The largest production ever filmed in space, Space Explorers: The ISS Experience is an epic four-part immersive series that chronicles the life of eight NASA astronauts on scientific missions aboard the International Space Station.
The ambitious undertaking was produced by Montréal-headquartered Felix & Paul Studios, the Emmy Award-winning immersive entertainment studio known for its virtual reality experiences created for Cirque du Soleil, Universal’s Jurassic World, and film auteur Wes Anderson’s 2018 feature Isle of Dogs, as well as original productions Traveling While Black and the Nomads series.
Felix & Paul co-founders and creative directors Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël partnered with TIME Studios to develop the series, which builds on the duo’s previous collaborations with NASA. “This is a project that we’ve been wanting to do ever since we began working in virtual reality and immersive storytelling,” Raphaël comments, adding that their passion for the project was also influenced by a shared fascination with Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. “It’s been very formative — not just the subject, but also the immersion of the film was a big influence on our work,” he notes.
“So to actually be not just shooting, but experiencing this ourselves, and for audiences to be able to experience true immersion in true space, is really a dream come true, and something we’ve been working on for a very, very long time,” Raphaël continues. “And so it feels amazing for episode one to finally be out, and the upcoming episodes are even more breathtaking. It’s a very exciting time.”
Following intensive technological development, testing and certification, in December of 2018 Felix & Paul Studios launched customized Z-CAM V1 Pro 3D camera systems consisting of nine 4K sensors allowing for a 3D, 360-degree image at 8K resolution to the International Space Station. With ISS astronauts serving as camera operators and data wranglers, the production team amassed more than 200 hours of high-end virtual reality footage shot over the course of two years, providing an intimate look at what it’s like to live and work on the ISS while circling in orbit 250 miles above the Earth at an unfathomable rate of 17,500 miles per hour.
The series will culminate in the first-ever spacewalk to be filmed in cinematic virtual reality, which will be shot with what Raphaël calls a “dramatically modified” Z-Cam V1 Pro camera system customized to withstand the harsh conditions of space, including solar radiation and external temperatures ranging from -250° F to +250° Fahrenheit. The Space Camera will be maneuvered around the outside of the International Space Station by a 50-foot robotic arm that will essentially function like a crane on a movie set, capturing the spacewalk in fully-immersive virtual reality, and bringing viewers alongside the astronauts as if they were part of the crew.
The first episode, “Adapt,” is available to experience now in VR on Facebook’s Oculus Store for PC-connected Rift and Rift S headsets, as well as the standalone Quest and Quest 2 headsets. A multi-platform rollout is still ahead, including plans for 360-degree fulldome projection and large-screen cinema formats, as well as versions for streaming and 360-degree mobile on 5G-enabled smartphones and tablets.
“That allows us to reach hundreds of millions of people around the world,” Lajeunesse explains. “Really what is interesting about this is that even though it all starts with virtual reality filmmaking, it allows us to output to all of those platforms for digital distribution, but also out-of-home distribution, and to reach a global audience that just the vertical of virtual reality in itself could not reach as of today.”
To help meet their goal of making The ISS Experience available to as many people as possible, Felix & Paul Studios teamed with VR/AR/XR specialists PHI Studio to create a traveling exhibit named The INFINITE. A multi-tiered experience spread out over 10,000 square feet, The INFINITE is a four-month exhibition that will give 137,700 people (or 150 per hour) the chance to explore a life-size 3D replica of the ISS as stylized “starbeings.”
Powered by Unreal Engine, The INFINITE employs a mixture of 3DoF/6DoF VR, spatial audio, and interactive hotspots to deliver a real-time environment for attendees to wander as they navigate VR videos, a multisensory reproduction of a liftoff, and an immersive space walk, captured live outside of the ISS. Designed to give viewers access to what’s called the “Overview Effect,” a euphoric shift in awareness that astronauts report when they see Earth for the first time in space, The INFINITE is enormously profound.
“One of the biggest challenges of this experience is a visitor’s movement within the space. It’s not A to B. There are transitions between 6DoF and stereoscopic content that have to go smoothly. There are interactive elements that require precise tracking, and general things that just need to be avoided for everything to feel seamless,” said Pierre Blaizeau, Head of Technology at Felix & Paul Studios. “Unreal was crucial in this process, offering the high performance and rendering we needed to keep people locked in, and the starbeing effects that made it so fun to design.”
In addition to the first two episodes of Space Explorers: The Journey Begins — “Taking Flight” and “A New Dawn” — Felix & Paul have released two new episodes, “Advance” and “Adapt.” In the 33-minute “Advance,” astronauts perform critical experiments that push the boundaries of life in space as three crew members prepare to return to earth. In the 29-minute “Adapt,” astronauts arrive at the International Space Station and discover the joy, wonder and danger of living in space.
“Felix & Paul Studios is the only media company in the world recognized as an ‘Official Implementation Partner’ by the ISS U.S. National Laboratory,” writes the ProVideo Coalition’s Jose Antunes:
“What this means is that they are the only NASA-approved studio with the capacity to film in ultra-high-definition 3D, 360° virtual reality aboard — and outside — the International Space Station. The Felix & Paul Studios’ experienced production team has significant shooting experience in Low-Earth orbit along with years of successful collaboration with astronauts and ground teams to articulate complex shooting schedules and requirements. All that know-how supports the unique perspective that you have when you put on your Virtual Reality headset and enter Space Explorers: The ISS Experience.”
Want more? Scroll above to watch NAB Amplify’s exclusive video interview with Lajeunesse and Raphaël for more details about how Space Explorers: The ISS Experience was brought to life, along with the creative duo’s insights into trends and forecasts for narrative storytelling in VR production.