How to craft great content for VR: Felix & Paul’s advice for filmmakers

Still from Felix & Paul's scripted VR comedy, Miyubi, created with Funny or Die. The film premiered at Sundance and will be available on Oculus later this year. Image via Sundance
Still from Felix & Paul’s scripted VR comedy, Miyubi, created with Funny or Die. The film premiered at Sundance and will be available on Oculus later this year. Image: Sundance

Directors Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël founded VR content studio Felix & Paul in 2013. They have since created VR films featuring Barack Obama, LeBron James and performers from Cirque du Soleil as well as a VR documentary series about nomadic tribes in Kenya, Mongolia and Borneo.

Their work is often praised for challenging conventions or setting new benchmarks in VR filmmaking. Strangers with Patrick Watson allowed viewers to watch the Canadian musician playing the piano in his home studio – an innovative use of the medium back in 2014 and one that inspired Oculus to set up an in-house cinematic department.

At this year’s Sundance, the studio premiered Miyubi – a scripted VR comedy that follows a family going through some difficult times from the perspective of a toy robot. The Verge described it as the first VR movie to feel like a real film while Variety said it “manages to do something almost unthinkable to anyone who has sampled VR in recent years: it tells a well-acted, multifaceted story filled with humour and pathos that lasts as long as 40 minutes.”

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Their films often eschew dramatic visual effects and complex interactions in favour of something simpler. A VR film for Jurassic World, for example, offers a close encounter with an Apatosaurus. For a film crammed with scenes of terror and destruction it’s a surprisingly serene experience – one that aims to convey the sense of awe at stumbling across a dinosaur in Jurassic Park.

Immersion is a bit of a buzzword in VR, but it’s not a given – just because you put on a headset doesn’t mean you’re going to be deeply immersed

Speaking at creative conference C2 in Montreal this month, Raphael and Lajeunesse highlighted some of the differences between traditional filmmaking and crafting content for virtual reality. The pair stressed the importance of “presence” in VR films and said the viewer’s experience should be paramount – something that shapes how a narrative unfolds and how a story is told. This might sound like common sense, but it’s something the pair believe is often overlooked by directors.

“Immersion is a bit of a buzzword in VR, but it’s not a given – just because you put a headset on doesn’t mean you’re going to be deeply immersed,” Lajeunesse told the audience at C2.

“If you don’t figure out presence, and you don’t figure out how that intersects with your story, then in our perspective, you’re not doing VR – you’re just making something you could have done in another medium, but with a 360 camera,” he said.

With Strangers…, for example, Lajeunesse and Raphael wanted people to feel as if they were in a room with Patrick Watson – like a friend visiting him at his home studio and watching him play. With Miyubi, viewers watch a family’s lives unfold through the eyes of a toy.

While traditional films offer a window into someone or something else’s world  – be it robot, animal or human – stories are told through the lens of a director. VR filmmaking – to Lajeunesse and Raphael at least – is about removing that lens and placing viewers inside the world you have created.

“Cinema is such an author driven medium – the authorial signature of the filmmaker is so important and it’s so elevated [but] in VR, you don’t want to be in the way of your story because the viewer is right there experiencing the piece first hand, and it’s their experience in a way,” said Lajeunesse.

I see experiences that are done by traditional filmmakers stepping into virtual reality and very often I can’t stand it, because I have the impression of this heavy hand guiding me

“I think that is the hardest thing to learn [as a director]. What we do [at Felix & Paul] is still author-driven, but the way we approach and direct our experiences is completely different from the way we do it in film,” he continued. “I see experiences that are done by traditional filmmakers stepping into virtual reality and I very often can’t stand it, because I have the impression of this heavy hand that is guiding me through everything and the presence of the director is unbearable to me.”

