A Bedtime Story
Issue: Edition 2 2020

A Bedtime Story

Before children close their eyes and drift off to dreamland, parents will regale them with bedtime stories of fantastical characters from wondrous worlds. Disney's third VR film, "Myth: A Frozen Tale," uses this ritual to kick off a fairy tale like no other, taking viewers on a visceral journey and immersing them in a stylized world inspired by the environments and elemental characters from Frozen 2.

"Myth" begins in a forest setting outside of Arendelle, as a local family sits down to hear a bedtime story. As the mother reads, the audience is transported to a mystical and stylized world inspired by the elemental spirits, themes, and environments introduced in Frozen 2 come to life, and the myths of the characters' past and future are revealed.

The VR short was created in-house at Walt Disney Animation Studios by the core team who built Disney's first VR film, "Cycles." "Myth" was directed by Jeff Gipson, who also directed "Cycles" (2018). Jose Luis Gomez Diaz, who also worked on "Cycles," served as VR technology supervisor on "Myth," with Michael Anderson as VR environment lead and Ed Robbins as VR character lead. Brittney Lee, a key visual development artist onFrozen and Frozen 2, was the production designer. In fact, the same artists, technologists, and teams that work on the studio's feature films work on all the VR/AR projects, too.

The impetus for the project began with Jennifer Lee, Disney Animation's chief creative officer, who wrote and directed the Frozen films, after approaching Gipson in late 2018 about exploring the Frozen world for his next VR project.

"'Myth' is a fairy tale, a bedtime story in a way of a myth or legend about the elemental spirits from Frozen 2," says Gipson, who was inspired by bedtime stories from his past. He tried to imagine what type of stories he would have been told as a child if he were to have grown up in Arendelle. Then after watching those early screenings of Frozen 2, he became drawn to those elemental characters, and pondered what they would like look in VR.

"I like the idea that if we grew up in Arendelle, this was something that everyone was told, a shared story," he adds.


The monolith at day (top) and at night (bottom).

A Unique Style for a Unique Medium

In Frozen 2, those elemental characters assumed elaborate 3D forms. However, Gipson's vision for them in his VR storybook world was inspired by pop-up books and graphic silhouettes, even stage elements from vaudeville and music hall productions. That style meshed well with Lee's aesthetic, which Gipson describes as graphic and stylized, almost Eyvind Earle-like, referring to the art director on the 1959 animated Sleeping Beauty. "She does a lot of cutout paper art as well. That was one of the reasons I gravitated to her artwork and her style," says Gipson of Lee.

As Lee points out, the world of Frozen 2 is already stylized, and with "Myth," they stylized it further. "We wanted to be respectful of what was already there, and didn't want to take the design out of its original realm. It was challenging to walk a fine line that elevated it and took it in a new direction but still felt like it would fit into the Frozen spectrum," she adds.

Inspiration for the VR short's music-driven narrative came from Disney's Fantasia and even Peter and the Wolf, with all the characters having their own piece of score. "I wanted music to play into that, where every character has protagonistic characteristics, but also antagonistic characteristics as well. The music can inform each one of those and then balance itself out as we introduce fire, air, earth, and water," says Gipson. "It's almost like a visual poem in a way. We harnessed 2D traditional animation from the artists here in the studio to be incorporated into this new medium."

The stylized elemental characters in "Myth" project a duality that intertwines well with the music. The Nokk, a mythical water spirit that takes the form of a horse that harnesses the power of the ocean; the Nokk fiercely guards the secrets of the forest and those wanting to pass must earn its respect. Gale, the playful wind spirit whose presence can take the form of a soft breeze or a raging tornado. The massive Earth Giants, spirits of the earth that take the form of rocky riverbanks while sleeping, but when awake and on the move, are capable of massive destruction. And, the fire spirit, a tiny fast-moving fire salamander named Bruni, whose emotions affect the intensity of its power.

"I began thinking of these elemental characters as members of a band, and when they're all playing together, they help to keep the world in harmony," says Gipson. "When even one of these spirits gets out of sync, the harmony is broken."

Like in Fantasia, each character has its own score, color palette, and language. "I wanted to bring that element of Disney heritage into the medium of VR. Just as there is a duality to each of the elemental spirits, there is a duality to the music, which runs the gamut from sweet to antagonistic," Gipson points out. The film's original score, which drives the storytelling experience, was composed by Joseph Trapanese ( Tron: Legacy, Raid series).

"Myth" producer Nicholas Russell, who had worked with Gipson on "Cycles," acknowledges the particular inspiration Fantasia had on the short. "We wanted to combine that type of filmmaking with our newest technological tools. We kept imagining what it would be like if you could stand next to Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice when he's conducting the stars or battling the brooms," says Russell.


The fire spirit Bruni, a quick-moving salamander, heats up the action.

Myth-ical Characters & Myth-ical Lands

For planning the scenes, the artists used Oculus' Quill, a VR painting tool, to sketch out scenes for determining scale, the proximity of characters, and so forth.

Of course, foremost, the stylized characters and world of "Myth" had to work within virtual reality, which meant fleshing out the whole world and showing the viewer what is happening behind them, above them, and over there in the distance, all while telling the story. And that was no easy task considering how rich the short film is with effects, which are essential to the narrative and the experience, Anderson notes. "It's a give-and-take. All that has a cost, and it's a really big challenge to balance all of the ideas and the cool work coming in, with the performance that we had to hit to make this viable," he says. "It was a constant battle."

