Someday soon, a night at the movies could become a much more immersive experience. Imagine not only watching a film on the screen, but completely entering the narrative through the help of virtual reality technology.
Jeff Gipson—a pioneer in the field of virtual reality and a former student in CU Denver’s digital animation program—is helping Walt Disney Animation Studios to usher in that future with the premiere of his film “Myth: A Frozen Tale,” a virtual reality short set in the world of Frozen 2. A lighting artist on the 2013 hit Frozen, Gipson later helmed “Cycles,” the first virtual reality (VR) film from Disney Animation.
Read Gipson’s comments below to learn how he made the switch from architecture to animation, about his work at Disney, and his thoughts on the future of virtual reality.
On allowing audiences to enter the world of Frozen 2:
“‘Myth: A Frozen Tale’ is an original story that I wrote and directed. Jennifer Lee, our Chief Creative Officer and one of the directors of Frozen, approached me after ‘Cycles’ and asked me if I would be interested in doing a film for Frozen 2 using virtual reality. I was kind of blown away, but also kind of nervous, because Frozen’s world and its characters are among our most important. Our fans love them. So, I was nervous about how I would create something new while staying true to that world.”
“About this time last year, I started doing research and watched some early screenings of Frozen 2. There are some elemental characters in Frozen 2 I really connected with, and they reminded me of bedtime stories that my mom and dad told me growing up. It just developed from there to creating a story that is part of the Frozen world, but also its own piece as well. If you see ‘Myth: A Frozen Tale’ before or after Frozen 2, it will still make sense.”
“There’s talk of a flat version of ‘Myth’ down the line [a version that can be projected on traditional movie screens], but right now we really want to show off the virtual reality component and have our audiences be in the world of Frozen 2 with those characters. How we share virtual reality films on a large scale, though, is something our creative leadership and executive teams are still exploring.”
On directing “Cycles,” Disney’s first virtual reality short film:
“It’s kind of surreal, really, because of the history here at Disney and the kind of innovation we’ve done at the studio—even thinking back to Walt Disney himself. To carry on that tradition and to do something for the first time was just awesome.”
“It was a challenge, to be sure, because we had to create a pipeline to actually make the film. For a feature film, we start with storyboarding, then we do our visual development and design the characters and the world, and then we have to create the 3D assets, the models, the textures, and the rigs that allow the animators to animate the actual characters. Then we have to light and render it. But the process for creating a virtual reality film is much different.”
“We used a little bit of that existing process, but for the most part we had to figure out how to translate that workflow for real time, how to use a game engine to create a film.”
“Looking back, I don’t remember the hard parts; I just remember the good parts. Pitching the story, going through problem solving with the team, showing ‘Cycles’ to our executives and sharing their excitement about what virtual reality could mean for us and the studio … It was the first time I had directed at Disney Animation, so I had the extra pressure of I can’t believe I’m directing at this studio and wanting to do something really great, while balancing [the task of] figuring out how we actually do this.”
“That’s what so great about this studio. The leadership gave us the space to solve those challenges and the trust to create what we wanted to do.”
On expanding virtual reality via streaming platforms like Disney+:
“I think that’s something that our executive leadership may be interested in, seeing the way people have responded to ‘Cycles’ and to ‘Myth: A Frozen Tale.’ Our audiences love this type of content and love to go into these worlds where they can immediately feel that sense of charm that Disney is known for.”
“‘Cycles’ will be on Disney+ early 2020, the flat version, and that’s the cool part about creating a short film using real-time technology. We’re able to make a fully immersive virtual reality film, a flat version that you can see on a screen—we kind of shoot it as if it’s a live action set—and then we are able to make augmented reality pieces as well. We made augmented reality posters for ‘Cycles’ and did some for Frozen 2. I worked on some of the first augmented reality posters that we’ve done at the studio, so I was able to help direct those pieces.”
On switching careers from architecture to animation:
“Articulating your thoughts when describing an architectural design to a client, it’s the same skill as when pitching a story to the creative directors here at the studio. You go through this thought process of, first off, what is the story? What is this world? It’s similar to a building: What is its main purpose? A building tells a story when you enter it. [Both fields require] being able to connect those dots that are kind of abstract at first.”
“For me, it was just a matter of figuring out how to connect them and move forward, and part of that was being able to communicate those thoughts with a team. Translating that into animation was a really important skill.”
On other skills for success:
“Being comfortable with the unknown. I had gone my whole life studying architecture, working in a firm, going to get my master’s in architecture at CU Denver, and then I made the decision to follow my heart and go into animation. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to get a job, or if I was going to be getting student loans forever, or what was going to happen to me. It was very hectic. Being comfortable with that unknown was important, though.”
“Always being persistent, as well. I applied so many times to Pixar and Disney and was told no before finally getting a yes. But that sense of persistence stuck with me since those times of changing career paths.”
“Howard Cook, the chair the animation program when I was at CU Denver, and Fred Andreas, who I studied with at CU Boulder and at CU Denver, were such big supporters of my decision to follow what I wanted to do. Having those relationships with the faculty is something that I still hold dear.”
“We have an internal tech program where all the Disney studios share some knowledge, and it’s cool bumping into people who were also in the digital animation program when I was there, who are now out in the industry. We’re able to grab a coffee and reminisce about our times in Denver.”
On his next project:
“It’s still up in the air. There are definitely some ideas that I’m excited about, and hopefully I’ll find out soon. It’s so cool that our leadership has been supportive of me for the past two films and wants to keep exploring the stories I would like to tell.”
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.