I visited Jurassic Park in VR and tried to pet a dino

Imagine you're in a dense forest with the largest lizard-like creature that has ever walked the planet. It's just you and the Apatosaurus, one of the many dinosaurs featured in Jurassic World. You sit and watch her sleep from a few feet away. It's strangely calm, but you want to plan your escape anyway. You look around and see a Jeep with a bold red stripe on your left. There's nothing but lush sunlit trees to your right. In front of you, the giant sprawled on the ground starts to move a little. You should probably panic, but the creature doesn't scare you. Not yet. She slowly wakes up and notices you. As she plonks her heavy feet on the ground, you cringe reflexively. Her long reptilian neck swoops in to sniff you. Her nostrils flare and her big blue eye looks right at you. Now you're scared. But you reach out to pet her, anyway.

This took place in Jurassic Park -- well, the VR version, that is. It's a companion piece to Jurassic World, the latest installment in the dino franchise, as envisioned by VR artists Felix and Paul (and with a little help from Industrial Light Magic). For the past couple of weeks, you could've strapped on a Samsung Gear VR at a nearby Best Buy and had your very own virtual visit to Jurassic Park. Now, in time for the film's release, the Jurassic World Apatosaurus experience is available on the Oculus Store for free. I spoke to the Montreal-based director duo and their lead VR sound designer (and partner in the recently launched Headspace Studio), Jean-Pascal Beaudoin, about the power of cinematic VR and whether or not it's ready to take over Hollywood.

What does the virtual reality experience of an Apatosaurus in Jurassic World bring to the franchise and its massive audience?

Félix Lajeunesse: The Jurassic World experience puts you inside the park. The film is about [the park] finally being open, so the public can go and visit dinosaurs, and how that situation degenerates. Through the VR experience, we wanted to give the viewer access to the park. When you're in Jurassic World, you might anticipate terror, but [in that moment] there's a sense of wonder and calm of just being close to such a gigantic phenomenon of nature and being able to really appreciate the scale, the details and the proximity to the creature.

In a way, we wanted to go back to the initial feeling of the very first Jurassic Park film when the scientists walk out of the truck for the first time and see a Brachiosaurus. For the viewers, back at the time when they watched that film, it was the first time they would see a dinosaur that was so well-rendered and looked so real. There was this beautiful sense of excitement of seeing something that was long gone from our planet. We wanted the first VR experience with a photorealistic dinosaur presence to be in the same spirit and vibe.

How did you create this photorealistic creature?

F: For the animation of the dinosaur, we did it with Industrial Light Magic. It was, both for them and us, a brand-new experience and territory to explore. It was a sense of doing something we've never tried before, which is combining photorealistic computer-generated dinosaur animation at 60 frames a second with live-action film environment in 3D stereo at 360 degrees. We were able to create the most realistic-looking dinosaur experience. It was a thrill to explore this new type of production.

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This isn't your first companion VR experience for a big studio production. You created one for Fox Searchlight's Wild before Universal Pictures' Jurassic World. What are the dynamics of working with a studio on a fictional VR piece?

F: Companion experiences, as a model, exist for contextual reasons. For studios that are interested in producing VR experiences, creating content in a way that extends the franchise or intellectual property (IP) that they have is a practical choice. They don't have to start from ground zero; they can start from an existing story platform and they can take the first step of exploring VR as a medium. On our side, it's very interesting because it allows us to explore VR storytelling without necessarily having to carry the weight of telling a three-act story, which is what the film does. So the companion experiences that we've done are relatively short explorations -- Wild was under four minutes; Jurassic World is about three minutes -- that allow us to deepen our understanding of VR storytelling. In the long run, I think both for the studios and for us, the objective is to create original content and to produce just for the VR platform.

How close are we to trying that main course? Are we going to see a full-blown VR Hollywood experience?

F: I think so, but it's in relation the market. Most of the VR hardware and platforms for content distribution that will come with them are set to release in 2016-2017, so you'll see the industry building up. The market at this specific point in time is pretty small. I think for major Hollywood productions to be done solely in VR, you'll need to have a market in place. It won't come this year, but it will very soon.

Paul Raphaël: It's also a question of the nature of content. The fact that it's a new language; it's something that we, as creators, are still learning ... how would you make a longer form piece? And if it's not longer form, then perhaps it's a serialized format where you have feature-length VR pieces, so you have 20-minute episodes or something like that to create an entire story. That's something that needs to be figured out.

"The companion experiences we've done are relatively short explorations that allow us to deepen our understanding of VR storytelling." -- Felix Lajeunesse

What are some of your biggest challenges in creating those long-form VR pieces?

F: To create long-form content at this point is still a mystery. First of all, at this point, we don't know to what extent people want to be wearing VR gear. I think with usage, people get more and more used to it and want to stay in there longer. That's one aspect; another, as Paul said, how do you remain interesting and relevant and how do you articulate your story for a longer period of time? The more we learn about the grammar and find out about VR storytelling — what works and doesn't work — it will allow us to expand the length of the experiences.

