Laura Ess has been creating comics in Second Life since 2008, she has been working on her Opensim project a grid called Seconds where she creates sets and works her magic. Fred Beckhusen was impressed with her work so I thought you would enjoy learning more about her and her project.
MM Please tell us about your vision. About your work.
LE I'm not so sure that vision is the right word. Many artists and writers don’t necessarily have a grand narrative as such, which drives their work. Rather, we have interests and pursuits and the work comes from exploring both. If you look at Picasso and VanGogh, they started with different techniques and subjects from that which they later had. What got them to where they went was developing and experimenting with their medium of choice.
I’ve always been interested in sequential art and storytelling since a young age. Comics is a young medium, though with a long pedigree. If you look at hieroglyphics, they are clearly forerunners of modern comics, telling stories via visual means. But you don’t have to be able to draw to create a comic, there have been photo and collage comics since the early 20th century, and virtual worlds and games can and do used to generate images for comic panels. That gives me a “purpose” in using, building, and scripting in environments like Second Life and Open Simulator. The immersive nature of these and other virtual worlds is perfect for that.
MM I see that you began in Second Life 2008 with the webcomics, what inspired you then?
LE The webcomics came a bit earlier though using SL to make them does come from that. I joined SL in February of 2007. I was fascinated with the idea of a virtual world after seeing The Matrix and Dark City at the end of the 90s, and SL was FREE, – an important point when you’re on a fixed income. Initially my experience of SL was terrible – 3 frames a minute and way too long for things to rezz, but eventually that improved with better hardware and net connection.
Now in real life I have a bit of an anxiety disorder. I tend to be a very shy around people I don’t know and subject to panic attacks and depression. Once I get to know people and places, that changes, and SL seemed like a safe place to play. At the time my main focus was the Telstra Bigpond and ABC TV regions, both of which were Australian based. Even my own university had a sim in SL! Those are all gone now and with the exception of ABC Island - which ended with a spectacular send-off party where the whole region was slowly flooded – they all seemed to die in their sleep. At the time I met and made friends with others there and participated in live events.
I loved exploring SL, which was still growing, and finding all the ways that people either emulated real life, or transcended it entirely. I also came across a machinomic (a comic made from screenshots of a video game or a virtual world/environment) called PLYWOOD. So far as I know, this is the first continuous story strip (as opposed to gag strip) made from SL. It was offline for years but can now be found on DeviantArt.
It was encouraging. I’ve had a passionate interest in sequential art since childhood, growing up in the 60s on Rupert Bear Annuals, black & white reprints of DC comics, and MAD magazines. I’d finished my Bachelors of Visual Art in 2001 and started my Honours in 2006. When that ended in 2007, getting in SL and drawing webcomics filled a gap in my life.
MM In creating your sets do you also create all your own props?
LE This has changed over the years.
When I made my first machinomic it was for a 24-hour comic event. Entrants had to produce 24 pages of comics in 24 hours. That year I was not feeling well, not up to drawing a lot of pages, and I thought that perhaps creating a comic from screenshots in SL would be an “easy” way of making 24 pages. In fact, it proved to be challenging in ways I didn’t expect.
Using a free account, I had no land of my own, and knew little about building, however I did have some knowledge about how photo and film shoots are done. I explored SL for public locations and pieced together loosely, a story. It was then a matter of dressing and posing the avatars. I had two, ELSIE BROOK and an ALT of LAUREL GALLI, but I only had one PC. Running two copies of the viewer on that was possible but incredibly laggy, so what I did was take shots for each avatar sequentially, from as much as possible, the same location and angle. Later I would composite all the shots into one image using a photo editor. My real life self-appeared in that comic as well, and it was a matter of posing myself against a blank wall in and then stripping the blank colour out, before pasting myself into a panel. I learned a lot about how to use my photo editor (back then Paintshop Pro) in those 24 hours! The result was SECOND LIFE in 2008.
While this worked, it was a fairly stressful way to do things. When I started the series RETURN TO SECOND LIFE, I had better and more PCs. Instead of one ALT, I had four. It was still very much a similar process, I had more PCs and could get 2-3 AVs online at the same time, sone times all five. The key was using one as the camera person, and that AV’s viewer would be set to a high graphic level, and the others would be set to very low levels (using less bandwidth). Initially it was still much the same, the sets were “found locations” (like a to-scale replica of the Alta Vista house) and props were either Freebies or what I could afford to buy.
