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.
For this seventh portrait, we spoke to Audrey Pacart about Marco & Polo Go Round, a project sheproduced at Item 7
This interview with Audrey Pacart was led by Philippe Bédard (Québec/Canada XR) on July 21, 2021.
Audrey Pacart has always loved to jump into new challenges. First a traditional film producer and then responsible for content and programming for Tou.tv, it was in 2015 that she made her leap into the world of XR. “I ended up in an agency that was starting to do VR. It appealed to me and I started working on it,” she says. In the beginning, Audrey mace herself known as a consultant, mentoring and accompanying producers in this emerging medium. “I’ve always wanted to create artistic cinematographic works that also speak to a wide audience,” she explains. “While addressing a wide audience, my goal is still to offer quality stories imbued with sophistication, femininity, sensuality, etc.”
Originally from France, she has lived in Quebec for 25 years. This has given her a highly sought-after hybrid perspective: “I started traveling a lot to talk to people all over the world about how to produce VR. It allowed me to develop a pretty incredible international network.” That said, things had to change for this experienced producer: “being a producer myself for more than 20 years, I could not see myself continuing to work in the XR without producing a project myself.”
This is where Marco & Polo Go Round comes in. “I was working with an advertising agency at the time and I was told about a director who had written a project in VR,” says Audrey. It was Benjamin Steiger Levine and the script that would become Marco & Polo. “I read it and immediately agreed to produce it. I really fell in love with this project.”
Case study : Marco & Polo Go Round
While several virtual reality projects at the time were still very focused on science fiction themes or dark subjects, according to Audrey, Marco & Polo stood apart with its authentic love story. “I have always been passionate about the themes of femininity, sensuality and romantic relationships. It was the first time I was presented a script that addressed love and relationships in virtual reality and where virtual reality had a real reason to be in this relationship.”
Marco & Polo Go Round tells the story of a rift between the two eponymous characters, specifically on Marco’s birthday. As Audrey summarizes, the author’s vision was to represent this breakup through a world that was also visibly turned upside down by what the couple was experiencing: “It’s the idea that gravity has gone upside down. Ben had a real vision to have users be in the middle of a breakup. I thought this premise was great and the text was beautifully written as well,” Audrey recalls.
The story of this VR short film takes place in the couple’s kitchen as Polo surprises her boyfriend Marco with a cake for his birthday. Gradually, the tension escalates between the two lovers, and the world around them begins floating away towards the sky; their world is both visibly and metaphorically turned upside down.
Although it is a short film and not an interactive experience, Marc & Polo offers six degrees of freedom of movement (6DoF). This means that viewers can move around the apartment and observe the unfolding story from any point of view. This can lead to different experiences for individual viewers, as Audrey recounts: “Someone told me that they exchanged a look with the characters, but this is only a coincidence due to the fact that the user can put themselves wherever they want, but also because of the all the work that went into making the characters emote. It gives the impression that the character is truly looking at us. For me this is beautiful, because it means our project was successful.”
Dpt. is responsible for the aesthetic and technological work that led to the realization of Ben Steiger Levine’s authorial vision. The studio’s work has been worth it thus far, as evidenced by the fact that Marco & Polo has won several awards since its launch at Tribeca in June 2021. These include the awards for Best Narrative at the Guanajuato Film Festival, Best Short Film at the 360VR Festival, Most Innovative 6DoF project at Festival of New Cinema, as well as Grand Prize at the Kaohsiung XR Dreamland Festival.
To produce the project, Audrey chose to approach Item 7, a Montreal-based studio that is best known for its rich background in narrative cinema (C.R.A.Z.Y, Café de Flore, Rebelle, Maria Chapdelaine). While many people would no doubt say that as a new medium, virtual reality should carve its own path, cinema’s heritage is still a rich resource. On this note, Audrey explains that, “coming from cinema, I think there is still room to write narrative things for immersive mediums in the traditional way”. Starting from this relatively traditional scenario, a team eventually came together to translate Marco & Polo’s story into a cinematic VR experience.
Thinking about the production of the project, Audrey explains her decision to look for an established studio rather than create her own company: “It’s still complex to live only from working in XR. I instead wanted to approach ideal partners to produce VR.” Item 7 proved to be the ideal partner in this case. As Audrey summarizes, “I offered them to create a branch where I could develop immersive works”.
