What a Virtual Reality Shoot on a Space Station Actually Looks Like


Almost every film production in the world shut down in early March – except for one. And only because it was taking place high above the planet, on the International Space Station. Virtual reality pioneers Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël, co–founders of Felix & Paul Studios, had a team shooting a documentary onboard the station for a project that will be released this fall (stay tuned!) but, in the meantime, they share a few thoughts on virtual travel to space.

Félix Lajeunesse We’ve been filming for over a year with multiple astronauts from many different countries up on the International Space Station, and the camera that we use films in 3D, 360–degree video, which means that the viewer feels like they’re immersed in the action/scene.

We place the camera in the station where a person could actually be, not as a surveillance camera up high or tucked against a wall. That’s not presence. Presence is, “Let’s take this camera and think of it as a human being who we actually position in the scene.” It means if we create the scene of a crew meal with all of the astronauts eating together, the camera is going to have a seat at the table. The astronauts are next to you. They’re across the table and you’re feeling the moment as if you were there.

May 21, 2020
An astronaut floats in the distance above the Earth
A photograph of Earth's moon, half-lit by the sun

Paul Raphaël Presence is something we talk a lot about. I think the fundamental difference between VR and other forms of digital media is that to feel presence means you yourself feel present in the experience. It also means you feel the presence of other characters whether they’re fictitious or real – the presence of an environment.

FL When you’re in the space station there is this window called the cupola, and through the cupola you can see a vast portion of the world. You don’t see the whole planet Earth, you’re not that far away, but you have a very, very large perspective that allows you to pretty much see a whole continent.

When you experience this view it generally gives all of the astronauts an “overview effect.” It’s kind of a moment of epiphany where they suddenly see the Earth with no conception of frontiers, or of what divides us as human beings. They see what unites us, they see the biosphere, they see the world of man and the world of nature as completely united, and they see how everything is interconnected and interrelated – how fragile our world is and how unique it is.

Because you turn around and everything else in the galaxy and universe appears to be dead. The moon, the sun – there’s no life on either. You see the Earth, and you see the life that pulses on it. And you realize you want to protect it.

The cupola window of the International Space Station with a view of Earth beyond

PR If you’re watching something on a screen, no matter what’s happening on that screen you’re not a part of it. Sure, you can kind of sink into a film or you may empathize with characters, but it’s not like being in the room with them. That changes everything. That really opens up the spectrum of possibilities of what we can make people feel and how strongly we can make them feel.

FL We’re very much focused on documenting core milestones and steps in the evolution of human space flight. We want to be there when we land on the moon and when we go to Mars.

If you take Mars for example, it’s obviously not going to be possible to transport seven or eight billion people there for an experience. But if there is a way to experience being there alongside the astronauts and to be transported and immersed there, that is a journey you would want to take.

The Questionnaire

  • Favourite souvenir
    PR     My grandmother brought a small piece of palm tree back from her trip to Peru when I was just born. It has since grown larger than I am and it sits behind me as I type this answer.

  • Dream seatmate
    FL     I’d love to fly with my father. I have great memories of travelling with him when I was a kid...but that feels like ages ago. As we’re both getting older, it would be great to hit the road (or the air) again, just the two of us.

  • What’s your earliest travel memory?
    PR     Being with my parents in a shuttle bus at Mirabel way past my bedtime on our way to Alexandria. I was transfixed by the planes, but too drowsy to keep my eyes open.

  • Travel has the power to...
    FL     Elevate, change or clarify your perspective on everything that matters in life: your family, your friends, your projects, your aspirations. In my experience, travelling is generally hard for the body, but great for the soul.