November 3, 2020
Spotlight: Nick Ladd on Handcrafting 3D Animation in VR

Nick Ladd is a Canadian VR artist from Montreal, with a background in illustration and 3D animation. He studied at both Dawson College in Montreal and Sheridan College in Oakville. As a VR artist, he also spearheaded the learning resource, Animbrush Academy, and co-founded Studio Syro, an animation studio using the VR painting tool 'Quill' to produce hand-crafted experiences.

“I got my start in Illustration and then eventually moved to doing 3D animation and 3D modelling - it’s what I went to study at art school. The main reason for moving to 3D was to bring a more illustrative feeling to my work. When I was starting out, everything in 3D was trying to look like a Pixar movie.” 

And treating Pixar like the sun, as many of his contemporaries would, didn’t seem like an exciting route to Nick. Given how his beginnings were in illustration, he wanted to take what he’d learnt there and unfold it in 3D. Nick shared how, a few years ago, this notion seemed equal parts wishful and impossible, unless perhaps some sort of ‘computer genius’ took a shot at it. The level of shader complexity required would have come in the way of making things look fluid and effortless, especially looking at how high effort 3D animation is. Furthermore, conceiving and executing the technical steps to experiment this way--to blend dimensional boundaries--seemed cumbersome to say the least.

With the first emergence of VR headsets in the market, a noticeable number of artists began creating illustrative 3D pieces using early VR creation apps. These were striking enough to convince a younger Nick that adopting the technology early could prove worthwhile.

“After experiencing an impressive VR simulation of ‘The Wall’ (from Game of Thrones), I bought my first VR headset - an Oculus CV1 - which really wasn’t capable of much actually. But even then, given how new it all, I felt invested. I watched a few short films which blew my mind, just with being able to look all around me. You could not move, the way you can with modern headsets, but you could still look around and see three-dimensional environments.”

Soon after, he picked up the Oculus Rift and started to use Quill. Curious to learn the chops, he tested out the software and even merged them into his 3D workflow. Today, in 2020, he has left behind most of the other tools he used to rely on. Nick reports having found a broader scope and an optimized functionality for his projects fulfilled by Quill in his updated workflow. 

‘Port Town’ by Nick Ladd in Quill


“My workflow - 5 years ago - was kind of the typical pipeline known for 3D work. We’d do concept art, we’d take that concept art into Maya, we would do a 3D model of the character, make that character, animate that character, do textures, and so on. It was very much a 10-step process to get to an end result. But now, using Quill, I kind of arrive at a similar outcome all in one place.”

If you’re not familiar with Quill, here’s what is important to know - when creating in Quill, one can paint colors directly in 3D space, and even animate just by moving the geometry without the need for a rigging or texturing process. So as an artist, you could potentially do your concept art in the same step as that in which you execute the animation. 

What this cuts through is not just many steps, departments, and specialists - but also many phases known to be staged in separate animation and 3D modelling software.

As Nick comes with training in illustration and narrative, even at the very start what excited him most was the abundance that VR brought to storytelling. A few years ago the main allure was how his images had escaped the frame around them, and how viewers were immersing themselves in his vision. In more technical terms, early VR art was borrowing assets that weren’t necessarily created directly in or for VR. The first VR artists were sometimes playing with 3D lungs rigged the old school way, and then asking them to live and breathe in VR air. Nick told us how he decided in that early appeal phase itself, that he’d give into what comes, as the tech levelled up to suit his artistic purposes. 


On Becoming a VR Artist

When Nick was working on his final 3D animation film as a student, he had a chance to see how the 3D animation tools he was given stood in stark comparison to the VR tools he was experimenting with on the side.

‘Life Drawing in VR’ by Nick Ladd


“Every evening I’d be making a new piece in VR, in about a few hours. I would have in front of me a beautiful scene with animation, and in full colour. Then I’d go back to school where my student film was underway, where the output from two weeks of work would just be a single small shot.” 

As it was an investment decision, Nick knew that the tiresome, old fashioned way had a clearer promise to lead to jobs in the industry. But there was no arguing that the VR techniques were way more intriguing and rewarding too, especially with the way people were responding to it. When Nick graduated, he felt prepared to take a leap of faith and go into VR art full time. The feeling of being ‘in-on-a-secret’ convinced him that this was an opportunity for him to pioneer something. For him, the scope to innovate in this medium has been and continues to be a real driving factor.

