October 17, 2019
Spotlight: Building a Piece of the Universe in VR with Naam

Bastiaan Hooimeijer (Naam) is a self-taught 2D / 3D / VR artist / designer / animator / director / developer from the cold Norths of The Netherlands. He started out mid-1990's as comic artist, illustrator and poster designer, and went via DTP into 3D animation. In 2001 he founded the computer animation studio Happy Ship, with which he rolled into the VFX business, fully animated productions, and more recently VR development.

As a solo artist, he's fully committed to using VR as both a new tool and a new medium of expression and, more essentially, world-building. He's currently working on A Piece Of The Universe, a personal diorama made in VR, for VR. A Piece of The Universe can be found on itch.io .

FAST FACTS

Pronouns:

He, him

Based in:

Groningen, The Netherlands

Hobbies:

I turn all my hobbies into work just so I'm never actually free anymore

Fun Fact:

See hobbies. No. Fun. At. All. Except when working.

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT - Naam .png

Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your background?

Sure, let's start with the hardest questions first! Who am I. Hmmm.

I've been a visual tinkerer all my life (fabrication year 1972), started out drawing, painting, making comics. When picking between art and physics for a higher education, art seemed so much more romantic, but I only endured art college for a year and a few months – too much focus on the babble-behind-the-art for my liking. I just wanted to make pretty things! Meaning should flow from the work, not be explained in a separate medium.

So I went and started doing my own thing, started creating an income for myself in illustration, and found a neat youth center where I could make the posters and magazine for all their activities and concerts. This got me into DTP when that was first developing, and that lead to tinkering with digital and 3D animation when that slowly became accessible in the nineties. When approached to make a 3D animated movie around 2000, because Maxon (the makers of Cinema4D) liked what I was doing, I founded Happy Ship with Martin Venema and Harry Arling, and I've been running that ever since. We slid from 3D animation into VFX, mainly for dutch film and television. But we've always tried to strike a balance between commercial projects and artistic ones. We've done interactive installations, theater, and obviously were eager to dive into VR when that arrived on the consumer market.

What VR also brought, though, for me personally, was an incredible new medium for personal expression! I've always been an artist and tinkerer on the side – learned myself how unity worked just out of interest, and to scratch a programming-itch. Now with VR, you could not only step into your own creations, but also interact with them. All kinds of different skills I developed with my tinkering seemed to fall into place and connect themselves up!

What does your average day look like?

That so much depends on what we're working on! Sometimes, my average day is 100% animating, or modelling, or programming, for hours on end. Very often it is juggling a few projects at once, creating some myself and managing others. And then sometimes it's things like sitting in on a script reading session for a theater play.

But the days I love most are the private tinkering days – usually in the weekends. I have a few private projects running now, all without any official pressure. Running a studio and doing commercial and/or team-based projects is super incredible, but there's always a LOT of compromise involved. I use these personal projects to counter that with a generous dollop of idiosyncraticness (for lack of a better term : ). Those are the days where you can just decide, over your morning coffee, what seems neat to try out. Could be a snowy forest to walk through, or an idea for an interaction mechanic. And I'm just lost for hours building my private little worlds and ideas, feeling them out almost-for-real in VR, tweaking atmospherics to get a certain mood. I am completely lost in those days, and I love it.

How did you get into creating VR work? Do you remember your first experience?

Of course I remember my first VR experience! Who doesn't?

A conspirator of ours had ordered the DK1, and, really, simply showed us the good ol’  Tuscany demo. I distinctly remember standing on the second floor landing, looking at the ceiling, down the stairs, and realizing how things like proximity, distance, height, were suddenly like new palette colours to paint with! Even better, I saw how simple it should be to start playing with these colours myself! All that lonesome hobby-tinkering with Unity and code meant that my skillset should allow me to create worlds. Interaction! Life! Out of thin air!

I think I ordered my own DK1 a day later.

Lunch (2017) created by Naam in Quill

From your personal projects to your work in the MOR, you seem to have some experience with a wide range of VR art tools, which do you use most often and why?

Actually, I think I am quite peculiar about my tools. I'm completely in love both with Quill and Google blocks, because they're both so incredibly no-frills: you're given just a few very basic, almost rudimentary tools to work with, and the space to work in, and that's it. You need to do all the groundwork yourself. Being an (I would say) comic artist, this so clicks with me. The way this forces you to focus on the 'essence' of an object or scene, instead of on all the little details. You know you can turn a slab into wood by just cutting out one or two suggestive creases? Or into cloth by a single well-placed wrinkle? And in VR, it's amazing to feel your lizard-brain react like "yup! that's made of wood now". This suggestiveness was, for me, one of the most amazing discoveries in VR: you really only need just enough suggestion to trick your brain into filling out the materiality of the world. It's amazing.
 

Walk us through your process. For instance, you have a new idea for a scene, a forest that you want players to explore. Where do you start?

The forest, actually, is based on a mental image that haunted me after seeing The Revenant. Things usually start out like that: just a mental picture that keeps coming back to me, usually of a landscape, a view, a situation, and I don’t know exactly why it lingers. Trying to replicate it is the process of finding out what fascinates me about it!

I usually dive straight into Blocks, don't sketch out anything. This makes me treat the sketches like the model, and vice versa, and because of VR tools being so intuitive to work with, I can simply try out what works, throw away what doesn’t, all while working on the model that might very well become the finalized scene.

I try and take a modular approach, split the scene into reusable elements, but I always create a set of objects, sometimes a whole diorama, never a single asset at a time. Maybe just to discover relations between objects.

