BURBANK, CA — During last month’s SIGGRAPH show in Vancouver, Walt Disney Animation Studios premiered its first ever VR-short, Cycles, in the Immersive Pavilion. The three-and-a-half-minute short was created as part of a Disney Animation professional development program, giving emerging filmmakers training opportunities, and centers around the true meaning of creating a home and the life it holds inside its walls.
After demoing the short, Post met up with director Jeff Gipson, who told us “It’s an emotional story and an emotional film.” We spoke with him about the short, which was completed at Disney Animation in Burbank, CA, what his inspiration was for the film, and how he learned the ins and outs of VR technology.
How did you get involved with this project?
“I came to Disney in 2013 as a lighting apprentice. I worked on Frozen, Big Hero 6, Moana, Zootopia, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, Ralph Breaks the Internet, so I’ve been a lighting artist at the studio for almost six years. We have an experimental program here where artists are encouraged to pitch ideas. I pitched an idea for a VR short film and mine was selected.”
Were you already working in VR?
“No, not really. I’ve just been curious about it. I’ve done some VR experiences and thought it was really interesting and cool, and was curious how you could tell a narrative story in the medium. I had an idea in mind for about a year and thought it would be a really good VR piece.”
Were you sort of learning as you went along?
Once your project was selected, were you like, 'Great, they like it, now I have to actually make it'?
“(Laughs) Funny you say that, but that was the thing, when I pitched it, I thought it was cool and thought, ‘That would be awesome to make.’ But then, when they actually said, ‘OK, let’s make it,’ that was the ‘Oh crap’ moment. I was like, ‘Now I have to figure out how to make it.’ It was difficult because we didn’t have a pipeline set up to create a VR short film here at the studio. This was my first venture into VR here. I worked closely with another artist, Jose Gomez, who technically has worked with some VR tools here at the studio, but the rest of the crew really, this was our first time jumping into VR and making something in a realtime engine.”
What was your inspiration for the film? I understand you do some skateboarding in empty pools?
“Yes, I do some BMX freestyle and I love to ride empty swimming pools. A lot of times the pools have homes attached to the property and I just love taking photos. So, I’ll go into these homes and take photos and will just imagine the story happening in the kitchen, the bedroom, the dining room and kind of happening all around me. I had this moment in my head of a story happening, I thought it would be really cool to create a VR experience that the audience could see and experience what I was thinking about.”
During the talk you gave at SIGGRAPH, you also said it's based on your own family?
“Yes, exactly. My relationship with my grandmother and the experience of moving her into assisted living and the hard conversations that went into that decision. Kind of looking over her house one last time before putting it up for sale and seeing that it’s much like the homes in Los Angeles, only this one held the story of my own family.”
The story was told in a very interesting way — it wasn't a linear style?
“We debated back and forth how best to do it. We tried to guide the eye in VR using color, light and motion. There were a few times when people missed a moment, but as long as they are hearing the audio and seeing most of the moments, then we’re happy with how the way the story was conveyed.”
Were you more involved in production than post or the whole way?
“I was involved the whole way through because this was made in a different way than how we make our films. We had 50 people make this film in four months. They could have worked on it for a day or gone along for the whole ride. Because we only had four months, we really had to work together from all aspects of it, whether it was pre-production or post production to everything.”
Did you do more traditional storyboarding or did you do any previs?
“We started doing storyboards, like how we normally would on our feature films, but then we realized that creating an animatic or kind of a previs how we normally do didn’t make sense here. We brought in our house model, using one of the tools we had written in-house and we brought in these 2D drawings, on just flat cards, and we started to try previs that way. But again, we felt like it wasn’t giving us the proximity and the feel and characters we were hoping for.
"One of our animators here is an amazing Quill painter — which is a VR painting tool — and he asked if he could take a stab at doing some storyboards. What he did was awesome. He posed a couple of different drawings and we were able to bring these drawings — 3D models really — into the house and start timing them and create an animatic that way. It was great because we were able to start getting a sense of volume about the characters, a sense of proximity, a sense of appeal and that was a nice way for us early on to start seeing our story come to life. We also used some performance capture just to previs what type of movement is too close, what type is too far. Is some of the action too jarring? So that was a another method to get some feedback on what was working and what wasn’t.
“It was exciting because along the way, we were pushing new things that we here at the studio had never done before, like using Quill for an animatic, and I think there was a lot of excitement from the artists involved. Even though we had a short time span, everyone was so excited and curious that they would go above and beyond to figure out whatever we needed to do to make the short happen.”
What kind of technology did you use for this film?
“We used the Unity realtime engine to make this. We tried to use as much of our existing pipeline as we could — some of our animation tools, simulation tools — so our artists didn’t have to relearn a toolset in order to create what we wanted for the short. We did our modeling, rigging, animation the way we normally do, but our texturing was a different process from what we normally do on our other films, our lighting was a different process, how we bring in all those assets was a different process. And so, we did a lot of custom scripts and custom changes to the software in order to make things work, in a way that we really wanted.
“So, Unity was the main tool, the engine that it runs on, but we also used Maya for a lot of our modeling.”
How important is music and sound to you?
“The music was composed and performed by my mother, she’s a professional musician. It was an amazing experience working with her to have her compose and perform a song on a film that is loosely based on her own mom and dad. I’m so happy I got to work with her.
"In terms of sound design, we needed to ask, 'What do memories sound like?' Gabe Guy, one of our amazing sound mixers here, did several passes on what those timelapses really sound like and how to make that audio really special.”
Jeff Gipson with Post's Linda Romanello
Will the studio be doing more projects in VR?
"It was amazing to have the support of the studio when we were making this. And it allowed us to approach it like, “Let’s go for it, let’s figure it out.” So I definitely feel like the studio thinks there’s potential and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more VR projects to come.”
[While Cycles made its worldwide premiere at SIGGRAPH, anyone interested in seeing the film can do so next month at the New York Film Festival in the Convergence Portion (at Lincoln Center).]
What's next for you? Do you want to work on more projects in VR?
“Yes, definitely. I have more ideas about stories and worlds and characters I want to explore. Whether it’s AR or VR I’m not sure, but even thinking about the realtime engines or how that might affect content, whether it’s short films, TV episodes, feature film, I think there’s a way of making content that’s kind of interesting to me.”