As part of an initiative led by the cultural services of the French Embassy in Canada, with the support of the Consulate General of France in Québec, coordinated by Alliance Française de Vancouver in partnership with Xn Québec, we are proposing a series of portraits of the XR industry in Canada. Through this series of portraits which discuss the history and vision of these companies, we invite you to discover the talents behind the immersive and techno-creative studios listed in our database of XR in Canada.
In this third company portrait, you’ll discover Dpt., a studio that has given us some of the best interactive and immersive productions of the past decade.
About the company
Dpt., a production studio founded in 2007, is active in all areas of digital creation. Dpt. Founder and CEO Nicolas S. Roy recalls that “at the time, there weren’t really any immersive technologies available to the public, such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and so on. We were creating experiences for the web.” As an example, Nicolas cites Holy Mountain, which was created in 2009-2010 in collaboration with the National Film Board. This was the first in a series of collaborative projects with the NFB that got them excited about interactive storytelling.
By working closely on web docs and interactive projects with the NFB and other partners, including Arte and the CBC’s French network, Dpt. was able to develop its know-how. As its CEO says, “these projects gave us tools that were very useful when we began to work on emerging platforms like virtual and augmented reality. […] Even though the projects were still web-based, it allowed us to work in new ways rather than concentrating on design and programming. Instead, we focused on how to tell stories differently.
Maude Thibodeau, Experience Director and Art Director at Dpt., says she took a similar route in her own development: “At the beginning, I was doing interactive web and web docs, but also creating lots of experiences for converging streams.” As in the case of Nicolas, Maude benefited from an enriching co-production experience: “My first co-production was with France on the Fort McMoney project. This was my introduction into the world of co-productions. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve sure learned a lot!” By joining Dpt., she has finally transitioned into the world of XR: “I was interested in it, but in the end I fell in love with the medium, including both augmented reality and virtual reality.”
Telling stories differently
Today, Dpt. is known for its work on very diverse productions, ranging from augmented reality (The Enemy, Apocalypse, Collecting, and more) to virtual reality (The Passengers, Marco & Polo Go Round, Parliament, and more) to mixed reality (These Sleepless Nights). While the studio possesses experience in all of these technologies, Nicolas voices a specific concern: “There’s a buzz around virtual reality, but in concrete terms it remains a very small market. It’s a good thing that we can show works in Venice, Cannes, and Tribeca, but, ultimately, there are fewer than 2,000 people who view these productions.” There is an inverse relationship between virtual reality’s high public opinion and its relatively limited popularity. Conversely, augmented reality gets less publicity but reaches out to a larger audience.
In Maude’s view, greater accessibility is an asset for augmented reality: “It’s not as glamorous, but it’s really more accessible. It’s also more interesting because it resonates with people – it brings more people together. But, of course, it’s not meant for Venice.” It’s true that beyond the few augmented or mixed-reality projects that make it to festivals – by the way, this number is trending upward – these technologies tend to be used to target commercial markets. “What we’ve also come to realize,” notes Nicolas, “is that from a commercial standpoint, there’s much greater demand for augmented reality than for virtual reality. Branding projects, for example, are often made using augmented reality. Sometimes these projects are applications, but increasingly they’re webAR or Instagram, Snap, TikTok, and other filters.”
Whatever technologies are used, for Dpt. it’s all about experiences that lead to developing new expertise. As Nicolas says by way of explanation: “For us, augmented reality is a good way to use technologies that are similar but more accessible because they’re designed for phones. It’s not the same [as virtual reality], but it’s still interesting, and it does come with stimulating storytelling and interactivity challenges that are still unresolved.”
Challenges and overcoming them are important features in the kinds of projects Dpt. works on. The studio’s founder admits, with a smile: “In fact, we like the slog involved in overcoming these challenges. With new platforms and new technologies no one knows how to use, we need to reinvent the wheel every time.”
