Making Virtual Travel a Reality (with Felix & Paul Studios)

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Can virtual reality (VR) give us the real feeling of travelling to far-off places – or even imaginary worlds – without leaving home? VR pioneers Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël, co-founders of Montreal’s Felix & Paul Studios, say the answer is yes. But in order to get there, VR storytellers need to keep honing their craft and finding new ways to help people get lost in the moment.

Félix Lajeunesse I don’t think that any subject matter in the world necessarily works for VR. It’s not so much how to tell a story. It’s how to tell a story and, in parallel, how to integrate the viewer into that story. If we find a great story, but we do not find a way to really integrate the audience into the experience, we don’t do it because it’s not made for VR.

Paul Raphaël There are many ways that a project can come to be. I often think, what would be an ideal context for VR experiences? What would really, formally, optimize presence? In the case of Miyubi, [featuring Jeff Goldblum] we started with this premise of putting the viewer inside the body and mind of a small Japanese toy robot from the ’80s. That was a way to put focus on the viewer, while also justifying their limited ability to actually interact with the characters, who address the viewer directly.

July 22, 2020
A man herds yak from atop his horse while two others sit in a field in Mongolia
Yak herding, Mongolian-Manchurian steppe.   Photo: NOMADS
A herding family gathers for tea within a circular hut
A Mongolian ger.   Photo: NOMADS

FJ It’s part of our craft as immersive filmmakers to actually tell good stories, but also to find a way to create a sense of presence for audiences. If I think about [the VR documentary] Traveling While Black, for example, the initial intent was to explore how the reality of travelling in America for African-Americans has evolved over the past few decades, going back to the days of the Green Book, which was a guide that was created for African-Americans to travel safely and find safe places throughout the country.

We didn’t necessarily know how to do that from a presence standpoint at the beginning. But then working with the creator of the piece, Roger Ross Williams, we started to think about trying to find a location that was originally featured in the Green Book that was still in existence today. We thought we could immerse the viewer inside one location and use that location as a time-travelling device.

Once we started transforming that location back to the way it looked 50 years ago and translating the past to the present, and staging conversations between people who are regulars at that place and having the viewer sit at the table with that community through different eras, hearing those conversations – suddenly it all started to make sense. But had we not figured out that core central idea, I don’t think that that the project would’ve been good for VR.

A group of Kenyans test out a virtual reality device in Amboseli
Amboseli, Kenya.   Photo: Felix & Paul Studios

PR You get far enough into the future, and the difference between reality and what’s virtual is just going to get narrower and narrower, if all your senses perceive it to be as real as the real thing. At some point, it just becomes a trick of the mind. Of like, “all right, just suspend your disbelief the same as you would do when you watch a movie and you’re in Rome.”

It’s actually even more interesting, I find, to think not of a virtual Rome, but a virtual place that couldn’t exist in the real world. Rome is made for human beings living on Earth with the physics of this world, whereas a VR experience could be re-inventing all those things.

There are many, many ways of thinking of a format that will optimize presence, and then exploring ideas beyond that. Sometimes we’ll be surprised by someone coming up with an idea and we’ll say, “This is good. This is made for VR.”

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