Interview: “Virtual Reality can offer an inner journey” – Jan Kounen (7 Lives, Ayahuasca, -22.7°C)

Interview: “Virtual Reality can offer an inner journey” – Jan Kounen (7 Lives, Ayahuasca, -22.7°C)

Even with no feature film in the last ten years (COCO CHANEL AND IGOR STRAVINSKY in 2009), Jan Kounen has been busy: documentaries, books … and this year no less than 3 works in virtual reality: not new creative horizons for the director of BLUEBERRY, but it is not that strange to see him coming to VR. We met at XR@Annecy last june.

This interview was first published in Cinema Teaser – 2019’s Summer Edition

Ayahuasca Tribeca 2019
Ayahuasca, by Jan Kounen

You said many years ago that shooting in Virtual Reality (VR) required you to “re-learn how to do create”; how it is after creating three works on this medium?

Everything started with Marie Blondiaux, from the production company Red Corner (link), who asked me to direct 7 LIVES (co-directed with immersive creators Charles Ayats and Sabrina Calvo) and bring my expertise of cinema on the project. Then I was quickly invited to many discussions on this new format, while I was only theorizing its application. In this still new industry I was able to discuss technical and narration issues, to understand them before getting really into it.

I understand that the world of cinema can be interested in VR (or XR henceforth, to encompass any form of immersive creation) as a new form of creation. After all, we always talk about image and sound. However, any creator seems to me legitimate to come, whether he or she is a theater director, contemporary artist, choreographer, video game professional … I quickly understood that the language of the cinema would not adapt on an interactive project: but the know-how of a director (the work of the narration, with the camera, the actors, the sound …), yes . Here we do not try to reproduce a scene. We create an atmosphere, an environment: the theatrical dimension is fascinating. It is necessary to think about the global implementation, without being able to cut out like in a film, without imposing shot/countershot, etc. 

7 Lives Tribeca 2019 Immersive April

I remain fascinated by the disappearance of the frame offered by virtual reality. It is the fantasy of any filmmaker to free himself from the “4th wall”: to be no longer in front, but in the work. And we are only at the beginning of this new form of art. What we currently see is a new ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN AT LA CIOTAT STATION! When we see WOLVES IN THE WALL: IT’S ALL OVER (Pete Billington, 2019) in example, it’s both a great work on empathy and a very strong technical challenge. 

Throughout your three immersive experiences, all releases in 2019, you use different forms and techniques: is it a will to test VR in all its forms?

AYAHUASCA has always been a very personal project. It is the culmination of 20 years of work around shamanic medicine that I previously explored through documentaries, books … Virtual reality was immediately obvious to speak more directly about it. It is a work of creation closer to the testimony, which adds to the visions of my feature film BLUEBERRY, to my drawings too: you dive directly into a vision. In itself it is not an emotional work that will create a direct empathy with characters: the emotion will come from a resonance with the images, the sound, the proposed mood.

On 7 LIVES it was kind of the opposite: there was already a very written script. I brought my experience to propose a form to it. And it was the same thing on the project of the musician Molecule (to record his next album alone in Greenland), -22.7°C co-created with Amaury La Burthe: I was able to try photogrammetry, real time, interactive, videogrammetry comedians, virtual hands… After two years developing these projects, I can finally start talking about virtual reality for real!

I would have to do an immersive experiment every 5 or 6 years to see where the technology goes. Despite some obvious technical limitations, I am very proud of the films released, and the work of Small Studio (the creative studio of Macguff) on 7 LIVES who made the film. The complexity of the technologies was a real challenge, especially to ensure that the behavior of the audience influences the story!

-22,7° - Novelab France production company

There is a desire to send the viewer towards introspection, to immerse him in your world. Was it an intention on each of the experiments?

We must see virtual reality (VR) as a real possibility of cognitive immersion, sensory, which can offer an inner journey. Here it was also the projects that I was offered, where their subjects could resonate with my personal concerns, my will to perceive more than to understand.

On AYAHUASCA, this is where the cinema could not go: to be an integral part of the story gives you the freedom to better understand the subject. It was logical for me, so much the virtual support seemed appropriate to share these sensations, these vertigo. Some healers who tested it even began to sing, to live the experience live! And for others, who are discovering the subject, there is a bigger journey to be made yet.

Is virtual reality above all a question of curiosity?

I have always loved the power of image and sound to transport the audience. With virtual reality, we reinvent everything. Without frame or screen, you only have the staging. It’s more complicated, but it’s also very exciting! I consider doing the same work as a director, but with a different look: the spectator’s one. In cinema it was necessary to invent everything, traveling, flashback, ellipse … With virtual reality, all the grammar remains to understand, to invent.

I’m just starting to explore these new worlds. I remain a film director above all: I have just finished a new feature film, MON COUSIN with Vincent Lindon and François Damiens (expected release in 2020). And I see the difference with experiences in virtual reality where everything has to go through emotion. I do not think that today this support makes it possible to tell strong stories, psychological, spiritual like in the cinema. On the other hand we can give an impetus by the empathy, the proximity, the implication. Maybe tomorrow we will be able to see longer, more introspective experiences: we have to get out of La Ciotat!

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