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‘Cycles’: Disney Delivers an Emotional and Immersive Family History

In Disney Animation’s first VR short film, lighting artist-turned-director Jeff Gipson offers a unique, intimate glimpse into 50 years of a single family's life within their home.

Cycles, Disney Animation’s first VR short, premiered last month at SIGGRAPH in Vancouver, an immersive experience that, in only three short minutes, captivates viewers with an intimate, up-close glimpse of one family’s 50-year history, all set within the confines and pathways of their home.  

The project is the brainchild of first-time director Jeff Gipson, a Disney lighting artist (Frozen, Zootopia, Ralph Breaks the Internet), whose unique story blends three distinct influences: happy memories of time spent at his grandparents’ house, his artistic background as an architect (designing skate parks), and his skill as a BMX freestyle rider whose love of empty swimming pools dotting the L.A. landscape exposed him to countless empty old and abandoned homes, often derelict and in disrepair, that only hinted at the histories of past inhabitants. For Gipson, each old house whispered a story – littered rooms fronting overgrown yards, the quiet resting place of the echoes of lives long since lost or moved on, family histories born witness to by a tattered collection of wood, brick, cement and fabric. To Gipson, every house, every room, every worn-out carpet has a story to tell.

In Cycles, spaces like those within an old house become characters in a story, as important to our emotional experience as the film’s main characters, Bert and Ray, along with their daughter Rachel. For Gipson, Cycles is quite personal. “The part of my life that really influenced this story is my relationship with my grandparents,” he describes.  “Growing up, if I wasn't at my house, I was always at my grandparents' house. And I loved looking at old photos of them when they were young, and in love. Like where my grandma had written, ‘Hubba, hubba’ on one photo. I saw them as young parents, and ultimately as my grandma and grandpa. After my grandfather passed away, eventually the time came where we had to have the hard conversation with my grandma, like many families do, about moving her into assisted living. I can remember the moment my mom and uncle were at the dining room table with her and said, ‘Mom, the house is too much, you can't take care of it yourself.’ My grandma's such a strong-willed lady, and she told us, ‘That's fine, but as soon as I'm better, I'm walking home if I have to. This is where I live, this is my home, and I'm going to be here.’”

Eventually forced to move his Grandmother into an elderly care facility, Gipson recalls the last time he surveyed her house, home to so many cherished memories, before it was sold. “I can remember the last time I looked over her house before we put it up for sale. I could see the indentations where the couch had been, where I would lay when I was sick…my name etched into the back-room cabinet, my hand prints in the driveway. It was just like all those empty homes I’d seen while riding. But this time, it was my family’s story the empty rooms were telling.”

The film, created within the studio’s internal “Short Circuit” professional development program, was made in just four months, employing a “much scrappier” process than usual at Disney, with a small team of artists popping in and out, for a day or a month, as their main production duty schedules allowed. While a few, like lead tech Jose Gomez, had VR development experience, most, including the director, had none, which made for a very steep and speedy learning curve.

Like many experienced animators moving for the first time into VR, Gipson and his team started with what they knew - boarding the story - which didn’t necessarily help. “When we started the film, our first instinct was to go straight to storyboards, edit together a 2D animatic and figure out how it's feeling,” he notes. “So, we brought our storyboards into VR, placed them on flat cards, which is kind of standard, but it just didn't give us any sense of character. We weren't getting the feel or emotion of the story. We realized this process wasn’t going to do us much good because we're going to experience the short in a VR space and not on a flat screen.”   

This development reality highlights one of the biggest challenges in immersive storytelling development: the inability to work in the virtual space. Artists develop using familiar traditional CG tools, render elements, review in the VR space, step back out of VR to iterate…wash, rinse and repeat. For Gipson’s team, bringing the VR painting program Quill into development was a huge step forward. “One of our animators, Daniel Peixe, is an amazing Quill artist,” says the director. “He asked me, ‘Are you cool if I try to do some paintings and we bring them in and try to use them as storyboards?’ I told him, ‘Of course!’ What was great about his paintings was that they gave us a sense of volume and depth. We really got a sense of the characters at an early stage. We also used some performance capture, just to previs. What about this movement? Is it too jarring? Is it too close? Are the time lapses too ‘stroby?’ Storyboarding with Quill was a cool way of going about it.”

Gipson adds, “I designed a SketchUp model of the house within the first week. Then we implemented a tool called VR Scout, written by Jose Gomez, our tech lead. With this tool, we were able to bring the model into VR and put ourselves into the house, in the space, imagining where we wanted to tell the story and what perspectives would work. We also used another inhouse tool, PoseVR, which provides a posable rig in VR, that we used to block our animation, which we then refined in Maya. In a quick timeframe, we were able to bring in the performance capture, the Quill paintings, and basically previs things. We were iterating on top of each other, trying to get as much up-front insight as possible about how the film was working so that we didn't have to worry about it later on.”

For Gipson, despite overcoming the obvious technical challenges of working without an established VR pipeline, the bigger hurdle was creating an immersive environment that didn’t overwhelm or distract viewers from engaging with the core emotions of the story.  “First off, we had to figure out how to make the film…we didn’t have a VR pipeline at the time,” he explains. “So, we had to figure out how do we use our existing pipeline? How will our modeling, texturing and animation translate into VR? We had to use techniques that some of our artists had never done before. This was the first time I worked in VR. Jose had worked in VR before, but most of the team hadn’t. But that’s why people were excited to work on the film. It was a cool new challenge. A new problem to solve.”

“But,” he continues, “how do we make a film that will connect with people in three minutes in a medium where technology sometimes is the highlight? I'm in VR and I can look everywhere. Just looking at the environment could overshadow the experience. So, how can we make it so you connect with the characters and care about the story just as much as the cool technology? That was a real challenge. It's a bit nerve wracking when you think, “I hope it's going to be good.’”

One of the film’s most interesting aspects is its use of stylized time-lapse imagery to transition the story and viewer’s attention from room to room. “I really love time-lapse, in general,” Gipson notes. “It’s really interesting to see an expression of time in a visual form. I wanted a way to drive the eye in VR, so, using those time lapses was a really cool way to lead us from room to room and space to space as well as beat to beat. What's also so cool, that you don't always get on the first viewing of Cycles, but maybe do on a second or third, is that every pose in those time-lapse sequences is a specific moment that plays into that family story. Towards the end, when they move into the house and you see them on the mattress in the living room, eating take-out food, for every little pose, the animators did a beautiful job of making sure that each one played right into the story. It became an effective way to guide us around the VR space.”

Does the film’s positive reception bode well for VR storytelling at Disney? Gipson holds future plans close to the vest when he claims, “We've shown some of our executives and studio leadership that there is excitement around the film and VR. I think they see that ‘Oh, you guys are scratching on something here and there's potential for connecting stories and characters with the audience in new ways.’ So, there may or not be some things in the works that we're doing. I don't want to give too much away. I think it's cool that this studio does features, which we love, that get us so excited, but also takes the time to explore new spaces. That's what I love about Disney.”

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.