How a Canadian pioneer is pushing innovative filmmaking to the outer limits

Stéphane Rituit, chief executive of Felix & Paul Studios Inc., a pioneer of immersive filmmaking, reckons his production house is one of the few that kept shooting throughout the pandemic. That’s because Rituit’s “crew” was safely distanced from the virus 400 kilometres from Earth aboard the International Space Station. As terrestrial movie sets closed, astronauts carried on filming each other with Felix & Paul’s custom equipment, taking direction from the studio’s base in Montreal. The ISS Experience, the result of a two-year collaboration with Time Inc., is scheduled to premiere on Oct. 22. “Certain folks from the entertainment industry and cultural institutions started coming to us and saying, ‘Hey, it looks like we could learn from you guys, because you are specialists of virtual production because of your production in space,’” said Félix Lajeunesse, who shares the title of creative director with Paul Raphaël. “It’s creating opportunities for us down on Earth, which is pretty surprising, but interesting and cool.” Last week, I wrote about how the demand dynamics of the COVID-19 recession caused Marc Parent, the chief executive of CAE Inc., to realize that he leads a “technology” company, not simply a maker of flight simulators. ‘Let’s do it’: How these entrepreneurs braved the pandemic to open new businesses ‘Architects of creative destruction’: New breed of billionaire entrepreneurs emerges in pandemic How a little-known Quebec company took centre stage of Canada’s electric vehicle space in only two years How four millennials came out of nowhere to dominate the mobile COVID-19 testing industry It was some proof that this high-tax, debt-heavy, carbon-dependent, politically complacent and generally uncompetitive country might still have a chance once we put the pandemic behind us. What follows here is a tale of the shock-proofing benefits of hustle. Lajeunesse, Raphaël and Rituit formed their company in 2013. They quickly enjoyed some critical success and won an Emmy in 2017 for an interactive film on life inside the Barack Obama White House. But they had a thing about outer space. They went to NASA in 2016 with a pitch for a virtual-reality (VR) documentary about training astronauts; the space agency accepted, and the effort resulted in Space Explorers: A New Dawn , which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018. The 60-person studio is now the only media company that has earned the status of “implementation partner” with the space station program, a unique endorsement and serious competitive advantage. “Had we not done those initial projects with them, I don’t think we would have been in space today,” Lajeunese said. This year will end up being a catastrophic one for much of the entertainment industry, but it will also probably be the year Felix & Paul emerges as a major player. Here on Earth, the producers of the latest James Bond movie delayed release for a second time this month, pushing the debut of a film that was originally scheduled for the spring to April 2021. And Cineworld Group PLC’s shares plunged more than 30 per cent last week after the London-based cinema chain said it was suspending operation of its American and British theatres because of  COVID-19 restrictions and a dearth of new films. Up at the space station, the American and Russian crew members of Expedition 63 this week received a shipment that included a Felix & Paul 360-degree VR camera with lenses customized to endure extreme heat and light. The plan is to attach the camera to Canadarm2 and record a spacewalk and images of Earth in 3D for the first time. “We’re going to use the Canadian arm as a gigantic cinema crane,” Lajeunese said. If it’s starting to sound like Lajeunese gets to do all the fun stuff, well, that might be true. But CEO Rituit spent much of the year pushing the limits of a different sort of gravity: geopolitical. Last month, Felix & Paul announced it had struck a partnership with a consortium of telecommunications companies led by South Korea’s LG Uplus Corp. to distribute The ISS Experience. The agreement could be huge, because it will expand the audience for immersive content beyond the geeks willing to spend $500 on a VR headset. Pulling off global technology deals as the United States and China battle for digital supremacy is no easy thing. “They are very national companies,” Rituit said of the consortium, which includes San Diego, Calif.-based Qualcomm Inc. and China Telecom Corp. Ltd. “When you are trying to put together a U.S. investor, a Chinese player and a player from Taiwan … It’s not easy.” Yet he did it. Now there’s every reason to think Felix & Paul is headed for another level. The COVID-19 lockdowns have complicated plans for an indoor exposition (although they continue), but the same forces that have proved a boon for Netflix Inc. also caused a spike in sales of VR equipment. In other words, demand is catching up to the studio’s ambition to supply quality content. Felix & Paul’s business strategy so far has been to grow at a measured pace, but the co-founders talk as if they are ready for more. “Just the financing,” Rituit answered when asked what stood in the way of the company becoming the next Walt Disney Co. “The ambition, the creativity, the technological capacity, the engineering creativity, the purely creative needs and the enthusiasm are really slowed down only by financing.” The money will surely come. Even as other studios get serious about VR content, Felix & Paul will retain an advantage: its relationship with NASA, which has embarked on a long-term plan to resume human exploration of space. The journey will fascinate a global audience, and a Canadian company will be there to document it. “The next step is to go to deep space and follow the core missions of NASA, the core missions of human space flight,” Lajeunesse said. “The next steps we are looking at are the Moon, and then Mars.” You heard that right: Mars. COVID-19 hasn’t crushed everyone’s confidence. Financial Post • Email: kcarmichael@postmedia.com | Twitter: CarmichaelKevin

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