Interview conducted and written by Clonia Charite (Film, ‘20).
Illustration done by Paige Hood (Illustration, '20).
Into the first year of the world’s first and only VR Development program, I sat down with Morgan Woolverton, the head of the pioneering department at Ringling College of Art and Design.
Sure, he’s the first to head up a VR BFA program. But who is he? And what does he have in store for the major? Let’s see what he has to say.
Your student experience includes the University of North Carolina School of the Arts as a high schooler, Hampshire College, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. How were you as a student?
Well, high school was a big deal since it was a conservatory school with a dormitory. It was rigorous with hours of figure drawing and academics. But, there were a lot of thought-provoking, incredible projects. The most memorable was called the light and sound project during our senior year. At that point, everyone was exploring their own niche and able to be really creative, and these projects were happening all across campus. Mine was a dance piece on an abandoned field with dancers that were friends of mine, glowing lights, and music. When I first got there as a student, I think I was pretty narrow-minded, but by the end, through the community of other students and certainly by the time we got to the sound and light project, I just saw the world completely differently.
I struggled as a student. I was not a star but I think I did okay. Hampshire College, Massachusetts wasn’t an art school but I learned a lot about culture. I never really lived in the northeast and it was just a whole different experience. I learned a lot and made some really strong friendships. Graduate school was just all about the work, really trying to figure out what I want to say as the artist. Spending hours in front of the canvas just trying to work out those issues, but again I struggled. It was not an easy experience for me, but I think my thesis turned out great.
Looking at your portfolio, I see that you have worked on Nancy Drew and Forza 2, a racing game, and then fantasy games before working on Halo. What makes you decide which game you want to work on next?
When I was in the industry, I saw that you really had to build. If you just do one thing, you leave yourself vulnerable. If you are static, you’re not really experiencing different levels of video game development. As a result, you’re not exposed to different attitudes of game making. I saw it as a mission. I was very fortunate to work on adventure games, racing games, action RPG, and science fiction shooters. It is a very big broad range that I’ve worked on but it gave me a really good perspective on working with different designers who have different priorities.
How were the priorities of these games different?
Nancy Drew is about storytelling and education. One of the mandates was we had to teach our users, or players, things…real things in the real world and also how to tell a good story so your art had to reflect those values. Whereas Halo is about working in the tightest art direction in the world. One of the most beloved franchises with the most stringent and careful guidelines for how to create art. That was really important. So, each one of those games were brought with a different set of challenges and adapting to that each time was character building and skill building.
What do you learn by working in different genres?
If I had to sum it up, I would say I really know what my bones know, like good art does not sell a game, but it has to be a really good experience. So, everybody has to come together to make that experience an amazing one. It’s the designers, sound engineers, the artists, the animators...all those things sort of roll together to create that experience. And as much as you always want to feel like that you’re a part of it is the most important part but it’s not; it has to contribute significantly, it’s not a one-act circus.
How do you feel about being the first head of a virtual reality BFA program?
I try not to think about that too much. It kind of gets in the way of what I have to do...just because it is daunting when you think about that historical element to it. So, mostly I spend time thinking about the user experiences with VR and trying to understand as best as I can who’s doing the important work now. What and where is it really located in terms of societal values and trying to sort of make the department reflect that.
Is your vision for the VR program different from the Game Art program?
They’re very different. You know I think that you can definitely join the Game Art department and do VR if you want to make games, but if you’re joining the VR department it’s because you want to use the VR medium to express different ideas that might be about creating or solving problems in the world. It may be that you want to use VR to help you understand some esoteric philosophical fine art ideas that you’re chasing down. Or maybe it’s a concrete, rational thing you are trying to solve. VR can simultaneously be pragmatic and design-oriented, and that’s mostly where we are trying to locate the program. I want to give space for people that want to use it in a different and unexpected way.
My vision for Game Art is that I want to prepare students for the industry and I want them to also get an education that will last them ten, twenty, thirty years down the line. I mean there are learning skills that you need to know right now to get into the industry but then there are soft skills that I like to call “thinking behind the content,” which include visual development, the way that you sort of construct your ideas, your imagination, etc. I want the things they learn here to be constantly coming back and supporting them as an artist. Those are my short term and long term goals.
Playstation or Xbox? Alternate between both of them
Call of Duty or Halo? Halo!!!
Turkey or Ham? Turkey
VR, AR, or MR? Umm, all of them but VR for personal work that I am trying to accomplish artistically
Text, Call, or Email? Email
Books, Audiobooks, or Ebooks? Audiobooks
Outside or Inside? Inside
Atari or Nintendo? Atari