Filmmakers team with Facebook to test limits of virtual reality


Los Angeles: Canadian filmmakers Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael rejoiced after trying on a prototype virtual-reality headset called the Rift three years ago.

The Montreal-based duo had been experimenting with immersive film installations, 3D and holographs. Now they realized the maker of the headset, a start-up called Oculus, had come up with just what they needed.

“It became clear the first time we experienced virtual reality that it was what we had been trying to achieve all of those years and what we would be doing for the foreseeable future,” Lajeunesse said in a recent interview.

The pair focused all their energy on the new medium, founding Felix & Paul Studios to create virtual-reality entertainment. They’ve attracted the attention of Steven Spielberg and President Barack Obama, along with project financing from Facebook Inc. On Thursday the two will introduce a clip from one of the most ambitious VR films ever made.

Miyubi is a comedy that places the viewer in the shoes of a Japanese robot given as a present to a young boy. Facebook, which paid $2 billion in 2014 for the company that makes the Rift, funded the project with Oculus and will show the teaser at Connect, an annual developer conference hosted by the company’s virtual-reality division.

Miyubi, the longest narrative virtual-reality film Felix & Paul has made at about 40 minutes with hidden scenes, will test what viewers are willing to watch with VR gear strapped to their heads. That’s a crucial question as the technology and entertainment industries gauge the potential of the nascent industry. Lajeunesse has never worn a headset for that long. Raphael doesn’t think he has either. Another long film made in virtual reality, “Christ,” got a horrid response at the Venice Film Festival.

“We have no idea how this will go,” Lajeunesse said. “It’s quite a big leap. There is a part of me that thinks it will be just fine, and there is still a part of me that thinks 40 minutes is a huge amount of time.”

Virtual reality is so new that neither Lajeunesse nor Raphael had ever cut a VR trailer before and were rushing to finish before Connect. Up until now, they have primarily told short, intimate stories, like their first piece “Strangers,” or slightly longer non-fiction pieces, such as one about a trip to Yosemite National Park with Obama.

For Lajeunesse and Raphael, their primary fear with Miyubi is sacrificing what they describe as “presence”—the feeling of being in a scene rather than watching from a far.

Facebook bet

Facebook has encouraged them to push the limits. The social-media giant and Oculus have backed a dozen projects, including pieces starring Obama, basketball star LeBron James and nomadic tribes. In a funding round led by Comcast Corp., owner of Universal Pictures, Felix & Paul Studios raised $6.8 million in June to hire staff and help pay for future films. But the company wasn’t ready to support projects that cost millions of dollars.

Facebook solved that problem and will have the exclusive rights to Miyubi. It’s one of several films the company hopes will entice people to buy an Oculus headset.

Facebook’s purchase of Oculus and its backing of productions have forced the technology and media industries to take VR more seriously. This week Alphabet Inc.’s Google introduced its Daydream View headset and controller. Media companies are investing tens of millions of dollars in start-ups that aim to be the top producers in virtual reality.

“With cinema audiences dropping away, traditional cable and satellite under threat and streaming services starting a price war, these media companies are looking for a way to produce headline content that can justify higher margins,” said James Moar, an analyst with Juniper Research. “VR offers a new frontier of premium entertainment experiences.”

Inflection point coming

So far, few people are watching. Many current headsets use smartphones that aren’t powerful enough to support advanced features. More powerful headsets are bulky, requiring a connection to a computer or gaming device.

Consumers may not want to shell out $599 for a Rift to watch the limited amount of content that’s become available so far. Slightly more than three million people own high-end virtual reality headsets, Moar estimates.

Some VR content may also be too real, causing viewers to become nauseous. Filmmakers like Chris Milk have decided to focus on concise pieces so consumers don’t get overwhelmed.

Yet analysts and filmmakers believe the inflection point for the market is not far away. Mass adoption will arrive in late 2017 or early 2018, Raphael estimates, while Forrester Research projects the number of high-end headsets will reach 52 million by 2020.

“Virtual reality has been a relatively niche product,” said Chris Bruss, president of digital at Funny or Die, the production company that made Miyubi with Felix & Paul. One of Bruss’s primary jobs at Funny or Die is getting millions of people to watch something online. “We can hopefully do a good job of driving people to watch.”

New milestone

Miyubi was born from a series of meetings between Funny or Die and Felix & Paul. Funny or Die, co-founded by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, had been looking to experiment in virtual reality. Felix & Paul had already attracted Hollywood’s attention by translating bits of Hollywood movies into virtual reality experiences.

The filmmakers dropped viewers into the forest with Reese Witherspoon for an experience tied to Wild from 20th Century Fox and showed millions what it’s like to be in the presence of a dinosaur for a piece related to Universal Pictures’ Jurassic World.

Now Bruss and Felix & Paul are hoping for a new milestone.

“We haven’t had a hit narrative virtual reality project yet,” Bruss said. “This may not be it, but we’re well-positioned.”