TORONTO – For those of us who lack the robust physique and otherworldly agility necessary to play a part in a Cirque du Soleil show, there is now a way to join the cast of the company’s newest production via the latest in virtual reality technology.
The company has partnered with Montreal-based production house, Felix & Paul Studios, to release “Inside the Box of Kurios,” a virtual-reality experience somewhere between a traditional film and a video game that puts viewers inside the show.
“We like to break new ground; that’s what Cirque has been doing for all these years,” said Jacques Methe, president of Cirque du Soleil’s media division. “We want to try new technology and push it to its limit.”
In the film, the viewer is transported to a steampunk world of clowns, gymnasts and aerial performers from the company’s “Kurios — Cabinet of Curiosities” show, which debuted in 2014.
“It’s as if you staged a play for one viewer only,” Methe said. “The only decision you do is the direction in which you’re going to watch.”
The virtual-reality experience is a collaboration between the show’s director, Michel Laprise, and Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael, two video artists who have embraced virtual reality as a platform for storytelling.
Lajeunesse said he has been working with Raphael on “immersive cinematic experiences” for a decade, and the two first came into contact with Cirque du Soleil when they worked on the company’s pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo.
After an initial experiment in 2013 with Montreal musician Patrick Watson, one of the first live-action virtual-reality films, the pair decided to devote themselves full-time to producing virtual-reality content.
Part of that process was building the tools, and Felix & Paul Studios is constantly iterating on the proprietary camera and rendering system they use to build a three-dimensional, 360-degree image.
The pair has gone on to produce a virtual reality documentary on yak herders in Mongolia, a character-based scene from the 2014 Reese Witherspoon film “Wild,” and most recently an up-close-and-personal interaction with an Apatosaurus in partnership with the studio behind Jurassic World.
“It’s the birth of something new, a brand new medium and art form,” Lajeunesse said. “We had to accept that we would probably never do a film in our lives again and that we would just focus for the rest of our careers on exploring that new language and that new medium.”
“Inside the Box of Kurios” and the other experiences are designed for the Samsung Gear VR, one of a new generation of virtual-reality headsets hitting the market that make use of the advances in display technology propelled by the rise of the smartphone.
Samsung built the headset using technology from Oculus VR, which kick-started the resurgence of interest in the technology with a 2012 crowd-funding project and was purchased by Facebook for US$2 billion in March 2014.
Unlike Oculus’s own upcoming Rift headset, due out early in 2016, and other competitors such as the HTC Vive, due out this fall, the Gear VR has no screen and uses select recent Galaxy phone models as displays.
The transition from traditional filmmaking to virtual reality has been challenging, Lajeunesse said. When viewers can turn their heads to look at all aspects of a scene, simple things like where to place the lights become complex. And virtual reality poses its own questions, such as how to direct a viewer’s attention when they are transported to a different world.
“Every attempt that we’ve seen at retrofitting traditional cinematic storytelling in VR convinced us that it’s something else,” Lajeunesse said. “It’s as if you tried to retrofit jazz music into painting. It has to be taken for what it is. It’s a new departure, it’s a new territory, a new continent to explore.”
Follow Peter Henderson on Twitter @henderburn