#612: Capturing Group Dynamics with Felix & Paul’s “Miyubi”

Miyubi is Felix & Paul Studios’ first scripted narrative piece that is 40 minutes in length, and it transports you to the early 1980s as you embody an imminently obsolete toy robot. Felix & Paul instructed the individual actors to unexpectedly try to disrupt a scene with unscripted behavior in order to preserve he improv quality of their long takes. There is minimal editing within individual scenes in order to cultivate a deeper sense of presence, but it also allows the viewer to pay attention to many different aspects of the unfolding group dynamics. I was struck by how you could watch reaction shots of characters who weren’t directly participating within the primary conversation, and that VR is able to capture the full family constellation and relationships between characters in a way that is completely deconstructed and controlled within the medium of film.

I had a chance to catch up with Felix & Paul Studios co-founders Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël as well as Chief Content Officer Ryan Horrigan back at Sundance 2017 to talk about their process of directing Miyubi, as well as some of their insights and lessons learned from creating a 40-minute VR narrative.


This is a listener-supported podcast, considering making a donation to the Voices of VR Podcast Patreon

Music: Fatality

Support Voices of VR

Music: Fatality & Summer Trip

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So I'm going to be going to the Sundance Film Festival later this week. And last year at Sundance, I had a chance to see a lot of the different pieces there. And one of the pieces that stood out is Mayubi, which is from Felix and Paul. So Felix and Paul Studios has been doing a lot of different documentary style pieces but this was their first narrative scripted piece and it was about a 40 minute piece and you were kind of transported to the 1980s and just had really immaculate set design, kind of really transported to another time and era. So I had a chance to talk to Félix Lajeunesse, Paul Raphael, and Ryan Horgan at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday, January 23rd, 2017 in Park City, Utah. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:00.184] Félix Lajeunesse: So my name is Félix Lajeunesse. I'm the co-founder of Félix & Paul Studio, and I directed Me You Be with Paul.

[00:01:06.249] Paul Raphaël: I'm Paul Raphael, co-founder and creative director of Félix & Paul Studios, and also co-directed Me You Be with Félix.

[00:01:13.392] Ryan Horrigan: Ryan Horrigan, chief content officer of Felix and Paul Studios and executive producer of Mayubi.

[00:01:18.694] Kent Bye: Great. So Mayubi is the most ambitious scripted narrative piece that I've seen so far. So maybe you could talk a bit about your process of translating what you were doing previously, which was a little bit more like a documentary style and moving into scripted narrative and then that process.

[00:01:37.801] Paul Raphaël: So we've been doing virtual reality for about three and a half, four years now. In a similar way to what we were doing in the past, what we wanted to do before we got into fiction was really get a real feel for the medium. And to us, the best way to do that was to just capture reality and see how reality reacts when it's captured in virtual reality. And we did probably six or seven pieces. in documentary. We did a few small experiments in fiction. We did a companion piece for Wild, Jurassic World, the Cirque du Soleil stuff is kind of in the fiction world. But it was only after having done almost 20 experiences over three and a half, four years, that we finally felt like we had a good grasp of what the medium was and how to start messing with it. Because just capturing reality with virtual reality, it's not an automatic thing. You don't just pop a camera down. But it's certainly a lot easier when you're not manipulating every aspect of what you're capturing. We've evolved over decades, if not a hundred years, ways to suspend this belief in cinema and this is something we have to reinvent from scratch for film and that was part of our process.