Item 7 set itself apart because of its expertise in terms of co-production. “It’s still difficult to fund non-interactive narrative VR,” admits Audrey. Take the CMF’s experimental fund, for example: admittedly, not all projects can explicitly respond to its focus on innovation. However, as Audrey points out, “We are fortunate to have access to incentives between the CMF and other countries. It seemed pretty obvious that we had to look for that side.” For Marco & Polo, Item7 partnered with Belga Studio, a long-time collaborator and privileged partner with which the studio is used to working.
“I find there is an extraordinary complementarity that comes from doing co-productions between Europe and North America,” Audrey explains. While Canada and Quebec are recognized for their expertise in XR production, Audrey notes that France has stood out in recent years for the cultural and artistic works it has given the world to see. What’s more, the way projects are chosen from each country’s public funds is not the same, which offers more financing options. “The fact of making associations and co-productions between our two countries allows us to combine the more commercial side of Canada with the more artistic side of France. These are two countries that are really super complementary in terms of creation.”
In the case of Marco & Polo, the project resulted from a co-production between Canada (Item 7) and Belgium (Belga Studio), two countries that benefit from a co-production treaty favorable to virtual reality projects.
In addition to the puzzle of that is the funding of any international co-production, it’s the technical challenges that caused the most headaches on Marco & Polo. “The biggest challenge,” Audrey says, “was to think about how we were going to manage the technical portion of the production.” You wouldn’t believe it from the seamless final product that it is, but Marco & Polo is the result of a long and arduous creative process. Making it required a combination of motion capture, animation and real-time game engines to convey both sensitive acting and a unique animation style. “It required us to be technically precise down to the centimeter, which is extremely complex.”
Motion capture quickly established itself on Marco & Polo because of the importance of acting in this authentic love story. The motion capture stage was done at the Studio du Château, in Montreal. “We had to rebuild the kitchen décor to the millimeter in the mocap studio, because every movement the actors did had to be completely in line with the rigging we had prepared in Unreal,” Audrey explains.
However, as mocap is not always adequate to convey subtle emotions, it was necessary to go through an animation stage, even if “it was impossible to do it 100% in animation, because it would have cost millions.” In the end, some clever budget management allowed Audrey and her team to find a way to pay for animation work at Zest Studio, in Belgium. “It was new to them too and they took a lot longer than expected to do that. It was such an exciting learning experience for them that they were extremely happy to discover new things,” Audrey tells us.
Ultimately, it was Dpt. who was given the responsibility of managing all the pieces of the puzzle. The studio had to create the necessary technology to facilitate the transition from one stage of production to the next. It is also Dpt. who was responsible for the project’s unique aesthetic signature. “The most complicated thing about VR projects like these is the transition from one stage to another, since they are not all compatible.” The software used for motion capture is not necessarily compatible with the software used for animation. In turn, the work that animation studios do is cannot necessarily integrate with real-time engines like Unreal or Unity.
One thing is certain for Audrey, “from now on, I will definitely sit down with all the experts that will eventually be needed over the course of a project. It is absolutely necessary that everyone talks to each other from the beginning of the process to establish how a project will transition from one technology to the next.” Both artistically and financially, it is indeed important to think collectively about the best tools for the job as well as about the strategies to be used to ensure that the work can be done efficiently.
As for the design of the project, Audrey says she would not abandon the process of writing a more traditional script. “Some people told me that Marco & Polo was written too much like a traditional film. In fact, I think I would continue to work in this way: writing scripts that may seem traditional, while considering the issues of immersion. I think we should still start with a script.”
Conclusion: Future projects
As for future narrative VR projects like Marco & Polo, Audrey says she would like to see more overlap with the world of cinema: “I’d love for there to be a market to see real cinematic works in VR. Several people told me about Marco & Polo that it was like they were inside a real romantic movie. It’s great! I wish we could continue to do that, even if it might seem like a utopia.”
In this still early period of XR, it is still difficult to know in which direction the medium is going to go. It is impossible to know if the virtual reality of the future will follow in the wake of cinema, video games, museum exhibitions, performing arts, or any other field of creation. For Audrey, “it’s part of progress and evolution. We go through mistakes, but we will still have made beautiful works!”.
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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