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Tali Goldstein (second from left), Ruben Farrus (far right), and the Casa Rara team.

Academia is full of dreamers, but how many of us are truly living what we’ve dreamed for ourselves? That’s probably a question best addressed privately, while lying awake at night staring at the shadows on our bedroom ceilings. But at Milieux, by the clear light of day, there are at least two people living their dream: Tali Goldstein and Ruben Farrus, who have brought their Casa Rara virtual reality studio to the EV building’s 10th floor as artists in residence.

Goldstein and Farrus both moved to Montreal during the past decade to work in the city’s booming video game industry. Farrus, from Barcelona, first worked on triple-A video game projects with Electronic Arts. Goldstein arrived from Sao Paulo, Brazil, where she worked as a producer in film. She and Farrus first met at Minority Media, where she was a producer and Farrus was the design director. “It was an independent company, lots of ups and downs, lots of opportunities to learn how others work. We realized we wanted to do things our own way, and also to keep growing as professionals.”

Working independently has allowed Casa Rara to create outside of the constraints of existing markets or strictly for profit. “We get to explore the medium in fun ways,” said Goldstein.

Casa Rara has three main projects currently underway, two of which they are developing for the National Film Board of Canada.

MuseumOfSymmetry The Museum of Symmetry, conceptualized and animated by Paloma Dawkins, is an immersive  VR mixed-media collage, combining two dimensional and 3D elements. “Paloma is an amazing illustrator and 2D animator,” said Goldstein. “This piece is like a dive into Paloma’s head.”

It’s unusual for a VR studio to produce in 2D, remarked Farrus. “When VR appeared, the assumption was that it would require realistic graphics, and a world in 3D where you could perceive volume. No one thought that stepping into an imaginary 2D cartoon would work, but with this project we’re seeing that it’s actually very cool.”

The team is also analyzing how to incorporate tactile elements into the room-scale VR installation – an inclusion that appeals to museums and science centers. The Museum of Symmetry will do a festival circuit before being available to the public on Steam and other streaming platforms.

Casa Rara’s other current NFB collaboration is Westwind, a VR film by Jeff Barnaby. It’s a co-production between TIFF’s ImagineNATIVE, Prospector Films and the NFB. Casa Rara is developing Jeff’s narrative VR vision of how Canada might look in 150 years. “It’s a dystopian vision that plays on the fears and anxieties of our generation – climate change, exploitation of resources, surveillance, ‘reconciliation,’” said Goldstein.

“It’s a very interesting process because we meet with creatives, they come with references, images and ideas, and our job is to go from the ideas to something tangible,” continued Goldstein. “And it’s a very different project than Museum of Symmetry. When  looking at our work screens side by side, the difference in styles is flagrant. It’s impressive we’re able to work on them at the same time.”

Earth2Casa Rara is also finding time to develop their own VR experiences, despite the challenge inherent in financing independent intellectual property. “So far VR is a place where you go to experience this fantasy, futuristic neon world,” said Farrus. “It’s about being someplace. For me, what’s very interesting about VR is allowing people to connect emotionally with characters. When you’re watching a film, there’s this distance between you and the characters. Even in video games, there’s a gap. With VR, when you’re transported in front of characters, you’re there. Your brain tries to connect to them at a human level, and this is underused in VR. So our project Earth 2 will put you in a place with lots of characters. They have a daily routine, they have lives. And you become emotionally attached to them. It becomes an ecosystem rather than a game, and it’s a place you want to return to.”

The door is open at Casa Rara for anyone curious about what a working VR production studio looks like. There are currently seven developers on staff, plus Paloma Dawkins. “This is the best team I’ve had in years,” said Goldstein. “We don’t exist without our team.”

“The team is what makes you come to work,” agreed Farrus. “We have lunch together, we go out together, we have picnics together, we talk about life. This is the philosophy of our company.”

After having mentored at TAG events like Critical Hit and collaborated with OBX, the team set up shop at Milieux almost a year ago. “We are here to help people dream in VR,” said Goldstein.

Casa Rara are located in room 10.765 on the 10th floor of the EV building.