apelab, a Swiss interactive studio ready to take on Hollywood

An interview with Emilie & Sylvain Joly, two of the co-founders of the Swiss animation studio dedicated to immersive storytelling.

Founded in 2014 by four graduates in interactive design, apelab is a production studio based in Geneva, specialized in storytelling for mobile devices, whose interactive graphic novel for tablets IDNA caught the attention of Hollywood. Currently developing spatial stories for virtual reality, apelab has now one foot in Europe and the other in Los Angeles, where the immersive entertainment landscape is shaping up fast.

We sat down with Emilie and Sylvain Joly, two of the Swiss startup’s co-founders, to talk about Sequenced, their first animated VR series, the future of interactive storytelling and their decision to set up a dedicated office in California.

Tell us a little more about Sequenced

Sequenced is a VR science-fiction series spanning 3 seasons of 9 episodes each. Each episode consists of two to four 360° sequences of 8-10 minutes, which are designed to be ‘replayable’: depending on the elements and characters the player focuses on, the storyline takes different turns.

Let’s take the scene where Raven, our hero, meets Sam, a pathfinder on a mission. If the player focuses his attention on Sam’s vehicle, Raven will react by asking Sam about his strange ride. If the player had focused his attention elsewhere, Raven would have reacted differently. The story is sprinkled with options that enrich the storyworld or add visual/sound details, thus encouraging replayability. This makes the writing process very challenging, but enthralling.

What were the biggest challenges you had to face to produce the pilot?

Sequenced‘s pilot — in its beta stage — required 3 months of production for a small team of four. We’ll probably need one more month to complete the final version. We hope to speed up the production process for the next episodes, namely by expanding our team.

Writing a non-linear story is always a challenge. We spent countless hours testing, finding the right pace, rewriting dialogues. Each ‘branch’ needs to be interesting, consistent and well paced. This is probably the biggest challenge we had to face. We really believe this mode of interaction and storytelling is perfectly suited for virtual reality. It is a spatial storytelling language we developed for a full, 360° immersion. We’re still in the process of polishing it, and we’re slowly getting closer to a storytelling language that makes perfect sense in an immersive environment.

Sequenced is being developed for several VR and mobile plateforms. How does this impact your production?

To run Sequenced, we developed our own framework, Gaze Interactive. It was designed to run on different platforms; since it’s built over Unity which handles porting pretty well, it really makes the process easier. It’s an interactive creation tool for VR that aims to make it easier for designers, engineers and writers to work together. We will make it evolve depending on our needs for each production.

We chose PC-based VR (Oculus Rift) as the primary platform. It enables us to work with more animation and effects. For the mobile version, we adapt these elements to match lower performance. Unfortunately, the development kits for headsets are still pretty much prototypes, and the software keeps changing every two weeks, slowing down our production process, as we constantly need to adapt and update our tools. The important part is knowing why we take a project to a given platform, and how to adapt the user experience accordingly while still delivering.

Sequenced (2016)

Sequenced (2016)

How do you place 3D sound on elements that move when the viewer looks around?

Each asset in Sequenced has its own positioning. All we need is to assign to each object a matching sound, even if its position changes during a sequence. All objets are recognizable and detectable by the player’s gaze.

Sequenced is at the crossroads of film and gaming. Are we witnessing the birth of new, major storytelling forms?

The multiplication of devices and media channels will continue to give birth to new forms of storytelling. But in the end, it’s the audiences who will decide which will stay. The way we interact with content has changed a lot over the past 10 years. Devices such as the smartphone call for different types of experiences.

Virtual reality is truly a new media, just like television or cinema; it requires that we work on finding its specific language, direction, form and interactivity. The audience has the power to become active, and develop a sense of presence inside the storyworld. This will lead storytellers to imagine unique experiences, halfway between traditional stories and videogames.

Virtual reality requires that we work on finding its specific language, direction, form and interactivity.

We truly believe we’re witnessing the birth of something that will bring novelty. It’s a blessed period. How many times in a lifetime do you get to define a new medium and its language? It’s the creators’ duty to embrace the medium and go beyond traditional patterns to experiment with this new language. In the beginning, there will be lot of trial-and-error, then success will come.

Why did you choose to open an office in Los Angeles?

We opted for Los Angeles to benefit from the entire ecosystem that’s shaping up there. Many VR companies are based between Los Angeles and San Francisco. That’s where our partners are, and the entertainment market as well. We hope to open several studios dedicated to VR and AR, with a focus on content production and tools. Our Geneva studio will keep handling research while the North American office will serve as the commercial showcase for our productions. We’re partnering with distribution platforms such as Steam, the mobile app stores, the Oculus Store and PlayStation VR.

We just started a round of funding we hope to close in the coming months, and are developing partnerships with the likes of Google Tango in order to put content to the service of technology. We’re also exploring the possibility of working with movie and game studios wishing to develop their own immersive and interactive experiences.

It will take at least a year before the market really builds up, and we aim to be ready by then to offer quality content.

L'équipe d'apelab

The apelab team

How did you convince Peter Coyote to get involved in projects that have limited audiences?

One of our collaborators, Salar Shahna, had already worked with Peter on a movie. We contacted him and sent him elements about the story and world of Sequenced, which he really liked. We later became friends, as Peter is a true environmentalist who shares the values we’re putting forward in Sequenced. Peter is also an accomplished screenwriter, and he is very eager to get involved in virtual reality projects and explore new forms of storytelling. He really understands the challenges of writing for such experiences.

Are there any pieces of VR content you have been enthusiastic about recently?

At Sundance, we had the opportunity to watch many VR projects. We were mostly interested in experiences combining same-scale physical and virtual elements such as Real Virtuality by Artanim or Leviathan by the World Building Media Lab, whose director Alex McDowell is also on apelab’s board. His vision of “world storytelling” means a lot to us, beacuse it’s a perfect blend of cinematic storytelling and virtual world building.

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Sequenced will be released on most VR headsets on the market, featuring an exclusive depth tracking enabled edition on HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.

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