The Girl In The Machine

Illustrator Wesley Allsbrook is using VR to shake off her demons. In the process, creating profound art.

Introducing Art Control: a new series where we visit artists in their creative spaces and imagined worlds.

Women in Hollywood haven’t had it easy. In 2016, they made up just 7 percent of all directors of top 250 films, and comprised just 29% of protagonists on screen, according to San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. The numbers are even more dismal for women of color. As female scriptwriters, directors and producers readily confirm, despite constituting 51% of the movie-watching public it’s still extremely difficult to get a studio to pay attention, let alone underwrite, an experimental project put forth by a woman. That makes Dear Angelica, the 2016 female-written-and-art-directed animated virtual reality short, created in collaboration with Oculus’ Story Studios, even more of an outlier. Drawn entirely within VR, it’s the illustrated journey of one girl (voiced by TV’s Mae Whitman) as she composes an unconventional eulogy for her late actress mother (Gena Davis). With a heavily female cast and creative team, the movie—a hit at this year’s Sundance Festival—passed the Bechdel test with flying colors.

The story of Dear Angelica is unique for other reasons as well. Illustrator Wesley Allsbrook, the woman behind its striking aesthetic, was given first-access to Quill, an advanced sketching program from Oculus that enables artists to build animated, immersive worlds entirely within VR. Initially an unlikely choice for an artist better known for her pen-and-paper illustrations in outlets such as The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and The Marshall Project, she quickly took to the technology despite some initial hesitation. “I’ve worked for most major publications in the United States, some in Europe. I make comics. I don’t do a lot of work for advertisers,” she shrugged. In the end, Allsbrook became not just art director but also a pioneer of a nascent form of storytelling.

A few months back we left wintry Brooklyn to visit Allsbrook in her sunwashed, San Francisco studio to create a short doc on her life and process. A long-time friend of The Front, she spent the afternoon with us sifting through drafts and 3D models as she explained the making of Dear Angelica, and her connection to Oculus, which brought her on after original creator and co-writer Jillian Tamaki dropped out. “I thought it was just going to be a job where I would work flat, do four or five panoramic illustrations, and then I would leave,” says Allsbrook about her initial “temporary” re-location from NYC to San Fran. “But then things got a lot bigger.”

She is keenly aware of the rare opportunity she has been given in getting to test drive this new and fantastic tool. Many tech nerds—who are, let’s face it, more likely to be male—would have given their right click-hand to be the first to experiment with it. That Quill was given to a first-time VR user who admits she hasn’t thought much about VR since “maybe 1997” is astounding; that she was also given both creative control and millions in financial backing is nothing short of revolutionary. The resulting film is a win not just for women, but for all artists pining for the opportunities of space and resources. But Allsbrook first had to prove she could work brilliantly.

Dear Angelica is —in my opinion, because I made it, ha!— the best-looking thing in VR out there,” she told us. “It will change your opinion of what CG art should look like, and what it could be.” Adi Robertson of The Verge agrees, writing “Dear Angelica might be the most beautiful virtual reality I’ve ever seen.”

It’s clear that people are paying attention to the capabilities of VR. From 2016’s Notes on Blindness, an immersive “empathy machine” based on recordings made by Australian author John Hull after he lost his sight in the 80s, to the New York Times’ mobile-first short Lincoln in the Bardo, which accompanied the release of writer George Saunder’s novel of the same name, filmmakers and media outlets are seeing enormous opportunity for unconventional narratives. As CG blockbusters like Zootopia and the entire Pixar oeuvre can attest, there’s also money to be made. At the moment, artists are simply exploring something new. Perhaps we’ll soon see a filmmaking renaissance that combines graphic novels with computer-generated animation, finally making good on all those initial promises of VR.

Allsbrook seems confident that with tools like Quill “you’ll start to find many more artists working with VR to get many more kinds of exciting stories…without having to spend quite as much money. We’re taking it from this kind of weird, culty, pseudo-filmmaking space to a space that’s interesting for artists to play with.”

“I think that I like doing work about women because it convinces me that I’m real.”

 

Beyond the creative process, Dear Angelica proved to be a powerful intellectual and emotional experience for Allsbrook, who used the film’s mother/daughter storyline to work through her own psychological wounds and familial strife. As mentioned in our doc, she constructed much of the heroine’s grief from her own strained relationship with her mother resulting from years of sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather, much of which she was coerced into denying. In Angelica, she explored her feelings through art, something she also embraced in projects like her acclaimed series of illustrations for the Pulitzer Prize-winning article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” written by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, made in collaboration with nonprofit news organization ProPublica. Her op-ed cover-illustration for the infamous Rolling Stone article on the University of Virginia rape case also brought her back to familiar territory but this time, instead of being elbow deep in paint and pencil marks, she ensconced herself in a digital world for months. 

On making the film, she explains, “there’s no one who’s gonna tell you where to look. The story is architectural, which means that it’s up to you to decide what you see and when. You’re the one who determines what your story is, and your story is different, ideally, every single time you watch it. Because you’re not interested in experiencing the same thing over and over again. You want to be in a world that’s as deep as life.”

It’s been proven that VR, when put in the hands of PTSD survivors, has the ability to modify and reduce the impact of traumatic memories. According to a 2014 talk at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, veterans who entered into simulated environments that enabled them to “relive” their traumatic experiences, but with newfound control, found some release from their PTSD symptoms. It’s possible VR may be destined for more widespread therapeutic use. Were Allsbrook willing, she might easily become the poster child for this new plateau of virtual healing. But then, not everyone wants to be a figurehead—for cause or company. As we recently learned, after working together closely on this film with Oculus, Allsbrook decided to leave a cushy managerial position at Story Studios to work on her own projects.

“There are elements to looking at pictures, looking at happy moments, looking at emotionally pure moments in this movie, and thinking, ‘Okay, reality is not like that. Reality is an absolute mess.’”

“I’m 31 now, the best years of my life are still ahead of me. I left Story Studio because I didn’t wanna manage people as much as I wanted to draw. Drawing is how I have feelings, how I experience the world. Whenever my hand isn’t moving over something three to five hours a day, I get depressed. I wasn’t just doing that enough.”

“Making work for myself terrifies me,” she laughs. “but in a different way. I don’t know where my money’s gonna come from. But I think if you know what you wanna make, it’s alright to be afraid,” she explains. “I think it’s really important not to be afraid to be poor. It’s also really important to notice when you’re unhappy, which is the thing that took me the longest.”

“I think that knowing who you are and what you wanna make is really enough for creative happiness,” she pauses. “For personal happiness.”

For more info on Wesley Allsbrook’s work, you can visit her website.