A new crew member has arrived at the International Space Station. They did not get there by launching on a rocket or riding on a spacecraft. Rather, they simply put on a headset — and you could be next.
The largest production ever filmed in space has resulted in an experience like no other. "Space Explorers: The ISS Experience (opens in new tab)," from Felix & Paul Studios, in association with TIME Studios (opens in new tab), uses 3D, 360-degree virtual reality (VR) footage to not just show the viewer the inside of the space station, but add them to its crew.
"I was completely blown away by how I felt like I was back in space, and since I got back [to Earth] in the middle of April this year, I've been yearning and missing that feeling, so it was incredible," said NASA astronaut Jessica Meir. "I didn't want to take it off. I wanted to just still stay there, floating in the Cupola and looking out the window and remembering what it looks like."
Shot over two years using specially-designed cameras and with exclusive access to the space station's crew, "Space Explorers: The ISS Experience (opens in new tab)" is a four-part series that chronicles what it is like to live and work aboard the orbiting laboratory. Part movie, part interactive, the ISS Experience takes advantage of a new type of storytelling to engage its audience with the subject at hand — almost literally, you will want to reach out and grab things.
"We use this medium to take people to places they cannot go," Félix Lajeunesse, co-founder and creative director of Felix & Paul Studios, told collectSPACE.com in an interview. "For us, that doesn't necessarily mean creating a fully interactive experience where we ask audiences to press buttons and do other such things as in a game. We remain on the side of a cinematic experience, where what we really try to do is nurture a sense of presence for our audiences."
"I call that cinematic virtual reality," Lajeunesse said. "That's a medium that we're still discovering to this day, and we've been doing this for eight years now. So, it's a relatively young art form, but we're pushing it further and further from project to project. And now we're in space."
In "Adapt," the first of the ISS Experience's four episodes, NASA astronauts Anne McClain, Christina Koch and Nick Hague, together with Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques, introduce viewers to the space station as they, themselves, adapt to life on orbit. More than just the on-screen talent, though, the crew members became the filmmakers, too.
"I think it can be described as collaborative filmmaking," said Saint-Jacques. "Felix and his colleagues on the ground had their vision for the scenes, but really the details were left to us on board. All the jobs that you can imagine on a film set, we were doing ourselves, including suggesting scenes sometimes. And they were really open-minded about our suggestions."
"It felt that we were doing the movie, but being coached by a professional on the ground," he said.
Each scene has a central focus point — a direction where the action is set — but like the crew, the audience also has to "adapt" to being surrounded by the station in all directions. If they are watching "Adapt" using a VR headset, then viewers have the option of looking above or below, to each side or behind them, even as the story unfolds before them.
"The ISS Experience," however, is not limited to VR. Beginning Thursday (Dec. 10), guests visiting Space Center Houston, the visitor center for NASA's Johnson Space Center, can watch "Adapt" on the largest 4K screen in Texas.
"Not everybody in the world has virtual reality glasses today. It's an exponentially growing industry and market, but still most people don't have those glasses at home," said Lajeunesse.
Felix & Paul Studios' cameras on the space station capture such a high-resolution master file that they can then create a virtual camera in post-production to convert the stereoscopic footage to the giant screen format.
"When audiences see it on the big screen, it's going to look to them as if there was a professional cameramen who was trained to operate in microgravity was filming the astronauts in space," Lajeunesse said. "You might not get the 3D depth that we have in virtual reality, but you still have the sense of 'floaty-ness,' this cinematic sense of microgravity and and sense of spectacle, because giant screen films are extremely immersive as well."
Whether viewed on the giant screen or in VR, the 24-minute "Adapt" presents seldom seen corners of the space station, as well as new ways to look at what are now very familiar sights. Audiences experience the outpost when all of the lights have been turned off and pause to float at the intersection between multiple modules. The episode also brings viewers up to the window to watch the Earth rotate below. (A future episode will include the first-ever VR footage to be filmed outside the space station during a spacewalk.)
The experience is so realistic, and goes so far beyond what has been available before, that Meir sees the "ISS Experience" as more than just entertainment for the public — it is also a potential training device for future astronauts.
"This is such a powerful tool, which will allow us to share what we experienced with the public, with our friends and our family, and for us — we're reminiscing and remembering," she said. "And for our training purposes as well, there's really nothing like it. It is so immersive and really puts you right back there in that very environment."
"Space Explorers: The ISS Experience," Episode 01 "Adapt" Episode is available now for virtual reality headsets on the Oculus Store (opens in new tab) (for Oculus Quest and Oculus Rift headsets only).
Space Center Houston will host a virtual panel discussion (opens in new tab) about creating "The ISS Experience" with Félix Lajeunesse of Felix & Paul Studios, NASA astronaut Drew Morgan and Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques on Dec. 9 the center's website and YouTube channel (opens in new tab).
Click through to collectSPACE to watch clips from “Space Explorers: The ISS Experience.”