The group was intent on obtaining the same or close to the same quality as the feature film, and still maintain the necessary frame rate. "Real time is running at way faster speed than what we render in the studio, so there are limitations," Robbins emphasizes. As a result, the team had to be very clever on how it preserved that quality.

"For the most part, we preserved as much of the pipeline that made sense, and then whenever it didn't make sense, we filled that void with what we needed," Anderson says.

For the characters, the team reused as much of the feature film's production pipeline as possible, beginning with the same assets and animation and simulation rigs, up until the point of animation - at which time they branched off into a customized setup. Also, they used Swoop, the in-house tool developed to give artists the ability to animate the path and timing of the wind spirit Gale in Frozen 2, either directly within Autodesk's Maya or by using VR. Due to its VR capabilities, Swoop enabled the "Myth" team to puppeteer objects and characters, creating the shape of the motion paths and the timing for the characters to travel over that path.

For the environments, all the models likewise had to be reprocessed so they could be handled within Epic Games' Unreal Engine, the VR platform used by the filmmakers for "Myth."

"We take lower-res models and have to create UVs, then we have to create fully unique textures. None of that really transfers from our regular pipeline. It's a completely different system," says Anderson. "So we make new textures for our models using [Adobe's] Substance Designer and various other tools."

Once the models were brought into the Unreal Engine, shaders were created and set up so they could be rendered in the engine. While typically animation is exported through Disney's proprietary format, in this case it was exported as cached FBX files and then brought into Unreal Engine, where the layout was done inside the Unreal Engine Sequencer Editor tool.

It's important to note that the stylized characters and world of "Myth" provided the artists with more freedom in making creative choices when it came to their assets. In the VR short, the Nokk, an extremely complex character, is featured prominently. And while the team started off by using the Nokk's body asset from the feature film, they decided to make Nokk's mane a cloth simulation sheet as opposed to a fluid simulation, which was used in the feature and is far more complex and elaborate, notes Robbins.

From 'Cycles' to 'Myth'

As Gipson explains, there are many ways to make a VR film, though he prefers the narrative, linear approach of "Myth" and his previous "Cycles," as opposed to a highly interactive experience where the user is constantly grabbing at items with controllers.

There is a versatility to the way you can tell stories in VR, and the way that audiences can interact with the world, Lee points out. "It's very different from what we do in feature films, and I think there's something very fun and exciting about it. You can really get into that space, and viewers can experience the elements a bit more closely and on a personal level," she says. "I feel like that may be the most enticing aspect of it. There's a real 'wow factor' when you get to have facetime with the Nokk and he comes right up to you and assesses whether or not you're worthy. You can almost feel his breath on you as he approaches. And the scale of the Earth Giants is so immersive to the point where you feel that they can practically pick you up. Experiencing the Northern Lights as if you're standing right in front of them is also truly magical."

In "Cycles," the filmmakers tried to guide the eye of the viewer using color and light, as well as motion, to push the viewer around the space. They also employed a technique whereby the space darkens and desaturates somewhat if the person is not looking in the intended area. When it came to "Myth," they again used color, light, and motion to the same effect to direct the viewer's attention. Also, the interactivity is gaze-based. Users have six degrees of freedom, whereby they can move and view the film as they like. But there are also moments where the characters will react based on the user's viewer direction or proximity to the characters.

Indeed, "Cycles" (which was created with Unity instead of Unreal Engine) was a learning experience, being the first project of its kind for the Disney Animation group. "When we opted to go with a different engine for this film, that meant starting from scratch in a lot of ways," says Anderson. "The pipeline changed because the platform changed. We were able to do a lot more and iterate faster because of the tool set we were using [for 'Myth']."

There were other differences in the processes, as well. For the characters in "Cycles," the artists used Alembic, a cached data format. For "Myth," they used cached FBX rigs. Also, "Cycles" has a more traditional look, as artists used a toon shader to flatten out the characters. As for the environment, it is a single setting that remains fairly consistent. Conversely, in "Myth," the environments are diverse, and artists visually leaned into the art direction and shape language familiar to Frozen. Colors change to suit the story, with no cuts.

"It has to be driven in one continuous piece," says Anderson. "It's a technical challenge to have the sky change and the colors change, and cut from the cabin into the forest in a creative way so it's not just a fade to black. All of these things are simple and elegant when you watch them, but underlying, the technology is very complicated, and it's complicated to get it all working in harmony."

"It's amazing to see [Gipson's] range in going from a very personal and emotional film that was seen in the confines of a house like 'Cycles,' to this latest project, which encompasses an entire forest and the whole of nature," says Russell. "This film is a game-changer in the way that the VR technology is being used to tell a story and make the viewer a part of that world."

Closing the Virtual Chapter

"Myth," which is approximately eight minutes in length, took close to eight months to complete following creative approval, with production wrapping last November. All told, about 80 people worked on the short film, though a core team of eight or so worked on the film for its entirety.

"Myth: A Frozen Tale" is now available on Facebook's Oculus Quest.

…The end.