In the world of entertainment tech convergence, there are few nuts harder to crack than live-action virtual reality. The medium presents seemingly endless technical challenges, starting with how to shoot with a camera rig that can see everything all around it, or digitally create the illusion that it can.
Even more daunting are the storytelling challenges faced by filmmakers raised on cuts, close-ups and dolly shots, working in a medium in which edits are considered to be too jarring, camera movement can be nausea-inducing and the viewer’s gaze is free to wander away from the action.
For those VR newbies, Felix & Paul Studios chief content officer Ryan Horrigan has some advice: check your baggage at the door.
“If you’re coming in thinking it’s cinema, it is a little bit, but not really. And it’s a little bit like theater, but not really,” says Horrigan. “I like to say it’s like literature: you’re placing the viewer inside the subjectivity of a character, or you can be in someone’s dreams, memories or hallucinations. What we’re finding is there are a lot of different narrative shells we can put you in where you feel like you have subjectivity, but we can still give you a narrative story.”
For last year’s “Miyubi” (pictured above), a co-production with Funny or Die co-starring Jeff Goldbum, Felix & Paul used a straightforward device: it put the viewer inside a 2-foot-high Japanese toy robot given to a boy on his birthday in 1982. Instead using straight-ahead edits, Miyubi runs out of power or is shut down at the end of a scene, then reboots in a new setting, months later, so the transitions are organic to the story.
“Our studio’s work combines the art of storytelling with the art of presence, and the synergy between both of these things is really what makes a VR experience fly or not fly,” says Felix & Paul Studios director and co-founder Felix Lajeunesse. “If we cannot find a way to really integrate the viewer into the story in a way that feels seamless and symbiotic, we don’t tell that story.”
Lajeunesse says they don’t necessarily think of the viewers as characters in their immersive experiences. For instance, in “Strangers,” the company’s first piece produced for the Oculus headset back in 2014, they conceived of the viewer as a friend visiting the artist, singer-songwriter-pianist Patrick Watson, in the studio.
To date, most of Felix & Paul’s work has been documentary in nature, giving viewers unique first-person experiences, from visiting President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama in the White House (“The People’s House”) to flying in jets and working underwater with astronauts preparing for a trip to the International Space Station (“Space Explorers: A New Dawn”).
“When it comes to documentaries, [virtual reality] feels like a natural thing that works exquisitely well,” says Lajeunesse’s fellow Felix & Paul director and co-founder Paul Raphaël. “On the other hand, when it comes to fiction, that’s a whole other challenge, because you’re now playing with reality, you’re cheating, you’re lying, in a sense.”
That storytelling challenge is central to the “Rashomon”-style narrative of the studio’s upcoming series “Pinkbox,” which will put viewers inside the memory of a woman being interrogated about an uprising in a red light district in the near-future, then contrasting it with an alternative viewpoint of the events from drone footage.
“Every time we create a new project, we are re-questioning everything,” says Felix & Paul Studios co-founder and producer Stéphane Rituit. “We feel we’re on a train on steroids where in five years we have to catch up to what the cinematic language has been evolving for a century.”