Creating Stories That Matter in VR: Violeta Ayala, Rilda Paco and Maria Maria Corvera Vargas Talk PRISON X

The future is here and the team behind Prison X are ready to receive it with open arms. Prison X was part of the Sundance 2021 Film Festival and featured inside their New Frontier program. Created and made for virtual reality, Prison X is a series based in Bolivian mythology. Viewers are transported to a prison where they have to navigate between saints, devils, corrupt prison guards and more. 

Source: Prison X

Interest for a VR project began because of the accessibility and innovation that the space allowed. Violeta Ayala, director of Prison X explains, “The space was empty. There was nothing there. And you could create whatever you wanted. You could create a world in that moment.” Besides directing, Ayala also wrote, produced, and drew for the project itself. A Quechua filmmaker, Violeta was working on a documentary, Cocaine Dreams, when she became intrigued by a world that traditional cameras could not capture. She traveled to Bolivia to recruit artist friends and begin working on what would become Prison X. “ The democratization of animation has become more democratic because if before you needed 10 million or 100 million dollars, today you don’t even need one million” she says.

One of those friends was Rilda Paco, a Bolivian artist and designer. Paco is somewhat of a controversial figure in Bolivia, after painting the Virgin of Socavón in underwear. Her work, titled “The Censored Virgin” garnered so much attention that she received death threats. Working on Prison X, as the 3D illustrator, has been an experience she describes as novel. “For me, the experience has been very interesting because it’s something novel and I think it is a new tool and futuristic for art, because I am a plastic artist.” Paco saw Ayala’s invitation as a challenge because she had never explored drawing in VR, “ More than anything, I liked drawing the characters that Maria (Art Direction and Character Designer) and Violeta had created, inspired by the characters of Bolivia. So then, making every little face, clothing, every little feature and setting. Plus it was something very interesting because when you start to draw, you are alone. It is like being a void and you have to start to create something, so you can start to see it.”

Source: Prison X

Maria Corvera Vargas, Art Direction and Character Designer, was introduced to the project after meeting Violeta in Berlin. “I was in Berlin… and there was a magazine. In that magazine they talked about Maria. They talked about Maria as a fashion designer that was revolutionary!” says Ayala. Maria is known for her Neo-Andean futurist fashion work, pioneering with leftover material and ethical fashion. The two then went to the bars, where Ayala told Maria about the project. “ So then, she started telling me about what she wanted to do and she was like, devils and robots.. And I was like, and what am I going to do? It was like, okay, it sounds super interesting but I don’t know.  I don’t know what my role will be. I don’t know what it will be like. But then we met in Barcelona. So then it was like it was already decided. At first I had a little of ‘I don’t know’ because I didn’t have the experience.” recounts Maria. 

Virtual reality has no limits for the imagination. Violeta remembers when the Australian press visited her studio, “ They were imagining a Silicon Valley, and they just saw a studio with a lot of empty space, but with a computer and a headset. They asked me, just here? Especially as Latinoamericans and as Bolivians and women of the South and as descendents of Indigenous Bolivians, we have a folklore. A history that lives, that is evolving. And we can tell our own stories.” For Ayala, VR is not only the end, but a medium for creation. “It is a tool to create content. So that makes it the future. It is the way that we are writing our own visual language to use.”

Source: Prison X

But what is it like to create art in VR? Maria explains that a lot of it has to do with finding a solution to the special aesthetic in Tilt Brush, the program that the team used to construct Prison X. “For example, when we try to make the faces, you can not even imagine how hard it is to create the characters until you are there making them. It’s not like drawing, it’s like sculpting.”

“Tilt Brush is like drawing, but in air, when you make a stroke, you don’t have support. So you have to work it like it’s a sculpture, but at the same time you couldn’t mold because every brush run had to be for molding. You also couldn’t delete, let’s say, a small part that you had because the brush had to run in its entirety so it’s fast. Very complicated.” adds Paco.

Source: Prison X

There are still many technological limitations to VR, Ayala explains, “For example, the normal rigs are made for a white man and having a character like our own, in a white body, in a white skeleton, in our clothing, in our bodies, has been very complicated. We have found success in some to create our own, but because of time, and not knowing, it has been difficult creating our own. That is our next goal, our own skeletons.”

Still, Prison X has shown the team that limits don’t exist. “ Besides how lovely Prison X is, it teaches our stories, stories that perhaps have not been seen in other countries and now they will know a little bit about our country, Bolivia. And about our characters, our culture, and the problems that happen here. Prison X touches a very important subject to our country that is sadly not advancing: justice. In Bolivia we have a very corrupt justice system in which there is only justice for those that have money, or have a political role and not for people like us.” says Paco. The team brims with passion for telling a story is the specific and unique to Bolivia, both past and present.

“Our culture in Latinoamerica, in Mexico, in Bolivia, is not in a museum. We don’t need museums to tell us stories that we are living. Our culture is alive and that’s how we want it, that’s how we love it.” Ayala says.


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