Dating back to the 12th century, Notre Dame is a cultural landmark steeped in historic as well as religious significance. The cathedral caught fire on April 15, 2019, resulting in the destruction of its trademark spire. Since then, this popular tourist attraction has been closed to the public, pending a laborious renovation effort. And today, people around the world can step inside its walls and witness Notre Dame before and after the fire, thanks to Rebuilding Notre Dame—a new VR documentary from TARGO, now available in Oculus TV on Oculus Quest.
The experience begins with a collage of news coverage from the April 2019 fire. “We wanted everyone to remember the exact feeling of powerlessness we all had when we saw the cathedral burning,” explains Director & Co-Founder of TARGO Chloé Rochereuil. “Gathering news clips from different languages is a way to reflect how global this event was—all of a sudden, the entire world was concerned about the cathedral and watching the events unfold on live news. This had to be the starting point for us.”
Blending footage taken before the fire with an unprecedented look inside Notre Dame as it appears today, the documentary juxtaposes past and present to dramatic effect. “This documentary is about how this cathedral will come back to life,” notes Producer & Co-Founder of TARGO Victor Agulhon. “Showing the contrast between the pristine beauty of the cathedral before the fire and the damage afterwards gives the viewers a sense of the task ahead.”
Rebuilding Notre Dame features interviews with four key players in the cathedral’s past and present:
We sat down with Agulhon and Rochereuil to learn more about this groundbreaking piece of VR film.
It’s really interesting how you’ve used modern day visuals to explain the cathedral’s history, particularly when juxtaposed with the absence of the spire following the fire. Do you see a parallel between the restoration during the 1800s and the efforts of today?
Chloé Rochereuil: When we filmed at Notre Dame a year ago, we never thought that the footage would become a historical document so quickly. In one night, all the footage became precious archive visuals to remember the cathedral’s past. We used this footage in the documentary to illustrate Notre Dame’s history and to acknowledge this change in nature.
Victor Agulhon: As in the 1800s, Notre Dame comes back at the center of the public attention. It’s an old monument that we took for granted for so long. Notre Dame is back to being a symbol, a real stake for the French people. The myth of “builders”—builders of cathedrals, builders of the country—is deeply rooted in the French collective memory. Now that Notre Dame has to be rebuilt, it’s our turn to be in charge of its future.
At one point in the documentary, you focus on the organ that remained in tact following the fire. Do you think it helps reinforce the theme of hope coming out of catastrophe?
CR: The fact that the organ and the rose windows have remained intact are exactly what we need: symbols proving that we have avoided the worst, that Notre Dame’s marvels have been preserved enough to be brought back to life. Metaphorically, the organ is also the voice of Notre Dame, it is its sound, its way of being heard—there is something poetic about it being untouched by the flames.
How did you go about selecting the soundtrack for the piece?
VA: Notre Dame is a religious place, but it’s also the most visited monument in Europe. With millions of tourists visiting it every year, Notre Dame is a monument for everyone. It uniquely blends religious, cultural, historical, and political identities. It was important that the soundtrack reflected this diversity.
CR: First, we wanted to have a recurring main theme to evoke the fire: a nostalgic yet hopeful song that reflects the feeling we all shared on the night of the fire. Then, whenever the viewer gets inside the cathedral, we picked songs that reminded us of the mysticism of the monument. We looked for features that would echo religious melodies—choirs, organs, etc. We decided to close the piece on a mass celebrated inside Notre Dame to bring it back to life completely, with its natural soundtrack.
In addition to these musical themes, we focused on bringing back the sounds that made Notre Dame so peculiar and distinctive. Notre Dame was a busy cathedral. There were always lots of people, tourists, churchgoers—it was a lively church. When we entered after the fire, one of the most surprising features was the silence.
If people take one thing away from Rebuilding Notre Dame, what do you hope it would be and why?
VA: After watching the piece, we hope that people will have a privileged sense of belonging to Notre Dame, whether they have ever physically been there or not. This documentary is about creating a direct connection to this iconic monument: being alone inside, with exclusive access. Hearing stories of the people that have looked after it and will look after it in the coming years makes it even more familiar.
CR: We hope that this experience conveys the beauty of Notre Dame, its fragility, and that it makes people reflect on the meaning of cultural heritage in our modern societies. The true hero of the documentary is the cathedral, still standing after a devastating fire—we think that it’s a sign of hope.
How do you think VR and AR will continue to impact the fields of travel, education, and preservation moving forward?
CR: We believe that immersive technologies are a fantastic way to allow people to do what they can’t do in their daily lives. Being able to bring viewers inside a place as difficult to access as the cathedral after the fire and bringing it back to life before their eyes is definitely an example of that. There is something profoundly magical about how VR lets us bridge different times and spaces simultaneously. VR allows us to rediscover lost worlds and make them feel alive.
VA: We hope that this documentary will serve as an example to show how important VR technology can be for travel, culture, and education: a way for people to remember, relive, and discover what is inaccessible. With Rebuilding Notre Dame, we are honored to have captured forever a singular moment in the history of the cathedral that future generations will be able to experience in VR.
What’s next for you?
VA: The next big thing for us will be to find a location where we can make this experience available to the audiences that are interested in Notre Dame, directly in France, close enough to the cathedral so everyone can enjoy it in virtual reality.
CR: We also have some fantastic documentaries in the works covering women’s prisons, an opera dancer, and our first volumetric documentary!
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Victor and Chloé, and for creating such a moving piece of VR cinema.