Eventually I also started to build sets in sandboxes, but this was a hectic process. In SL you have a much lower limit on the number of prims in a linkset, so I’d use Builder’s Buddy scripts and have a collection of linksets that I could rezz and derezz in a sandbox. When that was complete, I’d “dress” the set and pose the AVs for scenes. Even with a four-hour limit, it was a rush to get the shots done because linksets started to derezz!
Once I went to a sandbox and found that someone had left an entire house sitting there. I quickly mobilised and used it as a set! On another occasion I shot a scene in a furniture display room because they had a dining set complete with chairs there. Careful viewpoints and cropping left the sales signs out! In that series it wasn’t only SL that I shot in. I also took shots in Proto Terra, Multiverse, IMVU, Cloud Party, Virtuality, There, Onworlds, and others. All those virtual worlds and games are gone now.
I started building sets and props in earnest when I started my Masters of Fine Art. For that I created a five-chapter graphic novel, and the bridging segments and were created using the similar process. I built sets for an apartment, and a hospital room, and props to dress it with. As it happened, I had to redraw each page again, using the shots as a guide, but it still worked well. Towards the end of the masters, I put the webcomic in hiatus until I could finish the degree. it wasn’t until 2016 that I finished that story arc.
MM How many actors do you currently have on your team?
LE At this point there’s still only me. The difference is that in SL I used ALTs to pose for everything most of the time. I did have a friend who would also pose for me and she was a basis for the Jenny Harimori character. Part of the appeal of OpenSimulator is the ability to use NPCs. I can have as many actors as I like, if they’re all dressed and posed NPCs!
I created 5.5 avatars for my Grid.: Laura Ess (owner), Master Builder (builder), Stage Manager (NPC wrangler), Script Writer (originally to write LSL but currently in retirement), and Innocent Bystander (a spare character to test Scripts on). The ½ is WiFi Admin. I was having trouble logging in and discovered that under DreamGrid you can actually login as an avatar as the WiFi password! That said, I’ve always imagined a group of primary avatars that would come and pose regular as extra and mains in the shoots. So far, that hasn’t happened.
MM Do you write all the skits with a story-line or is it ad lib?
LE Return to Second Life was 80% ad lib, and shares that with another webcomic of mine, Tales Of The Galli. At the time my intent was to do each with as much enthusiasm possible and as quickly as possible, in the belief that it would keep me “artistically fresh”. I was deliberately wanting to think on my feet.
I had a general direction and purpose for that story, but every time I’d work on it, I tended to make the scenes up as I went along. At the same time, I wouldn’t just do a shoot of one image or scene. I’d take dozens of shots for each scene and often do multiple scenes on a day. I’d be focused on that entirely. Afterwards I’d come back and composite the source material and add the text and dialogue, and that’s where the adlibbing would come in. In the end I’d produce anywhere between 10 to 30 pages of comic at a time, from well over a hundred shots. I’d release those one at a time about two days apart. That gave me time to work on the next set of pages.
With the new story II wrote a script for about a dozen pages. So far though, I haven’t even made one page of that. I’ve been entirely distracted with building and learning scripting.
MM Please tell us about your sets, what are you building?
LE There’s two or three levels of sets.
The first is background where you don’t need a complete 3D thing, just an exterior walls and roof to appear in the background. There’s also the detailed set, where you build everything to the point of having internal walls, doors, windows et al, but not any props as such. The Buggle-Praxis Base is just such a set. The last a dressed set. This is a detailed set but you have props in the areas you’re shooting in.
The difference between an average SL/OS build and a set is that no one’s going to be living in the set, or using it regularly so you don’t have to have every detail in every room or location on the set, you simply place the props when you need them. Props of course is stuff that can be moved. A chair for example might be shifted, whereas a sign on the wall is less likely to be moved between scenes shot there. In the past I tended to confuse these, and spent lots of time putting detail in locations that might only appear in the distant background, or never even be used. Now I’m more focused on building sets that appear in the next story
In a way I’m building everything, even when that might be placing a freebie, because it has to be placed in the right location, and be surrounded by the right context. I’ve built landing pads, floating warehouses, an airport, control towers, three types of student dormitories, a huge university admin build complete with underground car park, a railway workshop, a flax / hemp process plant; and modded freebies to make pubs and shops, most of a university, a hybrid floating city from Hax Envir freebies, and a lot else. And the thing is, 10 years ago I didn’t think I could do any of this! Practice makes perfect.
MM Will you be filming a movie with your actors?
