For many of us, the annual Society for Animation Studies (SAS) conference is more than an opportunity to share research. We get to meet friends that we do not see any other time. Their ideas inspire us and their enthusiasm recharges us for the year ahead, none more so than Millie Young.  I left the 2023 conference with renewed energy as a scholar working in immersive animation. There was much to be excited about. Numerous papers addressed different aspects of immersive animated experience – domes, presence, projection mapping, virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR). Tom Edgar proposed a new Immersive Animation Special Interest Group. Lynn Tomlinson organized a stop motion dome workshop for the whole conference to animate together. Then there was the screening in Rowan university’s Edelman Planetarium. In each of these exciting panels, breakfast conversations, creative collaborations and screenings, Millie – and her work – were essential.

Figure 1. From left to right; Millie Young, Tim Jones and Kath O’Connor at Lynn Tomlinson’s stop motion workshop, July 2023. Photo by Lynn Tomlinson.

To say I was looking forward to seeing Millie at the Sydney conference is an understatement. In the fall of 2023, inspired by the sharing of ideas at Rowan, my own immersive animation research took an important change in direction – from VR to fulldome, from real-time CGI to stop motion and pixilation. I began to take a close look at the recent history of dome animation, and quickly gained an appreciation for just how much Millie’s approach and aesthetic set her apart. With its origins in planetarium practice, fulldome animation is a surprisingly traditional and precision-focused field, and Millie would have none of that! As a professor with a classroom full of students abandoning VR headsets for the apparent freedom and accessibility of dome animation. Millie’s arguments about balancing individual choice with collective experience was both challenging and intriguing.

Accordingly I wanted to frame my thoughts on Millie’s animation and practice-based research as a list of questions that she has left me pondering. I present these as an indication of the fantastic work and energy she brought to our field, and the space that she leaves behind.

Figure 2. Elephant, Elephant, Elephant (2021), dome version 2023. Image courtesy of Lynn Tomlinson.

What is the potential of artist-driven immersive animation?

Part of what set Millie apart – as both an animator and educator – was her independence. She was fascinated by rapidly evolving VR tools – and especially head-mounted displays for 360 animation. However, as she sets out in the introduction to her PhD thesis (2020), she took a contrarian approach to immersive experience. Instead of focusing on “technical competency” and “hyper-reality” like much gaming and computer-generated VR,  she was focused on the interplay of the filmmaker and newfound audience freedom to look around. She both understood the evolving technical conventions of composing for 360 space, and also placed this in a context of artist-driven practice – from William Kentridge to Joanna Quinn. For many of us, this provided a valuable entry point to immersive animation aesthetics, and her work served as an effective bridge between different research communities.

Why do we need handmade dome animation?

Given her work in VR, I was very excited when she also turned her attention to dome animation. Like many artists experimenting with 360 video,  Millie felt limited by the isolating form factor of head-mounted displays (HMDs):

One is individually goggled, setting the audience (of one) into a singular (vulnerable to the outside world) self-driven immersive space, a place the innovators claim is limited only by the user’s imagination… If stories are experienced individually, will they be shared? (Young 2020: 4).

This took her into fulldome cinema because of its potential for creating collective audience experiences in shared physical spaces. Yet here too, she took a contrarian approach. As with VR, most of the literature focuses on technology – interfaces derived from the planetarium – and ever greater fidelity in scientific visualization. Millie instead insisted on rough and gestural line work, highlighting flaws and edges:

The traditions of handcrafted drawings, the essence of mark-making and our proclivity to interpret and understand gestures open the immersion potential to a more organic, textual and spiritual reading (Young 2018: 20).

Watching Millie’s animation Elephant, Elephant Elephant! (2023)play across the planetarium screen, I immediately appreciated the differences that Millie described between 360 and dome practice. What was in a headset an intimate, playful even frenetic experience, was imposing and physically demanding at scale. Not only were Millie’s gestures and rough edges now much larger, each audience member was conscious of the different places to look and our shared location in an abstract circus tent.

In the months after the conference, it was rewarding to examine what it was that Millie was doing, the poetic and spiritual implications she was continuing to explore, as Las Vegas commercial and spectacular dome cinema otherwise dominate the conversation. I wanted to know more. Now it is instead tragic to reflect that this was just the beginning. What would have come next in Millie’s handmade dome practice? As difficult as it is to ponder this, I feel it is essential for us to do so and to continue to work on the challenges that were so central to her practice-based research. What does it mean to understand the collective spaces of animated domes as poetic or spiritual environments? And, ultimately, what does the balance between artist control and audience autonomy in shared dome space bring to the animation experience?


Young, M. (2018). “Drawn to 360°: How can the aesthetics and qualities of traditional 2D animation storytelling add to the immersive VR projection paradigm?”. In Animation Practice, Process & Production, 7(1): 11-40.

Young, M. (2020). “Immersive Stories: How Can An ‘Independent Avant-Garde, Experimental, Film-maker with a Self-Conscious Auteur’s Perspective’ Create Effective Narratives in the 360 Paradigm?”. Doctoral Thesis, Design Arts International Program, Silpakorn University, Thailand.

Dr. Timothy Jones is Associate Professor and Director of the Academic Media Center at Robert Morris University. His research interests include animation production culture, inclusive education, and immersion. His work appears in Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Animation and Advertising, Animation Practice, Process & Production, Animation Studies Journal, and Reconceptualising Film Policies. He is treasurer of the Society for Animation Studies and co-hosts the Spirited Animation podcast.