This guest contribution is part of our ISS20 series commemorating 20 years of continuous human presence on the ISS through a collection of visionary contributions on the future of space.
Félix Lajeunesse is co-founder and creative director of Felix & Paul Studios, based in Montréal, Canada. Since the inception of the studio, Félix has led over twenty of the studio’s experiences. These include Emmy Award–winning interactive feature The People’s House featuring President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, original fiction/feature experience Miyubi starring Jeff Goldblum, and the first of the studio’s collaborations with NASA in the Space Explorers series, which led to the current production of The ISS Experience.
Far away from home, floating 400 kilometers above our blue-green planet, an astronaut reaches out from the edge of the International Space Station (ISS) as if to touch the contours of the Earth. Simultaneously, on terra firma, through the magic of 3D, 360-degree virtual reality (VR), a viewer takes on the role of an accompanying crew member, joining the astronaut’s side to take a spacewalk in the eerie vacuum of space, experiencing firsthand the details of the astronaut’s daily life and even looking out through the Cupola window of the ISS to reach out at what was once unimaginable.
At Felix & Paul Studios in Montréal, in partnership with TIME Studios, we’ve been busy creating the largest production ever filmed in space: Space Explorers: The ISS Experience—our most ambitious immersive project to date. This immersive virtual reality project takes people on the first spacewalk in history filmed in VR, granting them a front row seat—or more like a first-person point of view—and cathartic overview of the planet. Through this experience, viewers will not only imagine the possibilities of space travel but the future of our planet. Like every astronaut who has traveled into space, the viewer’s sense of “Home on Earth” and the interconnectedness of its inhabitants will be reaffirmed.
This is the empathetic power of immersive entertainment—a visceral media capable of transporting viewers off-world, where new perspectives and ideas come into being. Fewer than 200 people have ever experienced life in space, and our mission is to bring this same awe-inspiring, emotional, and visceral experience to hundreds of millions around the globe.
How a VR spacewalk could change the world
Explorers come in many shapes and sizes. Some are engineers and scientists, and some are film directors, teachers, and backyard inventors looking up at the night sky. The majority of them might never suit up for a spacewalk or feel the thrust of rocket boosters taking off. Yet in cinematic virtual reality, anyone can viscerally experience such great feats—not to mention watch astronauts attempt to eat a zero-gravity meal and live through other ins and outs of life on the International Space Station.
For those of us at Felix & Paul Studios, Space Explorers embodies a long-held dream to transport billions of people into space through the many branches of immersive media. We worked with NASA and the ISS U.S. National Laboratory to get the first high-resolution, professional 3D, 360-degree cameras to the space station, accounting for the many factors of safety when operating in microgravity, such as heat dispersion. We also created a dedicated software system to downlink footage from the space station to Earth in order to facilitate shoots and post-production work. But the power of this project has as much to do with telling an incredible true story as it does with high-tech 3D, 360-degree VR cameras and software. On the ISS, during the filming of the production, astronauts from several space agencies, including David Saint Jacques (Canadian Space Agency), Anne McClain (NASA), Luca Parmitano (European Space Agency), and others double as both subject and filmmaking crew, learning how to shoot scenes with the support of creative directors on Earth. Storytelling doesn’t get much more authentic than that.
Merging the realms of technology, entertainment, and physical experience, our studio’s project hinges on the concept of absolute presence, taking down barriers between the astronaut, the filmmaker, and the viewer, and illuminating the human capacity for empathy and imagination. Like a well-told story transports the listener into its world, what a person experiences in cinematic VR in space can be profoundly impactful and even transformative for oneself and others. People can now experience what’s happening on the ISS in a way that connects them more emotionally with space travel and its potential for humankind.
A future beyond conceived limits
With Space Explorers, we want to make space exploration accessible to anyone—for the thrill of going into the vacuum of space and the emotional effect of the journey. Coming to life in a myriad of formats, The ISS Experience will do this whether it be shown inside a dome or a planetarium, in 360-degree video through an app on your tablet or smartphone, or through a virtual reality headset.
Serendipitously, the timeline of this next season of Space Explorers coincides with pivotal moments in the already incredible story of human spaceflight: the first all-woman spacewalk, the first commercial spaceflight transporting astronauts to the International Space Station, and the rise of an internationally united “space culture” within people’s broader consciousness. We’ve seen the future of space travel unfold before our eyes and can only expect more landmark discoveries in the next 20 years.
Earth and space, interconnected
As immersive storytellers who look to engage the senses and evoke empathy, we have created a project that shows how humanity’s future in space is inextricably linked to our shared future on Earth. Sharing astronauts’ lived realities through viscerally experiential media with its capacity for natural immersion, our studio has opened a window into space travel as well as life on planet Earth.
What do viewers hear from astronauts themselves in Space Explorers: The ISS Experience? The incredible details of life in the ISS and what space exploration can teach us—as well as a message of unity and collaboration. That message, delivered in this form, acts as a positive beacon for humanity’s future: We all come from the same place, and we should strive to protect it, even as we explore the cosmos and become an interplanetary species. Space travel’s future isn’t an escape from Earth but a perspective shift: a homecoming that lets us recognize the incalculable value of all life.
For all of us working at Felix & Paul Studios, working with the International Space Station on the edges of our known world has inspired a multiplicity of possible answers to a core question that drives our own explorations: Where do you want to go today? Further into space, deeper into the Earth’s ecosystem, more profoundly into the stories of people in all corners of our planet? Only time will tell how this type of immersive entertainment will deliver a true sense of presence and uncover the unknown.
It is this profound attention to possibility, creative experimentation, and deeply human engagement that excites us today. Testing the limits of technology, entertainment, and human experience all at once, our Space Explorers project will show that the emotional and social impact of presence is a true changemaker, altering not only our industries and concepts of entertainment but also how those new experiences shift people’s perspectives and change the world.