Some people think of virtual reality as an escape from actual reality. But helping you escape reality is the opposite of what Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël hope to do through their immersive virtual reality company, Felix & Paul Studios.
The Emmy-winning Montreal-based studio takes audiences to places they might otherwise never go — to the International Space Station, inside the Oval Office, even back in time. Rather than distracting people from real life, they want to instill a sense of presence that can help us expand our consciousness.
“How do we evolve our consciousness as humans in the real world? We go out and we have experiences,” says Lajeunesse. “We read books, we meet people, we travel, we question ourselves. We engage our minds in the real world. That is how we progress — because we’re curious, we explore, right? That is how we progress as individuals and as a civilization.
“Virtual reality wants to help with that. Virtual reality wants to be able to engage your mind into not just passive storytelling, where you receive something, but to actually live an experience, empathizing with the characters… activating your mind in a deeper way, being affected in a deeper way, in order to move your consciousness forward.”
In a new eight-episode series, “Inside Felix & Paul Studios,” they and their team show you the astonishing lengths they go to in order to bring audiences a sense of presence in once-unreachable destinations. One episode, for example, details the process of recording and replicating the sounds of the International Space Station.
The series, which you can stream on Meta Quest or YouTube, uses 180-degree stereoscopic video to provide a sense of depth and three-dimensional space. It is presented by Canon and shot using Canon’s RF5.2mm F2.8 L Dual Fisheye lens and the EOS R5 C camera.
The Felix & Paul Social Experience
As much as Lajeunesse and Raphaël love cinema, Lajeunesse notes that it is “an abstraction of reality — just like painting is an abstraction of reality.”
“But virtual reality is different,” he explains. “Virtual reality has the pretension, or the goal, to try to emulate reality, in a sense.”
He adds: “It’s not about escaping, it’s about enriching your experience of the real world. We’re just not interested in escapism, in general. … The focus is better engaging with the world you know, not getting away from it.”
Raphaël notes that many people already escape reality by “staring at a tiny little rectangle for the larger part of their day. Sometimes it’s a larger rectangle in their living room, or on their desk.” He likens these to “inferior simulations of reality.”
Lajeunesse and Raphaël first crossed paths when they were a year apart at Montreal’s Concordia University, where both studied film production, had friends in common, and admired each other’s work. After graduation, they sometimes found themselves competing at film festivals. When they each received the opportunity to pitch on a music video — a 2003 production for the electronic musician Akido — they decided to join forces.
“It was the first gig for both of us — we were just coming out of school and we both needed the gig. So instead of fighting for bread crumbs, we decided to try to do it together,” Lajeunesse recalls. “And it turns out that it was a lot of fun. We immediately connected on a human level and on a creative level, but also in terms of like, what he was good at and what I was good at, which was not the same. And we just started working together and became friends.”
They became interested in more and more immersive cinematic experiences, and in 2014 Felix & Paul debuted their VR experience, Strangers With Patrick Watson, at South by Southwest.
“It was a one-on-one with a musician writing music in his studio, at the piano, just writing music with cameras there. It’s one shot, it’s one moment with him and his dog,” says Lajeunesse. “It’s so simple and down to earth. But the point was to try to create a full sense of presence, to try to make people feel like they’re just present with this person, and that they can start to feel the humanity and the presence of the person and they can start to feel their own presence in that space.”
Soon Felix & Paul moved on to ever-more ambitious projects, including 2016’s Nomads, about the lives of nomadic people in Mongolia, Kenya, and Borneo; 2017’s The People’s House: Inside the White House With Barack and Michelle Obama; 2019’s Traveling While Black, which was directed by Roger Ross Williams and helps audiences better understand what it was like for Black motorists to navigate the segregated South; and 2020’s Space Explorers: The ISS Experience, which follows eight astronauts on the International Space Station. They have also collaborated with LeBron James, former President Bill Clinton, Cirque du Soleil, and the Jurassic Park franchise, among others.
The company’s creations are available for experiencing in several immersive formats, including on 5G-enabled smartphones and tablets, through fulldome projection in domes and planetariums, and through Oculus headsets. It also offers a truly immersive touring exhibit, The Infinite, which is as close as you can get to the International Space Station without going to space.
Currently in Vancouver and Montreal, it is coming this year to Denver and Houston. Felix & Paul Studios is well aware that some people aren’t comfortable yet entering the realm of VR, so they’re bringing VR to the people.
“We have access to a universal audience, literally people of all ages… school buses, people in their 90s, everything in between. Single, family, all of them. And we kind of fell in love with that format. And not only is it a universal audience, but it’s kind of the ultimate manifestation of VR, because you’re in a large open space, you’re not just sitting there,” says Raphaël. “It’s also a social experience. You’re in there with a hundred people at once.”
Main image: Space Explorers: The ISS Experience, courtesy of Felix & Paul Studios.