Reality Labs

Step inside living science-fiction artwork with Alex’s Sci-Fi World

March 31, 2020
A new collaboration between artists Alex Steven Martin and Matt Schaefer, Alex’s Sci-Fi World is a series of animated vignettes created entirely in VR with Quill.

Most people can’t fully experience an immersive sculpture or art installation until it’s completed. But over the past several years, artists Alex Steven Martin and Matt Schaefer have spent countless hours inside their project — exploring, inspecting, and refining as they went. The result of their collaboration is a living VR world of pop sci-fi art called Alex’s Sci-Fi World: A New Quill Animated Series. The project takes static illustrations and transforms them into immersive 3D worlds full of walking robots, flying cars, and curious creatures that anyone can explore in VR. 

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Made entirely inside of VR using an illustration and animation tool called Quill, the project blends traditional techniques with modern technology to deliver an immersive artwork pulsing with life. “My sci-fi work combines moody science fiction with the lightheartedness of cartoons,” says Alex Steven Martin. “I have my share of anxieties about culture and technology, but I genuinely love and believe in people, and I try to convey that optimism.”

"Alex’s 'Crosswalk' illustration was the main inspiration for Alex’s Sci-Fi World project. This vignette brings Alex’s characters to life through puppeteered Quill animation." - Matt Schaefer

Sci-fi and VR have always made excellent bedfellows. Each uses technological wizardry to fling us to surreal worlds, and each has a history of benefiting the other. Literary classics like Neuromancer and Snow Crash sold audiences on the concept of virtual worlds, while VR today delivers a practical way to jump in and explore them. Alex’s Sci-Fi World is bursting with 3D Easter eggs and nods to iconic sci-fi everywhere you look.

But it all started with 2D sketches. Schaefer spent years inside VR, transforming Martin’s original designs from static shots into virtual vignettes. Standing inside Alex’s Sci-Fi World in VR reminded Schaefer of his past designing architecture for the real world. “I would spend months 3D-modeling designs, so I had a unique familiarity with the space,” Schaefer says. “But stepping into the real thing is a wild and surreal experience, and VR totally captures that feeling.”

We’re going to share a handful of vignettes below, as well as hear from the creators themselves, but you’ll want to grab a VR headset to experience these creations fully. On Quest, open the Oculus TV app and head over to Alex’s Sci-Fi World: A New Quill Animated Series to start your journey. On the Rift Platform, open the Quill app and check out the Quill Gallery. 

"The hover car was something I designed for phase 1 of the project. I needed a hero element to guide viewers from one scene to the next in the video. Its design is a mix of Blade Runner and Alex’s vibrant color palette." - Matt Schaefer

Can you tell us about your background as an artist? 

Matt Schaefer: I come from a family of artists who use their talents in all sorts of ways. Being surrounded by creativity as a kid, I felt compelled to turn art into a career path. I went to art school and eventually used my creative skills to design architecture, digital products, and now VR.

Alex Steven Martin: I grew up in a creative environment. My father is a professional musician, my mother sews, and my brother is also an illustrator, so art-making has always been a part of my daily life. I have a BFA in painting, and I currently work as a freelance concept artist and illustrator with clients in various industries.

Are there books or movies that you feel influenced your work?

MS: My biggest influences are Alien, Blade Runner, Total Recall and the artists responsible for those movies: Syd Mead, H.R. Giger, Mobius, Ron Cobb, and Ridley Scott.

ASM: There are a few essential pillars of influence on my sci-fi work. Books like The Time Machine, The TimeShips, and wacky stuff like Douglas Dixon’s Man After Man, and Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker's Guide. As far as movies and shows that influenced my work: Blade Runner, Star Trek, The Matrix trilogy, and Star Wars. 

"This scene was created in Phase 1 as a transition from the opening 'Access Tunnel' to the central “Crosswalk” location. For the Quill Theater release, I wanted to bring it back and give people a chance to experience it in VR." - Matt Schaefer

What are your thoughts on using VR as a tool for artists?

MS: With VR, you have a superpower: immersion. With this affordance, I often think about creating artwork that people can hang out in versus just see. I also take advantage of the user’s ability to look anywhere physically. I will place Easter eggs under tables and other places. This encourages the viewer to engage the work physically and gives them rewards for their discovery.

ASM: I always remember my dad saying something to the effect of “If you’re an artist and you want to expand, you’re going to need new tools.” Tools here meaning anything from physical tools like programs to new knowledge. The implications of VR becoming more available to artists can barely be predicted; it’s a whole world that’s just started unfolding. It’s extremely exciting stuff, and I need to get myself a rig before I’m left in the dust!

"The 'Access Tunnel' is another location that we never released in VR. It has a different vibe from the rest of the project and features one of Alex’s more striking pieces." - Matt Schaefer

Can you walk me through your creative process?  

MS: I usually ask myself a few questions before I dedicate creative energy to a project: Am I learning anything from this? Is this different from other work out in the wild? How does this fit into my other projects? How can I turn this into a series and get more out of it?

After I have a general idea, I then decide on where I want the project to live (desktop or mobile VR). This helps lock in the overall scope. Most of my projects are like marathons rather than sprints. So for that reason, I like to plan my work as a professional project. This means breaking things into tasks and slotting them into a general roadmap. This helps motivate me while also avoiding burnout.

ASM: With my weekly publishing schedule, the process varies a bit from piece to piece. Sometimes I start with an idea for a color scheme or a vision of a shape/silhouette; other times, I might have a specific content I set out to depict. I work on an iPad with an Apple Pencil and use Adobe Illustrator Draw and Photoshop, primarily.

I take a lot of photos for reference, so I feel like a crucial part of my process is walking a lot and getting out and seeing things. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to travel to different places around the country in the last couple of years. Meeting all kinds of different people and seeing lots of amazing places feels integral to my practice. 

"Quill’s new timeline includes the ability to mix frame by frame, puppeteer, and keyframe animation. I envisioned a moving party of animation with mechanical, electrical, smokey, and organic elements; something that looks and sounds wild as it drives past you." - Matt Schaefer

Do you have a favorite piece? Can you tell us the story behind it?   

MS: Aside from Goro’s pieces, seeing Dear Angelica in VR was a big moment. It was the first time I saw Quill art in a headset, and the whole experience was just beautiful. At the time, Quill wasn’t out yet, but I was already obsessed with getting my hands on it.

Alex’s Sci-Fi World is definitely my favorite public Quill piece I’ve worked on. When Quill released animation for the first time, I had already built most of Alex’s Sci-Fi World. So I had a ton of assets to play with. The first thing I animated was smoke, and it was a wild experience I will never forget.

ASM: One of my favorite pieces I’ve done is Memory Lane. It’s an excellent example of the vibe that Matt has captured in Alex’s Sci-Fi World. At the time, I was thinking about “digital hoarding”; despite the effort to downsize, something’s always accumulating. I imagined that this neck of my sci-fi world would require so much digital memory that a whole neighborhood would be built around giant storage devices. 

Whenever I look back to this piece for continuity purposes, I always have to go through the streets before I find what I’m looking for (and I’m the one that made it). I like being able to get lost in details, and it’s rewarding finding Easter eggs or solving a puzzle. This piece has a lot of little things to discover and features a lot of my staple details and recurring characters.

Here's how you can step into Alex's Sci-Fi World: on Quest, open the Oculus TV app and head over to ‘Alex’s Sci-Fi World: A New Quill Animated Series’ to start your journey. On the Rift Platform, open the Quill app and check out the Quill Gallery.

Hint: the creators have littered each vignette with a myriad of groovy easter eggs—try to find them all!

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