Disney premiered the VR short Myth: A Frozen Tale at the November 7th, 2019 world premiere of Frozen II at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, and the creative team came to Park City during Sundance 2020 to privately screen it to industry professionals. Last year in 2019, they also rented out a space on Main Street in order to to show the first VR short Cycles, which I had a chance to see and interview the director Jeff Gipson and technical director of Jose Gomez.
Back again this year, Gipson and Gomez brought on key collaborator Brittney Lee, who headed up the amazing production design on this project. Lee would paint scenes in 2D, and then pass it along to the VR team, who would digitize the assets and then spatialize the silhouetted billboards throughout a scene creating an immersive 2.5-dimensional feel. They talk about using a Quill artist for environmental design prototyping, and so there seems to already be some workflows for helping to translate 2D representation to VR and vice versa.
The end result is a production design that provides a sort of magical realism that feels like you’re walking into a Disney Animation world. This type of billboarded silhouetted aesthetic was also used in other pieces at Sundance New Frontier such as Book of Distance, and it provides a great way for 2D illustration artists to get involved with environmental design, especially when you’re not locomoting across large distances in a scene which helps to preserve that 3D illusion without seeing behind the flat 2D billboard assets.
Disney’s first VR short Cycles was an emotionally, heart-wrenching, character-driven story of nostalgia, aging, death, loss, and grieving. Myth: A Frozen Tale was more of a story of interconnectivity, and how an ecosystem of elements interacts with each other. The bulk of this story all took place within the context of a single environment that had the elements of earth, air, fire, and water interact with corresponding elemental characters from Frozen II as well as with the environment. So while the emotional impact of this VR experiment wasn’t nearly as impactful as Cycles, Disney is streamlining their production pipeline and experimenting with expanding narratives beyond the typical character-driven arcs.
This is too brief of an experiment to judge how successful these types of environmentally-driven stories will end up being, but it’s clear that they design teams are seeing a lot of advantages to moving to a real-time production pipeline. After Sundance, on February 20th, The ILMxLab released some behind the scenes footage of the virtual production tools used on Disney-produced The Mandalorian.
VR being used in virtual production is one of the early wins for Hollywood productions and animation teams, but the lack of a critical mass market diffusion of VR technologies is holding up viable distribution plays. Disney’s first VR piece Cycles was recently converted from VR to 2D to be distributed on Disney+. Myth: A Frozen Tale starts to use more of the unique affordances of VR, which will make it harder to do a straight port to 2D. This is good because it starts to get one of the major streaming players to start to seriously consider their own virtual reality distribution strategies. Some of these early experiments have likely started more of these internal discussions as they start to think about the continued evolution and diffusion of these immersive platforms.
It’s still obviously early days, but I’m looking forward to more immersive storytelling experimentation and innovation for distributing these experiences.
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