Ever since its 2013 inception, Felix & Paul Studios has been transforming immersive entertainment. The studio has more than 25 virtual reality (VR) works to its credit, and its rapid growth has been driven in part by the VR industry’s own. The sector is expected to reach US$48.2 billion in revenues worldwide by 2022. Here’s a look at the studio’s ― and the industry’s ― evolution, in three acts.
Virtual reality goes back further than one would think. First there was the Sensorama, which was invented by Morton Heilig in 1956. The first virtual reality headset came out in 1961, followed by the first flight simulator in 1970. Then there were commercial failures by Nintendo in 1989, and Sega in 1993.
Only in 2010 did Palmer Luckey, an 18-year-old American entrepreneur, launch a prototype for the Oculus Rift VR headset. Two years later, he raised US$2.5 million on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. Another two years later, Luckey was bought out by Facebook.
Felix & Paul Studios was officially founded during this period of “rebirth” for virtual reality. However, co-founders Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël had already begun to explore immersive entertainment a few years earlier.
Having completed studies in cinematography at Concordia University, Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël were both fascinated by the cinematic mechanisms used to fully immerse viewers in a story.
“We observed that when a film offered effective storytelling and character identification, viewers became attached to it and felt a sense of immersion throughout the story,” confided Félix Lajeunesse during Felix & Paul Studios’ Festival du nouveau cinéma Masterclass, in the fall of 2019.
Experiential films were able to achieve the same effect, but by using other strategies. “We mean by this films that offer a space for the viewer to feel present in a cinematic experience and in which the story and characters are truly at the service of the experience and not the other way around,” he added.
Three specific films motivated the creative duo to delve deeper into this experiential aspect. The first one is ‘Tokyo Story’ (1953), in which director Yasujirō Ozu used the camera as a stand-in for viewers. “If you watch this film, chances are you’ll forget its characters, but not how it made you feel,” Lajeunesse stated.
The same process is used in a more contemporary production: Jia Zhangke’s ‘Still Life’ (2006), in which the camera steers away from the characters — as if it were not interested in the scene — and remains detached. That certainly hampers the story’s delivery, but seems designed specifically for the viewer.
“’2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968) is another example ― the slow, hypnotic rhythm of the shots combined with the sober acting ― everything makes you feel like you’re among the astronauts.”
Although these examples showed Lajeunesse and Raphaël that cinema could be the right medium to engineer a state of immersion, the pair doubted that it was the only one.
“By the end of 2008, 3D films were starting to come out. Some scenes had a magical effect on us,” explained Paul Raphaël.
That’s when he and Lajeunesse designed a 3D device equipped with three cameras that was able to film from three different angles. They explored the documentary genre first, then moved on to fiction. They presented their first 3D fictional work, ‘The Sparkling River,’ at TIFF in 2013.
2012 was a turning point in Felix & Paul Studios’ evolution: Lajeunesse and Raphaël discovered the Oculus Rift prototype on Kickstarter.
“Even though the content in the developer’s kit that we ordered was intended for video games and included only short demos, what we felt and the device’s features impressed us to such an extent that we instantly decided to focus our efforts on developing content for it,” Paul Raphaël told the FNC’s audience.
They started using cameras and sound sensors to produce 360° videos that could be viewed using the Oculus Rift headset.
At this point in time, the team took a huge financial risk: the Oculus device sure generated interest, but the VR industry was virtually non-existent.
Yet they jumped head first into this medium with their first cinematic VR experience, ‘Strangers,’ in which users found themselves immersed in Montreal-based musician Patrick Watson’s studio. In 2014, they travelled to SXSW and presented the experience to the Oculus team, who decided to make it into a demo for the Oculus Rift headset.
It took three years after Facebook’s Oculus acquisition for the global VR industry to generate US$6 billion in revenue. According to Pulse on VR the number of Canadian companies working in VR has increased 22 percent since 2014.
With the confidence inspired by ‘Strangers’, Felix & Paul Studios multiplied VR experiences, each one a new milestone in immersive entertainment.
Some Hollywood companies even approached the studio, which resulted in the team creating a VR experience for ‘Wild,’ a Jean-Marc Vallée-directed film starring Reese Witherspoon.
The repercussions were instantaneous. The team produced VR experiences for other films, but also experiential documentaries for former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, for basketball player Lebron James, and even created shows for Cirque du Soleil.
What’s next for VR ― and for Felix & Paul Studios?
With more than 25 VR experiences to its credit, Felix & Paul Studios was producing, as of this writing a major project of six 20-minute episodes in collaboration with NASA and Time magazine. The series, entitled ‘Space Explorers: The ISS Experience,’ takes place on the International Space Station and pushes immersive experiences to new heights.
This work will be deployed online, but Felix & Paul Studios producer and co-founder Stéphane Rituit, recently confided that he was exploring other ways to disseminate it such as domes, educational materials, museums and other physical venues.
VR’s full potential has yet to be realized, in part due to slow consumer adoption. The penetration rate of virtual reality headsets in Canada sat at 3.3 percent among Francophones and 4.3 percent among Anglophones, according to GlobalWebIndex’s report for the third quarter of 2019, which surveys Canadian internet users ages 16 to 64. Also, many experts believe that 5G technology will improve the quality of VR experiences.
Finally, if Felix & Paul Studios was born in a period of rebirth for VR, it is in a phase of technological acceleration that the company will continue to innovate. In January 2020, start-up Mojo Vision unveiled the Mojo Lens, augmented reality lenses that could revolutionize the way we interact with the world and with each other. Facebook also announced the launch of its Horizon product for 2020. The immersive, VR-powered social universe will be accessible on Oculus Quest and Rift, and its users will be able to network, interact with friends and even watch movies.