A Conversation with Live-Action Stereoscopic VR Pioneer, Paul Raphaël of Felix & Paul Studios

Last month we teased that in our next newsletter we’d be chatting with Paul Raphaël of Felix & Paul Studios. But when we sat down to talk, it became clear that grabbing a couple choice quotes (like the big bold one below) wouldn’t convey the full impact Paul’s work with Felix has had, and is continuing to have, on the world of VR.

So, you know, we figured we’d include the whole darned conversation 😉



“Voyager has already made us think differently about future experiences. If we were ever to create an experience knowing it was destined for Voyager, we would absolutely conceive each shot to have a synergy with the motion, to do things that we would never otherwise be able to do. ”

— Paul Raphäel, Felix & Paul Studios



Team Voyager: You and Félix Lajeunesse are two of the true pioneers of live-action stereoscopic VR. But you’ve been collaborating for more than a decade. Can you talk about your early work, and how it laid the foundation for what you’re making now?

Paul Raphaël: Félix and I started working together almost 14 years ago, doing more traditional work: short films, music videos, commercials. There was a real synergy between the two of us, but we realized that it was sort of overkill to have two directors on a lot of the stuff we were doing. We had this abundance of creative energy that we were trying to channel into more ambitious and adventurous explorations.



We both had a passion for what we would call experiential films—like, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey—that in many ways are more about the experience than the story itself. And that got us thinking, How would you tell a story outside the frame? We began to get really interested in stereoscopic film. Not so much in the way it’s been used in major movies, where you essentially just take a frame and add depth to it. What interested us was reconceiving the frame more as a window into another world.

And that led us into creating these installations (which I now call pre-VR) where we would lock down the variables of a cinematic screening. The size of the screen, the distance of the audience from the screen, and the content on the screen were all created in synergy so that you would sit down in this specially-constructed space and encounter an experience that’s in many ways akin to very limited-field-of-view VR. You could look around you, and the screen really felt like a window into another world. And if you look back at the documentaries we were making at the time, they have a direct lineage to the Nomad series we premiered in 2016.



Voyager: How did you make the final jump to VR?

Paul: We were closely following the success of the Oculus Kickstarter. And pretty much the day we tried the DK1, we realized that this was what we had really been trying to do with our installation work. So, as soon as we got the dev kit, and watched the first few demos, we figured, if there was a way to get the real world into the headset (because there had been zero live-action content really at that point, just CGI demos) it would really take what we were doing to the next level—and, for that matter, cinema itself.

So we set out to build our first camera prototype, and figure out some kind of workflow to get those images into a stereoscopic sphere—if that was even going to be possible. And that led to a few demos, and eventually to our first complete experience: Strangers with Patrick Watson.



Voyager: What did you see as the primary limitations of VR back in 2013/14?

Paul: You know, it’s interesting, because we never really thought of there being any limitations, per se. We’d already gone through the process of moving away from cinema for a few years before getting into VR. So, we were more in the state of, What does this medium enable? rather than What is it stopping us from doing? It was a brand new medium with brand new capabilities, and it actually could do things that film couldn’t.

From there, rather than trying to reverse engineer editing and camera movements and all the other traditional tools of filmmaking, we were really trying to build something new from the ground up. A lot of people coming directly from film, from the studio system, often see VR and think, “Oh, well, you can’t do this anymore” or “You can’t do that anymore.” And our counterargument is, “Well, perhaps, but there’s so much more you can do in VR that’s way beyond the realm of traditional filmmaking.” Which leads to a much more rewarding evolution because you’re constantly discovering new things rather than being frustrated by things you can’t do.



Voyager: That’s a simple shift, but a paradigmatic one.

Paul: Exactly.

Voyager: Speaking of what we hope is a paradigmatic shift [wink], what was your first encounter with Voyager?

Paul: I actually encountered it with you guys at the Technicolor Experience Center in Culver City. Before sitting in the chair, I assumed that it was going to be something that added maybe a more immersive quality to the work, and I was certainly curious to try it out. But when I actually tried Voyager, I realized that it actually opens more doors onto how we can use VR to tell stories—not just add a fun, but maybe superfluous, layer on top of an existing experience.

Voyager: Can you give an example with Space Explorers: A New Dawn, which was the first Felix & Paul piece to show on Voyager? How did the motion change the way you imagined the viewer’s experience?

Paul: Well, when we began the process of coding the motion, we realized that some of the shots that were previously static could become moving shots. Suddenly the piece became something between a VR experience and a more traditional cinematic encounter—but in the absolute best way possible. For instance, there’s a timelapse shot in the desert, where the sky is shifting from day to night, and the clouds are zipping by, and the stars are appearing, and the sky is spinning—but you’re perfectly static. But just by adding a pan of the chair, it became so much more powerful, quantum leaps more immersive and amazing.



That’s just one example. But it also let us create more fluid editing. Voyager allowed us to reveal details in more interesting ways. There’s one shot where you’re in space, and in the original version you’re positioned in front of Mars, and it’s up to you to look around. But in the Voyager version, we actually fade in on the Sun, and then pan around to reveal Mars. All of a sudden there’s an added layer to the shot, a reveal that’s so much more powerful and immersive. It made it, frankly, a better shot.

Not to mention what Voyager added to the jet scene: letting you actually feel the vibration of the engine, to feel gravity when the jet banks. That roll not only made the scene more immersive, it made it more comfortable! It’s one of those shots where we’re really pushing the limits of the viewer’s comfort, where in the headset some people might feel a bit unsettled as the horizon shifts. In Voyager it’s perfectly comfortable.

Voyager: We love to hear you say that, obviously. When I first sat in the chair, I realized that it was a second camera. But in a scene like the jet, it can also literally add a sense of gravity, a sense of speed.

Paul: Which is absolutely huge. And for us, Voyager has already made us think differently about future experiences. If we were ever to create an experience knowing it was destined for Voyager, we would absolutely conceive each shot to have a synergy with the motion, to do things that we would never otherwise be able to do. And that’s a pretty exciting thing to keep in mind as we’re coming up with new ideas.



Voyager: When you look into the future of VR, what do you see?

Paul: On the meta level, as VR proliferates, location-based exhibition [LBE] is becoming such a key part of how people experience it. And for LBE, you tend to think about 6DoF experiences where you can walk around a space and interact with the environment. Accordingly, anything that’s “just a 360 experience” is thought of as non-optimal for location-based exhibition. But Voyager totally elevates the 360 experience to true LBE-worthy status. And that really opens the doors to a whole range of projects that could be thought of not just as at-home experiences, but VR experiences that you will leave your house to seek out at a theatre—like you would a traditional film.



Jurassic World: Blue is showing on Voyager at the Pacific Theaters at The Grove in Los Angeles, now until June 24!



Until next time.

Stay tuned next month for news on where you can experience the magic of cinematic VR in Voyager, plus thoughts from our founder, Jeffrey Travis, on how the Voyager platform will bring creators and audiences even closer together!