Disney Animations first attempt at virtual storytelling is unlike anything you’ve seen before.
When Disney revealed their plans to develop an animated short story designed specifically for virtual reality, no one knew what to expect. On one hand you have VR, a growing medium that has still yet to find its place in the world of filmmaking; and on the other you have Walt Disney Animation Studios, one of the most celebrated animation studios in the industry thanks to an endless string of hits, including Frozen, Beauty and the Beast, Zootopia, Lilo & Stitch, Tangled, The Emperor’s New Groove, The Lion King, and countless others.
Put simply, if there’s any studio capable of tapping into the winning formula behind virtual reality storytelling, it’s Disney; and based off the initial reactions to their latest project, Cycles, the studio is off to an excellent start.
Helmed by first-time director Jeff Gipson, who has previously served as a lighting director for Disney on such hits as Frozen, Zootopia, and Ralph Breaks the Internet, Cycles is Disney’s first foray into the world of immersive filmmaking; although you couldn’t tell by looking. Marrying cutting-edge 6DoF VR technology with Disney’s classic art style, Cycles delivers a unique VR passive experience that blurs the line between modern and classic animation.
Inspired by Gipson’s childhood spending time with his grandparent in their home before having to move them to an assisted living environment, Cycles centers around the trials and tribulations of a loving family over the course of 50 years, all from the perspective of the home itself. You watch as the painfully relatable family goes about their day-today throughout the warm domicile, experiencing their captivating story and learning more about their complex lives.
“Every house has a story unique to the people, the characters who live there,” states Gipson. “We wanted to create a story in this single place and be able to have the viewer witness life happening around them. It is an emotionally driven film, expressing the real ups and downs, the happy and sad moments in life.”
Jeff, an avid freestyle BMX rider, often travels to abandoned homes around Los Angeles in search of empty pools to ride. Throughout his excursions, he discovered that each home held the story of a family who had once lived there. It was a combination of these experiences, as well as his fond childhood memories, that served as the catalyst behind the personal, emotionally driven film.
However, once you’re finished wiping away those unavoidable tears, you’ll begin to notice the smaller technological elements that subtly come together to immerse users in the experience. One of the more obvious techniques is the use of gray-scale visuals to redirect the users attention.
While you are of course free to look around in any direction throughout the experience, a majority of the experience requires the user to pay attention to specific locations in order to follow along with the plot. To help guide a user’s gaze towards the action, Cycles automatically fades to gray whenever you break general eye contact with the focus point of the scene; an intuitive way of redirecting attention without taking you out of the experience.
It’s all an effort by Gipson to deliver the sensation of living through memories, with fully animated scenes are strung together by a series of time lapses that tell the emotional tale in one seamless shot.
“Editing is tricky in VR and I wanted one long seamless kind of shot, and so in order to bridge the story beats we use time-lapse,” stated Gibson during an interview with VRScout. “We have fully animated story beats (the main character moments) using an existing Disney pipeline, but then to bridge those we have time-lapse.”
Designed in partnership with over 50 collaborators over the course of just four months, Cycles was initially created as part of Disney Animations professional development program. Based on the reactions by audiences at Sundance however, the studio may have a hit on their hands.
While it feels as though virtual reality and 360-degree filmmaking have still yet to establish themselves as viable forms of passive entertainment, its projects like Cycles that give us hope for the future of VR storytelling. For Disney, Cycles is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of VR filmmaking.
“It’s such a cool time here at the studio. We love our features and that’s our bread and butter, but it’s cool that the studio is so interested and curious on what VR means; and after we created Cycles and showed it around, it’s cool that these conversations are kind of coming up. How do we continue storytelling? How do we share this with our audiences?”
“It’s actually really exciting, we were recently given the go ahead to explore another VR piece using an existing Disney IP. So it’s really exciting and we’re kind of on that journey at the moment so we’re going to keep continuing on.”