Faber Courtial, Creators of Worlds
Faber Courtial is a creator of worlds. Well, it is literally not possible for human beings to have such a creative capacity, but today technology has brought us closer than ever before. Software and hardware can take us to worlds very different from our own. Worlds that were, that could have been or that will never be, but that the tools and professionals at Faber Courtial have put within our reach. Faber Courtial can bring to life the splendor of 2nd century A.D. Rome, it can take us to The Moon, or it can breathe life into the origin of German civilization.
And best of all, these creators of worlds can explain how they do it.
Interview with Maria Courtial, Producer & Co-Director
First of all, how was Faber Courtial born and how has it grown over the years?
It all started way back at university. While studying industrial design (at that time there were no such things like media design to choose from), I met Joerg my later partner ‘in crime’ and husband. We got on well, worked on a few study projects together and decided to open our own, joint studio shortly after graduation.
At first, we mainly created visualizations and animations for designers and architects and worked on commissions for the industrial sector, until we decided to venture out into the world of film and realized we hit home. We started creating our trademark Faber Courtial Worlds, which set new standards in visualization and so we quickly build a strong reputation as leading experts among the broadcasting and the exhibition sector.
In 2014 we added the important area of virtual reality to our portfolio, which gave us an additional boost in terms of scope and creative expression. Our immersive experiences soon gained international recognition at major festivals such as the International Film Festivals in Venice and Cannes, the Tribeca Film Festival, Siggraph, Stereopsia, FIVARS and SXSW.
Currently we operate with a dedicated team of 15 and a large network of freelancers.
Who is Maria Courtial and how did she get to where she is?
My two favorite areas of interest have always been technology and the creating crafts. I started out studying physics but switched to industrial design after two years to pursue my desire to create something by myself. After graduating and founding Faber Courtial, Joerg and I had a lot of free space – each in our very own “biotope” to thrive and indulge in our ideas and visions.
This was particular true for the time from 2014 onwards when we reduced the number of commissioned projects to pursue the creation of independent Faber Courtial productions.
Creating strong and emotional VR experience by striking a close and poetic balance between the important elements of camera, music, narration, and editing is an absolute matter of heart to me. Today, I am mostly the wholehearted producer of our products – and reality is that the more the company grows, the more time “I have to” spend as CEO, shaping Faber Courtial’s path within the industry and towards the future… with a tiny little grain of melancholy that there is not more time to also work creatively.
The world of content creation seems to be made up mainly of men, what is your opinion and how do you think this situation could change?
I don’t necessarily agree. There are several women, in the field of XR who are producing great content. In fact, I believe that the fascination with the expressive possibilities of XR and the ability to convey relevant topics with a broad array of emotions and intensity is an area, women particularly excel in. Overall, I believe that with the industry growing and evolving we will see far more visionary and technology savvy content by fabulous women.
What are the targets and objectives of content such as yours?
Ideally our content should quite simply overwhelm. We aim to offer a completely new experience and when people take off their glasses and have tears in their eyes, then we know, we’ve done it right. Our studio creates fascinating worlds that used to exist or that open a window into possible future worlds. Worlds that have long gone or that are not easily accessible. Still, everything we do is based on authenticity and has a true core which we want to convey in the most touching and emotional way possible. As such our work resonates with many of us, be it across space travel, science, history or the past and future of humanity. Our focus has always been on the highly realistic and emotional realization of the worlds that we create, whether it’s our long-standing work in traditional film or, more recently, our own immersive experiences.
What projects have your company been involved in and which ones would you highlight as the most challenging? Why?
I guess we would have to start with the documentations we have worked on, such as The Germans with ZDF in 2010, The Greatest Race with Channel 4, Smithsonian Channel and ZDF in 2018, or Planet of Treasures with Christopher Clark with ZDF/ZDF Enterprises and Interscience in 2020.
Then there is our work for museums and exhibitions. We were actually the first company to introduce emotionally gripping film installations and immersive experiences to the German museum landscape, such as: Time Travel Vienna 4D for the Experience Museum Vienna (2012), The Popes for the rem in 2017, or our most recent project Time Machine for the LWL Antiquity Commission.
And last but certainly not least, there are our own VR productions like Volcanoes, Gladiators in the Colosseum, Time Travel Cologne Cathedral, Follow Me – Rome, 1st Step, 2nd Step and GENESIS.
In the ranking of most challenging projects, I would certainly name some of our own VR projects. We’ve always strived to deliver the highest quality possible, so we often work on the edge of what’s possible, making our own work at times rather challenging and rocky, as in Gladiators in 2016. That was the first time we integrated real actors into a virtual environment in VR, and we went straight down the hard way: Real gladiators need a sandy ground to fight on, so we built a huge 180° green screen and installed it at a local indoor riding arena, where the shoot took place. Back then we also had to build our own camera to record everything in perfect stereo 3D quality.
GENESIS is another example: In the middle of the production, we decided to make a hard cut and switched from our traditional pipeline to a real-time engine workflow. A bit insane to do so without experience and with a tight project deadline to meet, but it was absolutely the right decision. Now we have our worlds, the right pipeline and our expertise across all forms of immersive experiences and also virtual production.
