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This story first appeared in the July 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
You are sitting on a rock in a vast empty field. A man is next to you playing a jaw harp. You swivel in your office chair and suddenly you’re in a different field surrounded by yaks. One of the furry beasts is rubbing on a bush. Next you’re inside a yurt with a family of Mongolian herders eating their lunch. They don’t make eye contact, let alone offer you a plate. A minute later, after a meditative tambourine performance, it’s over. You’re back at your desk.
As far as storytelling is concerned, immersive VR — the still-developing 3D platform that companies such as Oculus, Sony and Samsung are hoping to tap in to with their new lines of high-tech goggle gear — still has a long way to go. At this point in its evolution, it’s about where filmmaking was when the Lumiere brothers premiered The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station in 1896. It’s a medium with huge potential — those yaks feel every bit as real as that train did to a roomful of terrified Parisians at the dawn of the cinema age — but nobody’s figured out what to do with it yet.
But filmmakers Felix Lajeunesse, 35, and Paul Raphael, 34, who created the “Herders” video with the yaks and yurt — and whose Montreal-based company, Felix & Paul Studios, just signed a multi-project, multiyear deal with Oculus to develop both original VR content and immersive experiences tied to Hollywood blockbusters (they recently did one for the Reese Witherspoon movie Wild and another for Jurassic World: Apatosaurus) — are about as far along in thinking through this technology’s future as anyone. “These are lessons,” says Lajeunesse of his trippy videos. “We don’t have the grammar yet, the 100-year history of films.” Adds Raphael, “You can’t create an art form in six months.”
The two men started out as commercial directors but, in 2012, they happened to hear about a Kickstarter campaign for a company out of Long Beach, Calif. — Oculus Rift — whose VR headset was being touted as a revolutionary gaming accessory. Lajeunesse and Raphael instantly saw its potential for live-action storytelling. They paid $300 for a developer kit, then went about creating a VR camera rig, a conical device that was capable of filming in 360 degrees. They shot their first VR experiment in one afternoon in a church, setting the camera on a pew beside an elderly woman, who turns to the camera and smiles. “We completely flipped out,” Lajeunesse says of that early footage. “There was no impression of a fourth wall, no impression of a screen, no barriers — it was an electric moment.”
In March 2014, Lajeunesse and Raphael took another VR piece — “Strangers,” in which viewers get to hang out in a loft with musician Patrick Watson — to South by Southwest. Oculus executives at the festival were so impressed that they commissioned an out-of-the-box experience for Gear VR users. Then the Phi Center, a Montreal-based arts incubator, wrote them a check for $2.5 million to expand their team and create more VR videos. In June, Oculus, bought by Facebook for $2 billion in 2014, inked a deal to make Felix & Paul longterm content providers.
So far, Hollywood has been cautiously curious about the new technology, seeing it mostly as a marketing tool (Ridley Scott is supposedly working on a VR tie-in to help promote The Martian when it comes out in October). But Doug Neil, Universal’s executive vp digital marketing, who commissioned the Jurassic World VR tie-in that put viewers within petting distance of a dinosaur, is skeptical about VR’s prospects beyond advertising. “You have to distribute headsets and create content — it’s not at a point where it’s turnkey,” he says.
Lajeunesse and Raphael, though, see a much bigger future. They’re working on what they call the world’s first “virtual reality series.” Titled Nomads, it will transport Oculus users (anyone with a Samsung smartphone and a Gear VR headset, which goes for around $200, although the company is preparing to release a standalone “helmet,” rumored to cost around $1,500) to Africa, where they’ll mingle with the Maasai tribe of Kenya, and Borneo, where they’ll hang out with the Bajau people. All that’s missing is a stop at the train station at La Ciotat.
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