Celebrate National Moon Day in VR with ‘Space Explorers: The ISS Experience’

Oculus Blog
July 20, 2021

Today’s National Moon Day, which commemorates the historic lunar landing on July 20, 1969. It’s also a great time to reflect on space exploration more broadly and humanity’s efforts to get successful pace programs off the ground. And now through 11:59 pm PT on July 23, you can celebrate with a free screening of Space Explorers: The ISS Experience Episode 2: ADVANCE in Venues on the Oculus Quest Platform.

Available on the Quest and Rift Platforms, Space Explorers: The ISS Experience is the largest production ever filmed in space. Shot over two years with exclusive access to the crew, the series follows eight astronauts on life-changing missions aboard the International Space Station. And last week, it was nominated for an Emmy Award.

To celebrate, we sat down with Felix & Paul Studios Co-Founder and Creative Director Paul Raphaël.

What first interested you in VR as a medium? How has it changed your approach to filmmaking?

Paul Raphaël: We started our career in cinema with a particular interest in the heightened immersive power certain styles of filmmaking seemed to facilitate. While growing up in the ’90s had us bombarded with kinetic, MTV-influenced quick-cutting, we found more restrained approaches to editing and camera movement to have the potential to cultivate a stronger sense of presence and emotional and experiential involvement from viewers. This approach wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea and required more commitment from audiences to unlock these heightened states of immersion, especially in that historical context.

As technology enabled new forms of storytelling in the early 2000s, we began exploring storytelling beyond the frame and literally immersing viewers using the likes of projection mapping, stereoscopic projection, live performance, and interactivity. The notion of a camera was replaced by a literal viewer, and this more experientially-informed style of storytelling really started coming into its own and was also much more broadly appreciated by audiences.

From there, it was a seamless transition into VR storytelling when we embraced the medium almost 10 years ago—and we have been fully focused on the exploration of this new storytelling language since then.

What motivated you to tell this particular story?

PR: To film aboard the International Space Station was a dream of ours since creating our very first cinematic VR experience. To immerse viewers in a state of microgravity, an experience limited to a very select and lucky few, seemed to clearly be one of the more impactful applications of the medium one could imagine, and VR would be the closest thing to actually being there for some time to come.

How did Space Explorers get its start?

PR: We approached NASA early on in 2015 and began building a relationship and operational understanding which led to the first episodes of Space Explorers. Those were filmed here on Earth and focused on astronaut training and the new era of private and public collaboration in the space sector.

The ultimate goal, of course, was to actually film in space, and in late-2018, we finally flew our first VR cameras aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 Dragon.

How did the project change over time?

PR: At first our ambitions were (relatively) modest, as we realized the gargantuan complexity of filming remotely from Earth in such a tightly controlled and precarious environment, with a crew with countless tasks and responsibilities. But as we captured, processed and began showing our first few scenes within NASA, their initial enthusiasm was eclipsed as they realized the full potential of what we were doing.

For the first time ever, astronauts were able to share their experience with their families, friends, and countless collaborators on Earth who enable their missions without ever getting to experience them first-hand—not to mention relive what they relate without exception as the most impactful experience of their lives.

Above all perhaps, NASA saw this footage as the most direct, transparent, and impactful way to communicate the magic of space with the billions of American citizens who enable its existence in the first place, as well as to inspire audiences worldwide.

With that, the scope and ambition of the project grew into a four-part cinematic VR series, as well as a multi-platform worldwide distribution on 5G networks, in domes, museums, and traditional screen-based TV and films.

The new Felix & Paul Studios tagline is “Stories in Space.” How has Space Explorers affected your studio’s DNA?

PR: As we approach completion on the production of The ISS Experience, which will culminate in a multi-day shoot outside the ISS with our camera rigged to the Canadarm robotic crane, we now see this project as but a first step in a much larger project.

Our experience and the impact this project has been having have made virtual reality space production a much larger and longer-term part of our studio, and we look forward to bringing audiences ever deeper into space for years to come.