Montreal virtual reality studio puts audiences in orbit with Space Explorers: The ISS Experience

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Akihiko Hoshide, an astronaut with the Japanese space agency JAXA, walks in space outside the International Space Station on September 12, 2021. The spacewalk was captured in virtual reality by Felix Studios and Paul for an upcoming episode of their multiplatform series, Space Explorers: The ISS Experience.

NASA / NASA

Communicating with infinity while floating above Earth is an experience that until now has only been known to a handful.

Now, a Montreal production company aims to share this experience with audiences around the world, following the very first recording of a spacewalk using virtual reality.

“This is something that has absolutely never been done before,” said Félix Lajeunesse, co-founder and creative director of the Felix and Paul studios, who developed the project in partnership with TIME Studios and NASA.

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“Spacewalk has been something I have dreamed of for years and… we have been working every week until this moment,” he said.

The company, specializing in creating virtual reality experiences with a cinematic twist, had its long-awaited chance in mid-September when astronauts Thomas Pesquet and Akihiko Hoshide ventured outside the International Space Station for approximately seven hours to install brackets and other equipment in preparation. for a new solar panel.

Space Explorers: The ISS Experience is different from previous space documentaries of life aboard the station in that virtual reality allows members of the public to look in any direction.

Felix & Paul Studios and TIME Studios / Courtesy of Felix & Paul Studios and TIME Studios

The images will be used in the fourth and final installment of Space Explorers: The ISS Experience, a virtual reality trip to space that has already won a Primetime Emmy Award for its first two episodes.

From the start, the production was developed to reach the public through a variety of platforms for 360-degree viewing, including 5G-enabled smartphones and tablets. A dome-shaped theatrical version of the experience for a group audience opened this week at the Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium in Montreal. Those who want a more immersive experience can now see the first two episodes as virtual reality using a headset available through games and entertainment company Oculus. Scenes from the VR series are also featured as part of L’Infini, an interactive exhibition developed by Studio Phi of Montreal, whose works focus on the intersection of art and technology. The exhibition, which runs until November 7, has attracted 40,000 visitors since it opened in July.

“It’s probably as close as ever to going to the space station,” said Myriam Achard, head of new media partnerships at PHI. She said the final part of the VR experience includes an opportunity to view Earth from space as well as from the cupola – the space station’s primary viewing area.

“It’s a very strong moment,” she said, adding that some visitors had been brought to tears by the experience.

The company made its first pitch to NASA in 2016 and gradually gained confidence in its ability to tackle the project.

Felix & Paul Studios and TIME Studios / Courtesy of Felix & Paul Studios and TIME Studios

At a time when billionaires are able to set off on private alien stays that hardly anyone else could dream of, Lajeunesse said his project was developed for a very different purpose: to make it easier for the public to become witnesses. eyepieces rather than distant spectators of mankind’s greatest adventure.

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“The concept has always been to create a bridge, through technology and media, to allow people to have a glimpse of what it feels like. [to be on the space station]. This remains the main thing, ”he said.

There were a lot of challenges on the way to the launch pad.

The company made its first presentation to NASA in 2016 and has gradually built confidence in its ability to tackle the project while filming astronauts in training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Agency’s training site. Russian space near Moscow. The company also filmed at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which until recently was the departure point for all astronauts heading to the space station.

To take the next step – following the crews in orbit – the Montreal company had to adapt its equipment to meet the strict specifications required by NASA and allow filming in the vacuum of space. Since the filmmakers could not be on site to outfit the equipment themselves, the astronauts also had to be enlisted and trained as VR camera operators on board the station.

“We were ready to undertake these efforts because we know how valuable this production is,” said Jessica Meir, an American astronaut who has been involved in filming the project during a seven-month stay on the station for the past two years. “It really is a unique platform.

She added that after looking at the results, she found the experience so immersive that it could be used in training to help acclimate astronauts to the three-dimensional environment of the station, a place with no ups and downs. in the conventional sense of the term, before traveling. the.

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The sentiment was echoed by Canadian astronaut David St. Jacques, who helped filming during his 204 days on the station in 2018-19, Canada’s longest space mission to date.

The crucial spacewalk filming for Space Explorers: The ISS Experience was slated for early this year, but technical issues arose and for a while it was not clear if or when another chance would come. might show up.

Felix & Paul Studios and TIME Studios / Courtesy of Felix & Paul Studios and TIME Studios

Which makes Space Explorers: The ISS Experience Unlike previous space documentaries of life aboard the station, virtual reality allows viewers to look around in any direction they choose, rather than being guided by a director’s selection of shots. St. Jacques said viewers might be surprised not only by the exotic nature of the location, but also the sense of intimacy the experience provides by putting the audience in close proximity to team members during daily activities. , like sharing a meal.

“There are no backstage. Everything is on stage, ”he said. “It is one of the most candid things that has ever been filmed in space.”

For the final episodes, the storyline takes viewers outside the space station with cameras mounted on the Canadarm and – for the climax of the series – following the astronauts on a spacewalk. These scenes required careful planning, not only because of the limited time in which they could be put together, but also because of the lighting challenges presented by an ever-changing sun as the space station circled the globe every 90 years. minutes.

The crucial filming was slated for early this year, but technical issues arose and for a while it was unclear if or when another chance might present itself. When the opportunity presented itself again in September, it was with a different crew. Luckily for the filmmakers, the astronauts were given a task similar to what the production company originally planned.

“We were lucky because much of the work we had prepared for the first attempt – in terms of camera choreography and in terms of calculating where to be at what time – much could be applied to the new opportunity to. filming., said Lajeunesse.

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But Lajeunesse said it was just as important to acquire shots that are not only technically spectacular but that serve the underlying themes of Space Explorers: The ISS Experience. These include an examination of human adaptation and progress, and the oneness that emerges within a group of individuals from many places and cultures who must learn to coexist in a high-risk environment in order to ” achieve a common goal.

During the spacewalk, Lajeunesse and his team were able to download low-resolution stills of the footage that unfolded, which gave a sense of what they were capturing. But he said he was still amazed when the VR footage started arriving over the next few days.

“It’s mind-blowing,” he said, describing the fully immersive view of the station, the crew and the planet both in a VR environment. “It almost sounds like something evolution hasn’t prepared us to look at.”

In the coming weeks, the images will be used to round out the series and augment The Infinite, when the exhibit begins traveling internationally later this year.

But Lajeunesse said he wasn’t ready to return to Earth anytime soon. As NASA and its international partners, including Canada, move towards a joint effort to bring humans to the moon, he said the potential of virtual reality to document years of lunar exploration is too great to consider. not to be sued.

“We want to be a part of this,” he said. “We are not astronauts but we are filmmakers. We are developing the technology that allows us to tell these stories… and we have a lot of work to do.

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