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
Walt Disney Animation Studios’ virtual reality short Myth: A Frozen Tale explores a world inspired by the feature film Frozen 2 and may point the way to an intriguing new art form: VR experiences that immerse viewers in settings and stories associated with their favorite films.
The approximately eight-minute-long Myth is the second VR short directed by Jeff Gipson, who won critical praise and the 2019 Lumiere Award from the Advanced Imaging Society for directing Cycles, the first VR film from Disney. While Cycles was a poignant look at a couple’s life lived in a beloved house, Myth immerses the viewer in the myths of Frozen 2. In Arendelle [the kingdom in Frozen], a mother reads a bedtime story to her children and the audience is transported to an enchanted forest where the elemental spirits come to life and the myth of their past and future is revealed. “They’re very different films,” Gipson comments. “Myth is more complex with many more effects than Cycles. We really leaned into having the music and the animation tie together, almost like in Fantasia.”
Nicholas Russell is the producer, Jose Luis Gomez Diaz (Cycles) is the VR Technology Supervisor and Joseph Trapanese (Tron: Legacy) composed the original score. Evan Rachel Wood (Westworld, Mildred Pierce), who voiced the character of Queen Iduna in Frozen 2, is the film’s narrator, and her participation is an indication of Disney’s serious commitment to the project.
Brittney Lee, a key visual development artist on the Frozen movies, is the Production Designer of Myth, and drew inspiration for it from the works of legends such as Disney Art Director Eyvind Earle (Sleeping Beauty) and visual development artist Mary Blair (Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella). She was intrigued by Gipson’s vision of creating a stylized world with the visual influences of pop-up books, graphic silhouettes and stage elements from vaudeville and music hall productions. “Something we tried to push on in Myth was this sense of 2D animation,” says Lee. “I wanted to have hand-drawn animation because Fantasia was one of the main inspirations for this film. So we have a lot of our effects artists on the project. [Effects artist] Dan Lund came in and did beautiful 2D hand-drawn effects.” Gipson adds that the 2D animated work “adds a sense of heritage from Disney animation.”
“One of the things in the film that I really gravitated towards was the elemental spirits. I just loved these characters. … What’s so great is that with the water Nøkk you feel its scale, with the salamander you feel how tiny it is on a rock, and with the Earth Giants you see them massively in scale. That’s the beauty of VR. You’re able to feel things that you’re not able to feel on a flat screen.”
—Jeff Gipson, Director
Myth started when Frozen and Frozen 2 writer and co-director Jennifer Lee approached Gipson about exploring the world of Frozen for his next VR project. “When Jenn approached me to create something, I felt a mixture of emotions,” Gipson recalls. “I was nervous, I was excited. I was intrigued. What is cool is that Jenn gave me complete creative control on the film that I wanted to make. I was empowered but I was also nervous. Frozen is one of our most iconic films at the studio, and those worlds and those characters are so special. I wanted to do something that would do that film justice and feel like it belonged to that world.”
Gipson’s concept for the VR film came about a year ago when he was watching some early screenings of Frozen 2. “One of the things in the film that I really gravitated towards was the elemental spirits,” he comments. “I just loved these characters.” These include the Nøkk, mythical water spirits that take the form of stallions with the power of the ocean; Gale, a wind spirit that is playful and curious and can also rage with a tornado’s force; the Earth Giants, massive creatures that are the spirits of the earth; and Bruni, the fire spirit in the form of a tiny, fast-moving fire salamander who can wreak havoc in a forest in seconds.
“Something we tried to push on in Myth was this sense of 2D animation. I wanted to have hand-drawn animation because Fantasia was one of the main inspirations for this film. And so we have a lot of our effects artists on the project. [Effects artist] Dan Lund came in and did beautiful 2D hand-drawn effects.”
—Brittney Lee, Production Designer
“[Making Myth with Unreal Engine] was a gamble in general. We had never made anything with Unreal at the studio, but our technology team – Jose Luis Gomez Diaz [VR Technology Supervisor], Mike Anderson [VR Environment Lead] and Ed Robbins [VR Character Lead] – felt strongly about jumping in and trying to use Unreal. They enjoyed making the film and learning this kind of process.”
