Taking Animation in VR to the Next Level: Conversations with Mike Khoury & Jamil Mehdaoui

Created and animated by Nick Ladd, 2018.

If you’re a virtual reality enthusiast, you might already be familiar with programs such as Tilt Brush, Quill, MasterpieceVR, Medium, etc., that allow VR aficionados to paint and/or sculpt in a three dimensional space. It’s rad!

There’s more: with recent tech development you can now animate VR paintings and create your own cartoons/animations, from sketching to camera rendering, 100% inside VR. At this moment programs such as AnimVR (closed-beta, free), Quill (free), and Tvori (Early access on Steam, $19.99) offer animation features inside VR. If you are unsure what I’m talking about, check out the video below. Everything you will see, from the cityscape, spaceships, people, to the lighting, have been created and animated inside VR, including the video itself.

“VR brings you back to a connectedness that is more human than we are used to.” M. Khoury
Virtual Animation Facebook group page

I encourage you to check out the Facebook group Virtual Animation to see more works like this one. There you will find gems by Goro Fujita, Mike Khoury, Nick Ladd, Martin Nebelong, Matt Schaefer, Jamil Mehdaoui, and many emerging talents. Or even better, download Quill to see for yourself. Within a few minutes, you will create your first animated scenes. As claimed by Facebook, Goro Fujita, one of their VR resident artists, was “able to complete his animated short film Beyond the Fence in just three weeks, an undertaking that could have lasted over a year with traditional 3D animation software.” That opens up eleven months and a week to devote to other awesome projects.

I recently met with amazing artists and Quill masters Mike Khoury and Jamil Mehdaoui. We talked about VR, animation in VR, and the future of the arts in the digital age. Find below some excerpts of our conversations.

Mike Khoury, Feb 2018

Mike Khoury is artist at Facebook Social VR and a VR painting/sculpting master based in Oakland, California. He spends a lot of time in VR creating the future classics of virtual animation.

Alex: What excites you the most in VR right now?

Mike: I’ve been really fascinated with Quill in a lot of ways and for very special reasons. On the other hand, I’m blown away by programs like Gravity Sketch or Medium that are allowing the users to do design in traditional ways while using super powers. Gravity Sketch by example allows you to visualize a car concept, or a house, or something on an immense scale in a way you could never have pre-visualized before without spending a lot of time and money. Designers can now go through hundreds of ideas at a very high level, to a degree they could never do before. It’s almost like when that lidar satellite technology was discovered. Suddenly these anthropologists that were going out in the field and doing archaeology by digging up ruins could scan the whole area in ten minutes. I think that designers are going to have these super powers and be able to visualize things really quickly, with stakeholders — that’s the important part — so they can include the people that have the money and have them take part in the decision making early in a way that is very powerful, and doesn’t require them to use their imagination so much. As with Quill, you can put together a scene, animate it, and show a director a living/moving storyboard instead of having to constantly redraw little tiny angles. Otherwise you end up making sacrifices because you don’t have time! I feel like when artists will start to use these tools they will be able to open the doors to so many more ideas, and quickly. All of those artists on Artstation by example, they’re really good, and they use Photoshop or 2D tools to visualize a world, or an idea. To me, those people could use Quill or Tilt Brush in amazing and powerful ways. For almost the same amount of effort, they would get a 3D version of what they’re painting. So they can move the camera, get parallax, etc. It’s just mind boggling.

On another note, I think VR is bringing different groups of people together that couldn’t be brought together before, in new ways. That is so exciting to me. There’s a million of different ways to approach the concept of presence that VR brings in such a powerful way. It’s like if we were not exploiting it yet so I’m trying hard to get my friends who are fine artists to use VR because I’m curious of what they would do with it, in their way of working.

“I think VR is bringing different groups of people together that couldn’t be brought together before, in new ways. That is so exciting to me.”
Created and animated by Mike Khoury, 2018.

A: What are your thoughts on sharing VR in art galleries? How does the art world engage with you and how would you ideally like to work with them?

