Just as Frozen II took the adventures of Elsa, Anna and Olaf into new territory, Myth: A Frozen Tale elevates Disney’s VR efforts to a new level.
Myth is a seven-minute VR short film that takes the viewer to a cozy Arendelle cabin just in time for a winter night’s bedtime story. As the children listen to the story, the world around the viewer transforms into a nighttime forest setting that reveals each of the spirits — air, water, earth and fire — and their roles in the world. Viewers get up close and personal with spirit characters from Frozen II: the wind spirit, Gale; Bruni, the fire spirit salamander; Elsa’s water spirit horse, Nokk; and the Earth Giants.
Myth follows Cycles, which was Disney’s first VR short film, and Jeff Gipson directed both projects. Myth began with the success at festivals of Cycles, Gipson says, which led to writer-director Jennifer Lee — also chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios — asking him to create a project tying into Frozen II.
Gipson says at first he was nervous, but warmed up to the idea. “That world is so special,” he says of Frozen. “I wanted to do something that was really true to that world, to those characters, but also was very much VR.”
Inspiration came from bedtime stories — including a traditional family story that featured real-life Western outlaw Jesse James — to try to recreate that feeling and bring the viewer into a new world. “You could do many things, but what is it about VR that is special?” Gipson says. “And one thing is that, just like the bedtime story, VR has the potential to bring us into a world, into that space where this story comes to life.”
Additional inspiration came from the studio’s long history, especially the 1940 classic Fantasia. “It’s almost like a visual poem that we’re experiencing in VR,” he says.
Key to the look of Myth is the work of production designer Brittney Lee, whose distinct style was influenced by the likes of Eyvind Earle and Mary Blair, emphasizing silhouette and giving the project a pop-up storybook look. The trees Lee designed for the forest, for example, are all stylized cutouts that evoke the location and the storybook esthetic.
Lee’s approach emulated the idea of a shadowbox: Using very flat and graphic images with the light at the horizon and shadows near the viewer. “It posed a very big challenge: How do we create something very flat and 2D and turn it into fully realized 3D?” says Michael R.W. Anderson, VR environment lead.
A veteran visual development artist at Disney, Lee says there was a learning curve when it came to adapting moviemaking skills to the needs of VR. “I think VR language is something that is still being established and I had to learn very quickly that things like rack focus, you can’t use in VR in a way that’s effective,” she says.
Color also played a key role in the film. “Each element has two color themes and we knew these needed to be reflected in the environment,” says Anderson. “Brittney Lee put together this color script which shows the flow of the color throughout the film and how it will transition from one moment to the next. We have no cuts, so we need to have a blend.”
One unusual advantage was having composer Joe Trapanese come on to the project early enough that animators were able to hear the music for the project as they were animating, Gipson says.
The project took around 10 to 11 months to complete, meeting a hard deadline to be finished to coincide with the worldwide release of Frozen II.
Anderson says a lot was learned in the production of Cycles that benefited the production of Myth. “We learned from [Cycles] that we required a lot more planning to go into a project,” he says. “The scale and scope is well beyond, 10 times more than anything we did on Cycles, both in character and material and models and the length, everything required just a whole lot more planning and that was something we learned the hard way on Cycles, but I think really paid off on this one.”
Myth: A Frozen Tale debuted at the world premiere of Frozen II; opportunities for fans to experience the new VR story will be announced at a later date.