Our Sundance 2018 coverage kicked off on September 19 with will.i.am’s thoughts on Masters of the Sun, followed by a behind-the-scenes look at Fable Studio’s VR adaptation of The Wolves in the Walls. Today, we’re highlighting Space Explorers—the latest project from our friends at Felix & Paul Studios!
This is our second installment in the VR Visionaries series featuring this award-winning cinematic VR powerhouse. Back in July, we sat down with Felix & Paul Creative Director & Co-Founder Félix Lajeunesse to discuss the launch of MIYUBI on Rift and Gear VR. Now, we’re taking a deep dive in deep space.
What was the initial inspiration behind Space Explorers? How has the project changed over time?
Félix Lajeunesse: I’ve always thought of space exploration as an absolute necessity for humans. Whether we explore to seek out answers to the most fundamental questions like the origins of life, our place in the universe or the nature of reality, or whether we do so to eventually colonize space after we’ve ruined our planet, we have to go out and explore. Our original intent was to use cinematic VR to look into the present and future of space exploration, by focusing on the journey of those who train for and dream about space each and every day—the astronauts—and to make viewers feel like space explorer themselves, with direct emotional and sensorial engagement. The final project remains aligned with the original vision, but it grew in scope and ambition along the way.
What kind of response have you seen since announcing the film series at OC4?
FL: The announcement for the series and the presentation of the series’ trailer at OC4 has generated lots of enthusiasm for the project. We’re psyched to finally show the finished first episode of this long-in-the-making ambitious series at Sundance.
Who did you work with on the music and overall sound design for the piece? What was that experience like?
FL: Headspace Studio did the sound design and musical direction for Space Explorers. We launched that dedicated VR sound studio in partnership with sound director Jean-Pascal Beaudoin a few years ago, and Headspace has done the sound and music for all of our VR projects ever since. They are extremely knowledgeable and inspiring to work with.
How have you built upon your previous work in VR on this latest project?
FL: Every single VR project we have ever done was a significant learning experience—an occasion to refine our craft; develop new technologies; experiment with new processes, formats, and genres; and further explore how to nurture presence through storytelling. In that sense, every new project we make is built on the foundation of what we have created prior.
In Space Explorers, we faced significant technical challenges like placing the VR camera in the cockpit of a supersonic jet and working with NASA engineers to annihilate vibrations, submerging the VR camera underwater for hours and controlling it from a distance, filming in a desert sandstorm, and capturing two rocket launches up-close without destroying our gear. Mainly thanks to the depth of the experience of our VR camera team (acquired over the past four years of intensive cinematic VR production), we always found a way to get the shots.
What was it like to work with NASA? How did the lived experiences of their scientists and astronauts inform the piece?
FL: We met a lot of astronauts, engineers, and department heads at NASA to gather the necessary support and momentum for the project and get across the message we wanted to convey. Once astronauts become invested in your project, doors open more easily.
The lived experiences, the thoughts, the perspectives, and the dreams of astronauts are what mainly shaped the story of Space Explorers. We worked with astronauts who had different visions and expertise in order to touch upon all the topics we wanted to cover in the series.
You also worked with SpaceX and the Russian Space Program, right? How did that help to broaden your perspective and influence the narrative?
FL: Collaboration is a core theme across the series and the thematic focus of the series’ second episode. We wanted to explore how the partnership between NASA and private space companies like SpaceX is revolutionizing the world of space exploration—and how collaboration between national space programs across the world is an important factor in achieving the goals of deep-space exploration. Given the experiential and presence-based nature of our approach to cinematic VR, we decided to take the viewer from Cape Canaveral to Russia and Kazakstan to experience those realities and perspectives first-hand. Adopting a different cultural perspective and working closely with Russian cosmonauts in the second episode certainly broadened the scope of the project and made it more reflective of the current rise of national space programs across the world.
It seems like you’re shifting away from an earlier “space race” narrative—and its inherent focus on dominance—in favor of a landscape characterized more by collaboration than competition. How did you arrive at that perspective?
FL: It might be an overly optimistic position, but I’d argue that in the same way that space exploration in past decades has inspired fresh diplomacy and collaboration between rival nations such as the US and Russia (even during the Cold War), and considering the success of initiatives like the International Space Station, there’s some room to imagine that, in the future, the process of how humans expand and establish themselves in space might not be tainted by the same level of greed, ruthlessness, and violence that has characterized humankind’s track record of colonial history.
How do you think VR and AR will affect the art of storytelling moving forward?
FL: In the coming years, VR and AR will increasingly impact how we think of stories, how we tell them, and how we engage with them. I’ve been a long-time believer that “immersion” is an inevitable step in the evolution of storytelling and media. The mediums of VR and AR (we differentiate them for now, but in a few years we no longer will) position the human being at the heart of the digital experience and allow for an interaction with the digital world that’s a natural extension of how we interact and engage with physical reality through our senses. The feeling of presence—a state of mind that humans have been experiencing in the “real world” for ages—can now be felt and experienced through a digital medium. In my mind, there’s no version of those emerging mediums failing. It is clearly where things are meant to go.
Presence is an intriguing force—it that can be “nurtured” and “modulated” in the craft of VR filmmaking, and it isn’t necessarily coupled to the story arc of a given piece. We’ve been exploring the intersection of presence and storytelling for a few years now, and we’re still only scratching the surface of the mind-blowing potential of the medium.
What’s next for you? Any exciting projects in the works?
FL: Our focus as a studio is on the creation of emotionally impactful, cinematic VR content with a high production value. We’re developing an ambitious slate of VR-native series in which we intend to push our exploration of cinematic VR storytelling to whole new level.
Thanks for sharing these unique insights, Félix. We can’t wait to see the next episodes of Space Explorers.
The latest out-of-this-world project from Felix & Paul will make its way to Oculus in 2018. In the meantime, check out what their earlier work has to offer—from dinosaurs to basketball and a wealth of things between:
Visit felixandpaul.com to learn more, and stay tuned to the blog tomorrow for another Sundance spotlight.
— The Oculus Team