LE That would be a machina rather than machinomic. Animating in synch is much more complicated than static posing. For now, I’ll settle for sequential art. I have just one video I created years ago for a GOOD GAME contest, where Elsie got zombified.
MM Will your sets be mobile? Or will you focus on your grid only?
LE That’s a good question. Sets like the detailed Buggle-Praxis Base set (a floating base divided between commercial and academic activities) which lives in a 512x512 region, has 21 linksets and a few thousand prims in it, probably not. But smaller sets, like the Buggle-Alpha Base (which started in SL and I’ve recreated in my grid) maybe. Originally, I used Builder’s Buddy scripts to rezz and derezz, so they could be taken to somewhere else and rezzed in a sandbox are.
MM I see in your scripts you often mix Real Life situations with virtual, an extension of who you are. That is how I see myself too, an extension of my real life. I have had persons say to me “We all hide behind the avatar”. I have never thought that. I like to think we represent our real-life selves. Please share with us about you, what you want to convey to the world.
LE I grew up with a mix of disabilities. I had meningitis when I was two, and had epilepsy for a dozen years after an accident when I was eight. Both of hose must have affected me in ways other the obvious (i.e., seizures), but it’s hard to describe the difference. I used to be a tad aggressive when frustrated, and the fear of seizures led me (as a child and adolescent) to believe that I had a monster inside of me. Perhaps we all do, but some are more obvious than others.
A more obvious thing, at least for people who knew me from before, is that I’m what I call a post-trans woman. That is, I’m transgender woman and my gender transition was completed well in the past. Because of the fears I carried over from years of epilepsy, I didn’t transition until I was 37. Being trans in some respects can be considered a social disability rather than a physical one, but only because of how others treat one on discovering that. In some places you can get assaulted or killed for being trans and in the US just now trans people seem to be the “easy targets” for those still upset that there’s marriage equality.
Thankfully I live in Australia, and while it was a big thing in my life when I finally started transition back in 1994, there comes a time when being trans is only one part of who I am, and never the whole. I mean, I’m also a neopagan (a follower of the Goddess Cybele), and I have a Masters in Visual Art, but neither of those defines the entirety of who I am. Being trans doesn’t either.
The thing about virtual worlds of course is that they can be a great leveller. When I was more active in SL, I was a member of GIMP GIRL which was group for disabled women. I found that a great community for me to be a part of, as were the trans support groups I found there as well. Really though, most folk in virtual worlds don’t care who you are in the Real World / Meat Space – rather they care about what you do in the virtual space.
MM Please share with us about “Seconds” and the link too please.
LE In general the next story will revolve around the Buggle brothers (inspired by the band) and their friends and associates. The Buggles have joined together with Praxis U (a university from a different virtual reality, introduced in the previous story) to rebuilt a base in the Void. However, some of them, like Octobriana, are missing, and others are at Praxis U. New characters are coming in, and there will be a clash of intents and character arcs in the offing!
MM How many regions does your virtual world have? Please tell us about your DreamGrid by Fred Beckhusen.
LE SECONDS originally started as a build using an out-of-the-box version of OpenSim. That was OK, but I had several PCs at home at and I wanted to be able to log on from any of them. So, then I tried the DIVA distro and that was OK as well, to a point, but kept crashing for unknown reasons. Eventually I went over to using DreamGrid because it was server based so I could log on anywhere, not just my home network. There were a lot of hiccups along the way, but Fred has developed and debugged Dream grid over a number of years and it’s very stable now.
The SECONDS GRID has over a hundred 512x512 regions, but they’re not all running at the same time! Instead, I have region groups of between 6 to 15 regions each. The Seconds and Seconds Crew region groups are always running, but others are turned on only when I’m building in them or am shooting something there, or using them to experiment in. The regions are the locations where I build most of the sets.
For the current story arc there are four main areas of region groups that are relevant. The first is the Urbania Archipelago which consists of four main islands and divided into a dozen region groups. To the west of this like the Buggle Islands where some main characters of the comic come from. The next group is Void Space which is like an “inter-zone” with other virtual worlds and at the moment has nine regions. All builds in the Void float in the sky above the cloud layer (about 1200m up). Lots of the story will be set there one way or another. Finally, we have Praxis University which is (in the story) only accessible via the Void. Praxis U is about 9 regions large, and Praxis and the Buggle Brothers have joint interest in a newly built base in the Void. Other areas come from previous comic series of mine. Future Imperfect was an experiment in building spacecraft on a realistic basis for an old webcomic I created in the early 2000s. That remains offline until I finish the current story arc, which hasn’t even started yet.