“Another thing is that you’re used as a filmmaker to thinking of the camera as your point of view. You might say a film is from a character’s point of view but it’s not really, it’s the directors,” he continued. “In virtual reality … you’re bringing the viewer inside of your stories and [you have to think about], how are you going to do that? How are you going to make them feel as if they belong in the space, as if they have an emotional connection with the characters? so you’re treating the camera not as a 360 camera, but as a person that you are implementing in your story. That’s something that is radically different from the film mindset but something that we believe – and not everyone feels the same, so this is just our opinion – but we believe is really important.”

Still from Felix & Paul's VR documentary series, Nomads. An episode on sea gypsies living in Borneo was named best VR - Live Action at the VR Society Awards. The series is available on the Oculus store
Still from Felix & Paul’s VR documentary series Nomads. An episode on sea gypsies living in Borneo was named best VR – Live Action at the VR Society Awards. The series is available for free on the Gear VR

Raphael and Lajeunesse still find inspiration in cinema: the pair cite Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu and Stanley Kubrick as examples of directors that VR filmmakers can learn from.

“Ozu’s films are like VR – very often, he will film a scene with a Japanese family eating around the table and the camera is positioned exactly at their eye level and it’s not completely edited all the time, so it feels like you are inside of that scene,” said Lajeunesse.

Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, meanwhile, with its long scenes, minimal dialogue and richly detailed sets, is focused less on following traditional narrative structures and techniques and more in transporting viewers to another world.

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“2001: A Space Odyssey is inherently an experiential film, so that vision translates I believe into VR to a certain extent. So I’m not saying [VR filmmaking] is a whole new world – there are roots of that that you can find in cinema,” added Lajeunesse.

Generally speaking, however, most traditional cinematic tropes don’t translate well into VR – and Raphael said he and Lajeunesse have had to go ‘back to basics’ to learn what works in VR, starting out with naturalistic films before taking more creative risks with different formats and perspectives.

Another reason we tend to try to be transparent as filmmakers … is because we don’t have 100 years of cinematic language [to draw on]

“Another reason we tend to try to be transparent as filmmakers, so try to disappear and lean into the natural qualities of reality [when creating VR content] is because we don’t have 100 years of cinematic language [to draw on] like we do with film,” explained Raphael.

“We know what reality is like and we know what works in reality because we live it and we’ve all lived it for our whole lives. Anything else that isn’t that and comes from a filmmaking kind of reflex … because it comes from a different medium that is so fundamentally different, it is almost invariably inappropriate,” he said.

From Felix & Paul’s VR experience for Jurassic World, which offers a close encounter with an Apatosaurus. Image: Felix & Paul

“We’ve done about 20 [VR] experiences so far, and almost all of them have leaned in to these principles … just now, we’re starting to take bigger risks, but it’s from an understanding of what works and what doesn’t work,” he added. “We’re not saying everyone’s going to have to go through that – as more and more people make things in VR, we’re all going to learn from each other and grow – but the fact is that four years ago there was nothing and today there’s only four years [of experience] and I want to highlight that nuance. Because yes this is our way of doing this but it’s not just a style. There’s a reason for doing it and its why I recommend it.”

Leaving behind traditional filmmaking to focus on an emerging medium was a daunting experience – but Lajeunesse and Raphael’s VR projects have been met with widespread acclaim. At the core of their work is a desire to create films that play to VR’s strengths – films that are created not just for the sake of it but because they are stories that are best told in a VR environment.

Certain stories just don’t want to be told in virtual reality – but that’s OK

“We do [commissions] only if we have strong creative agency,” said Lajeunesse. “And when we do original content we just choose subject matters that we feel are interesting in terms of stories but also VR native, experiential, presence-driven – if [a project] has all of those characteristics, if we feel we can make a truly compelling VR native story then we go for it.

“Certain stories just don’t want to be told in virtual reality and will never be VR native, and would much rather exist as a film or play – but that’s OK. You have to let [those ideas] go. Don’t force them into VR because you’re going to regret it,” he added.

Still from Strangers with Patrick Watson by Felix & Paul. Image: Oculus

Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael were speaking to Creative Review at C2, a creative conference in Montreal. More about the event at c2montreal.com. See more of Felix & Paul’s work here.

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