Reaching your audience
One of the still current challenges for Dpt. – just as it is for the rest of the sector – is distributing immersive experiences. In this regard, Nicolas sees two options. First, he recognizes the value of companies that are preparing the ground and building a market for XR. “We consider ourselves lucky to have partnerships, for example, with the PHI Centre, which is establishing a distribution system and organizing tours [featuring XR experiences], but this is still a bit complicated,” he states. Second, Nicolas evokes the possibility of helmet-free immersive exhibitions. “Since we’re talking about distribution and accessibility,” he says, “we recently completed a project for Oasis Immersion (Follow the Note). It was interesting to explore and apply what we’d learned in VR these past several years and try to make it come alive for several people at once.”
This experience, too, will have positive impacts on future projects. For example, Dpt. is currently working on a virtual reality co-production, and the studio’s founder says he is pondering how to adapt it to the kinds of immersive spaces that are beginning to appear all over the world. “More and more, it’s something we want to do: rethink our VR experiences so as to deliver them in these increasingly numerous spaces.”
Driven by the public health measures that have been in effect for more than a year, the deployment of immersive exhibition spaces is proving to be an increasingly popular practice. This is an interesting option not only for new productions but also as a way of giving new life to past productions. In this regard, Nicolas asks the following question: “Would we be able to adapt Manic, Roxham or Marco & Polo to this type of site? This kind of work is a long-term process, but it’s something we need to consider in terms of XR production in order to make projects profitable.”
There are many ways to judge a production’s success. We can, if we like, choose ROI (return on investment) as a target or attempt to reach as large an audience as possible or try to stand out in the industry. When asked which Dpt. projects they are most proud of, Nicolas and Maude agreed that they were proud of all of their projects! Among these productions, The Enemy (produced jointly by Caméra Lucida, Dpt., Emissive, France Télévisions, and the NFB) is a remarkable achievement; in fact, it is often cited as an example by XR experts around the world.
But The Enemy is not the only the Dpt. project that has made a major impact on the company! “The Enemy will always be important to us,” says Nicolas, “but the one closest to my heart is Manic VR. Why? Certainly for its subject, but mainly for the feedback our team got from people affected by the experience. Nicolas adds: “Manic gets us to empathize with two people who live with bipolar disorder. This sensitive subject matter required careful handling to avoid exaggerating the condition or depicting it in an entertaining manner. “We got a lot of feedback from people with bipolar disorder. It’s a project that really touched people.”
The project made a major impact on people. Nicolas adds: “It’s not every project that attracts this kind of response, with people telling you what a profound impact it made on them and in their lives.” In Maude’s view, Manic was their most far-reaching project and the one that achieved the starkest results. “Sometimes it’s difficult, and the result isn’t always what we’d expected, but the process was certainly interesting.”
Among their works in progress, Nicolas and Maude mention two projects to watch out for: Umami and Plastisapiens.
The first project is a co-production with French studio, Tiny Planets. Nicolas says that he first came upon Umami when the project was presented at Atelier Grand Nord a few years ago. “I fell in love with it,” he recalls. At the time, the project was being developed without Dpt. An initial prototype was presented in Venice some years ago. Recently, discussions have started up again to get Dpt. involved in the production and push the project even further along. Project funding has been secured from various sources, including the Canada Media Fund, France’s national centre for cinema and the moving image, and SODEC (the Québec government agency dedicated to developing the province’s culture sector). “This collaboration has great potential,” says Nicolas. “The project was designed for sales in stores but there will also an LBE version for up to eight people at once.”
At first, the project was about a character who had lost his memories; later, as he is eating, he remembers his sordid past. In the new version, Umami takes a different tack and focuses on a topical issue: overconsumption. “It’s a major issue,” says Nicolas. While it is tempting to believe that digital creation has a lesser environmental impact than other industries do, “ultimately, our sector consumes a great deal of energy,” add Nicolas. “We generate a lot of waste. Just think, for example, of new VR helmets that last two years and are then tossed into the trash. So, we also have environmental issues to deal with.” In its approach and storytelling, Umami tackles these issues. What’s more, the goal is to make it the first carbon-neutral VR project ever. Stay tuned!
