Unity for Humanity is a program within Unity Social Impact that partners with creators to expand their social impact-driven work. As lead for the Unity for Humanity Program, I am fortunate to connect with inspiring creatives every day who are doing ground-breaking, world-changing work. Recently, I chatted with Steven Christian, founder of Iltopia Studios about his work, which combines art, education, and activism, and allows communities to actively participate in social change. In this interview, we explore his work, his journey into real-time 3D, some of the stand-out moments and challenges in his career, and his advice for other creators:
Paisley: Steven, you have quite the unique creator journey. Can you tell me about what drew you in and inspired you to start working in real-time 3D?
Steven: My journey to real-time 3D was unique. In fact, I was reluctant to explore 3D in general. It wasn’t until I saw the potential of augmented reality with comic books that I became open to the possibility. I have always taken pride in being a generalist - a jack of all trades with visual arts. Airbrushing T-shirts, painting, comic book illustration, logo design, etc. I was trying it all, but 3D just wasn’t as accessible for me early in my journey.
Growing up, I had an affinity for art, but I never really tapped into my creative side until I got to college. Interestingly enough, I was a windows mobile developer during the good ol’ pocket PC days. I played football at the University of Hawaii on a football scholarship. It was then that I had two hip reconstructive surgeries. Those injuries halted my athletic aspirations and left me with a void I needed to fill. I always admired The Boondocks by Aaron McGrudder, so I decided to make my own cartoon. Something that was culturally relevant and innovative.
I started with a comic in the school newspaper and later moved to webcomics, printed books, and then short animated scenes on YouTube. In many ways, it was therapeutic as I recovered from my injuries because I got to express myself and figure out who I was outside of being an athlete.
I ended up transferring to Oregon State University and finishing off my playing career while also finishing a master’s program in Interdisciplinary Studies. That was an informative experience because I focused on exploring the disparities amongst African American student-athletes at predominantly white colleges and examined why they are more likely to have success on the field rather than off the field. I wrote and illustrated a graphic novel as my Masters Thesis.
Unity came on my radar years later when I saw an AR comic book demo from Will.I.Am on the Breakfast Club. I later went to Adobe Max and saw another AR demo. After playing around with it, I was compelled to explore the medium. My desire was to combine my print comics with my YouTube animation into a seamlessly integrated experience. I felt I could do that with Unity and AR.
After playing with Unity for a few months, I really got the hang of things, and the path became clearer. Not only could I explore 2D animation, but I could also explore 3D and visual effects without having to wait for things to render for hours. Plus, I could take that content and place it in any real-world context I wanted. It literally changed the game for me!
Paisley: I love that you were inspired to teach yourself Unity, and figured out a way to combine your love for comics and storytelling with AR. Do any of your early real-time 3D Unity project explorations stand out in your memory? What motivated this work?
Steven: Aside from test projects that I was working on when I was learning how to build AR experiences, my first real AR project was actually the Eyelnd Feevr app. I ended up having a 3D model of my main character Roscoe made shortly after Christmas and decided to see what it would be like for Roscoe to do some popular internet dances on the cover of my comic book.
I built out an experience where you can watch him dance on the cover while also changing the dances and the music. I was interested in seeing how I could bring my comic to life with animation and user input. Making characters dance was an easy way to do that. Given that my comic is about exploring Black experiences in America, I think the relevance of this was kind of implied. Black kids have architected many of these dances we see on the internet so these slice of life moments not only enhance the connection to the characters but also pays homage to the culture in an innovative way.
Paisley: I first came across Eyelnd Feevr while reviewing Unity for Humanity Grant applications and was immediately charmed by Roscoe and your ability to bring the character’s world to life. I would love to know more about your creative process, and if there was anything that surprised you during the production of Eyelnd Feevr?
Steven: Eyelnd Feevr is my pride and joy. It is a story about a group of kids that traverse the world of Iltopia in search of their purpose. It follows main characters: Roscoe, Vanessa, and their guardian Cadbeary overcoming adversity throughout the plot. This story is really close to me because I started developing it after I had my second hip reconstructive surgery from playing football in college. I started developing the story because I wanted to see more stories in the world that explored Black experiences in America; something that spoke to me on a deeper level, but also had a fantastical element to it that was out of this world.
My journey into AR was fueled by looking for ways to incorporate more technology into the storytelling experience to make it even more mind-blowing. The series started as a newspaper comic I was doing for school. When I got a drawing tablet, I ventured into the webcomic and animation space. It was really empowering to not be restricted by the physical limitations of art, but I saw that the stuff I was doing in the digital art space did not translate to the physical world as much as I wanted it to; mainly when it came to doing conventions. I could show people the comics, art prints, and stickers I had, but it was really hard to share much of the animated stuff I was doing for the series.
