Ottawa Animation Festival: Paloma Dawkins takes viewers on wild VR ride through Museum of Symmetry

Under the sea with the Museum of Symmetry. Courtesy National Film Board

Q. Paloma Dawkins it’s nice to meet you by email. Can you tell me a bit about you?

A. I was born and raised in Ottawa. I learned how to skate before learning how to bike … and I went to Jack Layton’s funeral. I ended up in Montreal because I was about to go to Concordia University’s animation program after printmaking at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design,  but the classes seemed a bit slow paced for me so I decided to drop out and stay in Montreal to learn French while I experimented with animation. My French still sucks though.

Q. How and why did you get involved in animation?

A. I love to draw; it’s the only thing that chills me out. I am kind of a frantic person to be honest and I like 2D animation because it’s just drawing for eternity, so zen. I think about my subject matter the same way: What would I like to stare at for several hours? So I draw a lot of plants and mandalas and symmetrical things.

I started drawing digitally because I was pressed for money to buy materials after dropping out of school. Printmaking is super expensive so instead I just traded for an old tablet on Bunz and drew stuff on photoshop. I applied to a contest once to animate for Deadmau5 and Imogen Heap and so I worked on a video for a while. Then I got accepted to Hothouse 9 with the National Film Board and have not stopped animating since.

In the clouds with Museum of Symmetry. Courtesy National Film Board.

Q. Do you like to explore the technology?

A. I don’t really like exploring technology tbh. I find that too much dependence on computers and phones gives me anxiety. I approach technologies with a vision and I am happy to make discoveries along the way but I prefer to stay focussed. I’d say I prefer to explore human interaction and natural systems and structures more. I want to explore how we can use technology to create a better future for us on the Earth.

Q. This is a VR project. Can you tell me how you got involved in this field? Was it hard to learn? What does it offer you, as an artist?

A. I have made games before so it was an easy transition. You just have to download the right prefabs in Unity. I think the extra dimension of space offers some interesting storytelling opportunities. In games, you are still with the “frame.” You have a lot more control as a developer over the storytelling, it’s more linear. But in VR it’s all around you and way more sculptural? There is zero control over where the audience is looking. That’s cool, it’s like a garden.

Q. Can you tell me about the Museum of Symmetry? Is it “an absurdist mind-and-body romp through the highest clouds to the ocean deep” as the festival suggests?

A. Yeah it’s a series of spaces or “gardens” that are meant to be experienced in order.

(Spoiler alert)First space is the void. It’s dark which represents fear. What do you do when you are afraid? Lighten up. Boom, fire. Fire goes up. Next you take your fire and go up into the sky. Things are kinda iffy in the sky, this level represents confusion which is why the girl is saying random things. But anything is possible, so the next thing you know you are being transported to another dimension by a spider. Gaia shows you her Gardens. The garden represents balance, which is shown through the two gardens, day and night. In the night garden you are helping a bird of paradise throw a lit party, but in the day garden you meet a stubborn mouse that thinks you are wrecking her garden. It’s a matter of perspective. The mouse cries an ocean and you ride manta rays to the finish line. Water represents rebirth, so you start over.

Paloma Dawkins

Q. You are breaking down frontiers in your work? Where do you want to go next?

A. I don’t know really, I prefer to keep my ear to the ground versus my head in the clouds but I definitely want to make some films and comic books in the near future … always about nature.

Q. The gaming world is not necessarily a friendly place for a woman. Is that the same for animation? Is that even an issue that concerns you.

A. It’s pretty okay. It’s just harder to find female collaborators. I love working with women. If you are a woman or femme and want to work with me, hit me up.

Museum of Symmetry by Paloma Dawkins will be screened Sept. 27 to 30. For information of times and location:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.