Becoming the “Monster” Under the Bed: Creating SERGEANT JAMES
By: Alexandre Perez, Writer and Director
SERGEANT JAMES is now available on WITHIN. Learn about its creators’ stories, production process, and inspiration below.
That’s the key word for me — and the eureka moment I had when I started to watch VR content in 2015. You’re creating a story for only one person to experience; this completely redefined my role as a filmmaker. I immediately understood the new dialogue I wanted to have with viewers: to play with them, to be complicit with them, but also to deceive them. To me, this collaborative one-on-one relationship is the main difference between a traditional film and a VR one — and it was the beginning of my desire to work in the medium.
We did not want a plot which simply showcased the technology, so after a great deal of reflection and discussion, we decided to come up with a story that is more emotionally immersive than technically spectacular.
Rather than seeking to create a novel but unreal environment in VR, I wanted to intensify the experience by basing my film on a feeling or situation that the viewer will have already experienced. Our challenge was to create immersive visuals that evoke childhood memories, and allow viewers to focus on the feelings stirred up by a seemingly familiar environment.
“Are there any monsters under my bed?”
Maybe. This universal question is the driving force behind our simple story, which centers on the relationship between Leo, a little boy in his room, and you, hiding under his bed. With this hide-and-seek tale, I wanted to recapture the innocence of youth, and both the wonder and the fear of the unknown — but also to reverse the threat. You are trapped, and you can’t see the child.
Beyond this classic story, we are playing with larger questions: what is a viewer in a virtual world? What does it mean to show up in another reality? Are you a stranger in someone else’s skin — or simply “there,” as yourself? In SERGEANT JAMES, you finally don’t know if you are there or not.
Entering a new world
Because rhythm in VR is important, I wanted to create a smooth entrance. First the viewer thinks: where am I? And next thinks: who am I? In 30 quiet seconds, we invite the viewer, alone, to understand the main issues of the story — and investigate their role in this world. Later, Leo declares: “Mom, I really think there’s something under my bed…” Then, when she approaches to investigate, you are like a turtle that pulls back into its shell. You are both frightened and excited to be discovered.
Behind the scenes: big kids
Our film — presented by Floréal Films in coproduction with Digital Immersion — unfolds in one concise act, like a play. The absence of any framing or cuts completely changed the way we worked. How do we drive the narrative while giving viewers the freedom to see what they want to see? The most important formal task was designing the unique point of view; it was a creative challenge for everybody. We shot it in a studio with a live preview in a headset — having that much control was really cool. We built the entire room, and put cameras under a real bed. Everything is real. No CGI.
For myself and most of the team it was our first time working on a VR film. It was really fun to see technicians used to working on long feature films moving to VR and becoming kids again — much like the viewers of SERGEANT JAMES. The team was just as excited as I was to change the creative framework, to try things, and to push our own boundaries.
Watch the trailer here:
After graduating from the ESEC Film school in Paris, Alexandre Perez embarked on a career in directing, starting with award-winning shorts and two collaborations with France Inter’s WEB service. In 2017 he presents SERGEANT JAMES, his first VR film.