The rapid rise of Felix & Paul Studios is best illustrated by the growing prowess and sophistication of its cutting-edge virtual reality projects.
Founded in Montreal in 2013 by directors Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël and producer Stéphane Rituit, the company has gone from producing a simple 360-degree video in 2014 that put viewers in the same room with a man singing and playing piano (“Strangers”) to its new VR documentary that puts them underwater, in the cockpit of a T-38 supersonic jet and within 20 feet of a Space X rocket as it launches (“Space Explorers: A New Dawn”).
As the rocket shot was captured, “part of camera cover melted, but that was its purpose,” says Felix & Paul Studios CTO Sebastian Sylwan. “The core of the camera [next to the rocket] was protected.”
Today, Felix & Paul has 65 employees spread across offices in Montreal and Santa Monica, and a slate of 35-plus projects in development that range from collaborations with The Jim Henson Company and NASA to an untitled VR series described as an underwater “Game of Thrones.”
“We’re making seven to 10 projects a year — some one-offs, some episodic — which is on pace with a real mini-major studio,” says Felix & Paul’s Santa Monica-based chief content officer Ryan Horrigan.
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Felix & Paul’s rapid rise can be attributed in part to the growth of VR industry itself, which is projected to generate more than $15 billion in revenue in 2018, nearly double what it did last year. But there’s something more.
“What distinguishes Felix & Paul from the rest of the VR community is that they’re first and foremost artists as opposed to technologists,” says David Greenbaum, co-head of production for Fox Searchlight, and managing director of Fox Innovation Lab. He worked with Felix & Paul on the VR projects “Wild — The Experience” and the new “Isle of Dogs: Behind the Scenes.” “They come at every project asking, ‘How can we move the medium forward?’ ”
Lajeunesse and Raphaël were film students at Concordia University in Montreal at the same time, but they didn’t get to know each other until after college, when they joined forces to co-direct a low-budget ($500) animated music video fashioned from public domain Soviet propaganda footage for Montreal-based electronic musician Akido’s song “Les Humains,” which was released in 2004.
“The concept of co-directing was foreign and not something we wanted to do,” says Raphaël, “but we kept booking projects as a duo … and after a couple of years we were really only working together.”
Lajeunesse and Raphaël went on to helm music videos for bands such as Mobile and Young Galaxy and commercial spots for brands including Adidas, Coca-Cola and Volkswagen. It was lucrative work, but they felt unfulfilled by the fast-paced, quick-cut projects, and they began shifting their focus to large-scale immersive installations such as the Canada Pavilion at the World Exposition Shanghai 2010, created in collaboration with Cirque du Soleil.
The duo dreamed of finding a way to create immersive experiences that could be viewed anywhere and everywhere, and the dream became a reality when Raphaël showed Lajeunesse the first version of the Oculus Rift VR developer’s kit headset that he purchased via its Kickstarter campaign in early 2013.
“The moment I put it on my head, I knew that our lives had changed,” says Lajeunesse.
Inspired, the duo joined forces with Rituit, who had worked with Lajeunesse on documentaries about the Inuit people in Canada. They set out to build their own 360-degree VR camera, which they used to shoot an in-studio video of Patrick Watson performing his song “Strangers” on piano. They took “Strangers” to the South by Southwest festival in 2014 and showed it to the Oculus team, who, wowed by the clip, quickly integrated it into their official exhibit.
Less than two weeks later, Facebook announced it was acquiring Oculus for $2 billion. Felix & Paul’s close symbiotic relationship continued to flourish as the VR space built momentum, culminating with a deal to produce a slate of 360-degree experiences, announced in 2016.
Felix & Paul got another big boost when it closed a $6.8 million Series A funding round led by Comcast Ventures in June 2016.
Michael Yang, managing director of Comcast Ventures, says while Felix & Paul’s track record as creators was a big part of the appeal, the investment wouldn’t have made sense if the company didn’t have a full tech stack of hardware, software and services, ranging from a proprietary camera to a strong post-production team, which includes its Headspace Studios sound division, headed by Jean-Pascal Beaudoin.
“Our tech and our content are the intertwined spirals of our DNA,” says Sylwan. “We’re on the fourth generation of camera and we’ve developed every small detail for the things that we need on set. It’s not only a matter of pixels and color and resolution. It’s story.”
Felix & Paul’s immersive stories have included collaborations with Presidents Clinton (“Inside Impact: East Africa”) and Obama (“The People’s House,” “Through the Ages”) and several high-profile athletes (“LeBron James: Striving for Greatness”).
But there are more dimensions to the company. Aside from its VR storytelling, Felix & Paul is a full-spectrum studio that not only options and develops stories and shoots them with its own cameras and crews, but also handles the marketing and distribution in-house.
“It is a nascent industry, so a lot of these things we do because there is no equivalent in the VR world, so we do them until it makes sense not to do them,” Sylwan says.
While the studio’s history is relatively short, it has been around long enough to get into the business. of sequels. In 2015, it produced “Jurassic World: Apatosaurus,” a companion piece to Universal’s franchise reboot “Jurassic World.” Now, it’s putting the finishing touches on “Jurassic World: Blue,” a companion piece to the upcoming “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” that will put viewers in the action with photorealistic CG dinosaurs created by Industrial Light & Magic.
“With the first ‘Jurassic World’ piece, the viewer would kind of just stand still and witness the dinosaurs around them,” says Austin Barker, EVP of creative content for Universal Pictures. “It was groundbreaking at the time, but we’ve come so far since then. I think this new experience is going to blow people’s minds.”
(Pictured above: Felix Lajeunesse directs two astronauts for the VR documentary “Space Explorers: A New Dawn”)