Wesley Allsbrook often spends more time drawing in a VR headset than she spends awake. “I will always draw flat, but making work in VR has changed the way I think about drawing, and has made me better…You never draw on a surface, you never draw on anything. I cannot imagine not working in this way”.

Allsbrook is an American illustrator whose work has received wide recognition and has been featured in many publications such as The New Yorker, Wired and The New York Times. However, when the opportunity came up in 2015 to work as a VR illustrator on a short film project at the Oculus Story Studio, she jumped to the idea. The project was Dear Angelica, a walkable VR short animation film and Wesley was charged with doing the animation for it. Since then, she has created VR work for The Discovery Channel, Felix and Paul, Google, Maria Bello VR Productions, Porsche, Warner Brothers and many more.

We met her at Toulouse’s new groundbreaking film festival, Tomorrow’s Stories, where she presented Dear Anjelica and The Sun Ladies, a short documentary about a group of survivor Yazidi women who escaped from sex slavery and formed an all-female unit in the Kurdistan Army to fight against ISIS.

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Making of Dear Anjelica

As a way to facilitate drawing in VR, Inigo Quilez, a VFX supervisor for Oculus, decided to build a software for Allsbrook so that she could paint in space and time. Thus Quill was created, allowing the painterly brushstrokes to be realized in a VR environment. Wesley painted every single scene in the film entirely by hand as well as each character, set and prop, while her and the production team at Oculus Studio were doing visual, story and technical development at the same time.

“It was so exciting to see my work in that way, because sculpture, as you know, is hard and hampered by the constraints of the real world. It’s either heavy or it takes a lot of time to orchestrate something that physically exists. These things don’t physically exist but they appear to, and you can create them with the ease of drawing”.

The end result is an immersive filmic experience during which, you can walk around and through the animation as it emerges. The film tells the story of a girl who lost her actress mother and who decides to compose a love letter to her. It is directed by former Pixar artist Saschka Unseld and features the voices of Geena Davis and Mae Whitman. Dear Anjelica is a female-led story, illustrated by a woman.

“I’ve always obviously been interested in women’s representations in film and television and I’ve always loved new technology,” Geena Davis told Wired magazine. “And I thought this is a great opportunity to try to have some influence to say, ‘Let’s start this one off with some gender parity, let’s make this a conscious effort to have that in our thinking as we’re creating this brand new medium”. Dear Anjelica was a big hit at Sundance, Raindance and Venice Film Festivals and continues its successful journey on the festival circuit.

The film is also about the future of VR and storytelling. With no physical constraints to deal with, the VR process encourages alternative narration techniques and according to its creators, it sheds light on a more accessible way to tell visual stories.

“I think that when we are representing dreams or memories and things that exist more in our minds or hearts than in a literal sense, then we should not be literal”, explains Wesley. “When you begin the story, you have a character that’s leading you through but you don’t really know who she is and we assure that, by not giving her an environment to exist in. The only environments that truly exist are the cinematic scenes that she recalls from memory. In the end she comes to some kind of conclusion and resolution with her grief and so she gets a place of her own”.