Inside Headspace Studio

Having launched specialist VR studio Headspace in Montreal just last month, president and director of sound Jean-Pascal Beaudoin is brimming with excitement. Matt Fellows talked to the Canadian about his new venture.

Following a 10-year career in traditional audio post, Jean-Pascal Beaudoin (main picture) has seized the chance to create Headspace Studio, a new Canadian facility dedicated to immersive sound.

Beaudoin had been working with Montreal-based VR content creation specialist Felix & Paul Studios – recipient of one of the first Oculus Rift headsets, which, it turns out, had opened up a new avenue of opportunities.

“Our proof of concept was recording a Canadian artist called Patrick Watson, and it [Oculus] worked even better than we thought it would,” Beaudoin explains. “We got to meet with Oculus in 2014 and when they [his team] saw this thing, they couldn’t believe what they were seeing and hearing.”

From there the team found themselves completely devoted to VR work as the offers came in, and the path forward quickly became obvious.

“We were into VR 75 hours a week,” Beaudoin says. “There’s not a lot of talk about sound in VR, although everyone seems to agree it’s 50% of the experience. To me it was out of the question to just be a part of Felix & Paul Studios and limit myself to those experiences; it’s great to make this technology and knowledge available to other content creators.”

Headspace Studio opened its doors in June and is already attracting attention for a VR experience tie-in based on a certain Hollywood blockbuster.

“It officially launched with the Jurassic World Apatosaurus,” Beaudoin tells us. “For that piece we collaborated with Skywalker Sound, because when you work on a franchise like this you want to make sure you respect the artistic integrity. At the time they didn’t know much about mixing for VR. They did the sound design for the Apatosaurus and Pteranodon in the VR experience, so I took those assets and mixed them with the location recording we did. 

“We also released two experiences with Cirque du Soleil; the last one [Inside The Box of Kurios] is the longest piece we’ve ever done – it’s 10 minutes of VR (pictured, below). I think it’s the longest experience at least in live action. Ten minutes required over two months of work, full-time.” 

Virtual Tenacity

Beaudoin was clear that Headspace Studio would be a VR-dedicated affair from the start: “You can’t just offer this as a new service. It’s not the same job. If you’re a traditional post sound engineer, you’ll have to learn new skills.” And this makes its work approach an unorthodox one: “It’s different than your normal post-production sound studio. It’s sort of in between traditional post-production and gaming post-production.”

Beaudoin isn’t worried about VR failing to establish itself in the industry: “We’ve already done 10 VR experiences; we’ve delivered them, we’ve got so much knowledge behind us.”

However, such an embryonic market doesn’t come without hurdles. “It feels like Hollywood in the ’50s where there are so many possibilities and the workflow is not defined yet,” Beaudoin remarks. “There are no standards.”

Additionally, core hardware for the medium is not even commercially available yet, but Headspace has got that potential hiccup covered while the market develops.

“It’s like you can buy this great television, but there are no channels,” Beaudoin explains. “So right now we’re very lucky to be collaborating closely with Oculus; they invest important amounts of money to produce experiences.”

And such a unique studio requires an equally unique selection of gear, as Beaudoin outlines: “At the recording stage I use a quad binaural microphone, and we also use an ambisonic mic which is very interesting for VR. As for post- production, some projects are more documentary-style so mixing is very natural; for this I can manage to do it in Pro Tools, using binaural positioning plug-ins. And there are various VR platforms; sometimes we have to go through a gaming engine such as Unity or Unreal, or we have our own code.”

Beaudoin is also keen to stress the creative potential of the new medium: “It’s not a 2D space you’re sound designing and mixing for; you’re at the centre of a real space. There’s stuff happening all around you; there’s at least 180° you’re not aware of that’s happening behind you. So audio has a very interesting role of directing you to look in a direction without being super-obvious.

“When you mix in 5.1 or 7.1 and even with Auro-3D or Dolby Atmos the action is still happening right there on the screen. You can make that plane pass by, but you don’t actually turn around to see that plane pass. So there’s new ways to explore sound, that’s for sure.”

Forward Thinking

It’s early days for VR, but Beaudoin still has some thoughts on how things may develop: “We’re going to see hardware makers getting into it. I can tell you there’s a lot of people working on hardware for VR. We’re going to see some studios opening up and we’re going to see existing sound studios offering new services. For the coming years it’s more a period where people are going to discover the medium.”

As for Headspace, the team has more than a few tricks up its sleeve, but we’ll have to wait to see what they have in store. “We have three projects in post-production at the moment. We’re in post-production for pieces we’ve done in Africa with tribes and it’s going to be, I think, a very deeply emotional and moving experience. There’s another project for a well-known Hollywood franchise we’re working on, and for this we’re going to be doing something that’s not been done before with VR. For the next year I have no stress; projects are lined up and it’s looking very good.”