‘Jailbirds’ Director Thomas Villepoux on Freedom and Funding in VR

Premiering on Wednesday at both NewImages and Tribeca festivals, the motion-capture VR experience “Jailbirds: Bwa Kayiman” follows a pair of inmates, locked in a bleak and cheerless prison and lorded over by a spiteful warden.

Though the slight Booker (Elliot Delage) suffers from all the warden’s cruelties, the hulking Felix (Barry Johnson) lives in unexpected serenity, allowing his imagination to quite literally carry parts of himself far beyond the prison walls.

“The story itself is a nice metaphor for VR,” writer/director Thomas Villepoux tells Variety. “It follows a character that is locked up, physically inert, but who is able to see new places and landscapes, to experience new emotions, through his eyes that fly away.”

The first volume in a three chapter saga (Villepoux will present the second entry at NewImages’ financing market), “Bwa Kayiman” spends a lot time acclimating users to its world, putting the user right into the prison cell with the two inmates and their cold-hearted overseer, making them feel the chilly air.

“The whole subject of this story is freedom of movement, about space and claustrophobia,” Villepoux continues, noting that elements of the narrative certainly play a bit different after the year we have all shared. “We tried to work on spaces, either very open or very closed, and to play with presence, with the physicality of the characters.”

“Being able to render and explore that idea in volumetric space was interesting to me, to gently push users outside their comfort zones,” he adds.

A work long in progress, “Jailbirds” arrives at its world premiere boasting an already impressive festival haul. Since 2016, the project has won prizes at the Stereopsia festival in Liege, at the Courant3D festival in Angouleme, and at the XR pitch session in Annecy, among others; it has also been presented at the Venice Production Bridge, and received regional supports in France and Belgium.

“The lesson to learn is that you should never give up,” says Villepoux. “There was a fairly long journey from festival to festival… [because] the VR market is quite limited, and often oriented around experiences that are rather similar. It took [a lot of festival pitch sessions] to convince producers and funders to get started on the project. When we won the screenplay award in Annecy, that reassured them!”

The project’s trifurcated nature also reflects the a challenge of the current VR landscape.

“While we were able to finish the first chapter, we still lack a certain amount of funding to produce the other two,” the director explains. “So it’s great to have the first chapter in competition at NewImages and the second chapter at the market, so that possible funders can experience for themselves the project’s style, rigor, and qualities.”

“That’s why a lot of VR projects are chaptered,” he adds. “You have to reassure the distributors and funders before you can continue the work.”

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