Issues revolving around overconsumption are also dealt with in this other forthcoming project from Dpt. “Plastisapiens is a speculative and absurd virtual reality experience that envisions a future when plastics and organic matter merge into a new life form known as plastisapiens” (source: NFB).
Plastisapiens, which is co-produced with the NFB and Lalibela Productions, is surreal eco-fiction. “Our actions have an environmental impact,” says Maude, “and we’re putting so much plastic in the environment that we end up ingesting it. As a result, humans turn into plastisapiens.” The project, which is designed for Oculus Quest, is currently under development. As Maude points out, a lot of research and experimentation has gone into the production so as to optimize the experience. Bringing together technical achievement and social commentary, Plastisapiens is characteristic of the work produced by Dpt.
A common thread
When you look at Dpt.’s portfolio, you see that the company has a keen interest in projects that have an explicit social impact. Discussing Umami, for example, Nicolas states that “even if it’s fiction, there’s something that we want to showcase in an ethical manner to get people in our industry to ask questions they don’t usually ask.” According to Maude, this passionate interest in topics with social value is something that developed somewhat by chance, resulting from the fact that Dpt. has often worked on documentary projects. “We made many interactive documentary productions that were successful, so we got offers to do more. This is an area where we first developed a certain proficiency, which helped bolster our interest in doing this kind of work,” adds Nicolas. “It’s important for us to dedicate part of our time and resources to projects that can have an impact and truly make a difference. As a result, we sleep better at night!”
In this regard, virtual reality stands out from other technologies: “It’s a medium that’s very powerful. It may be a cliché, but rather than telling stories, VR allows people to experience them. It’s extremely potent when it’s done well,” says Nicolas. “What stays with you isn’t the feeling that you’ve witnessed something but that you’ve lived it. It affects you differently. It stays with you longer.” With the medium’s power, however, comes responsibility. Fortunately, Dpt. understands and takes this responsibility seriously in all its projects.
Challenges and lessons learned
With so many collaborative initiatives and co-productions to their names, Maude and Nicolas have learned a key lesson: above all, you need to communicate clearly. This is especially true in the case of co-productions – but also when you have to work remotely, as is the case currently. Wherever there is a lag in communication, complications tend to arise. “To make yourself perfectly understood, you have to be very detailed in what you say – even if you’re tempted to think it’s pointless to go to such lengths,” cautions Maude. Accordingly, you need to develop ways of ensuring that concepts are clear. The same goes for collaborative work: all partners have to communicate clearly right from the start of the process.
Echoing Maude, Nicolas believes that communication is paramount: “Roles must be extremely well-defined. You need to know who does what, who approves what, and recap every meeting to make sure everyone understands what’s been decided.” This advice also applies to co-productions involving French-speaking countries. “We speak the same language,” says Nicolas, “but there are still misunderstandings. There may be major differences at the cultural level, and we need to keep this in mind.”
At the end of the interview, Nicolas offers one last challenge that neatly summarizes Dpt.: constantly learning new technologies. “We create many innovative projects that have never been achieved before,” says Nicolas, “and the people we work with are either tech savvy or not. In some cases, there’s a lot of educating to be done.” This challenge results in a certain level of uncertainty as well as difficulty setting project guidelines at the start. And clearly it’s impossible to make a plan that won’t change from project start to finish. “Once we go into production, there are always surprises. For the studio, this is high-risk, because we can burn through a lot of time and money that way.”
It’s this passion for challenges that defines Dpt. “We don’t like it when it’s easy. We like to rack our brains,” confides Nicolas. To which, Maude adds: “That makes our work stimulating.” One of the challenges the studio is currently facing is to find an audience for productions that aren’t quite films and aren’t quite games. “That’s really a challenge,” admits Nicolas, “because we have to create this market. People are used to playing games, which is an active thing, or watching a film, which is passive. We need to find the middle ground, but don’t quite know how to address this audience or who this audience even is. It’s a new entity we need to create.”
Mapping XR in Canada
Do you want to develop a collaboration with Canada? Discover Canada’s immersive and techno-creative studios by checking out Québec/Canada XR’s living database of XR in Canada.
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