I just want the opportunity to make work for specific individuals, like the space that I made for this show. I want to be able to make a piece like this for just one person and for maybe that to be my life. I would love for anybody to want to make any of the things that I want to make. I would love for the space to be less polarized, either about games or about this kind of self-aggrandizing attitude about, like, empathy and the great transcendental truth. Like, talking about that shit makes me want to kill myself. That would be fun to watch on Twitch. But, yeah, so, yeah, I don't know.

[00:20:54.091] Kent Bye: You I have a lot of opinions on the the way that VR is being progressed and I wonder if that's like the thing that it needs in order to like Advance the medium and that it's meeting it where people are at but this being here at this particular spatial reality art show is a huge breath of fresh air just to be able to see these pieces that are like interesting that are not just on the wave shooter that actually have some thought and intention or just like weird or different or make me think about the world in a new way, but that's certainly not what most people in the VR industry are thinking about. So when you say that the VR community is gross, what do you mean by that?

[00:21:31.656] Wesley Allsbrook: I mean, I think I mean like full of people who are gonna touch your lower back or demean you or talk to you about all of the great things that they want to accomplish for humanity when really they just want you to sit in a chair, do the job till it's done, pay you a fixed fee, and then get lost.

[00:21:51.931] Kent Bye: Wow. So I just feel like that's such a bummer to end on. So I don't know if there's anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to either me or the VR community?

[00:22:03.757] Wesley Allsbrook: I don't know. That is a bummer to end on. I am really enthusiastic about the people that I have met since leaving Story Studio. You find these little enclaves of engineers just making work for themselves or making work with their friends and using each other's code. working on each other's decks, and some of the work goes somewhere and some of the work doesn't. LA has a community like that called Glitch City. Like, I have met some amazing, some truly amazing engineers working in this space. Like, I'm lucky that I got to work with one of them once. That was a complete and total anomaly. having access to someone like Inigo, and Ian, and Chris, and Chris, and those people, understanding what an engineer could do, and being able to have someone give their power like that to me, that was amazing. And I've been finding more people like that who actually do want to make the kind of stuff I want to make around here. So I don't know. The more people who are in VR, the more friends I have.

[00:23:03.296] Kent Bye: Awesome. Great. Well, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast. So thank you.

[00:23:09.458] Wesley Allsbrook: Yeah, yeah. Chaturanga.

[00:23:13.940] Kent Bye: So that was Wesley Allsbrook. She's an artist, art director and writer who worked on Dear Angelica, The Sun Ladies and 12 Seconds of Gunfire, The True Story of a School Shooting with the Washington Post. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, Well, Wesley spent a number of years working at Oculus Story Studio and didn't seem like that she had necessarily the most fond memories of her time at Facebook or there's just some other aspects about the overall VR industry that she's not the biggest fan of. And I've heard that from other artists as well. They love the medium of virtual reality, but there's other aspects of the virtual reality industry that they just find a little bit gross or disgusting or repulsive. But some of the different aspects of what Wesley is talking about here within this conversation is that Well, she's got this training as a comic book artist. She's illustrator. And so her style is very painterly. It's like almost like painting in 3D. And so it's got this kind of blend of illustration with painting. And it's very distinct style, whether it's in the Dear Angelica or Sun Ladies or in the 12 Seconds of Gunfire. which I had a chance to see the 12 seconds of gunfire at Tribeca. And it's a really emotional story. I think it's super powerful, really well done, super impressed with how that project turned out. And there seemed to be like this other issue of licensing and just like the terms of service and not having like a clear ownership of content that you're creating. I think people that may be using Tilt Brush or Oculus Medium or Quill, let me just have the assumption that whatever you make is yours, but doesn't necessarily sound like the licensing has been created in such a way that is just giving ownership over to the artists and the creators, which definitely does seem like a problem. And so it sounds like she was explicitly calling out that a lot of the work that she was doing was explicitly illegal because she didn't have a license or approval to be able to do it. And it's not like Facebook is trying to shut her down or shut any of the individual artists down. But it does definitely seem like a problem that the way that this content licensing is set up, that it isn't just allowing people to create what they want and to own their own content. So I'm glad that she's at least bringing some awareness to that issue because up to that point I hadn't been aware of it at all. And you know the piece that she was showing at the spatial realities, the Cosmo Rama Rama, there was different elements of this world that was super surreal and I love the amount of dynamic movement and flow. but there was also this kind of playing with perspective in weird and interesting ways. She was talking about this trompe l'oeil effect where you're trying to really give depth. It's like an optical illusion where you paint things in a way that actually looks like it's 3D, but using some of those optical illusions to be able to actually spatially make that illusion that it actually has more depth than it actually does because you're able to make it shallow but be able to give this sense of vastness and It was really interesting to see how she was playing with that in this piece as a Cosmo Rama Rama. It was something that I hadn't seen many other people do before and it was definitely very distinct and glad that she called it out because I'm not sure if I necessarily would have been able to identify a phrase or term that that's what she was actually doing. There was something about that Cosmo Rama Rama piece that it did look just interesting from a lot of different perspectives, a lot of different angles. And you could really tell that this wasn't a piece of art that was only meant to be experienced from one perspective, but to really kind of move around and locomote. And at the spatial reality show, that was another interesting thing about it was that they kind of had the computers there with the headset and almost like a certain amount of. fluency where there was no docents. You just like walk up and put on the headset and then kind of be expected to start to use the controllers and navigate around a little bit. And so it was nice to see this gallery showing just to see in the future, once people just have a certain amount of fluency with watching virtuality experiences, that it is a little bit more self-directed and you don't need to necessarily have docents that are there helping you get in and out of virtual reality. So, that's all that I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoyed the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listeners-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon your donations in order to continue to bring you this coverage. And I just wanted to give a quick shout out to my patrons and for everybody that voted on the different topics that had laid out, looking at artists and their process was the number one thing that was voted on for this first batch of a bulk release of episodes on the voices of VR podcast. And so if you want to be participating in the next round of voting and just become a part of the dialogue and discussion and. Yeah, just to help support this work, not only for yourself, but for the entire virtual reality community. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices in VR. Thanks for listening.

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