The Seconds and Seconds Crew groups are always online. The first is for visitors including two sandboxes for them, and the second is for building by the Seconds Crew group (all my avatars). Also at the moment is a six-region group online for playing around with railway scripting.
MM What set are you building currently?
LE The long running build – this is version three – is the Buggle-Praxis Base. This will be a main set for most of the current story arc. Because of that I’ve built it in 21 different linksets. If I want to shoot its exterior, I leave everything in place, but if I want to shoot a scene in one of the interiors, I can just a linkset out and it makes it easier to place props and characters.
Recently I felt I’d gone stale on this, so I started an exercise in building modular commercial units. I found that if they were built correctly, it was a simple matter to expand them. Then I built a factory based on a real life one in the outlying suburb I live in.
And very recently I’ve started looking at trains and train scripts that work in OpenSim grids. I’ve always had an interest in the railways. My father was a train guard, and other relatives (including various ancestors have work in the railways in various capacities. It was only natural that I have an interest in trains. In any case I’d already built track and infrastructure in Seconds purely as backdrop. All ornamental but I found scripted trains in the Hypergrid, and an old VRC open-source train script, and decided to try them out. Imagine my surprise that – with a little track renaming – the scripts worked in my grid! Not only could I drive an engine, but it would even cross region borders! So, I’ve been playing around with that at the moment. I’ve never been much good with either Blender or LSL scripting, but I’m finding that this is a great way to learn both!
MM Will you have classes to teach others of your work?
LE Classes, no. I’m sure there’s any number of scripters out there that can write code far better than I can, and builders that can built faster and more accurately than me. I guess what I have is enthusiasm for what I do get into, and know from experience that most artists have that. The difference is staying on course and finishing things. Persistence pays off!
So no classes, however I created a group on MeWe called the Opensim Transport Engineers Guild to share what I found out. And even if I’m fumbling around with things, I’m posting about it so others can see, and maybe participate in the discussion as well
MM How do you envision “Seconds” five years from now?
LE I don’t know. I’m hoping to start production on the new story arc before the end of the year (2021). Everything takes SO LONG for me. I have lots of “down time” due to health issues where the most I can do is watch old episodes of Doctor Who. That being the case, I’m already 2 years late on my original schedule. I’ve been working on this for at least four years. I’m 64 this year and hopefully all this activity is helping to stave of dementia!
So, in five years’ time, when I’m 68, I hope to have several Seconds created comic stories done, I’d like to have more freebies for folk to run off and play with. I’ve already been asked to put an “OpenSim Train Kit” together with scripts and examples, and I haven’t even finished coding and learning to do that yet! It would be great to have others participating in all that, but I want to get these stories out!
MM What would you like to share that I perhaps, forgot to ask?
LE Well maybe I can share an observation of mine, culled in part from practitioners like Scott McCloud (who wrote a couple of definitive works about sequential art, in graphic novel format). It’s that there’s a difference between craft and art.
CRAFT is all about learning and exercising skill to get a particular effect or result, in building or creating something. There’s a lot of craft possible in Second Life and OpenSim, but there’s also a lot of laziness as well. You can buy and/or get stuff for free and just use it as is, rather than figuring out how to build and script yourself. There’s nothing wrong with that, Second Life created an internal economy that inspired folk to create and sell stuff, and that relies on folk who want to pay for content. That happens a bit less in OpenSimulator, but at the very least it’s good to use stuff other than that created by one of two creators.
ART to a certain degree includes Craft – you have to know how to do something before you know why – but transcends it by re purposing the result, reusing it in a way not immediately apparent to a craft goal. Doing it yourself, even if you stuff up, can be much more satisfying (but difficult) to do. I used to watch a local TV show called GOOD GAME not because I was playing video games a lot – mostly it’s puzzles and simulations – but because I could see the ART created within those games.
So, I seek to create art – sequential art – using virtual worlds to do so. And I rejoice in seeing evidence of this by others in virtual environments as well.
Second Life 24 Hour Comic: http://seconds.thecomicseries.com/comics/11/
Tales of The Galli: http://totg-mirror.thecomicseries.com/comics/1/
Good Game Zombie Entry: https://youtu.be/Bb33bef3zCw.
Seconds Grid: http://secondsdw.outworldz.net:8002/
Mari entered OpenSim in 2015 as a resident of a grid in Canada, called to manage their magazine as an Editor, thereby meeting her future partner Reyn Softly.