For years, humanity has seen space as the last frontier, and the film industry is no exception. Last year, it was reported that Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman coordinated with NASA and SpaceX on a $ 200 million action adventure shot aboard the International Space Station, while Russia̵
But a couple of Canadian filmmakers beat them both to death. Since January 2019, Felix & Paul, the VR studio launched by Montreal-based virtual reality directors Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael in 2013, has been collecting 360-degree footage shot on handmade cameras by 10 astronauts from a rotating crew.
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With more than 200 hours of footage to date, the material has so far driven the first two episodes of the four-part VR series “Space Explorers: The ISS Experience.” The result, co-produced by Time Studios, provides the most advanced way to date for audiences – at least those with VR headsets – to experience what it’s like to live in gravity in the 21-year-old space station that orbiting 250 miles above the earth’s surface.
“Audiences no longer only need to see stories about human spaceflight,” Lajeunesse said in an interview with Zoom. “We can really make them feel like participants and experience an astronaut’s journey from within.”
The first installment documenting astronaut training for their upcoming mission premiered at Sundance in 2018. With “Advance” unveiled at SXSW last month, Felix & Paul reveal a dizzyingly close look at astronauts’ daily routines as they reflect on their experiences, from laboratory experiments to meals in close quarters. It also puts renewed focus on the history of women in space.
This summer, they expect to go a step further by collaborating with astronauts on a five-day spacewalk with footage in the dark, dangerous vacuum outside the station. The Felix & Paul team has developed a complex process to develop equipment for the recordings and coordinate with the astronauts from Earth. “When you work in an environment like this, you really can’t improvise,” Lajeunesse said. “At the end of the day, you only have a few people in the room, and they are in a dangerous environment – the most hostile environment you know.”
A few projects have been shot on the ISS over the years, with IMAX cameras being used for 2002’s “Space Station 3D” during the early days of the ISS, while space tourist Richard Garriott directed an amateur short film in 2012. However, the VR cameras in currently in use for “Space Scientists” represents a huge step forward for immersive media, just in time for the privatization of space to stimulate renewed interest in a rising low earth orbit economy. “The culture of what is happening in space is evolving and transforming,” Lajeunesse said. “It’s a very natural development of this idea to get Hollywood studios to set up a project up there.”
NASA has been using new VR technology for astronaut training since the 90s, but when representatives from the agency first met with Lajeunesse and Raphael in 2016, they had a very different proposal. “I do not think they had ever imagined virtual reality as a storytelling medium, as a way to actually tell the story of human spaceflight and make the audience feel part of the current journey from a narrative and outreach point of view,” said Lajeunesse. “It was more like a utility.”
By that time, Felix & Paul Studios had built up a track record as one of the more prominent entities in the young field of immersive media. The team had developed VR projects for studios, such as 2015’s “Jurassic World: Apatosaurus,” but it was the inside look of the oval office in 2016’s Emmy-winning “The People’s House” that helped seal the deal. “It gave NASA confidence in our ability to work with highly controlled protocols,” Raphael said. “Just by watching content that had nothing to do with space, they could get a sense of the power and potential of placing cameras on the ISS.”
Although NASA retained control of the operation, it did not invest financially in its production. Lajeunesse and Raphael declined to specify the exact budget for all four episodes of “Space Explorers” except to say it cost several million dollars, most of which came from licensing agreements with a consortium of 5G telecommunications companies forming the Global XR Content Telco Alliance . The footage is also licensed to domes and planetariums, including Space Center Houston. “We approached it very early when we understood that this would be an expensive production,” Lajeunesse said. “From an in-depth storytelling background, we knew we wanted to create the master of history within VR, but then create additional products for other platforms.”
Much of the budget was devoted to camera design. “Our cameras are internal tools that are not really products, so that alone adds months of conversations with NASA,” Raphael said. “We wanted something that was very easy to use for the astronauts, very compact, small, lightweight.”
Since everything sent to the room had to be certified for safety – and recording equipment also had to pass FCC certification, further tweaks were needed. They opted for an adjusted version of the stereoscopic Z CAM V1 Pro and Sony IVa camera. Adhesives that were excluded from the room had to be removed from the gear unit as well as other technical specifications that affected temperature fluctuations as the heat was distributed differently in the room. A few months ago, the team sent up a heavily modified version of the EV-8 camera to be used for space travel. Meanwhile, they also had to create software that allowed the 4K video to return to Earth for television.
When NASA insisted on approving all footage before it was released to the filmmakers, they were eager to develop a relationship with the first crew working on the cameras so they could train their replacements to capture compelling moments. “We needed astronaut crew time to become the protagonists of the story – and to become our in-flight production crew,” said Lajeunesse. “We had to set up a production process that allowed us to operate from the ground remotely and answer their questions in real time.”
During this period, they coached the crew to keep the cameras close to the action. “We wanted to position the camera as if it were a crew member, not bodyguard or observing them from a distance,” Lajeunesse said. It helped encourage astronauts to let the cameras run in some of the humanizing moments.
After ISS engineer Christina Koch participated in an hour-long interview, she continued to record as she opened a packet of fresh apples and then sliced slices of it over to a colleague trying to catch them in her mouth. The result is one of the more charming scenes in the second episode. In another deceptive order, a group of astronauts returning to Earth embrace their colleagues as their bodies gradually circle through the tight quarters. “We tried to focus on the kind of content that made the audience feel like they were just being caught in the moment,” Raphael said.
The project overlaps with a auspicious time for the new aerospace industry. With the recent attention to NASA’s Perseverance Lander arriving on Mars – including a landing video that went viral – the potential of VR cameras in space is just getting started. Lajeunesse said the study was in early talks with NASA about getting involved in the upcoming ARTEMIS missions, which are designed to bring astronauts back to the moon’s surface for the first time in over 40 years.
“It’s important to document the next major milestones in space exploration through immersive media,” he said. “These projects are really about humanity. They are not about specific countries or people. They are about understanding our place in the universe in the infinite cosmos. This journey is meant to be shared with everyone on earth. ”
He added that the Tom Cruise and Russia projects should come as no surprise to anyone who tracks rush to commercialize space access. As SpaceX continues to advance its ambitions, and companies like Axiom aim to build a private commercial module for the ISS, the next decade could potentially host a lot of technological and creative ambitions in zero-G.
“It feels very organic to me, this transition from space exploration is entirely owned by national space organizations to opening the door to the private sector,” Lajeunesse said. “We’re seeing the results of it now.”
The first two episodes of “Space Explorers: The ISS Experience” are now available in the Oculus Store and can be seen on Quest, Quest 2 and Rift.
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