[00:02:42.763] Félix Lajeunesse: Yeah, I would say also there's another dimension that I think is very central to this process, which is every single project we've done so far, the 20 cinematic virtual reality experiences we've done, the creative process, whether it's in a non-fiction or in a fiction piece, always starts with trying to explore what the viewer will represent inside of the piece, what will be the role or the meaning of the viewer's presence inside of the piece, and how to flesh the story out of that. And very often in the work that we do, we don't go on a literal route. For instance, if we go back to the very first project we've done, Strangers with Patrick Watson, the camera represents a visiting friend. And so we position the camera in the space, in a place where it would make sense for a visiting friend to be, and we ask the artist to inform us about where that person should be in the space for him to understand that relational dynamic. And when you experience the piece, you feel like you belong in this space with this person. And so to contextualize the viewer as part of the experience, instead of just popping a camera where it looks like, oh, it's going to be a good shot, has always been central to our process. And every piece we've done, we always start with that. Who is the viewer? How does it work? What is the relation between viewer and protagonist, viewer and environment, viewer and story? And with Miyubi, we did something we had never done before, which is think of the viewer in a literal way, as a character. We never do that. It's always more evocative, more emotional, what we do generally, but we never give the viewer a name. You see what I mean? So we've done that with Miyubi, but we felt we could go there because comedy would allow us to sort of transcend that conceptual hurdle. And one of the things we've also done is we embrace the notion of limitation, because in cinematic VR, if you're given clear agency and if you're looked at as a character, then you cannot really talk back, you cannot really impact on the world, so there's a sense of a limitation. And we said, let's embrace that limitation. Let's turn that into a theme. And that's how the idea of this obsolete robot in the 1980s flourished. And from that core concept, we started to develop the whole story and the characters. And this is where we approach Funny or Die to enter into a creative collaboration with them, because they come from the comedy world, which was not our world. And we said, hey, can we bring your brain power to flesh out this story out of that core concept?

[00:05:00.065] Ryan Horrigan: I think that it's been important for us to sort of show to the Hollywood community as well that acting in VR can work, and it's very different than film or theater. And I think we all still don't know what we don't know about storytelling in VR, but it was an important step to sort of show that there is a narrative story that can be told with a beginning, middle, and end, and bringing in some sort of interactivity that could be story-driven. And for us, any interactivity that you see or experience is always narrative-driven, and that was important to us.

[00:05:28.493] Kent Bye: Yeah, one of the things that I think was the most striking about the piece was the sense of place that you're able to cultivate. And I think, you know, this is something that could have been shot as a 2D film and you would have watched it, but you would have missed out of really feeling like you're transported back to the eighties with all the ambiance of the room. And so maybe you could talk a bit about your emphasis of trying to cultivate that sense of place and the role of that as a unique affordance of VR.

[00:05:51.895] Félix Lajeunesse: Well, one thing we've been asked a lot in the past two years, like, what about controlling the viewer's attention? What about this dimension of virtual reality? We never think that way. What we generally try to do in a non-fiction or in a fiction piece is to try to put the viewer inside of a place, inside of an environment. Wherever you will look, the story will be told to you, that everything will inform on the story and so for instance in Miyubi all of the art direction, all of the sets were obsessively carefully curated so that even if you decide as a viewer to not necessarily look at the main characters, the main protagonist as they're talking to one another and if you start wondering and explore the set around you the fact is that set will inform you on the era and will inform you also on the choices of the characters what they love, who they are and so it's going to be as if you were in a movie cutting to a very relevant shot of something and that informs on the characters, that informs on the world of the story so regardless of where you look the story is going in your direction, going to your mind, going to your heart and that was very important for us and that's why we focused so much on creating those epically curated sets basically.

[00:07:04.815] Ryan Horrigan: And I think the one thing you mentioned, well, this could have been a film, and I think that's true if you were not in the point of view of the robot. So for us, it was important to sort of distinguish by that choice that this is a unique way to tell this story and that the way that we chose to tell it, putting you in the first person of this character could not have been done in a film or television if it was Toy Story. you would have seen the robot from a distance and experienced those emotions but the idea was we want you to feel loved and accepted by this family but then the arc is sort of over the course of the story you begin to be forgotten and the child sets his sight on the next new shiny toy. So we wanted you to feel those emotions directly and I think virtual reality is the first time you can really experience that.

[00:07:43.189] Kent Bye: Yeah, and talking to Devin Dolan last year, he set out this matrix of four different types of storytelling. There was either you're a character or you're not a character within the piece, or you have impact or you don't have impact. And I think that most film, you are not a character, you're a ghost, and you have no impact. And then a lot of games and VR, you're a character that has agency, you're able to impact the world. But this is, I think, an example of a film, probably one of the first major ones that I've seen, There's been some other ones, but really scripted long form 40 minutes where the main character is immobilized and that's sort of a constraint. Your character, but you have no impact, but you have a narrative that's sort of tied in. And so I'm curious as you're writing the story, if you kind of tried to write it and construct it as if the main character is the robot or, you know, I'm trying to discern the arc and whether or not you have a narrative arc that's different.