I run that through some mesh processing in Cinema4D, then they go straight into Unity to fill in the scenes, add atmosphere and lighting, and sound. Especially when working on a new scene to be in, I try and add all elements from the get-go – graphics, sound, post effects, atmosphere, motion – because they're all so important to the overall feel of a scene. Then it's a matter of tweaking everything until it clicks into place, and simply being there, hanging around, and feeling out what should be the next step. If a place clicks, it usually suggests the next step all by itself: that thing you feel like you’re missing is so easy to magic into existence.

Let's talk about ‘A Piece of the Universe’ (APOTU). The detail you've put into this is mind-blowing. What is it and how did the project come about?

I tend to get inspiration from my peers, when I see someone doing great work it motivates me to do the same. It always starts with a vague idea, I try not to over detail it in my head or it tends to destroy the joy of exploring the development of the piece, the more I can improvise on the spot the better. The rest is a lot of work, I tend to enjoy the first 10% of a piece and the last 10%. The beginning is fun, you spend a lot of time setting up the visual style, it's rough, it happens quickly and it's new every minute. Then the next 80% is just a lot of rendering out the details, filling the gaps and trying to perfect the form, this is a bit boring for me. The last 10% is really fun, this is when the piece is mostly done and you want to add flavor to it, you can also try to be creative and add things on top to make it stand out. I basically enjoy the process of creating, not so much the process of building, I imagine I will enjoy it the most when we can conjure up images with our brains instantly through computer to brain interfaces.

A screenshot from A Piece of The Universe. Courtesy of Naam.
A screenshot from A Piece of The Universe. Courtesy of Naam.

Why did you choose to go with a low-poly, handcrafted visual style in APOTU? It’s interesting because there’s this idea that photo-realism is central to imbuing a sense of presence and immersion, but your work shows that there’s a lot more to it.

There was never really a choice to do so. Because of the click between my usual drawing style and the low-poly nature of Blocks, it was simply the best way to quickly create and try stuff out about that scene. I was amazed myself how real it all felt once I added the more atmospheric elements – the sound, the haze, the horizon, the wide open spaciousness of those low-hanging clouds. I so remember the first time I added the cars, that's when everything clicked. it was a world, and the suggestion that there were others around made it so much stronger. That first tweet of those cars, and the reactions, also suggested that it worked for others as it did for me.

A convincing VR world is not about realism at all. I feel that it's about connection – you need an intuitive connection to the virtual world. Suggestions for your lizard-brain. The size and height of object being exactly how you'd expect them, for example. The interplay between objects in strong sunlight. The affordances of objects being what you expect, even if abstracted. That doorknobs you can grab are of a size that would feel good in your hand. If you get details like that right, there are SO MANY other aspects that you can leave out completely. Texture doesn't matter if shape already suggests material perfectly, and you only need three visible nails to suggest that a fence contains tons of them. The brain already believes it, no need to re-confirm its suspicions.

I'm curious about your decision to host APOTU on Itch.io as opposed to storefronts like Steam or Oculus. What motivated this?

I'm not a game maker. I'm treating APOTU as a playpen for ideas, and have yet to find a bigger, overarching plan with it – it's actually still called a "prototype for APOTU". It's super important to me that this world remains free of external demands for now – I've only enabled the donation option on Itch after players kept asking me to do so, so amazed by the response! If I'd throw it on Steam or offer it at Oculus, it would feel, for now, way too much like a promise I'm making: "Yes this will become a full blown explore-em-up someday". I cannot do that without feeling guilty for spending only my free time on it.

A screenshot from The Rat King. Courtesy of Naam.
A screenshot from The Rat King. Courtesy of Naam.

As someone who uses VR for creating and exhibiting, where do you see the medium heading into the future?

As a creative tool, it's here to stay. It's so quick to work when you don't have to judge an object's merit from an awkward projection on a 2D surface. With VR, you immediately see what's off. Heck even only the fact that you can stick your hand through it to edit the backside without having to navigate anything. The thing is just there, and you grab it.

As a medium, I so hope that we're going to see less gaming-centric projects for it. It's such an incredible medium for play, that it's disheartening to see how often that simply gets auto-translated to gaming, with all the trappings that come from that – edgy bombasstic scifi and fantasy worlds where designs get ever more weird and idiotic because practically everything has been tried already.

Especially for VR, I'm a firm believer that mundanity could lead to so much more engaging experiences. Ground your visitor in your world, make sure the basics are right, put them at ease, have them go at their own pace. If you get that right, and then introduce the fantastical, the effect is truly awe-inducing.

Do you have any tips or advice for people looking to get into creating VR art?

There's so many aspects to it, it's hard to summarize a best approach. The creation tools are so accessible, it's really a matter of trying it out, putting in some time to get the best out of the tools. If you're aiming to develop convincing scenes to be experienced within VR, keep in mind the power of mundanity. And if you're into creating tools, please please PLEASE try and think up VR-centric interaction! Don't think two-dimensional, display-based schemes are good and intuitive – we only went and got used to them! VR isn't about "oh let's add a color palette! That you can hold!" It's about "Whoa! We can squish paint out of tubes now!"

Where can we find out more about you and your work?

I so need some kind of hub site! For now, you can always find me on twitter, with DM's open:

[twitter.com/_naam]

… and APOTU is downloadable via itch at:

[naam.itch.io/apotu]

Sketchfab gallery:

[sketchfab.com/naam]

This interview is part of the MOR Artist Spotlight series, which features creators using VR as an artistic tool or medium of expression. Some of the artists’ work can be experienced in the Museum of Other Realities.


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