By CHRIS McGOWAN
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
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By CHRIS McGOWAN
Jeff Gipson, who directed Walt Disney Animation Studios’ first-ever VR film, Cycles, was a lighting artist on animated works such as Frozen, Zootopia and Moana, and was about to work on Ralph Breaks the Internet when he decided to present his virtual-reality concept to the higher-ups at Disney.
“We had a program where artists could pitch ideas, and so I pitched this idea as VR, kind of thinking, ‘Well we’ve never done one before, so I’m just going to suggest it,” and then when they greenlighted it, it was, ‘Oh crap, now we’ve got to figure out how to make it.’ We hadn’t done something like that in the studio.”
The first-time director, who grew up in Colorado and now lives in Los Angeles, worked with a small team for four months on the three-minute movie and overcame technological and narrative challenges in the new medium. Cycles debuted in 2018 at SIGGRAPH and went on to garner three nominations at the 17th Annual Visual Effects Society Awards this year. The film is viewable on Oculus, VIVE or flat screen (for theater screenings), and has received a warm reception at various film festivals (it is not currently available for public download). “People have been saying, ‘It’s so cool to see Disney characters right here with me,’” says Gipson.
Cycles is about memory, nostalgia and living spaces. It was inspired by Gipson’s grandparents, who lent their names to the two main characters, and is a poignant look at a life lived in a beloved house. A young couple moves into a new home, raises a family, happy and sad moments pass, and finally the house is empty once again.
“A house contains history – little stickers on the mirrors, heights measured on doorways, doorknobs, a heavily trafficked hallway, and other traces of who lived there. You can see the life that was there,” says Gipson. The house in Cycles has a powerful presence when experienced from within, in virtual reality. “That’s the space. You feel that in VR versus on a screen,” says Gipson. “It’s so much about space. That home is as much of a character as the characters. I think that’s unique to VR. You’re rooted in a place. You feel things differently. The way you feel the light is different from how you’d feel the light on a screen.”
The clever use of light was key to one of the main challenges in narrative VR – how to guide the viewer’s attention. “If you notice, if you look right at where the action is and then look away, the image is a little bit desaturated and darkened. That’s what we call the Gomez Effect, after Jose Gomez, our Senior Software Engineer, who wrote [the code].” And great use is made of this, as well of time lapses involving the characters. “Those little staggered poses help to guide the motion,” notes Gipson.
“It’s using color and light and motion to help guide you around the space to the story,” he continues. “There’s no set way of how to tell a story in VR. On the screen we know good composition, we know how your eye follows the lead character, and how to express different moods based on composition and lighting, but doing that in VR is relatively new still. It’s pretty exciting.” In addition, “You can really take advantage of spatial sound. You hear it on your right and you look over to your right, or above you, wherever it might be.”
“A house contains history – little stickers on the mirrors, heights measured on doorways, door knobs, a heavily trafficked hallway, and other traces of who lived there. You can see the life that was there. That’s the space. You feel that in VR versus on a screen… That home is as much of a character as the characters. I think that’s unique to VR.”
—Jeff Gipson, Director, Cycles
“Another challenge is how to make it run at 90 frames a second, because if it lags, the headset doesn’t track and then you get seasick. Making it run at real time was a big challenge for the crew. They were so passionate. The reason Cycles happened was everyone wanted to push it to the next level.”
—Jeff Gipson, Director, Cycles
Gipson was also careful to avoid causing any VR nausea in the viewer. “We tried to be gentle about how we moved the camera. I chose not to move the camera a lot because I get kind of seasick from it. I didn’t want to have action that’s so fast you’re looking all the way over to your left and have to do a whole 180 [degree turn] to see the action on your right. It’s more a gentle orchestration, a ballet of movement, rather than a fast whipping over in a lot of directions. There’s a couple of times where we move the camera, but you don’t really know it.”
Cycles also had to pay attention to another comfort factor. “Another challenge is how to make it run at 90 frames a second, because if it lags, the headset doesn’t track and then you get seasick,” Gipson adds. “Making it run at real time was a big challenge for the crew. They were so passionate. The reason Cycles happened was everyone wanted to push it to the next level.”
Some 50 people worked on Cycles to varying degrees. “They could have worked an hour, a day, a week, it was tight,” recalls Gipson. The core group was made up of Gipson; Gomez; Edward Robbins, Character Lead; Lauren Brown, Production Lead; Jorge E. Ruiz Cano, Animation Lead; Michael Anderson, Environment Lead; Jose Velasquez, Look Development; Dan Cooper, Visual Development; and Nicholas Russell, Production Lead. Unity was the real-time game engine that runs the film. Quill was employed for storyboarding.
“We asked [ourselves],” continues Gipson, “‘How can we storyboard and get that into previs early?’ One of our animators, Daniel Peixe, is an amazing Quill storyboard artist. What’s great is they’re 3D models. So we were able to bring that in early on into Unity, and start timing those out and have our audio on top of it, so even if it’s a rough pose of holding the baby or a rough pose of them dancing, we got a feeling early on of how to do that.
“We used pose tools [PoseVR], written in-house [by Gomez and others], and used our internal scout tool [VR Scout, written by Gomez] as well. So, we could be in the house and start thinking about how to proceed. A big part of VR is how to compose the frame when you can look everywhere. So that was a big part of the house design – trying to design the house in a way that composes each of the story moments, using the architecture and the straight lines and the horizontals. And that’s what’s cool about mid-century modern architecture, it kind of lends itself to that. And so we could get on early placing those Quill things in there and seeing how we could design the house to suit the action.”
“It’s using color and light and motion to help guide you around the space to the story. There’s no set way of how to tell a story in VR. On the screen we know good composition, we know how your eye follows the lead character, and how to express different moods based on composition and lighting, but doing that in VR is relatively new still. It’s pretty exciting.”
—Jeff Gipson, Director, Cycles
Prior to Cycles, Gomez had VR development experience, but most of the crew didn’t. Gipson elaborates, “There were a lot of firsts for the studio, which made it really challenging, which helped fuel the crew, pushing it into many new areas.” Another challenge was that the short VR film was “one big long shot mainly” as opposed to how regular films are, notes Gipson. “We’re so used to how we animate or edit things together. But with this it’s just running in real time in the engine. This was before Unity had a timeline. Our software engineer, Jose, had to write that capability into it.” The Cycles team also contributed an original graphic color shader in Unity, which enhanced the living quality of the characters and environment.
The Cycles team pushed for maximum animation quality. “We really wanted to push that appeal that Disney has in all its animated features and shorts,” comments Gipson. The end result was emotionally moving for the director. “I think initially when I first made it, I was emotional, because it was inspired by my grandmother, although the action doesn’t follow her story, but that feeling of seeing her house the last time I was there was a moment I’ll never forget.
“I think the first time I saw the characters in VR was a special moment. Everybody else had seen it, all the crew, and then I waited until everybody left the room. And that was emotional, where I was in the room with them, and they come by you in that moment where they move into the house. I was in tears. It’s so weird because it’s like they’re here but they’re not. It gives me chills thinking about it now.”
Concludes Gipson, “It’s been a fun challenge and really cool to see our executives excited about VR – a lot of them had never done VR before and they said, “Wow, there’s a potential for storytelling.” In terms of Disney as a whole, he says it’s great to think of “bringing our characters into this new medium for audiences.”
Gipson is working on another Disney VR film, which will debut this year.