YOU ARE NOT A TOURIST: A conversation with VR Artists Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël

Today the Emmy Award-winning Felix and Paul Studios launch their virtual reality Nomads App on the Oculus store. Showcasing the three VR experiences in their Nomads series, the app is the first of its kind – a standalone virtual reality app chronicling a single content series. “Nomads: Herders” transports the viewer to Mongolia where pastoral yak herders live and work. “Nomads: Maasai” follows the Maasai community in Kenya and Tanzania as they struggle to protect their ancestral land. “Nomads: Sea Gypsies” focuses on the Bajau sea nomads who live in longboats and stilt houses in South East Asia, subsisting off the fish they catch. There are plans to expand the series with new episodes about different nomadic communities around the world.

PAUL RAPHAËL AND FÉLIX LAJEUNESSE OF FELIX & PAUL STUDIOS

PAUL RAPHAËL AND FÉLIX LAJEUNESSE OF FELIX & PAUL STUDIOS

“Releasing this series within its own app gives us the opportunity to set the stage for viewers. We designed the overall series experience to clear the viewer’s mind for a moment before visiting these tribes. The app also lets us provide extras like directors’ commentary, and will expand as we create new ‘Nomads’ episodes,” said Paul Raphaël. We had the privilege of sitting down with Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël in January to talk about Nomads, the future of virtual reality, and the powerful notion of presence.

FELIX & PAUL STUDIOS LAUNCHES “NOMADS” APP ON THE OCULUS STORE TO SHOWCASE NEW VIRTUAL REALITY SERIES

FELIX & PAUL STUDIOS LAUNCHES “NOMADS” APP ON THE OCULUS STORE TO SHOWCASE NEW VIRTUAL REALITY SERIES

Movie Pilot: Your Nomads experiences Maasai, Borneo Sea Gypsies, and Mongolian Yak Herders take a different route into VR than many other experiences shown at Sundance. You take a very minimalist approach. How come?Felix: Yes, simplicity is the destination. It’s where we want to end up. If you push on the storytelling pedal too hard, if you try to show off, what you’re really doing in the arts, you’re putting filters between you and the viewer. In a real-life experience there is no filter between you and the life that is all around you. In virtual reality we’re trying to recreate that. We’re trying to remove as much as possible this sense of distanciation and filtering, and that needs to be done in many different ways. The way you tell your story needs to feel invisible too. Paul: We shouldn’t be part of the story.Movie Pilot: What’s the main difference between a traditional film and a VR experience then?Felix: If VR is well crafted it’s going to come out in a more visceral, raw, and direct way to your heart than from cinema, I believe. It’s an emotional amplifier.Paul: I think fiction is inherently more difficult in VR than documentary virtual reality. We’re making a lot of progress in that direction, but even if you imagine a scene that is is completely fictional where you are in a room with other characters, you are always going to be a part of the equation in VR.
Movie Pilot: So we need to learn new tools to tell fictional VR stories?Paul: Absolutely. There are things you can do now that you couldn’t do before, and stories you can explore that were inconceivable before. This medium I think is going to open up all sorts of new areas.Movie Pilot: How will emerging technologies affect fictional VR storytelling?Felix: At some point down the line the videos that we create will have the capacity of physical motion inside. Gradually we will integrate positional tracking to our videos, and that will also make the storytelling evolve. For us it’s an ongoing process where now we can achieve pretty high-quality through 360 degree images, and we can reach a certain state of presence through good storytelling. We believe we can push that further by the capacity to feel that you can really move within the space.

THE CINEMATIC VR EXPERIENCES OF FELIX & PAUL STUDIOS’ NOMADS SERIES TRANSPORT AUDIENCES TO KENYA, MONGOLIA, AND THE SEAS OF BORNEO

THE CINEMATIC VR EXPERIENCES OF FELIX & PAUL STUDIOS’ NOMADS SERIES TRANSPORT AUDIENCES TO KENYA, MONGOLIA, AND THE SEAS OF BORNEO