M: I’m really fascinated by this idea of asynchronous galleries where people can put group shows together in ways that have never been put together before. Across space and time. VR, it seems to me, is twisting the whole paradigm of art galleries on its head. One of the gallery people I talked to was saying that a lot of traditional art galleries are having troubles these days in terms of capturing younger people’s attention. Because there is so much more social engagement happening on Instagram and Facebook and other places like that. I have two teenage kids. They’re very social, online, and do all that stuff. They don’t like Facebook of course, because they’re under fifteen years old (and don’t have access to it), but they love the idea of user-made content, sharing, and art. The things they and their friends consume, are each other’s things or YouTube celebrities. The idea of famous people and stardom isn’t that interesting to them as opposed to how to connect with people. My son for example is into graffiti now. It’s cool, there’s a community there and they’re very active online, they have a sort of community of sharing art that I think is interesting. How does VR cross with that? The people in the art galleries, they’re like, How do we bring VR to this market? The people that have the money ask them How do I make money with VR? Another problem we need to figure out is what is this place where artists and curators/directors get to meet. Is it a virtual place? Is it an event? I don’t know.

“What I like to do is to spend my time creating VR content and I would love to have avenues to get it out there.”

Mike’s work can be found online via his Facebook profile.

Jamil Mehdaoui, Feb 2018.

Jamil Mehdaoui is an architect, artist and thinker based in Paris, France, who explores the abstract side of animation in VR. I noticed his mesmerizing work on the Virtual Animation Facebook Group where he posts daily. (Please note this interview was originally conducted in French and transcribed to English).

Alex- What brought you to VR?

Jamil- I’ve been working in architecture and something that always annoyed me is that architecture is an art of representation. The architect creates a project, passes his work to his partners, and loses total control of the project’s direction. Eventually I got frustrated with that and in the mid-nineties I stepped into immaterial architecture and started to create stuff in Second Life, the online virtual world. A few years later, I got into 3D printing and when VR headsets came out I saw the opportunity to revive my work on immaterial art, but also to create environments in a brand-new way where my physical movements would create the space itself. And that’s specifically what I like about Quill. Ultimately, what is of interest to me is to work in a way that takes into account the totality of the space. I started with Medium, but I like to twist stuff too much! I encountered so many great glitches in the early versions of Quill that enabled me to create weird, complex, and incoherent atmospheres, and I really got excited. I also tried Tilt Brush, of course, but I found it too scripted for me. I feel like Tilt Brush restricts me too much, and I find more freedom working with Quill.

“I worked in Quill for a year with this feeling of being a part of a ‘temps suspendu’. Now with animation, spaces will gain an ‘allure naturelle’.”
Created and animated by Jamil Mehdaoui, 2018.

A-Can you tell us a bit about your process? When I look at your work, it sometimes makes me think of Deleuzian concepts such as rhizome, repetition, and variations. Is it something that you would claim?

J-Well, as much as I like to find resonances of the Deleuzian thoughts in spaces in general, I’m not that much into interpreting his thinking in VR. I’m simply trying to create spatial textures. Most of the time I start with a simple line or a movement, and I repeat it, twist it, repeat, etc., and relatively quickly I get lost! I need to do a lot of screen captures, get out of the headset and take a look at them. Suddenly I see things, patterns that I couldn’t see in the headset, and I dive back in VR. Usually after three minutes I’m done and I know where I’m going, but this is a very erratic workflow. In general, I’m convincing myself that I’m simply learning how to draw. I mean, I’ve learned a lot over the past year, and now I know how to quickly set up a spatial texture. Yet sometimes, for example with the work I released yesterday (Feb. 22, 2018), I really wandered. I treaded back and forth until I found the right equilibrium. My final work reflects my enmeshed creative process. Often when I talk to people, it seems like they think that what I’m doing is just random, or that I’m a sort of kinetic artist or engraver of the future. But I don’t really care about it because it’s too early for me to have a signature. It’s not like as if I were in the lineage of something, I’m not a graphic designer, neither an animator. I never did animations. I’m not like these guys that know very well how to animate a bouncing ball and much more stuff! But I worked a lot with Second Life, which was a hyperbolic imitation of reality. So now when I’m in VR, I keep everything open and don’t bother with the laws of physics.

“Animation is to virtual painting what texture is to oil painting.”

A-What’s your biggest challenge right now?

J-One of my biggest challenges is to create coherence in space. What does coherence mean in virtual space? Also, I need to be more connected with the community. I really like what Google did with Poly, a platform to share stuff with the community directly on social media and VR. Sometimes it’s a burden when the only way to experience your work is in the headsets.

Jamil’s works can be found online via his ArtStation’s and Facebook.

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