These VR masters are bringing Wes Anderson's vision to life — and changing how we experience movies
Montreal's Félix & Paul are turning Anderson's "Isle of Dogs" into an enthralling immersive experience
As legend has it, when the Lumière Brothers premiered Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat in 1986, the audience was so shocked at the sight of the moving image that they leapt from their seats, afraid the train was about to crash through the screen and come straight for them.
Cinema has never been able to recreate reactions as visceral as that first one — that is, until today. Another inventive duo has arrived to push the medium into unmapped territory, the likes of which haven't been seen in over a century. Their names are Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël, and they're the contemporary pioneers of virtual reality.
Last week I previewed Isle of Dogs: Behind the Scenes (in Virtual Reality), the latest immersive VR project from Félix & Paul Studios, before it was shipped off for its grand premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. To experience the film, you don a headset that delivers you to Trash Island, the setting of Wes Anderson's upcoming stop motion feature (due out in theatres this March). One by one, you're introduced to Anderson's repertory company of actors — from Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and Jeff Goldblum to Anderson first-timers like Scarlett Johansson — as well as the puppy puppets they embody in the film.
The up-close sight of each canine, the depth of the image and the waggish way their facial movements line up with the actors' voices is enough to keep your eyes glued straight ahead. When your vision strays, however, you discover the second dimension of the installation: panoramic time-lapse footage of the animation team working tirelessly to construct each frame. 10 days of animation, I'm later told, translates to roughly 30 seconds of film. The finished product is juxtaposed with all the labour that went into it. Meanwhile, the actors speak about their characters, disguised as their characters. Tilda Swinton tells us the heart of a dog is a bottomless thing. It's all astonishingly meta.
Wes Anderson ranks among the legion of movie directors notorious for overseeing every frame of their films — from script to set design to the way the cinemas project them. It's no wonder, then, why the likes of Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël were invited to the Isle of Dogs set in London, England to team up with the auteur and redefine the very notion of the behind-the-scenes featurette. In the past year alone, the studio has produced exclusive VR collaborations with Cirque du Soleil, Judd Apatow, Trevor Noah, NASA and Barack Obama. But while they toggle between genres, much like Anderson, their aesthetic sensibility remains the same. Félix and Paul aren't merely craftsmen — they themselves are the new auteurs to look out for.
We really see virtual reality as an evolution of cinema. It's not cinema inside of virtual reality — it's a re-conception of how to tell a cinematic story inside of immersive media.- Félix Lajeunesse, VR filmmaker
"We've never put a cap on what virtual reality storytelling can be," FélixLajeunesse explains on the eve of his flight to Utah to present the new projects — Isle of Dogs as well as NASA-partnership Space Explorers: A New Dawn — in the New Frontier program at Sundance. Félix & Paul Studios has headquarters in Montreal, where they're responsible for creating their own camera systems, production and post-production software and audio capture. Yet virtually everything they do is in service of telling a cinematic story. Sundance, a hub for nascent movie talent and outside-the-box storytelling, is precisely the forum where they want to springboard their work.
"We really see virtual reality as an evolution of cinema. It's not cinema inside of virtual reality — it's a re-conception of how to tell a cinematic story inside of immersive media," Lajeunesse says, adding that someone seeking to tell a story that doesn't tap into the unique restrictions and freedoms of VR would be better off making a regular film. Even before the studio was conceived back in 2012, Félix and Paul used Montreal's bustling creative scene to their advantage, dabbling in new media, 3D projections and holograms. The pair has always been a step above the laws of reality, and now their work has hit the world stage, continuing onward toward unforeseeable heights.
At Sundance, alongside Isle of Dogs, Lajeunesse and Raphaël will unveil Space Explorers: A New Dawn, a 19-minute immersion into the intensive NASA space training programs. It's fitting that today's most cutting-edge film equipment is bringing participants to the frontiers of space travel, where they're along for the ride as a passenger in a jet or underwater in a pool specifically designed to simulate outer space conditions. For a moment, previewing the project, I was fooled into believing I had been whisked off to a new planet. When I removed the headset, it took a moment to readjust to my surroundings. The experience quite genuinely swept me off my feet.
Virtual reality is transformative in that sense — it can transport you to places you've never been, allow you to walk in a stranger's shoes. But doesn't it also have the capacity to isolate, considering each viewer is hermetically sealed behind their own private headset?
Lajeunesse doesn't believe it's any more isolating than a routine outing to the cinema. For example, audiences at Sundance will get to experience Isle of Dogs and Space Explorers: A New Dawn in unison at synced screenings. "More and more, virtual reality is no longer just about being in your room and putting on a headset in the dark," Lajeunesse says. "It's becoming a social event where people go and mingle and experience new content." IMAX theatres and France's MK2 are two companies spearheading the industry of location-based VR. The co-founder thinks we're going to see a whole lot more of that in addition to "increased home distribution of people buying virtual reality headsets and downloading content and watching content at home."
Shortly after Sundance draws to a close, Isle of Dogs (Behind the Scenes) and Space Explorers: A New Dawn will be made available on the Google Pixel phones and Daydream VR platform. But it's nowhere near the end of excitement for Lajeunesse, Raphaël and the team at Félix & Paul. It's under wraps for now, but the studio is currently at work on worldbuilding sci-fi projects they say will be on par with the prestige TV coming out of HBO and Netflix. So remember their names. They're big — it's just the pictures that got small.