—Jeff Gipson, Director
At the same time, he was thinking about his own family’s tradition of telling bedtime stories. “We’re all told bedtime stories and we can create our own versions of the stories that we’re told. And that’s kind of what VR does. It takes you into a world, it transports you. So I thought a bedtime story would be a real cool way of framing the elemental spirits.” Gipson imagined living in Arendelle and being told the film’s bedtime story, which includes the elemental spirits. He continues, “What’s so great is that with the water Nøkk you feel its scale, with the salamander you feel how tiny it is on a rock, and with the Earth Giants you see them massively in scale. That’s the beauty of VR,” he says. “You’re able to feel things that you’re not able to feel on a flat screen.”
That sense of presence creates a certain “wow factor” with well-done VR. “That’s what makes Myth so special,” Gipson attests. “Early on when we pitched the first version of this, one of the things Chris Buck (co-director of the Frozen movies) challenged us on was, ‘what does Elsa feel like when she’s with the water Nøkk, with the salamander, under the Earth Giants, with the wind? How can the audience have that same feeling, that experience of presence with these characters?’
“In Myth, the Nøkk comes up so close to you,” Gipson continues. “You feel the presence of this horse, the same with the Earth Giants towering above you or the wind swooping around you.” Myth also has a brief portion that is interactive, which adds further presence. At one point, if you come close to the salamander, it scurries away.
In Myth, as in Cycles, guiding the audience’s eye is a challenge. “That’s one of the biggest challenges in VR currently, and there are lot of different solutions. We did that in Cycles through motion and movement and color and light. And we do something similar in Myth, where we’re always trying to guide you through movement of the characters, or through the sound, or some of the lighting techniques. We had the Gomez Effect in Cycles, and we re-implemented that – it is the technique that if you’re not looking at the area where the action is taking place, it darkens and [desaturates]. So, everything that is in full saturation and beautiful is where you’re supposed to be looking.”
Myth was different from Cycles in assigning each character its own score, palette and language. “Each character has its own piece of music, much like in Peter and the Wolf. What’s great is our composer, Joe Trapanese, came on very early in the process and our animators actually had pieces of the score to animate to, which is rare. At the studio, the animators had this cool challenge of how to match the movements to the music.
“There’s also a lot of art direction choices that we did in Myth,” he adds, “where each character has its own color palette as well, and the world transforms and changes. There’s a changing of seasons in this world that is constantly evolving.”
In terms of software, Gipson made Cycles with Unity and Myth with Unreal Engine. “This was a gamble in general,” he notes. “We had never made anything with Unreal at the studio, but our technology team – Jose Luis Gomez Diaz, Mike Anderson [VR Environment Lead] and Ed Robbins [VR Character Lead] – felt strongly about jumping in and trying to use Unreal. They enjoyed making the film and learning this kind of process.”
Gipson’s team also used Swoop, an in-house tool written at Disney. “It’s a kind of tool where basically you’re drawing paths in VR. We’re putting on the goggles and we’re on the set, and our animators are able to grab the VR controller and orchestrate a movement, drawing a path for Gale and for the salamander’s fire trail around this.”
The team continued to use Quill, a VR painting program, for storyboarding, as well as VisDev. Danny Peixe, who was also on Cycles, used it for storyboarding in VR. “We used the same techniques for Myth except much more elaborate. We did this early on just to get the flow, the sense of proximity to our characters. How the story would play out around us.”
Gipson enlisted the help of Skywalker Sound on Myth. “Skywalker is an amazing group of people,” he says. “We worked with sound mixers there and they have their own teams specifically for VR. In Myth, there are 200 different sound elements, which is pretty incredible for a VR film, and each one is spatial. The score changes as you look around, so if you’re not looking in the right space it sounds almost as if you ducked out of the concert.” The climax of this film is a kind of a “visual poem where the music and the animation are all married together.” Myth: A Frozen Tale will screen at festivals and events this year.