Movie Pilot: You stress the term of “presence“ in your VR experiences. What do you mean by this?Felix: “Presence“ is not a given in virtual reality. Just like in traditional cinema storytelling is not a given. There is good and there is bad storytelling. Storytelling is something that you need to articulate, craft, and refine. Presence works the same way. It’s something that we articulate and we try to refine inside of experiences, and we try to create modulations. That’s where, for us, the dramatic arc or the story arc lies. Movie Pilot: For your latest work you traveled to nomadic cultures around the world. How do you explain them what you are doing as artists?Felix: We showed them Herders, the first episode that we had done for the Nomad series. The whole village lined up and one by one they experienced the whole piece. They started to exchange about what they had experienced, and they were like miming what they saw in space and telling about that animal that they saw that came by like as if it was a real-life experience for all of them, the children, the elders, the adults, everyone.
Movie Pilot: So you introduced them to VR yourself. What was your own first experience with VR?
Paul: In our initial experiment with VR we filmed in a church. A woman just comes and sits next to you. She just looks into the camera or into the viewer’s eyes. When we saw the footage we thought “These aren’t pixels. This is not an image. There is a woman there.” It wasn’t perfect. It was still a very prototypical version of a camera, but we were like, “How the hell can we go back to film now?”Felix: A lot of people said that they felt highly vulnerable when they saw that person experience. We’re talking about a super peaceful Chinese woman that’s a friend of ours. She’s the most delicate and harmless person on the planet, but just the fact that you’re suddenly being looked at directly in your eyes and that you no longer feel sort of the protective filter of cinema, the sense of distanciation, even if you’re watching a 3D film, that just sends to your mind this signal that you’re safe. Then suddenly all of that was gone. That apparatus was gone. She was speaking straight into your soul.

THE MAASAI TRIBE WATCHING FELIX & PAUL STUDIOS’ “HERDERS,” THE FIRST EPISODE THEY DID FOR THE NOMAD SERIES

THE MAASAI TRIBE WATCHING FELIX & PAUL STUDIOS’ “HERDERS,” THE FIRST EPISODE THEY DID FOR THE NOMAD SERIES

Movie Pilot: So what was the strongest reaction you ever got by someone experiencing VR for the first time?Felix: A scream and throwing down the headset for sure. For that very first test that we did someone did that. Someone screamed and threw the headset away as if it was a kind of a malediction of something that had happened that the brain could not process.Movie Pilot: From Tech Giants to Hollywood Studios a lot of big corporations are planning to move into the VR market. What will it look like in 3 years from now?Felix: In the future I think of it just like I think of the movie industry. There are some big studios that create certain type of productions. There are smaller studios that create maybe more independent productions, but it’s an industry and there is room for a lot of players. Something makes me believe that it’s going to be the same in virtual reality. Paul: Will the big studios become the leader, the big studios in cinema become the leaders of this space in the future? That part I don’t know. But you will see very abstract, highly poetic, completely artsy VR, and you will see blockbuster projects in VR with explosions and transformers and all of that stuff for sure . The gamut of experiences offered will be, I believe, very, very large in the space. Movie Pilot: One idea that keeps coming back is that VR might become the perfect tool to record personal experiences. Are you tempted to film your loved ones in VR?Paul: Felix already has. Felix: I did it but I did not process it because I’m not sure I want to see it.Paul: It’s a lot of work and it’s a heavy process still, so to “develop” – let’s call it – something you’ve shot is not something you do on a whim.Movie Pilot: But you have it and you can still stitch it in 10 years from now.Paul: Yeah.Felix: I have the footage. I secured it in a hard drive, and it’s very well protected, and I say maybe, but at the same time the thought of it, the thought of assembling that and just seeing my two children four years ago I think would be very strange. But I still believe VR will definitely be used as a memory machine. Movie Pilot: So VR potentially amplifies the self referential identity social media already has enhanced?Felix: Not necessarily. It might be abstract even for us to think of it as something that will be completely mainstream. I think that maybe one or two generations away people will say, “I experienced that today. I want to share that with you. I want you to experience what it was, nothing less than that. I want to give you a fragment of that experience. I want to give you the full sensorial experience of what that was.” It seems inevitable that it’s going to happen, that it’s going to become the main way for humans to communicate, and it’s normal at the same time because it’s aligned with who we are. It’s aligned with how we experience reality.