Arts·CBC ARTS AT SUNDANCE

These Canadians are showing you what it feels like to be a Japanese robot from 1982

Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël's most ambitious virtual reality experience yet just debuted at the Sundance Film Festival.

Virtual reality experience MIYUBI just debuted at the Sundance Film Festival

This is what it feels like to be a robot: A scene from Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël's MIYUBI. (Félix and Paul Studios)

Montreal filmmakers Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël have already made quite the names for themselves in virtual reality. In the past three years, their Félix & Paul Studios have created everything from Jurassic World: Apatosaurus to VR pieces for Cirque du Soleil, LeBron James and Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (with the latter being the first time a sitting president has participated in a virtual reality experience). They write, direct, produce and edit each experience — efforts that have already won them an Emmy. And they just debuted their most ambitious project yet at the Sundance Film Festival.

MIYUBI is a virtual reality scripted comedy about a Japanese toy robot whose metal shoes you step into for 40 minutes. Over the course of the year 1982, you become part of a young boy's family, watching as their lives — and interest in you — begin to fracture. Equally funny and heartbreaking, it's unlikely to feel like anything you've experienced before.

"One thing we've never done is to embark into a longer form narrative," Lajeunesse tells CBC Arts from Sundance. "We really wanted to do that, and we were extremely attracted to comedy from the beginning. So we came up with a core concept for this piece, where the viewer embodies a robot in 1982 and experiences limitations and obsolescence — a story in which your own dramatic arc as a viewer would evolve in relation to that of the protagonist of the story."

Before we try and tell a story, we try to define the role of the viewer inside of it.-  Félix   Lajeunesse

To achieve that, Lajeunesse and Raphaël entered into a relationship with Funny Or Die, explaining their idea and asking if they could bring some of FOD's writers to the project to help flesh out the story. What was most key for them was for the viewer to feel like they belonged inside the narrative — something that has been their main goal from the beginning.

"Before we try and tell a story, we try to define the role of the viewer inside of it," Lajeunesse says.  

For instance, in his and Raphaël's first ever piece, Strangers With Patrick Watson, the concept involved sitting with Watson inside of his Montreal studio as he was writing music for his album.

"You're just spending five minutes with him and his dog inside the studio," Lajeunesse explains. "That's a pure experience of you being there. The way we conceived of the camera was to think of it as a visiting friend. So we asked Patrick when he has people coming to studio, where he wants to be. The answer was, 'Well, not next to me.' We prompted him to think of the viewer and the camera in that perspective. So when you actually experience the piece, you feel like you belong there. You feel a sense of kinship and intimacy with him. We always make sure it feels like it makes sense for the viewer to be there."

A scene from MIYUBI. (Félix & Paul Studios)

From project to project, the way Lajeunesse and Raphaël engage in that strategy changes depending on the context, but one thing they never do is give a participatory role to the viewer.

"We don't think of the viewer as a literal character," Lajeunesse says. "Why? Because if a protagonist comes and talks to you, you cannot really talk back. You can't really influence the world that you're in. So we try to generally avoid creating an experience where the viewer will feel those limitations."

That's definitely evident in MIYUBI, which after six months of production has found its way to a few hundred headsets at Sundance, where viewers may or may not see everything the experience has to offer.

"When you watch the project the first time you might not find all the clues," Lajeunesse says. "So you might want to re-engage with the project and all find the portals."

Not to give too much away, but those portals include guest appearances by Jeff Goldblum and a unicorn.

So how can you experience MIYUBI yourself? If you own an Oculus Rift or Samsung Gear VR headset, it will be available on their app stores "in the very near future" — meaning it won't be too long before the future is now.

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