Natural born interactive : this is how Novelab (link), an interactive studio based in France, describs itself. Being as discreet as possible, the company based in Paris and Toulouse is however regularly selected in the biggest festivals of the world for their immersive experiences.
Even more, SPHERES (Presented by Oculus Studios, Protozoa Pictures, City lights, produced by AtlasV, Novelab, Crimes of Curiosity and Kaleidoscope) and ISLE OF THE DEAD (produced by Les Produits Frais and ARTE France) both won at Venice VR 2018, -22.7°C (Produced by ZORBA Production in co-production with Novelab, ARTE France and DV Group) and A JESTER’S TALE (produced by 1RIC and RYOT) were worldwide premiere at SXSW and Sundance New Frontier this year.
We spoke with Grégoire Parain, Managing Director at Novelab.
The past – From immersive sound to NOTES ON BLINDNESS
Founded in 2009 by Amaury La Burthe, Audiogaming was first dedicated to sound design, creating softwares for the creative industry: video games, film and animation. Since 2013, we develop services and tools for virtual reality. Almost immediately after the arrival of the Oculus Rift DK1, we started to craft narrative VR experiences and branded content. Today Novelab crafts AR & VR experiences as well as interactive installations.
We started in the immersive industry following solicitations from artists and brands who were interested in innovative ways to tell stories. We were lucky enough to have amongst our first projects a mission with Google that resulted in the creation of the Cardboard, one of whose creators – Damien Henry – was a shareholder at Novelab. Everything kicked off very quickly after that.
One of our first projects has had a major impact in our development: NOTES ON BLINDNESS: INTO DARKNESS (by Arnaud Colinart, Amaury La Burthe, Peter Middleton and James Spinney), which was downloaded more than 500,000 times until today, and is still considered today as one of the first significant artistic achievement in VR. Since then, we never stopped producing, co-producing and working with other production companies and studios within XR industry, in France and worldwide. In 2019, we worked with RYOT on A JESTER’S TALE (directed by Asad J. Malik, presented at 2019 Sundance New Frontier), for the animation and the VFX, and on a prototype of an AR game based on playing cards. We also produced the MINUSCULE AR, an augmented reality game based on the universe of Minuscule, by Thomas Szabo et Hélène Giraud, that offers you to live extraordinary stories with the Minuscule characters at home. The app is available on Google Play and the App Store since the release of Minuscule 2, Mandibles From Far Away.
There are more and more user cases of innovative and interactive contents, and the arrival of the Oculus Quest (ex-Santa Cruz) is opening new doors as the device recognizes our full environment, just like in AR. Realities come together, whatever the technology you have, we now rely on the real to present the virtual.
NOTES ON BLINDNESS: INTO DARKNESS remains today a reference within XR industry. This is the kind of real-life story you can’t miss, in which a great team of creative, authors and producers found the right way to tell it.. We always move forward based on meetings, be it co-production or own production. MINUSCULE AR was initiated with Romain Bonnin (Flair Production), who brought the idea of adapting the IP into an AR game.
The present – The right content for the right platform
We choose the technology and the platform depending on the narrative, the storytelling. The mix between animation and live action being a key aspect of MINUSCULE AR, it made obvious to adapt it into an AR game for kids and to distribute it on the stores. But for us it’s the same thing: whether it’s VR or AR, it’s scene is a 360 degrees narrative in which we use the latest technologies, software and hardware, to craft the experience. In terms of production, there still are lots of problems in AR with tracking, but AR is still the most accessible experience for the user to this day.
As for VR, its closed environment offers more security for the creation of 3D models. What’s new if for you to adjust your creative process, to get inspired between hybrid cinema for script, storyboard, and video game for iteration, interactivity. Today few people are able to fully understand these two worlds. You can make a “VR film” (ISLE OF THE DEAD by Benjamin Nuel, i.e.) without interactivity, or a location-based VR installation (UMAMI by Landia Egal and Thomas Pons produced by Tiny PLanets, in co-production with Novelab and DVGroup): the important thing is to ask whether it’s linear or not, whether it’s real-time or not, whether it’s location-based or not. We also make 100% video games for example VANDALS, TYPE:RIDER and lately MINUSCULE AR. Experiences based on animation IPs are a lot of fun to craft!
People often forget they need a recent device to experience AR. Not all mobile phones allow you to display content in AR so when you make an AR experience today you still can’t hit 100% of the market. For example, making an AR game for kids is tricky: under 10 years, you don’t want your kid to be looking at a phone’s screen for hours, plus most of the time the kid will use your smartphone and not his own. Above 10 years, kids rarely have the last generation of mobiles. We had to take this into account for MINUSCULE AR distribution and marketing strategy: the game was meant to be used by children, but also their parents. So far the game is not compatible with tablets ; this kind of device is less often changed so it will take another 3 to 4 years for the market to update.
On the other hand, we craft VR experiences and interactive installation that can be tested by almost anyone. Of course most of the time they are not meant to be experienced at home as they are location-based. Beyond a good story, we need a consistency between the storytelling and the platform. Everything has to be elastic to allow the universe to adapt to the viewer’s time.
The future – It’s all about the audience at the end
I remember some festivals where we showed NOTES ON BLINDNESS and KINOSCOPE (by Philippe A. Collin & Clément Léotard): we knew what to show to whom. The contents must be diverse to attract the audience. For example, SPHERES (by Eliza McNitt) works with people from 7 to 77 years old. Same goes for ISLE OF THE DEAD. Because the narrative is clear and meaningful, without any artifice. In my perspective some arthouse immersive projects may have gone too far in the creative process without thinking enough of the audience and understanding what immersion truly means. Festivals are a great spot to test new kinds of narratives, but we try at Novelab to focus on the the quality of the users’ experience, wherever an experience is presented.
Sound is essential too. This is one of the great successes of SPHERES. It is a tool every creator should pay more attention to, because it can make such a difference for the viewer… Spatial sound helps creating landmarks in 3D environments, like in ARDEN’S WAKE from Penrose Studios i.e. This was one of the artistic challenges for -22.7°C, our latest VR experience, co-directed by music producer Molécule, filmmaker Jan Kounen and Novelab CEO Amaury La Burthe, which just world-premiered at 2019 SXSW and is currently being presented at Paris’ Philarmonie.