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Bent Image Lab Relocates to the Metaverse, Offers Tours to Annecy Attendees

Trever Stewart is taking over the commercial division of the venerable Portland animation studio, and has moved its half-acre facility completely to the metaverse, and is letting festival attendees – with priority on portfolio reviews – don headsets and tour the 3D digital world and creative universe his prolific team now calls home.  

After more than 20 years of creating CG and stop-motion-animated television, commercials, visual effects, music videos and short films from their studio in Portland, Oregon, Bent Image Lab has been moved to the metaverse.

Trever Stewart – best known for his production work on films like Coraline and Anomalisa, as well as TV series like Community and consulting for the National Film Board of Canada – meticulously scanned the physical studio in Portland, and is moving it to the metaverse. 

“I liquidated everything,” says Stewart. “That half an acre of a studio, which has been there for 25 years, is now no longer there. It’s in the metaverse. It’s where we have all our meetings, all our brainstorming sessions, and even sculpt and do our character design reviews. We're making eye contact with each other. My production designer is in LA right now and we're going to have a meeting in about an hour and a half, where we put those stupid headsets on and we're back in the studio examining 3D models. Every single thing that we would have done in a physical studio we're now doing in the metaverse.”

Normally only open to clients and employees, Bent Image Lab is opening up its metaverse doors for Annecy International Animation Film Festival attendees this week as Stewart attends the festival with headsets and joysticks in tow so students and creatives can schedule meetings where he takes them on a tour of the metaverse. Students needing portfolio reviews get priority.

Meetings are available now, June 10, through Wednesday, June 12. To set up a meeting, those interested should send an email request to with basic availability. The portfolios need to be PNG files and limited to three pieces. Portfolio reviews are being conducted by Ean McNamara, who is famous for his work on Coraline, ParaNorman, Kubo and the Two Strings, and other LAIKA productions. He’s now Bent’s creative director. 

Chel White, who is also featured in Annecy’s program this year in the History, Mystery, Odyssey: 6 Portland Animators documentary, will join the portfolio review sessions. 

“It’ll be 2:30 in the morning for my team in the states and they’ll be in the metaverse studio with those headsets, waiting to meet people from France who just happen to be walking around the floor and who have interest in portfolio reviews,” says Stewart. “They’ll email me their portfolio and, within two seconds, I’ll have their portfolio in the metaverse. Suddenly these unknown students are getting on the radar of major studio producers. I have meetings set up where people think they’re just going to see the metaverse, but me and my team have done some digging on these people, in a good way, and will have customized the metaverse to be a completely personalized experience.”

In the fall, the studio will also open to the general public. 

“They will meet the real employees actually working in that space,” says Stewart. “It’s cool and kind of spooky. I don't know if this is sustainable, honestly. But it’s happening either way. And what better people to do this than animators and filmmakers who are well-versed in metaverse tools? It’s how we’ve make our living. I've used this technology for six years. I've used this on Netflix movies and had to learn VR technology ever since it was available. Now, I bought a studio and I'm teaching everybody to use it.”

Co-founded by former Will Vinton Studios directors David Daniels and Chel White alongside former Vinton production designer Ray Di Carlo, Bent has become known for its stop-motion work on animated holiday specials for the Hallmark Channel – such as the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 50th anniversary spots and the Robert Smigel's Saturday TV Funhouse parody Blue Christmas – and animated rats segments for Portlandia, as well as commercials for LEGO, Gatorade, Lux, and OfficeMax.

Bent’s CG work can be seen in the 2015 Annie Awards-nominated Polariffic, as well as in their commercials for Honda, Nike, Coca-Cola, Koodo, Nabisco, Puffs, and the American Lung Association. The company is also known for its visual effects work in motion pictures and television, as seen in Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, Restless and Milk, in Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, as well as NBC's Grimm TV series. Fittingly enough, Bent also worked on tech development in augmented reality (AR).

“David Daniels, Chel White, and Ray Di Carlo, the original founders, have kicked ass for 22 years, and now they want to explore other creative projects,” shares Stewart. “For two decades they've had millions of dollars a year of business, but the commercial division was poised to fade off into the sunset and I couldn’t let that happen. There was too much history there.”

He explains, “In 1974, this Portland hippie, Will Vinton, with a 16-millimeter camera, shot a short film made out of clay, Closed Mondays, and it won the Academy Award in 1975. That’s when the animation industry in Portland was born. Then LAIKA bought Will Vinton Studios, Daniels and everyone started Bent, and the rest is history.”