On Current Creative Process/ Workflow

Nick’s process used to normally begin on paper because ideas come by as one goes through daily life, right? And so he would write them down. The expected next step used to be to draw sketches, on paper. But at this point in his career, Nick finds that just getting to the artwork in Quill itself has become a smoother workflow. Even the concept art for his recent pieces were birthed directly in VR. After some visual research and reference collection, he now puts together everything that looks good into a single document using Photoshop. Once done with that, he imports it into Quill. From there begins a translation of the 2D mood board images into a congruent 3D scene. 

When there's animation involved, sometimes material on YouTube helps. If not, he records himself doing some kind of action or movement. That reference is useful for preventing the animation from looking weightless or silly. The rest of the steps are done entirely in Quill. 

‘Sellsword’ by Nick Ladd created in Quill


“When it comes to VR storytelling, especially the stuff in Quill, the environment is a character by itself. As you're positioning your viewers into the environment. So when it comes to Quill stuff, people resonate more with the environment than they do with the characters. The characters don't really have any way to interact with the viewer and even if they are animated, they seem to behave like they’re leaving you out.”

Some apps and experiences today add extra interaction or details, like, you could hold the character's hands or perhaps pass props from the scene to characters to add a touch of interactivity. The trends in Quill animations though are one-off scenes that depict isolated experiences. Such environment focused pieces are quite popular because you can walk around the scene, look over a property, or hide behind the dirty edge of something, and feel fairly real even if the characters don’t feel so. 


“I like to think about the character as much as his world, but in VR it kind of overlaps. While this does conflict with my background as a character designer, I see how Quill makes me consider the confluence of both character and environment. But I think the environments are the most important in my stories.”
‘Biker’ by Nick Ladd created in Quill

‘Prey’ and ‘Prehistoric’ in the MOR

“I like to usually tell a story about a small moment. I think my motivation is to take people someplace magical, someplace interesting that might not be possible in physical reality. That’s been a main goal with both my stories and the worlds that I create.”
‘Prey’ in the MOR by Nick Ladd


For the piece, Prey, Nick wanted the focus to be on the characters. The environment itself could be deduced owing to the way the narrative was positioned between the characters. They were designed in a way that the real allure starts with the vibrant, saturated look of feathers and plumes that some may have seen in paleographic art from the past few years. The piece has a powerful moment where it allows people to experience the situation by standing beside a dinosaur in all its scale and ferocity. 

“So I actually love having this in the museum because a lot of the best museums have dinosaurs, don’t they? So you see like a virtual museum with a dinosaur, not quite anything you've seen before.” 

Some easter eggs from the piece, Nick mentioned, are sound cues to stumble upon. The lady in the piece is holding a large egg that one could miss. But if you actually go and touch that egg, you'll hear a ferocious roar from the dinosaur, which could be a little bit frightening. You can also teleport yourself onto the back of the dinosaur if you get the right angle. From that perspective you gain a nice sense of height and scale that you wouldn’t get if this was just an image on a monitor.

The second piece is called Prehistoric. These pieces are part of a series of dinosaur illustrations he created around the same time. While in ‘Prey’, the motivation was to showcase some carnivorous dinosaurs, in ‘Prehistoric’ some less threatening kind of omnivore or dinosaurs - like Triceratops and Brachiosaurus have been painted. The origin story for these pieces began when Nick first heard about dinosaurs having feathers.

‘Prehistoric’ in the MOR by Nick Ladd


On Studio Syro

Currently, Nick Ladd works as a part of an artist collective that signs off as Studio Syro. This is a collective of artists who have come together to explore the extents of Quill and VR as a creative medium. This collective has been working since early 2020 to collaboratively make VR and animated works that they believe could prove hard to scale as solo artists. 

“We saw that we kind of required a team to come together. Before we officially became Studio Syro, we did a music video sometime in last Oct-Nov (2019) which sort of brought us together. And now, having taken on bigger projects together made us decide to incorporate ourselves into a company.”

Nick, also one of the co-founders of this collective, has been busy with projects that have panned the form of short films, music videos and animated VR scenes and narratives. The group is motivated to push Quill into the foyer of the entertainment industry, and with that the industry itself in new directions. Working this way helps the team have a workflow figured out, preparing them to sign bigger projects as a collective, especially with working in Quill as a team being a new phenomenon. 

“I’m still working largely as a Quill artist, but as Studio Syro we have been able to bag some ambitious development projects too. Like we took on some grad shows for a local school, we did a launch party for a recent film - that took place in VR as an event. So we’re taking the stuff we create in Quill, taking it into Unity to be able doing some interesting social experiments with the artwork. We do not want to be only known as a collective of Quill artists doing Quill animation as we plan on branching out and create stuff that people can interact with.”

