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June 06th, 2021 | by Mathieu Gayet

“We wanted an interactivity as invisible as possible for the viewer” - Thomas Villepoux, François Klein (JAILBIRDS)

Belgian production company Be Revolution Pictures presents the double world premiere of JAILBIRDS, a virtual reality animation film directed by Thomas Villepoux, at the Tribeca and New Images 2021 festivals. This Belgian production adapted from a comic book story from the cult magazine Fluide Glacial is co-produced in France by the French studio XR Digital Rise (MECHANICAL SOULS).

Interview with its director Thomas Villepoux, and producer François Klein.

French version

JAILBIRDS, transpose the Fluide Glaciale universe into virtual reality

Thomas Villepoux - JAILBIRDS is a project that took several years to produce. It is the adaptation of "Paulot s'évade", a short story by Philippe Foerster published in Fluide Glacial (and available in the complete series "Certains l'aiment noir", ed. note). Fluide Glacial, it's all my teenage years and I have a very vivid memory of it. Foerster managed to integrate everything in only 6 pages; the concept and symbolism, several degrees of reading (from the most concrete to the most symbolic: freedom, magic, confinement...). When we imagined the project, we contacted Fluide Glacial with whom the collaboration was very natural. In 2016 Olivier Sulpice (Bamboo) bought the magazine, by passion above all, to relaunch it. His approach to new media was very enthusiastic, and he supported us enormously. Which makes you want to continue working with them! Many of their stories are universal.

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T. V. - If Digital Rise initiated the project in France, it is our meeting (at Stereopsia 2016) with Be Revolution, a Belgian production company, that accelerated the project. The majority of the funding is also Belgian, including with Creative Wallonia. Then we received the award for best immersive project at the Courant 3D festival. Since then we are supported by the Pôle Magelis in Charente and finally, the CNC in production. In Angoulême we collaborated with G4F for the sound, and the composer Cyrille Marchesseau (PAPER BIRDS, GLOOMY EYES) for the music.

Combining the content and form of an animated film 6DOF

Thomas Villepoux - Short stories fascinate me when it is this successful. When we started working together in VR with François, the story came back to my mind, and seemed to be a perfect metaphor for our work. Whether it's the points of view chosen, the physicality of the story, etc. Immersion is all about live emotion, our brain reacting. We had to imagine the right approach for the medium.

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François Klein - XR is in essence a hybrid art form since we borrow dramaturgical codes from the cinema, staging process inspired by the theater with technologies from the video game. So we keep a very open approach to our creations. What is frustrating today is the technological race to the detriment of the artistic assets to be explored. With JAILBIRDS, we focused on the story above all, and the interactivity, linked to the gaze, is invisible for the spectator.

T. V. - From the moment we had the script, the most complex thing - and this explains the development time of more than 5 years - was to find the form we wanted to give it. At the beginning, we had even considered a live adaptation, with photogrammetry, visual mixes that would pay tribute to the comic strip and its particular style with its black and white, very Franco-Belgian style. A mixture of Asterix for the characters and something darker and rougher for the scenery. But in the end, we realized that it was difficult to transpose it into VR: we had to give it more volume, to give visual depth to the whole. Obviously, we then worked on the free-roaming aspect, with the limitation of the viewer's action, on the questions of scale and point of view. In VR we tend to forget about the realization. One of the experiences that has marked me in recent years is BATTLESCAR, where the directors' style is magnificent and abundant. AGE OF SAIL, one of the Google Spotlights, is also noteworthy when it comes to directing. The film works as well on the relationship with the characters as on the environment

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F. K. - If the scenario was quickly clear, the technological development was longer. We made 2 prototypes to test different points of view. Then other productions, notably for DVgroup, kept us quite busy: ALICE THE VIRTUAL REALITY PLAY, THE REAL THING, BEING AN ASTRONAUT... The advantage of working with Thomas is his clear vision of things. Whether it was visually or in editing, we knew where we were going. All these stages of development were an advantage in defining the right time to go into production.

T. V. - In 2016, immersive writing was not yet as accomplished as it is today. The question of editing was more delicate at the time, we were wary of cuts, of changes of shot. One project did - perhaps too much so: THE GREAT C, with very cinematic "cuts" in the end. My direction benefits from the experience of the last few years where we learned to really edit VR films. We tested a lot of things on this point with our prototypes.

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Designing 1:1 characters

T. V. - In JAILBIRDS the characters are very embodied, close to you. We wanted to play with the comfort zone of the spectator - around the physical relationship, the mass of the characters (in 1:1). I absolutely wanted to avoid the "uncanny valley" effect (the lack of empathy for characters that are too artificial, editor's note) by playing too much on the realism of the characters. After all, we are in a comic book universe, a fantastic tale! Our choice was to assume a very assertive visual style, around the mocap to keep the realism of the movements, the gestures. Visually we adopted a pencilled style thanks to a shader and very comic textures, in a mix where volumes react to light. It's a difficult choice to play the realism card in VR, because of a "video" effect that often takes us out of the experience.

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T. V. - On the visual rendering, the Belgian studio that worked on the film did an excellent job. We got a great result in terms of motion capture, and the design added on top of it plays on this notion of animation, of cartoon. We must also salute the work of our three actors, who we wanted to be absolutely bilingual in French and English; Thomas Lemarquis (Snowpiercer, X-Men: Apocalypse, Blade Runner 2049), Barry Johnson (the video games Black Sad, Detroit become human...) and Elliot Delage. We can thank Sarah Kinga Smith, American producer (Reverse Engineering Studios) who helped us a lot with the casting of JAILBIRDS. We needed actors who could embody the strange, who could play on that. It's a real pleasure for a traditional director like me to find such talented actors on set.

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François Klein - The cast of JAILBIRDS comes from different backgrounds, cinema and video games, which was also useful. Some were already used to shooting for the virtual, others not. The exchange of experience benefited the quality of the experience.

Covid and JAILBIRDS - Produce remotely

F. K. - On the production side, it took us 5 years to make JAILBIRDS - including one year at Covid. We had to stay within the obligations of the grants we received, especially concerning the delivery deadlines! It's complicated to manage a remote team - except for the mocap with the actors live in the studio. We had set up very efficient processes to move forward quickly. Even if the film itself speaks of confinement, in a way... The most frustrating part of the film is the musical and sound aspect, where it is difficult to really realize things without being in the same studio with the composer. On the sound, our work with G4F was particularly pleasant because they are used to video game atmospheres - a real added value for VR, to accompany the emotions, to manage the tension rises.

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F. K. - We now have to close the budget for the next 2 episodes, which we hope to do this summer. We are fortunate with JAILBIRDS to have reasonable financing. What's more, the scripts are already there. First stop, the XR Financing Market at NewImages 2021.

T. V. - We also want to decline JAILBIRDS in several formats; here the 6DOF, then the 3DOF, but also a traditional short film based on a real time engine. We remain focused on narrative universes, regardless of the media. Digital Rise wants to be the vehicle to deploy our stories. The 3D models exist, now we know we can use them for different audiences, different uses. The JAILBIRDS teaser proves it; one of its camera movements does not exist in the film.

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Digital Rise Jailbirds

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