When I saw the potential of AR to incorporate animation into my comics, prints, and stickers, I had to learn more about it. I am glad that I did because I felt like I didn’t have to choose between digital art and physical art. I could do both and have people experience the full scope of the world within the Eyelnd Feevr story. They can hold the books in their hands, read it, watch it, listen to it, and interact with it. It really changes the way you engage with books, and I personally believe it makes the book experience more attractive to people who aren’t as motivated to pick up a book and read.
The surprising thing about being in the AR space is not seeing as much innovation in print media with AR. My goal of integrating animation into comics through AR has catapulted my work to new heights in a short period of time, and I think part of that is because it really strikes a chord with people that see it. Hopefully, the work I am doing with Eyelnd Feevr inspires others to want to augment their work.
Paisley: I am so inspired by your dedication to sharing the world of Eyelnd Feevr with audiences and readers. As many independent creators know, development and distribution can often be a rigorous process. What phrases or inspiration keeps you motivated to keep making your work?
Steven: “Create and Conquer!” which means creating opportunities that overcome stereotypes and conquer adversity.
When I was playing football at the University of Hawaii, I had my second hip reconstructive surgery. That landed me in a wheelchair for months as I recovered. I was 21 years old with two major hip operations, a college athlete that couldn’t walk, and I think my Xbox was stolen around that time too. The life I was used to was no longer my reality. I was having a major identity crisis because not only did I feel different, but I didn’t feel like I had agency over my life and people treated me differently. Those interactions led me to recede into my own world.
As I tried to reconnect with myself, I reconnected with my creative side. What started as harmless doodles, turned into fleshed-out characters and worlds that I mustered up the confidence to post online. When I started to get positive responses, I saw that my direct actions led to me feeling better about myself and others appreciating my work. That stuck with me.
I started telling myself, “If I keep creating things, then I will be able to overcome some of my insecurities about myself.” Mainly the way I felt about not being the athlete I was before my injuries and feeling like I didn’t have anything else to offer the world. If I continued to create things and share them with the world, I saw the potential of me overcoming what I saw as adversity both intrinsically and extrinsically.
I told myself that every day until I fully bought into it. “Create and Conquer!” became my tag line because it reminds me of what it took for me to overcome my problems, and it motivates me to keep pushing forward despite how bleak the outlook may seem.
Paisley: I love this sentiment. Channeling difficult personal experiences into art is something we have in common. I have found that sharing honest stories with others is truly is a way to overcome anxiety, fear, and to connect on a deeper level. “Create and Conquer” is such a motivating phrase for creators of all stages! With that in mind, what advice do you have for creators who would like to start working in real-time 3D? Do you have any tips or tricks you could share?
Steven: If I were to tell someone starting out anything, it would be to really push the tools to see what you are capable of. That has been very liberating for me creatively.
AR gives you the ability to create things that were not physically possible. Having an animated show within a comic book? That is mind-boggling, right? What about making a dancing sticker? Well, that is possible with AR.
For anyone that identifies as a generalist in the creative-tech space, creating in AR feels very natural. So, I encourage anyone looking to explore this space to continue to think outside the box. That is how you not only find your voice and passion but also how you can carve a pathway for yourself. If you don’t know where to start, I spent the last year developing resources for people that were in the same position I was at when I started.
On my Stuck On An Eyeland Youtube channel, I have live streams and timelapse videos of me creating projects from start to finish. I do that to give people an unfiltered glimpse of the process. Ever wondered how I created my latest project? I take you down that journey with me. If you want a deeper look at my creative process, I decided to make courses on Skillshare to give you a step-by-step walkthrough of what you need to be an immersive artist, and many of the tips and tricks I use in my creative process. Check out all of my courses here. 
December 2019 was when I first opened Unity, and the idea of creating immersive experiences was unfathomable, but determination and a vision got me to the point I am at now. I try to do my best to help others do the same by sharing the insights I have from my journey.
Paisley: Thanks so much for taking the time to share your story today, Steven. How do you recommend folks get involved with what you’re doing?
Steven: First and foremost, I would say follow me on YouTube, Instagram (@stuckonaneyelnd and @iltopia), and Twitter. I post all of my projects and tons of walkthroughs of how I create my work. You can also check out my website www.stuckonaneyeland.com where I post blogs and more on how to incorporate AR into your art-making process.
 The links are provided as a convenience and for informational purposes only; they do not constitute an endorsement by Unity. Courses are provided by Steven Christian and you will be redirected to his site instead.