Félix & Paul go to Sundance with new VR experience

Montreal virtual reality pioneers Félix & Paul Studios are turning heads with their latest VR experience, an 8-minute glipse of the life of nomadic yak herders in Mongolia now showing at Sundance.

Hollywood directors and game producers eager to dip their toes in new VR technology

Paul Raphael and Félix Lajeunesse of Félix & Paul have been working together for a decade. (Joseph Ghaleb )

Montreal virtual reality creators Félix & Paul are hot property these days.

The studio first generated buzz for its VR storytelling at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in March 2014 with an experience called Strangers with Patrick Watson.

The virtual reality experience featured the Montreal musician in his Mile-End studio lighting a cigarette and then sitting down at the piano. 

Viewers who looked back around the studio could see his black Labrador lying patiently on the floor listening. Cigarette smoke spirals up from an ashtray beside the piano.

Strangers with Patrick Watson, created by Félix & Paul Studios, was their first foray into virtual reality. It was shown at SXSW in March. (Félix & Paul Studios)

Since SXSW, and Facebook's high-profile purchase of VR newcomer Oculus Rift, gear developers and film studios are checking out the new medium.

And they're turning to two Montrealers, Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael, to find out how they can get in the game. 

Samsung commissioned content from the pair for their new virtual reality headset, Gear VR, which was released in mid-December in the U.S.

Two Montreal virtual reality innovators are showcasing their latest VR experience at Sundance. And getting ready for a series of projects with Hollywood studios.

Fox Searchlight Pictures got Felix & Paul to create a virtual reality experience with Reese Witherspoon for the new Jean-Marc Vallée movie, Wild

The creators have a list of projects in the works and they’re part of the keynote address at the Sundance Festival’s New Frontiers panel on virtual reality on Jan. 26.

But their most exciting reveal at Sundance is their longest VR experience yet.

Herders immerses the viewers in the world of nomadic yak herders in Mongolia. (Félix & Paul Studios )

Herders places viewers among nomadic yak herders on the trails of Mongolia for an eight minute-long unique experience in time. 

"We actually went there this summer and spent time with a family of nomadic yak herders on the steppes and so it’s a very contemplative and observational journey of what they actually live and the viewer can actually feel he’s a part of them," said Lajeunesse.

Herders is a perfect example of the appeal of virtual reality: to take viewers somewhere they'd never get to on their own and have them feel a personal connection to the scene.

A new way of storytelling

The stakes and expectations are high for Felix & Paul.

Filmmakers like James Cameron have dipped their toes in the world of VR.  Some directors wonder if it will make for a more pleasant experience than what viewers have now with 3D.

But virtual reality requires a complex filming process and a different approach to storytelling.

Jump cuts will leave viewers nauseous. If the viewer isn't centred in the middle of the action, the impression of being surrounded by sound and images doesn’t feel authentic.

Samsung commissioned content from Félix & Paul for their new virtual reality headset, Gear VR. (George Fok/Phi Centre )

Félix and Paul, who cut their teeth on 3D shorts, music videos and installations, are advantageously both techies and filmmakers.

They find longer, fly-on-the-wall experiences work the best. And they’ve found themselves tweaking their equipment after each shoot.

Lajeunesse says their proprietary, 3D stereoscopic 360-degree camera recording technology and software resembles a small person, which came in handy when they were trying to convince the yak herders to let this little guy sit down with them in the yurt.

"It replicates a bit how a human being will perceive reality— it has ears, it has eyes [and a] body for the data," says Félix Lajeunesse.

With the increasing availability of VR developer kits and interest from Hollywood filmmakers and video game creators, many observers say 2015 is the year of virtual reality.

Montreal arts patron Phoebe Greenberg of the Phi Centre is one of them. The centre is backing Félix & Paul’s exploration of the new media. 

"Well, this is the future," said Myriam Achard from the Phi Centre.

"Definitely 2015 is going to be the year of virtual reality entering our homes. Right now it’s only geeks, only tech people, but it’s going to enter our homes."


Jeanette Kelly works as the arts reporter at CBC Montreal. She's also the host of Cinq à Six, Quebec's Saturday afternoon culture show on CBC Radio One.


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