Disney Animation to premiere first virtual reality (VR) short in Vancouver

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      Disney might be famed for heartwarming full-length movies like Bambi, Cinderella, and The Lion King, but its origins can be traced back to animated shorts. Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Pluto, and Goofy all got their start in quick flicks, and, since 1923, the studio has continued to release mini-films that introduce left-field characters and revitalize their classic roster.

      Disney has a history of being on the cutting edge of technology. Opening the live action studio Walt Disney Pictures in the 1980s—a decision that led to films such as Finding Nemo, Up, and The Incredibles—the business has read and led trends in filmmaking. Now, the company is tapping into the latest advancement in technology by creating its first virtual reality (VR) short.

      The film, named “Cycles”, is experimental. Envisaged by director Jeff Gipson—previously an animation lighting artist at Disney—the movie focuses on what it means to create a home and build a life. The short was inspired by Gispon spending his childhood with his grandparents, making memories in their house before later moving them into an assisted living complex.

      "Every home has a story unique to the people, the characters who live there," he says. "We wanted to create a story in this single place and be able to have the viewer witness life happening around them. It is an emotionally driven film, expressing the real ups and downs, the happy and sad moments in life."

      The project was completed unusually fast. Around 50 collaborators worked for four months to produce Gipson’s vision, developing a new kind of storyboard to translate his idea into a VR setting. In virtual reality, a headset-wearer has the opportunity to look anywhere around them, and it can be difficult for directors to predict where the audience will focus their attention. Rather than using traditional, drawn-storyboard methods, Gipson and his team employed motion capture actors, painters, and sculptors to create 3D models of characters, and visualize what the scenes would look like in a VR space. To guide viewers to the most important part of the narrative, the creators used light and colour saturation to spotlight elements of the scenes.

      “VR is an amazing technology, and a lot of times the technology is what is really celebrated,” Gipson says. “We hope more and more people begin to see the emotional weight of VR films, and with ‘Cycles’ in particular, we hope they will feel the emotions we aimed to convey with our story."

      “Cycles” will be unveiled to the public for the first time at Siggraph 2018, an international expo that highlights trends in computer animation and immersive technology, which this year takes place in Vancouver. The short will be a key draw for the conference’s newly-imagined Immersive Pavilion—a structure that is exclusively dedicated to virtual, augmented, and mixed reality experiences, and represents Siggraph’s further expansion into the medium.

      Vancouver is a fitting place to host the premiere of Disney’s new venture into VR. Currently the second largest VR and AR hub in the world, it boasts more than 200 companies working in the space.

      Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays

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