And this leads us to our latest biggest challenge we had to overcome to date: We just developed Phalanx, an in-house toolbox that allows us to scale down the photorealistic and detailed data of our settings, so that they can be immersively experienced even on mobile devices. As far as I know, there is nothing like this available anywhere in the world.
On regular basis, what are your workflows? Do you design and create everything needed for virtual reality content; from sketches to animation?
Creating a 360° film is as exciting as it is frustrating. It starts with the delightful phase of daydreaming, sketching, and storyboarding, continues with juggling vision and technology, and ends with the painful realization that in the VR space, you have no frame, no cropping, and no close-ups to convey your vision and intent. Instead, you have a room with an insane amount of detail that requires flawless perfection for the viewer to be fully immersed. You can push and accentuate a little, but ultimately, it’s up to the viewer to experience and hopefully enjoy their version of the story. Luckily, with the more recent software solutions, we can now – even in VR – bring the vision to reality at a very early stage. This can be quite sobering at times, but it also gives you more time and flexibility to achieve your intended vision after all.
Since we have built many VFX worlds over the years, we now rarely start from scratch for a VR project. Still, the amount of work always rises exponentially when we arrive at the above-mentioned critical stage and the creation of insane amounts of detail.
What software do you rely on to develop your work?
To achieve the output quality, we envision the number of programs we are using is steadily increasing. Our main software is Unreal these days. For modelling we work with the likes of 3ds max, Blender, Houdini and, in addition, with programs like Substance Designer and Nuke.
What companies have you worked with, and could you tell us about an experience that has been really interesting for you?
Over the years we have worked with companies from a wide variety of fields. We had a long focus on VFX and animation work for film production companies, like Gruppe 5 Film production and Interscience, as well as TV channels such as Channel 4, Smithsonian Channel, ZDF, WDR and arte. For our VR film productions, we collaborated with partners such as ZDF, WDR and Deutsche Telekom.
In our collaborations, we were privileged to always have our partners’ full trust and consequently to be granted an exceptional degree of freedom throughout the entire creation and implementation process. With such a degree of trust, you will never want to disappoint, quite the contrary, you are all the more eager to achieve perfect results.
One example that sticks out is the work on the VR film ‘1st Step’ about the Apollo missions. We started by scanning through the NASA archives and selecting original photographs with particularly impressive positions from the Apollo 17 mission, which we then stitched together to a 360 panorama (while obviously taking care of the many holes in between the picture material). We also spend a lot of time with intensive research for the best and highest resolution satellite and elevation data on the moon to create a high-quality 3D moon model. Since the NASA also provided the exact photo position of the astronaut, the team was able to do something really exciting, which was to position our virtual camera at the exact position of the astronaut at that time. This camera then projected the stitched panoramas onto the digitally accurate altitude data (collected data of satellites and lunar cameras). We had two completely different sources here, but the match was perfect. It was breath-taking to realize that this perfect match actually delivered a further proof that the astronauts were indeed on the moon!
What challenges are Virtual Reality and VFX facing today?
Virtual Reality and VFX are two very different areas which I would look at separately:
As for VFX, the Unreal Engine opened a broad spectrum of great new possibilities. You can now work much faster and more intuitively through all the phases of your project from early planning until final implementation. Virtual production will continue to be the important keyword here that will significantly shape the future of the film industry.
Virtual Reality on the other hand has received a lot of momentum from the “Metaverse”, which is currently on everyone’s radar, yet the “hardware issue” is still preventing VR to go mainstream. While developments and innovations are being made, a connection to a powerful computer is no longer a prerequisite and there have been improvements in terms of VR headsets (and there are more to come later this year), everyone is still kind of waiting for the super device.
In terms of content production VR is far more complex than VFX. While in traditional film you look at a framed piece of a world, in VR the entire world is visible and requires flawless perfection for the viewer to be fully immersed. The challenges you face in XR are much higher, which is why we have only seen slow but steady increases in quality over time.
What are the ways of improvement to make Virtual Reality content even more impressive? How can software and hardware be enhanced?
Putting content development aside for a moment, an important improvement, to make Virtual Reality experiences even more impressive, is the ability to view and interact with very high-quality content on mobile devices, which is currently not easily possible or only to a very limited extent.
With Phalanx, our in-house developed toolbox, we have taken a significant step closer to this option as we achieved to scale down data-rich, high-quality content so that it can be immersively experienced even on mobile devices.
VR has this impressive ability to fully immerse you in a space: imagine walking through ancient Rome, visiting Mars, or exploring the moon with an intensity that makes you believe it’s reality. And just imagine how fascinating it is, that all of this is happening right in your own living room.
We will certainly overcome streaming limitations in 1-2 years, but until then our tool Phalanx can bridge that time. By then we will also see a significant increase in good content. For outstanding experiences, it is however not just a matter of high image quality. There is still so much to explore in terms of good storytelling, new use of the medium and innovative types of experiences. A truly exciting field for many years to come.
What is the future of Faber Courtial?
We will continue to create the Faber Courtial worlds. Worlds you crave to see once in your lifetime – and we will work on making these worlds accessible to everyone. The experiences, products, and ways to get there can be very diverse: from traditional film to AR and VR apps, to direct experiences as social events in the metaverse.