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Montreal's Felix & Paul Studios hailed as 'VR royalty' at Sundance

Last Updated Jan 22, 2018 at 3:20 pm MST

Paul Raphael, right, and Felix Lajeunesse pose for a portrait to promote the film, "Miyubi", at the Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, in Park City, Utah. Felix Lajeunesse, co-founder and co-director of Montreal's Emmy-winning Felix & Paul Studios, says there's a "creative big bang" going on in virtual reality, evidenced by the Sundance Film Festival's growing interest in the immersive storytelling medium. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

PARK CITY, Utah – Felix Lajeunesse, co-founder and co-director of Montreal’s Emmy-winning Felix & Paul Studios, says there’s a “creative big bang” going on in virtual reality, evidenced by the Sundance Film Festival’s growing interest in the immersive storytelling medium.

The New Frontier program at this year’s festival is showcasing 27 works — with content featuring VR, artificial intelligence and augmented reality — including Felix & Paul’s “Isle of Dogs: Behind the Scenes,” the Maria Bello-produced “The Sun Ladies” about an all-women Iraqi fighting unit, and “Dinner Party,” which tells the real-life story of a 1960s close encounter.

“It’s a very healthy and fast-growing medium and art form,” says Lajeunesse, who formed the studio with Paul Raphael in 2013.

“Every year, I see the scope of the medium being larger and larger … not just the numbers, but the diversity of projects and kinds of subject matters that are explored.”

This is the fourth year Felix & Paul has been at Sundance and this time out, it’s showing two very different projects.

For “Isle of Dogs: Behind the Scenes,” they teamed with director Wes Anderson to create what Lajeunesse calls a “meta” 360-degree virtual electronic press kit for the comedy, which premieres at the Berlinale International Film Festival next month.

The stop-motion dogs banished to the mythical island — voiced by Anderson stalwarts including Bill Murray, Edward Norton and Tilda Swinton — talk about their characters as if they weren’t animated puppets. Swivelling in the office-style chair to look behind you reveals filmmakers and animators working in the studio to create the scenes.

Meanwhile, the premiere of the first episode of “Space Explorers: A New Dawn” follows NASA astronauts as they train for space missions. The experience puts the viewer into the jet cockpit and an immersive Mars exploration simulation.

The experience is heightened at Sundance when viewers settle into red-lined, egg-shaped chairs before putting on a VR headset and headphones. The newly launched, full-motion chairs are created for VR use in theatres.

The head of experiences for American tech company Oculus, which is premiering five projects at Sundance including “Space Explorers,” calls Lajeunesse and Raphael “VR royalty.”

The headset maker also teamed with Felix & Paul on the 2017 Emmy-winning 360-degree immersive video “The People’s House: Inside the White House with Barack and Michelle Obama.”

“They make better-looking stuff than just about anyone working in video,” said Colum Slevin.

“What I learned about them is everything they do, they try to take it up a notch from the prior thing they did, but in the most intentional, tasteful way possible.”

For his part, Lajeunesse sees VR expanding as home-based “high-quality entertainment” to include episodic series, especially with the release later this year of the all-in-one Oculus Go headset-headphones set.

“We still feel like we’re only scratching the surface of this art form,” he said.