[00:08:36.710] Ryan Horrigan: Well, I think we're in a world where, you know, the singular protagonist may not apply anymore. You might have a singular protagonist as a character, which you could argue is the little boy, but then are you sort of a co-protagonist, you know, as the robot? And I think as Felix said earlier, we embrace the limitations of a toy robot. And because we knew you were constrained in live action virtual reality without the agency to move or make extreme choices, that we realized that a toy robot has those same limitations. So that was an important choice because they dovetailed into the same problem, you know.

[00:09:05.742] Paul Raphaël: So this is really the first question we ask ourselves with every project is what the nature of the viewer is going to be. And in the case of this film, the robot idea is the very first building block of the entire film. So in the past, in documentaries, you've been this passive observer, which really you end up being yourself. You know, it's like if you're in Nomads, you are the person sitting in that canoe in Borneo, or sitting in that yurt in Mongolia. In the case of Miyubi, we very clearly defined who the viewer was because of all the limitations that came along with it, and then that was the inspiration to build on top of. But in every single experience we make, we define the role of the viewer.

[00:09:44.959] Ryan Horrigan: And I think it's important, you know, in the early days of VR to show that there are unique stories to tell in virtual reality. And I think we go out of our way to really think about those ideas and what would be a unique concept for VR for the viewer. Because otherwise, like you said, we're just making films or television. So for us, it's important to show people why they have to put a headset on, why this is a different experience.

[00:10:04.824] Kent Bye: Yeah, one of the things that I also found striking was this okay, go long take type of, you know, you have to do these long scenes in virtual reality where you're not cutting between an individual scene, you're letting an entire scene play out. And so. One of the things that I also noticed is you have some crosstalk in some of the scenes where people are kind of on different sides of the room and they're talking to each other. And it's not significantly moving the story forward per se, but it's just sort of like, where are you going to pay attention to this dynamic between the father and the wife? But I think there's actually a relational component that you can start to do in VR that isn't as easy to do in 2D film, because a lot of that's cut off in the cutting room floor. But when you're in the room, you can start to pick up on the different interpersonal dynamics, and you get to see more constellation of family dynamics that I think is unique in the sense that I think you were starting to explore that. I'm just curious if you were like mapping out the tensions between each of the different characters and being able to do that in parallel in a way that you couldn't do before.

[00:11:01.563] Paul Raphaël: Well, I love that you picked up on what is inherently a completely unique characteristic of this medium. This is just something that can exist in virtual reality and it's one of the things I think that drew us to the medium is the fact that We didn't want to constantly focus the viewer's attention on a single close-up here and then a wide shot there and deconstructing reality to tell a story. We start from the position of, this is reality. Virtual reality is the closest thing to reality that we have as a medium. And if we were to cut in virtual reality, and some people do, our preference has been to avoid doing that, to enhance that sense of presence, that sense of realism. And that gives us the opportunity to have these kinds of moments that you were just talking about. And I don't think you ever really get lost either, because just like if you're in a real room in the real world, you always know where to look if something is going on. Whatever is most interesting will grab your attention, unless you're purposely trying to look at somewhere else. Because I'm like, hey, this is VR. They're not telling you to look. I'm going to look at the floor. That never happens. And even if you're not looking at the father when he's saying a key line, because your gaze lingered on the brother who just did some kind of wisecrack, you're going to see the brother react in a way that you wouldn't have had you been watching The Father, but you're still getting the story. And I think that makes the experience unique. It heightens the experience, and it also adds replayability to the whole thing.

[00:12:22.791] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think that there's a bit of presence that each of the actors will have to cultivate in VR when they're filming it. Maybe it's probably the most similar to theater, but theater seems to be in a way when you're delivering the lines, they need to project in a certain way. So yeah, maybe you could talk a bit like how you were directing the actors for how to really engage in this medium that may be different from how they shoot and film or how they do theater and maybe unique to VR.

