Lemonade, Paprika, and Virtual Reality: An Interview with Priscilla Wong

I spoke with DreamWorks Animation visual development artist Priscilla Wong about the role of technology in her work, her predictions for virtual reality’s role in her field, independent distribution, and being a woman a creative field.

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Interview by Alex Hanson

All art courtesy of Priscilla Wong

Priscilla Wong is a visual development artist for DreamWorks Animation. She is a master of transcending mediums, from digital art to painting to creating fantasy creatures made of cloth and other textured materials. I spoke with her about the role of technology in her work, her predictions for virtual reality’s role in her field, independent distribution, and being a woman a creative field. All the art featured is courtesy of Priscilla, and you can find more of her work on her blog, her Tumblr, and her Instagram. You’ll also find her visual influence on the Trolls movie, set to release this November.

How would you describe your artistic style?

It’s like lemonade with a dash of paprika. I like using real materials, like fabric, and unconventional materials. I think part of that comes from my love for fashion. I love Project Runway. I like different disciplines within art and design: I love graphic design, I’m in animation, I love fashion and industrial design. I try to bring as much of those influences together as possible because I think it makes a unique look and makes it universally appealing. It has a sophisticated mix to it, I feel. What I mean by lemonade with a dash of paprika is that I like things to be fresh but also a little dramatic, a little spicy. I got that from loving Diana Vreeland. She’s a fashion icon and she liked to challenge norms. She pushed aesthetics along from the 20s to the 60s. So much happened during that time and I think a lot of that has to do with her.

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For the Q Pop Shop Gallery

What does being a visual development artist entail?

It really depends on the job. I’m very much of a purist, and I look at it as composing a pictorial symphony— that means figuring out design language, what shapes, proportions, color and textural quality. All the visual elements should feel harmonic and very specific to the story on an emotional level. You’re not supposed to notice it. You might think “that’s really pleasing,” or “that’s really beautiful,” but you’re always supposed to think of and be with the story in the film, book, comic or whatever.

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Art for Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014)

What tools, including physical tools, hardware, software, and whatever else, do you use at your job and what do you use when you’re working at home?

At work I mostly use Photoshop. But lately a lot of my work is handmade. When I’m working by hand I have to photograph it and bring it back into the computer, so because of that I use Lightroom. I’ve been doing some animation in stop motion, so I use After Effects for that. At home it’s very much the same process.

In terms of materials, I use of course paper, pencil, charcoal. But when I’m actually making things I use a lot of fabric. I love unconventional objects, I love cork. It has a great texture. It’s so tactile and beautiful, these brownish chunks that are stuck together! I like sponge also because it’s similar, but it’s porous. I also like varieties of plastic and metal. Rose gold is really big right now. It’s not only trendy but it’s also very beautiful to me. I like plastics because it feels modern— something about it feels futuristic. You can get it in any color, neons are really interesting, but only touches of them!

How do technology and art work together in your field?

The majority of my work in the industry is done in Photoshop, so usually just to save time we draw straight in Photoshop. We don’t draw on paper or scan or anything because it takes too long. So for a time after I graduated I was only drawing in Photoshop and when I picked up a sketchbook I couldn’t draw. My brain was like, “I need this monitor. I need two monitors,” but I got over that. To answer your question, technology is very much a part of my art. Now that I’ve been switching between digital and practical, I do all my design work and my blueprints in Photoshop because it’s just more efficient. I can make changes right away, I can lasso something and change the color, I can undo. Undo is great.

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Duplicitous personalities: more about this GIF on her Tumblr.

As an artist, what tools do you see being a major influence on your field in the future?

I definitely see VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) taking off in the future. I have tried the drawing tool.

Where you have the two handheld parts and you draw with it?

Yeah, and it was really fun! What I love most about it was that you’re still working digitally, but your freedom of movement mimics the way you might work traditionally. That’s what I really miss, because when you’re working digitally you’re stuck at your desk, you’ve got two screens, and the drawings tend to get a little stiff because you’re space is compressed. You’re only allowed to draw within your monitor space. I love to make giant paintings.

I love Matisse: he was in a wheelchair toward the end of his life but he was still painting. He would have a broomstick attached to a paintbrush and he would sit in his wheelchair and hold this broomstick in one arm and paint with it, and that’s so awesome to me! I want to paint big and I think VR can allow people to do that.

The significance of working big is that with lot of our work, we’re aiming for it be projected in a large format. When I’m working on films, my painting might be very small on my screen but when people see it in theaters it’s huge. I would actually like to work that big, to create work in the way it’s meant to be seen.

I think sculpture is really exciting in VR because it is 3D and— this is kind of technical, industry pipeline stuff, but it is like a personal concern of mine— when you translate things to 3D, you’re working with little points: moving one vertex at a time to build a character or prop. Even though it starts from a drawing from an artist’s hand I feel like in that technical translation you end up losing some of the spontaneity, some of the life. To me, modeling, which is when they make it in 3D, should be like sculpture. It should feel organic and it should feel like an artist’s hand is actually moving this form around. I see VR being able to do that, or at least I hope so.

Pretty much all animation right now is made three dimensional with computer software, but do you think VR will be able to have more of that human touch to it from the get-go?

I really hope so. I think the technology needs to come further, because from what I understand you can’t have too much detail, and when you make something with a human touch detail is unavoidable. I’m not talking about busy detail, I’m talking about like asymmetry. If you sculpt a face with your hands it’s not going to be perfect. It’s going to be a little a little bit lopsided, you’re going to leave fingerprints on it— that kind of detail. But that’s the stuff that makes it feel human and tactile. So I guess the resolution needs to catch up.

It’s gonna be a crazy next few years. We’ll see if VR takes off the way everyone keeps saying it’s going to.

Another big thing for art in the future is indie distribution. Like you, you’re doing this website on your own, and getting it out there for people to see and it can become a huge success—

Haha hopefully! We’ll see!

Really, I think it’s great, and I think it’s great that an individual might have the ability to do that in the future. With YouTube and Instagram, there’s so much content being made and distributed. It’s great. […] I think it’s cool is that if you, as an individual, can gain a bajillion followers or whatever, then you theoretically have the power to change the industry. Because you can influence what is popular and people will listen to you, and then industries will have to listen to you because they want to make money. The power is in your hands!

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I would love everyone to go watch Trolls in November. I’m really excited about it. I’ve never been this excited about a film before.

There is something else I want to throw out there: I’ve had some experiences as a female creative that are specific to being female, whether it’s positive or negative. And I would hope that in the future women don’t have to be labeled as female anything, you know what I mean?

Yes exactly! Thank you! I’m excited to share this— I learned so much. Have great rest of your Sunday!

You too!

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