Virtual Reality Storytelling Is Trending in Hollywood: Felix & Paul Studios Leading the Charge

Industry power players James Cameron, Steven Soderbergh and Werner Herzog are also among the growing list who are interested in exploring the budding medium

Virtual Reality is the fastest-growing medium in entertainment and Hollywood studios are scrambling to stay one step ahead of the competition. One of the primary vendors they’re turning to for content is Felix & Paul Studios, a red-hot company that utilizes a unique approach to storytelling to produce VR content. See photos49 Summer Movies on Our Radar: From ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ to Tina Fey’s Next Comedy (Photos) Founded by Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael, the thriving Montreal-based company is at the forefront of Virtual Reality, having developed proprietary 3D stereoscopic 360-degree camera recording technology and software. Also read: ‘Interstellar’ Oculus Rift Experience Opens Monday in New York While many companies create CG content, Felix & Paul’s creative team is focused on producing premium live-action VR content that offers 360-degrees of immersion. Of course, that requires a rewrite of the language of cinema, which goes far beyond dialogue. One of the biggest differences between cinema and Virtual Reality is editing. “There are many cuts in traditional filmmaking, but in VR, a cut becomes a big statement. It’s disorienting,” explained Lajeunesse. “Camera movement is a convention in cinema. But to move the camera in VR is to move a viewer against their will. You have to justify every cut and movement because you’re nurturing presence. The emotional connection to the material is strong when you make the viewer a part of it. You have to recalibrate the drama and intensity to allow space for the viewers’ imagination. Let them make the decision of where to look. Just make sure they have options.” Rather than hard cuts, Lajeunesse prefers to use fades to foster an immersive environment for the viewer. “It feels like your eyes are opening and closing. It’s a creative decision. We wanted to nurture intimacy and it’s very naturalistic and connects to how we interact with reality.” Also read: Guillermo Del Toro Redesigns ‘Pacific Rim’ For Virtual Reality Lajeunesse also argues that Virtual Reality creates a sense of immediacy that conventional filmmaking cannot provide. “Cinema is efficient. You have to move a story forward in a certain amount of time. Virtual Reality operates in a different zone of time. You don’t want to be rushed. With a movie, it might take 15-20 minutes for you to care because you fall into a story gradually and we have to win the viewer over. There’s nothing immediate about it. You have to earn it. With Virtual Reality, you have immediate empathy for a character because you create a raw emotional connection.” Once fearful of new technologies, Hollywood has since learned to embrace the digital revolution, which includes Virtual Reality. “It’s not going to replace cinema. It’s a new art form,” added Stephane Rituit, who works on the business side of Felix & Paul in content creation and technology. Also read: Facebook Spends $2 Billion on Virtual Reality Technology “Forget about cinema and the language of cinema. It’s a totally new medium. There are elements of traditional filmmaking that integrate into VR but as a filmmaker, you have to start from scratch. The viewer isn’t watching a film, they’re part of it. You have to take that into consideration or else it becomes boring. You can’t treat the viewer like a viewer. You have to intensify the emotional experience because they have an enhanced sense of awareness,” added Lajeunesse. wild-reese-witherspoonHollywood has never quite captured the sensation of Virtual Reality on film, though Kathryn Bigelow‘s “Strange Days” comes a lot closer than “Disclosure” or “The Lawnmower Man.” As a result, VR has had a tricky and sometimes threatening relationship with the industry, which has long viewed it as an alternative art form rather than a complimentary medium. Those days are coming to an end, with studios embracing Virtual Reality and incorporating it into their marketing campaigns. For instance, Fox Searchlight turned to Felix & Paul to create VR content for its upcoming Reese Witherspoon movie “Wild.” Other studios have enlisted Felix & Paul for similar projects, which suggests the tide has already turned. “There’s a perception that Hollywood has had in the past of Virtual Reality. It’s similar to how most people think before they experience it. It’s often depicted from a dark perspective where the user is escaping reality, but we think VR brings you into a positive emotional state and helps you re-engage with reality. It can connect you to a moment and even a person, even if they’re not really there,” said Lajeunesse, who added that Facebook opens the door to multiple possibilities, including shared VR experiences. “We’ve had conversations with James Cameron and Steven Soderbergh and Werner Herzog. They’re all very interested in the space and what can be done with it. They’re smart enough to understand it’s not cinema — it wants to be something else. They’re open-minded about it,” Lajeunesse said with a smile. Felix & Paul bill themselves as two filmmakers with a storytelling background who have found an immersive way to articulate the cinematic experience. They see themselves as more than traditional filmmakers, as they make viewers part of the content and give them presence. The company has modified rigs and created software for its video installations, multimedia installations, projection mapping and 3D stereoscopy. Felix & Paul also handles content creation and production, meaning it can do branded content and a companion piece to feature films that want to incorporate stories into VR. One project glimpsed during an impressive demo was Patrick Watson’s “Strangers,” in which a Canadian musician invites the viewer into his recording studio. It feels like you’re right there with him and you can almost smell the cigarette smoke that lingers in the sunlight. There’s no dramatic arc to the story but Watson acknowledges the viewer, creating empathy and intimacy. Felix & Paul have already demonstrated their impressive wares at SXSW and the Tribeca Film Festival, where crowd response was overwhelmingly positive. It was at SXSW that Felix & Paul met with Verve co-founder Bryan Besser, who was immediately interested in what the duo were doing. “We met at SXSW and it changed the course of our lives. We weren’t aware of the explosion that was about to happen,” said Lajeunesse. Oculus subsequently commissioned Felix & Paul to create the opening experience for the Samsung Gear VR, a mobile-based headset for Oculus that hit stores this month at a cost of around $200. The intro consists of several 20-second moments — 3 live-action and 2 photorealistic CGI. To sync up with Oculus technology, Felix & Paul’s videos employ binaural sounds to create a 360-degree perspective. With its headset in high demand, Oculus is hungry for quality content, and Felix & Paul’s tech is at the level it needs. “Almost all of the major studios” have contacted Felix & Paul, according to Lajeunesse. “It’s at a stage where people believe in the birth of this industry. When Facebook bought Oculus, people started taking it seriously. They started thinking, ‘are we going to miss the boat? Should we have a foot in that space and begin exploring it and investing in it?’ It definitely sped up the process and now there’s a market,” said Lajeunesse, citing Samsung’s Gear VR headset, Sony’s Morpheus VR headset and rumors that Microsoft is also working on VR-related products. Verve will be guiding Felix & Paul Studios as the company continues to conquer Hollywood one studio at a time.