Bay Raitt is a veteran and pioneer within the digital arts space and joins the keynote lineup at the Vision VR/AR Summit. Raitt's accomplishments span comics, games, film, and software tools. You may know him best for his work creating the groundbreaking facial animation behind Gollum from the Lord of the Rings trilogy; or at Valve building the Source Filmmaker; or, better yet, establishing the Steam Workshop which introduced your favorite hats in Team Fortress 2! He’s now Founder of The Spiraloid Workshop Company, paving the way and rebooting comics in the VR space with their first project, Nanite Fulcrum, released last February on Oculus. We had the opportunity to connect with Bay and ask a few questions about his work habits, life as a creator, and what his projects mean for the future.
Let’s start off with some easy questions. How would you briefly describe yourself as a creator and do you have any mottos you live by?
I’m the guy who looks for the unaccomplished impossible thing around us and takes a run at it. I’ve had some luck at it, so it means my title is always weird and usually made up. Creature Facial Lead, Valve Employee, etc. I usually joke that I have every 14-year-old's dream job. I make comics, movies, games and tech for a living. On all aspects. Board room to pixel. I’m an Omni talent. I like to think of myself as a creator of entertainment minutes.
Mottos? Definitely. Sing for your supper. Never turn your back to the audience. Do your warm-ups. Come to play. Take the stage.
Who are the role models that helped shape your career?
Too many to count. My grandad has to be on the top of the list. He was a broadway star and I remember watching him play Don Quixote as a kid and being awestruck. I’ve also been really lucky to have worked alongside some truly exceptional people who have all taught me so much. Of course, my art heroes were legendary graphic novelists like Moebius, Frank Miller, Louisel and Hermann. I loved the idea that the pop culture awesomeness I was so into could be created by real people and that if I were lucky I could find them and lend a shoulder to the impossible efforts. Those impossible dreams my granddad sung about.
Speaking of your grandfather, John Raitt, I also see singer song-writer, Bonnie Raitt, is your aunt. It seems creativity runs in the family -- did this lead you to the arts or was there a single moment you can trace that brought you down this path?
Having your family name on a few stars on the walk of fame is certainly a gift. But more than genes, I think context is the ultimate teacher. As for a single moment, I’d say losing my hearing for a few years as a kid shaped me. Being deaf in a musical family kinda put me on a different path. Instead of picking up a musical instrument, I’d sit on the louder speakers and draw monsters by stagelight and show 'em to random people in the crowd. In a way I’m still doing that.
You’ve worked on some amazing stuff, including comic books, groundbreaking animation, and filmmaking tools. The Spiraloid Workshop seems to be a culmination of your career. Are there specific influences that shine through more than others at your studio?
There are so many. My time in New Zealand was a bit of a crucible. Sir Richard Taylor mentored me a lot when I was the Weta Workshop. He’d chide me that I was a concept artist who got waylaid by all this digital stuff. Meanwhile I’d go geek out with Jason Schliefer about how to build the CG pipelines at Weta then talk performance and animation with Adam Valdez and Randy Cook. Later at Valve, Gabe Newell and I spent a lot of time together and he got me thinking a lot about process and how to to run a content company. My cohorts at Valve and Weta are all really my mentors. They have all shaped the ethos that we’re using to grow the Spiraloid Workshop Company.
What led you to VR comics over more established verticals such as games or film?
I don’t see comics, games, and movies as that separate anymore. Especially if you’re working in 3D. The traditional “media” divisions mean less and less these days. It’s pretty clear that modern audiences like to read, watch, play, and make stuff in the worlds they fall in love with. Being focussed on a single format format doesn’t really acknowledge the whole experience the audience has with a given creation.
There’s this impulse to think that bigger is always better, that maximum fidelity with complexity equals quality. Can be true for sure, but it’s also very costly. Which limits how creatively risky you can be. When I looked at the story I had created, I realized that I wanted to iterate on it as I went; that if I were to combine everything I’ve learned with my childhood love of comics, I’d be in a position to create some of the short form entertainment that VR needs. Then I thought of my fellow creators, the armies of aspiring 3D artists, indie game devs and movie makers out there with an original idea that just isn’t reaching the stage. It seems like the time is ripe for something like VR comics to emerge so I started the Spiraloid Workshop Company.
I think that as we progress, we’re going to have the option to expand out naturally from VR comics into movies, games and toys. But we’re going to grow in those directions based on how the audience is reacting, taking advantage that we are starting small. And reaching the stage much earlier than a movie or a game production would. Building up a compelling, unique, real-time 3D world to create VR comics seems like a smart way to incubate an original franchise and let it grow naturally.
Why was Unity the choice for Spiraloid to realize its vision for VR Comics?
We’re a cross media entertainment company. Unity can publish to nearly every platform and make movies, games and tools from a single project, which is an astounding technological accomplishment.
When we were looking at how to build our pipeline, we knew that more than just a level editor, or some golden feature du jour, we needed our pipeline to grow and be shareable. Because of how the core architecture of Unity connects to the Asset Store, each production can sell pieces of their pipelines back to each other, creating a massive à la carte feature list that no other software, let alone game engine, can touch. Unity has created essentially a feedback loop where the community is amplifying the community. And since we’re looking to build VR, comics, movies, and games across nearly every platform, choosing Unity was the only choice. It’s going to be ground zero for the future of pop culture entertainment and we want to be a part of it.
The Spiraloid Workshop comes across as a master/apprentice kind of a studio where you have experts working with industry beginners to create exciting new things. Did this idea come from a past experience? What do you hope to achieve from it?
It did. I used a similar atmosphere when I was advocating edge loop modeling for Gollum. I started up this Spiraloid Digital Sculpting Forum where the creators of ZBrush, Mudbox and digital artists from all over the world could discuss creating 3D on the computer. I was a bit of a hardcase about the forum rules, but the idea for them came from Rodin’s teacher, Edouard Lanteri. He wrote the definitive book on sculpting. In it, he talked about the culture of the sculpting guilds that created the Statue of Liberty. Masters and dedicated apprentices pulling off the impossible struck a chord.
What we’re doing in the Spiraloid Workshop means rethinking a lot of format centric assumptions, so spreading the knowledge in a similar atmosphere seems to make sense.
My hope is that aspiring creators out there see our VR comics and think, “Hey, I could do this! Who are these Spiraloid Workshop folks and how can I learn to do it to?”
Any words of wisdom for the community?
Make messes but put them inside containers you can build with. Make sure you take the art of editing seriously. Being able to iterate a rough idea into something shippable is important. Be wary of being too precious. Har har. There are ideas you’ll want to make sure stick, but let the rest fall away as you hone the experience. Always be ready to show what you’re working on to people. The outsider insight is one of the most valuable tools you have -- don’t be too secretive.