[00:12:47.126] Félix Lajeunesse: So one thing that was really important is that because VR feels so real, because we're filming at 60 frames a second, because the viewer feel ease at the heart of this experience and so close proximity to the actors, the level of realism that you experience is very, very high and the level of presence you experience is very high. and how does that impact on the perception of acting. And one of the thing we wanted to do was to go to, you know, in all of the non-fiction pieces we've done, there's a sense of genuine human reactions, genuine human presences that we feel is so strong. And we wanted to try to maintain that or recreate that inside of a comedy scripted piece. And so one of the things we've done is we've injected a lot of intentional, I would say disruptions inside of the scenes we've created. So although everything that you experience is heavily scripted, before the takes, we would pull an actor off and say, could you, at some point, do something unexpected? Could you say that line that is completely unexpected from everyone else, so that everyone would be reacting to that in the moment, and it would create the sense that it's suddenly a genuine and real emotional response during the scene. And as a viewer, you can feel that. You can feel when things are authentic. And so we tried to do that all the way through to be able to maintain that sense of realism, even in the context of a slightly stylized acting approach. So that was part of the process and the actors who jumped on board were okay with that, were okay with this idea of let's work from a solid foundation and then do some improv and then do some intentional disruptions to the scene to get to that place where, you see what I mean, where you can feel them, you know, really much.

[00:14:19.020] Kent Bye: Yes, it's really focusing away from the authored experience and making it more of an emergent experience that's being co-created in the moment, which I think is part of the unique affordance of VR.

[00:14:27.798] Ryan Horrigan: Well, and you mentioned theater, and I think you're right. Like in theater, you know, blocking that might be akin to theater, but you're not projecting to the back of the room. It's all about micro-expressions, nuance, and subtlety, I think, in virtual reality. And the actors are always acting, so if an actor's not delivering a line, that actor has to be true to that character and present in that moment. So I think that's a big difference, and there's... A filmmaker in particular who I think really would have embraced virtual reality, which is Robert Altman. So if you think about overlapping dialogue and the scenes you were mentioning, that's really what he was trying to achieve. And the other filmmaker I think would be Hitchcock, because he was trying to put you inside the mind of a viewer in many of his films. And I think really that's what you can do in virtual reality. It's much more intimate.

[00:15:07.930] Kent Bye: Yeah. And one of my reactions of watching it was that I enjoyed it, but I don't know if I'd watch it again. It was 40 minutes. And I'm just curious to hear, you know, your ideas of length and whether or not you feel like, you know, there's some interactive Easter eggs that are in there, if that was put in there to help people maybe want to be inspired to watch it again. And yeah, I'm just curious to hear your process of like 40 minutes. It's a, it's a long time. I think people, once they commit to it, they do it, but I don't necessarily know. I want to watch it again, per se. unless I had a relationship to the characters and wanted to like really dive in and was really connected to this world in that way. But in this piece, it was sort of like I had the experience, I'm ready to move on. So I'm just curious to hear your thoughts about the time and then also kind of the interactive Easter eggs.

[00:15:49.347] Paul Raphaël: Well, first off, our intention was not to make a 40-minute experience. It was originally a 20-page script, or that's how it started. And as the script evolved, as the rehearsals went on, and as we shot the piece, it evolved into 40 minutes, which, to be honest, was kind of scary because, you know, not only was it a major leap for us at 20 minutes, at 40, we were like, OK, this is kind of crazy, but this is what it is, you know, and we weren't going to chop it down. So far, almost everyone, I don't know if they were just being polite, but almost everyone has watched the thing all the way through. And almost everyone has also said that it did not feel like 40 minutes and that it felt like it went much faster. So I think that's a very good sign. In terms of the Easter egg hunt, there's so many little things happening in the piece. I mean, whether it's we were talking earlier about the character's actions when he's not the center of attention, all the art direction, all the little details, all the little looks and crannies. We really wanted every scene to be a little jewel that you can kind of hold up and rotate and look in different directions. And some people may want to go back in, some people may not. But that Easter egg hunt was kind of there to help validate that desire to jump back in. You know, it's like, not only do I know that I missed some of the acting and some of the stuff that happened because I couldn't look at it all at the same time, but on top of that, Jeff Goldblum's in the credits, but he wasn't in the film. What's going on? And, you know, there's a darn enough hints in there to point towards an Easter egg hunt that unlocks his scene. So it was a combination of all these things.

[00:17:15.653] Kent Bye: Cool, and just to kind of wrap things up here, I usually ask people what they think of the ultimate potential of VR. We had a recent interview, so I'm curious to hear your thoughts of the future of narrative in VR. Right now, you're doing a lot of live action shooting, CGI, AI, volumetrics, anything that you see of the next edge of where this is all going.