The Cirque du Soleil Kurios experience that we just released a few days ago is almost 10 minutes long. It's perceived as short-form for cinema, but it's pretty long in terms of VR. It's the longest piece we've created so far. We've been able to do that because we understand the medium better and know what we're doing now in terms of articulating the dramatic modulation, how to play with the form and acting and those things.

Are there certain narratives or genres that are better-suited to the VR film experience?

P: Maybe it's not a question of genres as much as the approach. There are certain things VR does better and others that it does worse than film. Things it doesn't do as well as film are movements and editing. You want your shots to be longer and want to minimize movement. Building a story from the quick succession of events, as we usually do in film, is not a possibility in VR. But what you lose in terms of pace and lightness of film, you gain in depth in terms of VR -- a VR shot can be so dense with emotion and information. It becomes an exercise in how to make a moment of VR full, instead of breaking a story and actions into little pieces. You also kind of need to be "truthful" and put it all in front of the viewer in a way that it's not a mess. So there's a way of organizing space and time that is very different in VR. I think it can apply to many, many genres, but it's a different approach. That's why we're touching a bit of everything in our experiences; it helps us find the common points of different genres that excel in VR.

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In addition to the visual strength of your VR content, there's clearly a strong emphasis on immersive audio in your experiences, especially in Kurios, where the audio cues are bang on. How important is the experience of audio to this new visual medium?

F: The visuals transport you, but audio is really what makes you sink into the experience. It makes you disconnect with the physical reality you're in and surrender to the new reality. What I love about audio as a creative tool is that it seems like it plays on the subconscious in a VR experience, maybe more than visuals.

Visual is a direct input; what you look at comes through your brain and you're basically conscious of what you look at. But sometimes sound, especially spatialized in a 360 [-degree] environment, will come through, but you won't consciously acknowledge each one of those sounds. It plays on your perception of reality in a subtle, subconscious way. This has proven to be a very important tool for VR storytelling. Sometimes we create subtle sound interventions for things that happen in the background and around you. Sometimes it shifts your concentration and prompts you to turn. I'm not saying we use obvious sounds to make those signals and make viewers turn. But there's a way to use sound to use it as a navigation tool.

You've also recently launched Headspace Studio. In what ways will it contribute to the sound of this medium?

Jean-Pascal Beaudoin: Audio is crucial for creating a persuasive VR experience, and maybe even more critically for cinematographic VR. It is important to establish that in the industry so that we start seeing more energy and enthusiasm being put on audio. If technology is slowly catching up, we also need to develop our understanding of the potential audio holds for immersive storytelling in VR and eventually for augmented and mixed reality. That's exactly the vision behind Headspace Studio. We're developing R&D in a way that we can capture sound, be involved in post-production and try to define this new language. We've been doing this over the past two years already. The company is launching now, but as a sound director, I've completed over 10 VR experiences already.

I think we're currently in a very interesting period for VR, which is actually not unlike the early days of the Hollywood studio system, where every studio had a sound director who headed the sound department, working closely with the director to achieve -- and hopefully enhance -- their artistic vision. I feel that sound for VR requires that same type of attention from start to finish. Sure, we can be involved only at the post-production stage, but I find there's huge added value (not to mention avoiding having to tell a client that they'll have to reshoot because what's been recorded on set is actually unusable to achieve immersive audio in VR) when we get invited to join a project right from the start.

"We're in a very interesting period for VR, not unlike the early days of Hollywood, where every studio had a sound director who worked closely with the director." -- Jean-Pascal Beaudoin

Since Jurassic World had already wrapped when you stepped in, how did you create the spatialized audio for the VR experience?

JP: We collaborated with Skywalker Sound, who sound designed the Apatosaurus for the Jurassic World VR experience, which we integrated to the rest of the environment and mixed in 360-degree binaural. This experience happens in [California], so we also recorded the ambience of the forest over there and added many layers to make it sound as natural as possible.

Even though people within the VR ecosystem understand and emphasize the importance of audio, it seems like it's an afterthought. Why has immersive audio been overlooked?

JP: It's a bit of a mystery to me. Everyone agrees audio is such an important part of immersion, but there's no mention of audio. We live in a world where visuals are so important. There's news about VR everyday; the discourse is focused on the technology and there's so much to be done in terms of visuals in VR. Audio needs a lot of R&D and certain people are doing it very well. Everyone understands we need better tools, but it's not a big market. If you compare it to visuals like GoPro, they sell millions of units, but audio is much more limited. Economics play into that as well.

P: Part of that might also be that it's not immediately obvious that there's innovation to be made in sound. On the outside, you see VR; you see new headsets, but people are still using headphones or speakers. Unless you really dive into it, you don't even realize it. When you do, you think, "Oh shit! We need a whole new way of recording and mixing sounds and playing it back." Also the visual side is such a challenge that most people are focusing on that. So it's contributing to the lack of discussion around sound.


This interview has been condensed and edited.


[Image credit: Universal Pictures/Felix & Paul Studios]