A short interview with the two founders of Canada’s Felix & Paul Studios
Félix Lajeunesse (l.) and Paul Raphaël (r.) are surrounding their nstallation NOMADS: MAASAI
Felix & Paul combine cinematic elements with the latest technology. They’ve never just set up a camera to record what was happening around them. Instead, this French Canadian studio has set the goal of taking audiovisual narratives a step further. What can VR achieve that cannot be done or that’s very hard to do in classical film? We talk to founders Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël about their personal approach to virtual reality and about where virtual worlds will lead us in the years to come. According to Felix&Paul, VR is the only medium that allows this degree of intimacy.
Your company is now five years old, so let’s start by taking a look back at your origins. How did you get into VR?
Félix Lajeunesse: My creative journey began at age 21. ATANARJUAT had just been released, and I saw it at the Festival du Nouveau Cinema in Montreal. My greatest creative epiphany came from that film and from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. I knew I had to follow that path towards immersion and presence, wherever it would lead me. I had been very inspired by the work coming from Inuit filmmakers, and I wanted to investigate what they were doing that resonated with me. I discovered that it was the way they represented the concept of experience through their films. I was a director at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), and I decided to go work with Isuma, the team that had made ATANARJUAT. One of my greatest takeaways from working with them was learning how the team was using the camera as a protagonist. It was an incredible opportunity to see how Zacharias Kunuk, the director of ATANARJUAT, works. He would craft intimate seven-minute-long shots filmed from the perspective of an Inuit child. I learned that this sustained focus on a human being’s singular experience allows the audience to imagine what the subject is thinking about and reacting to.
Paul Raphaël: When Felix and I met, it was clear that we both shared a similar fascination with immersive storytelling. I have always had a strong conviction that innovations in technology would lead to ever more immediately immersive forms of storytelling, and I’ve explored these possibilities through my work. At first this meant creating large-scale interactive and immersive installations using scenography, projection mapping and later stereoscopic 3-D projection. Following my first exposure to the Oculus Developer’s Kit, the incredible power of virtual reality was immediately clear and I knew it would become our area of focus for the foreseeable future. I set to work on the design of what at the time was the first VR camera, which eventually lead to our first VR experience, STRANGERS WITH PATRICK WATSON.
STRANGERS WITH PATRICK WATSON
What is the difference between immersive storytelling and “conventional” storytelling? What can VR or, rather, immersive storytelling achieve?
Lajeunesse: Immersive storytelling hopes to more accurately replicate the way we experience reality, not directed through “frames” as in conventional storytelling. With conventional storytelling, audiences are often served pre-digested content. That’s not so in immersive storytelling, where they are the focus.
Raphaël: As immersive storytellers, we need to carve out a place for the viewer. This is what we refer to as “presence”: the audience can truly feel characters and environments, which provides a very different emotional reaction than simply observing a story from afar. In traditional films, the story is meant to lead the viewer to emotion and ultimately experience. However, in VR, the experience is more direct. The way you elicit emotion in the audience is completely different.
How has VR changed in the past couple of years, and how has that influenced your approach to your work?
Lajeunesse: The industry is currently heading further into a world of interactivity and digital immersion than ever before. However, the fundamentals of immersion haven’t changed, and we are still striving to apply those basic tenets in our work. With our first immersive experiences, we focused on capturing reality with as little interference as possible. That’s not to say that we didn’t have creative decisions to make: we still needed to consider the context of the experience, camera placement, and the role the viewer takes on in each experience. All of these choices are integral to make the viewer feel like he or she is really there.
Raphaël: The next step for us was manipulating reality. We added music and editing, and began exploring fiction. The first fiction experience we created was JURASSIC WORLD: APATOSAURUS, which we treated as if it were a documentary piece — like STRANGERS, but with a dinosaur, so to speak. After that, we added more complexity to the storytelling, and eventually interactivity, and are now exploring augmented reality and other forms of immersive storytelling.
A walk down memory lane: GYMNASIA
Was augmented reality the next logical step for you?
Lajeunesse: From a narrative perspective, virtual reality is much easier than augmented reality. It’s much simpler to put the viewer in a real place than to take something — an item, a character — and put it in your world and have that make sense contextually. Shoehorning a narrative into someone else’s context is a challenge. Why are miniature aliens on my table? Is my table part of the story or simply a stage for an unrelated story? As our understanding of immersive storytelling expands, more and more believable and interesting solutions to these questions emerge.
Raphaël: One thing I like to think about are the social rituals of entertainment consumption, such as what happens to our perception when we turn on the television, go to the theatre, pull out our smartphones or sit down with a book. Similar social rituals are also needed for virtual and augmented reality experiences but don't quite yet exist. An experience begins well before any image fades in in front of you, and it is important to think about designing them with such a holistic perspective.
Where do you think VR will take us in the near future?
Lajeunesse: We envision deeper immersion with a human focus. By that we mean immersion sustained to the point where the viewer gets to tell his or her own story, filling in the blanks in the narrative. At this inflection point, this meeting between the audience and the narrative, this is the moment where an experience becomes truly memorable. The experience then belongs to you even if you don’t normally feel you are part of that narrative world.
Raphaël: Of course, augmented and virtual reality are converging, and the impact of that convergence will popularize immersive storytelling. Audiences will start to expect their entertainment to be immersive, just as the rest of their interaction with the digital world becomes immersive. Naturally, immersive entertainment adoption will increase this way. In terms of how the form itself will evolve, we’ll continue to see more interaction. There hasn’t been a truly mature feature-length or Netflix-length experience. Within the near to medium future, we expect to see more experiences in that vein. In order for our studio to reach maturity, every new project we do needs to push things forward in a way — to be an evolution of our work, but also of the medium. For those of us who are at the forefront of this new industry and art form, it’s the only responsible thing to do.
Interviewer: Julia Weigl