[00:17:36.292] Ryan Horrigan: Well, I think for us, original storytelling is important. I think right now you're seeing a lot of experimentation and things that are very left of center. And I think that's really important as an art form is growing. And then you're seeing a lot of commercial projects that are IP driven from movies and television, et cetera. But I think really what's going to grow the medium is original storytelling, narrative storytelling, both in the fiction and nonfiction space. And to me, it looks a little bit similar to what cable and premium cable television were going through when they were looking for that first piece that was really going to get people talking and move the medium forward. So I think the same is true here, and we're really interested in exploring series and serialized storytelling with actors and stories that are truly VR native. So I think for us, that's where we're going next.

[00:18:16.683] Félix Lajeunesse: I agree. I agree. No, I don't see a cap to virtual reality. I mean, from the beginning, we started with short, non-fiction pieces, one shot in one moment with one actor. Now, two and a half years later, we're doing a 40-minute scripted narrative in the comedy space with an ensemble cast with an interactive dimension and all of that. the slate of projects we have in development, some of them are CG positional, some of them are cinematic linear fiction and it just kind of keeps blooming and evolving and we have never experienced a cap or in the creativity and in the feeling of the potential from a technological and creative standpoint to where we could go as a studio and as creators and we just kind of feel like it's getting more and more and more in that direction and so yeah, we can just only be optimistic.

[00:18:59.849] Paul Raphaël: Yeah, you know, I think as we move forward, I think what's important and what we like to do is really put the creative at the center of any technological evolution. And that's true of the hardware we've developed, the software we've developed, you know, writing the Yubi, we didn't go in there saying, hey, we're going to make this thing interactive. No, these ideas came and since, you know, the experience is running on software anyway, we knew we could do it and the ideas came and we put it in there and that was what drove those decisions. As we spend more time making these experiences, as we experience more of other people's experiences and even games, all this kind of seeps in and eventually inspiration comes for something that is fully positional and that is a 40-minute piece or that is CG or something else. Letting that sort of lead us forward is I think what's important more than the technology itself. Feeling the need to fill in the technology as it pops up and more the other way around.

[00:19:57.036] Kent Bye: Okay, awesome. Well, thank you so much. Thank you guys. Thank you. So that was Felix Lajanas, Paul Raffael and Ryan Horrigan of Felix and Paul Studios talking about MyUB. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, the thing that I really remember from this conversation is that they have these improv actors and that they had a scripted narrative, but yet they gave the instruction to the actors to deliberately try to interrupt a scene or to do something that was unexpected. And so You have this situation where it's a little bit like theater where you're trying to be alive and present in the moment and that everything you do can be seen. And so they were trying to cultivate this sense of authenticity with all the actors and to maintain that feeling. The other thing was just that one of the unique affordances within VR was to be able to actually look at whatever you wanted to look at and so usually what is happening in a film is that the editing is deconstructing reality and that the director is able to really control whatever you're looking at but in VR it's much more akin to reality where you can kind of look at whatever you want and that you are able to sort of pick up on these different family dynamics and interactions that are kind of lost in that editing process. If there's things that you're interested in a particular character you can follow that character and really pay attention to them and And so in that sense, it's much more like immersive theater, where you're able to kind of like choose and look at whatever to pay attention to. You're not able to move around like you are in some immersive theater pieces, but at least you can choose what to pay attention to with any given piece. And within Mayibi, they were trying to cultivate that and having these little Easter eggs that you could find. And then once you found the three Easter eggs, then it would kind of unlock different dimensions of the narrative. going into the origin story of Mayubi and having this whole other extended scene that was available. The other thing is that Felix and Paul really think about what their viewer represents and usually they were having you sit down and being able to passively observe a documentary scene as if you were like this anthropologist just kind of witnessing stuff unfold. But in Mayubi you are a character and so you are being addressed within the narrative which is a lot different than any of their other pieces that they've had so far. So if you haven't had a chance to check out Moyubi, I think it's got some interesting things that are in it, and it's really transporting you back into another era, and it shows the potential of what you can do with set design, but also what it feels like to have a more longer form narrative. And if you haven't checked it out, it's available on the Oculus Store for both the Gear VR and Oculus Rift. So that's all that I have for today. I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends and consider becoming a donor. This is a listener supported podcast. And so I do rely upon your donations to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

More from this show