But Stewart – who has worked with LAIKA and Bent for a number of years – wants to keep its history alive, alongside his co-executive producer and former LAIKA development executive Amanda Bennett.

“The metaverse can be stupid,” notes Stewart. “I’ll be the first to admit that. But it’s working for us in a huge way. It’s free and, instead of a zoom call, we’re standing in the middle of a Maya viewport with 3D assets as animated versions of ourselves. It’s awesome. Once they got past having to put on a headset and learn these controls, people started apologizing to me, saying, ‘I’m sorry I ever doubted this.’ They’re animators and they can’t believe we can do a shot list of a scene by walking though it with a virtual camera.”

The ability to jump into a virtual space with fellow Bent animators to build and brainstorm animated projects in real time has saved the studio time; it also offers more flexibility in the meetings to relax and enjoy the process rather than constantly racing against the clock because of back-and-forth emails and waiting to schedule flights to a physical space. However, in all the jokes, banter and fun, Stewart still expects professional, serious approaches to everything they do in the metaverse, which could otherwise be a lawless wasteland. 

“I’ve kicked employees out for coming to a meeting as a purple dragon,” says Stewart. “That’s not what this is.”

Despite all the ways working in the metaverse makes life easier, there should be no mistake in thinking that developing this process has been easy. 

“It is software agnostic,” explains Stewart. “There is not a single piece of software that exists right now that gets my company into the metaverse. In order to do that, we do what we call ‘daisy chaining.’ Back in the old days, kids would make bracelets or crowns for each other at recess by tying daisy stems together one knot at a time. We’re doing the same thing, but instead of daisies, we’re chaining together a dozen different computer programs into a pipeline based on the functionality of each one of those programs to make one big program. We're just a bunch of little kids on the fucking prairie daisy chaining our way to the metaverse.”

They’ve used a number of programs, from Photoshop to Blender, but Maya is at the core of Bent’s daisy-chained pipeline. They use Gravity Sketch to invite clients into a room with the animation supervisor, director, lighting artists, and others to review 3D models and designs. 

“In that room, it's like a fucking theme park,” says Stewart. “You can touch the models, reshape them, change the color, adjust the number of sesame seeds on a cheeseburger, whatever you want. It takes so much less time this way to figure out what’s in a client’s heart and what they are looking for.”

Bent has also signed a production deal for a feature film with Guillermo del Toro’s studio in Guadalajara, Taller Del Chucho. Not much can be said about the project as of yet, but the film was previously set up at Disney for the past three years and was at HBO before that for 10 years.

“It's such a controversial film that Disney decided it wasn't something they could put their name on,” shares Stewart. “I can also tell you we’re working with an A-list director. But I can’t share the name just yet.”

Stewart says that, though he can’t say much more about the film, he is bringing a maquette of the film’s director to Annecy.

“I’m purposefully trying to get this information leaked without actually saying anything,” Stewart admits. “It’s such a recognizable director. So I’m hoping people put two and two together. I’ll say this last thing. He’s been one of the world’s biggest directors for the last 50 years and he’s coming out of retirement to do this film he wrote.”

On top of partnering with Taller Del Chucho on the feature, Stewart says the relationship goes back to the heart of Bent Image Lab. Though there may no longer be a physical studio, Bent is still passionate about one of film’s most tangible art forms: stop-motion. And wants to use the metaverse to bridge the gap between all their animation departments. 

“Taller Del Chucho is our creative partner in Guadalajara, then we have our all-Black CG animation team in Canada, not to mention our hand-drawn animation team and artists in Portland,” Stewart explains. “Bent Image Lab is using the metaverse to connect all our creative partners here and abroad. It doesn’t matter where they are in the world, we can all be in one room together, working with assets to make these shows.”

Speaking to those with any apprehension toward AI and VR technology, Stewart offers this last food for thought. 

“AI has pulled the wool off of everyone's eyes,” he notes. “It said, ‘Hey, guys. Animation’s cheap now. You no longer have to pay half a million dollars for commercials. You can now pay your $22 a month subscription to Sora.’ In a couple of weeks, maybe a couple of months or a couple of years, clients will realize how cheap animation is now because of AI. All our budgets are going to get cut, as we’ve already seen. Pixar laid off 14 percent of its staff. Their animation is in the news but all the scaffolding is broken. I had three or four contacts at Sony who I reached out to and none of them are there anymore. If we want to survive in this marketplace, we have to find a way to compete with AI. I think the answer is the metaverse. I’m going to take one computer and pit it against another.” 

Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at