Some recent pieces from Studio Syro that can be experienced are episodes from the Soda Island series. The first episode is called ‘The Multiverse Bakery’ and the second one is called ‘The Neon Jungle’

Sometimes ambitions are larger than budgets, and that has been something Studio Syro is keen on getting past. Nick explained how a balance between getting a good budget and being able to deliver high quality innovation is something the collective tries to prioritize. A lot of the work that they’ve done already is pretty cutting edge. As most Quill projects are usually conceived by singular artists, Studio Syro’s eight-person team collaborating on pieces opens up the scope of experimentation, and points of discovery become abundant too with every decision. 


Slushii - Dreaming of You/Far Away - Official Music Video by Studio Syro

On Artists & Collaboration

While creating his dinosaur series, Nick was inspired by the painter James Gurney, who is known for his own dinosaur pieces. One can see that some slivers of inspiration also come from the work of the artist Robh Ruppel, who does graphic depictions of buildings and landscapes in a certain recognisable style. From within the VR space, an artist whose work helps push creative boundaries for Nick is Goro Fujita. As a lead artist who has kind of been instrumental in showing people Quill and getting people invested in the software, he has a fair following including those at Studio Syro.

“I would love to work with either of the artists I just mentioned from the Quill Sphere. I think I'm working with a lot of my favorite artists right now at Studio Syro. I'm working with a fantastic team.”
Joe Sparrow’s Tarot Deck translated in VR by Nick Ladd


An artist named Joe Sparrow is someone whose tarot cards Nick once translated to animated VR art. A studio that Nick told us about - Kurzgesagt whose YouTube channel is a whole trove of animated explainer videos. The nature of videos they make, with their educational documentary style, seem like another interesting VR direction that Nick is excited about.


On Tools & Translation

Often, at Studio Syro, what comes with a brief is concept art painted in 2D, and it asks to be translated into VR. Looking at a piece of design work that's not meant to be 3D, and is styled in its own specific way, can be very interesting to reimagine for a three-dimensional world. 

“I like to work with 2D artists as well as 3D artists, because I find that a lot of VR artists who only work in VR when they're designing things, they know the limitations of Quill, they know the limitations of VR art, so they might try to avoid painting something a certain way. But if you're taking it from a 2D concept that had no preconceived notion of ‘will this work will this not’, you usually end up with a much more creative final output that looks much more impressive than if you'd started entirely in VR - when working with artists who are new to it especially.”

Nick has noticed how much of a difference there often is between the pieces that come from creative teams with a background in 3D animation - who maybe want to do their film in Maya and then move it into Unity and then release it as a VR piece - and pieces created by Quill artists. 

“The stuff that's made in Quill has a different kind of energy to it, it feels and seems handmade. It can nearly feel like traditional media, even though it's not - and that's a very interesting spot for Quill work to be in. Taking pieces that were once 2D and turning them into a 360 film is probably like the easiest way to take a work that you've created somewhere else and bring it into VR. I think the stuff that's made directly in VR always has its own unique feel to it, that is more interesting than stuff that made traditional pipelines and then brought over.”


Nick’s Advice on Monetization as a VR creator

Being willing to look at VR as a new medium is important for artists early in their journey. It takes getting past some frustration and it isn’t as simple as taking what you may have done before in a digital medium and trying to retranslate it. 

“I think compared to most mediums, VR is probably one of the easiest things you could learn. It takes the things you've done before and kind of remixes them a little bit. But for some people, that can be daunting. I sure think it's worth pushing through, to really get to a unique new style.”
Nick Ladd near his work in the MOR, available as a Spatial Interview

Nick added how there are a few ways to figure out what you can capitalize on. In his case, he is able to create things much faster with his VR workflow. Using that he was able to find work in the market seeking stylized artwork, which has especially opened up with the advent of films like Into the Spider Verse. So one way to find clients could be to deliver on a stylized aesthetic with a quicker turnaround, as VR artists have a real edge over typical 3D artists, whose workflows can occasionally be slower and clunkier.


Fun Fact

“I have a business card collection from all the events I’ve gone to and the people I've met, so I have over a thousand business cards that I like to keep in a binder. And they're so colorful and I just really enjoy them because they feel like they feel like a collection of everybody I've met throughout my career, in one place that I can look back on. And it's a nice little way to keep memories!”

You can find Nick’s independent work at nickladd.tv or on Sketchfab. The work he’s been doing at Studio Syro can be checked out at studiosyro.com

Excerpts from this interview are also available near the artist's works, as spatial interviews in the MOR.

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