Chocolate, which transforms you into a robot with cat launchers for hands, surrounded by waves of luminescent landscapes and giant-sized champagne-popping big poppa cats. Like Tyler’s previous acclaimed virtual reality creation Old Friend for the eponymous Future Islands song, Chocolate is an interactive music experience — this time set to tune of Bay Area artist Giraffage’s song of the same name. When I sat down with Tyler for the latest episode of Making Ways, my podcast all about the unexpected paths to a creative career, we talked about his passion for music and how it informs the sensory-charged experiences he creates, the origin story of his breakout “flattie” turned VR staple, BUTTS, and his near-decade-long run at San Francisco’s Double Fine Productions. Tyler’s story is an inspiring one, so tune in to learn more about how he went from a Toy Story-loving kid to a VR pioneer.
One of the most helpful takeaways I gleaned from Tyler’s story is his “just start” mentality, which pushed him to leave advertising behind and embark on what has been the happiest, most fulfilling part of his career so far. Without further ado, here is how a “just start” outlook ignited Tyler’s career and creativity — and why you should consider just starting a project of your own too.
Frustration Breeds Expression
Tyler left a comfortable job at renowned video game studio Double Fine Productions to pursue a career making music videos and short films in New York City, but the grim reality of that path became abundantly clear rather quickly. “My main goal [when I moved to NYC] was to make my own stuff, not to work in advertising, and. . .I was really pumped to work on these really cool short films and music videos that I had seen. But then I got out there, and people were like, ‘What? You can’t do that. There’s no money in that.’ So it was a little bit of an eye-opener when I arrived and found out my dream was a little further away then I thought.” To make a living, Tyler took up commercial character design and animation, working for a handful of advertising firms in the city, but the work left something to be desired.
Frustration with his enervating career motivated Tyler to be as expressive and imaginative as possible outside of work, and he began to create what would become BUTTS. Tyler explains the origin story of his short: “I was lying awake at night, and I had this idea of a character cheering another character up by pulling confetti out of their ass. And that was the spark that started BUTTS. . . .I said to myself, ‘I’m just going to start making it.’ I don’t care how it looks or how it moves.’ There were so many roadblocks in my life at the time that I felt like I didn’t have the resources to make the things I wanted to. It was this “just start” mentality that got things moving the most.”
Although he didn’t realize it that night, Tyler’s decision to “just start” working on his project echoed a piece of advice he received before leaving San Francisco for New York City. He had yearned to pursue his own projects but was immobilized by challenges real and imagined. He recalled, “I had these ideas for projects that were not video games, and the advice was, ‘You’ve got a lot of reasons why you aren’t doing this, but why don’t you just start. . .and see what happens. There are always ways to get around all these things that you are worried about.’” While he didn’t put it into practice right away, this advice was exactly what Tyler needed that fateful night in New York to move past his fears and get to work.
Once he got started on BUTTS, the project built momentum and eventually went virtual. While BUTTS started out as a “flattie” (anything on a screen that isn’t VR), Patrick Hackett and Drew Skillman, Tyler’s old coworkers from Double Fine who had started their own VR prototyping and development shop (and the creators of Tilt Brush, later acquired by Google), encouraged Tyler to port his short film into an immersive world. Tyler agreed, mostly because he wanted to learn the game engine software Unity, and created assets for Patrick and Drew. They began showing Tyler’s work around in San Francisco, but Tyler still hadn’t actually seen his creation in VR. Months later, Tyler finally got his hands on an Oculus DK2 and saw his characters in VR. “When I got to see these characters that I had spent so many hours just looking at on a screen, it was like they were alive, physical things in front of me. I kind of freaked out as an animator: ‘I can bring things to life and they’ll actually be alive and look at me in the eyes.’ So that was the thing I was most excited about at that point.” Inspired, Tyler put his other pursuits on hold and went all in on virtual reality.
Go to your happy place
It’s easy to get bogged down in deciding which project you should pursue, especially if you’re in a soul-sucking day job. What worked for Tyler — and is great advice for anyone — was to follow the joy. Tyler said, “When I was making BUTTS, I didn’t intend to even show it to anyone. I was making this thing for myself. And it was something that every time I started on it would make me happy. I would be doing things, and they would make me laugh. Whenever I’m giggling at my own work, I know I’m going in the right direction.”
When you experience Tyler’s work, it’s clear that his point of view and imagination are uniquely his own. That that uniqueness comes through in his final products is by design. Tyler’s VR projects BUTTS and Old Friend taught him that making things for himself was more important than making them for other people’s expectations. “If you’re making something that is purely for yourself,” Tyler explains, “Chances are that. . .you are going to end up with a much more personal piece of art that people can really see you in. Especially for animation, that’s really important, to make it personal.”
Following his personal joy is paying off well for Tyler. His work continues to draw critical praise and win esteemed awards. But most importantly, it brings smiles to countless faces — offering a break from the stress of daily life (and maybe from those less-than-perfect jobs too) to celebrate the absurd, to dance, and to giggle.
Overcoming the fear of faceplanting
After you build up the momentum to charge into new creative territory, there’s still a great big roadblock to overcome: yourself. The fear of failure Tyler faced is something most of us deal with from time to time. The danger lies in letting that fear stifle creativity and keep opportunities at bay. Tyler shared, “I was originally very timid about creating my own things. I was very scared to do it. . . .My worst fear was someone thinking my work sucked. It was like I was opening up this giant sensitive creative wound, and then someone would just be poking at it.”
Tyler kept at it though, finally premiering his absurd short BUTTS, and was almost immediately rewarded for it. “I had this very neurotic experience releasing BUTTS to Vimeo, but then it went from zero to a hundred thousand views in a couple of weeks, and it became clear that, ‘Oh, this is a thing that people are passing around at animation schools, and people are responding to it. I can make this nonsense that makes me laugh, and other people want to see it too.”
So don’t let your own insecurities limit you. At worst you faceplant and live to fight another day; at best you go on to, in Tyler’s case, one day win Best Animation at the Kaleidoscope World Tour.
Whether you are pursuing a career in virtual reality or simply want to escape a mundane 9-to-5 to pursue what you love doing: Just. Get. Started. And if it’s VR that you crave, UploadVR even offers introductory courses to kick you into gear.
Chocolate was made with support from Viacom NEXT, Old Friend presented by Wevr, and to learn more about Tyler’s work, visit www.tylerhurd.com. Be sure to subscribe to Making Ways on iTunes and SoundCloud, and find out more at www.makingways.co.