It's the 100-year anniversary of America's National Parks Service, but a lot of people may not have had the chance to see some of the most amazing landscapes this country has to offer. I've never been to Yosemite. But the latest cinematic VR short from Felix & Paul Studios makes me want to take my family.
"Through The Ages: President Obama celebrates America's National Parks" is a collaboration between Felix & Paul Studios, National Geographic and Oculus, and debuts on the Facebook 360 today. It's a documentary short of President Obama's visit to Yosemite over Father's Day weekend earlier this year, and it's a stunning example of VR film-as-meditation.and
Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael have made a number of amazing VR experiences already that have set the bar: "Inside Impact: East Africa," which followed President Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea to several African communities; "Lebron James: Striving for Greatness"; and a three-part series on nomadic life around the globe.
Stylistically, "Through the Ages" resurfaces the feeling I got watching "Inside Impact." You're following a president, guided along as an invisible visitor through places you'd normally never expect to be. And, in both films, I often felt torn on where exactly to focus. Watching President Obama talk to Park Superintendent Don Neubacher over a two-minute segment, I realized I should be looking around at the world that surrounded me. I could listen to them and still watch the waterfall off in the distance, the trees or the sky. You're present, but also exploring...a bit like real life. I kept turning around and re-attending to the conversation, as if I was being impolite.
It's a duality that Felix & Paul seem to strive for: Meditative, silent, observing, with a slight sense that maybe you're really there on your own.
Oculus approached both Felix & Paul and the White House about making a project about President Obama, reaching out to Kori Schulman, the White House Deputy Director of Digital Strategy. Schulman suggested an upcoming trip the president was making to Yosemite. National Geographic, a partner in the project, suggested more VR trips might come in the future.
A new technique introduced in "Through The Ages" is time-lapse. Vistas of the sun over vast canyons, or a lake in the day, begin to feel like grand IMAX films. Similar to early IMAX movies, Felix & Paul are aiming for up to 40 minutes as a time for their latest projects. "Through The Ages" is just 11 minutes, but it stretches out, in a timeless way. Kind of like walking through nature on your own. "We're not pretending that it's pure straightforward realism, which I think is perfect," said Paul Raphael.
"This is also the first time we did a multicam shoot," said Felix Lajeunesse. "We had to be in multiple places very quickly...the president would be in one position, 15 minutes later he'd be somewhere else. There were checkpoints we couldn't cross as a crew while he was there, so we had to figure out a way to triangulate." Said Raphael, "It was a totally logistically non-trivial project."
"Through the Ages" will arrive onsoon, but I preferred watching it on Gear VR. I felt less tethered. You could see the short in straight-up 360 video via Facebook without any VR at all, but I don't think it would have the same impact. I liked feeling like I was almost there, like I was nearly present.
Now I just need to go there for real.