Disney’s first VR movie Cycles is a tear-jerker, says director Jeff Gipson

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      Every home quietly tells a story. As a crib is swapped for a bunk-bed, the indents on the carpet are hidden away; pictures of siblings and parents hung above the stairs leave little imprints on the wall; and doorframes are adorned with horizontal lines that mark how fast a child has grown. As a family transforms, their home leaves clues of their development.

      Disney director Jeff Gipson has long been fascinated by exploring the character of a home. Beginning his career as an architect, he was taught early on that buildings have unique personalities. When he decided exiting the industry in favour of pursuing a career in animation—a choice that led him first to Pixar and then to Disney Animation Studios—Gipson still remained attached to the idea of exploring a dwelling’s identity.

      “I’m a big BMX freestyle rider,” he tells the Georgia Straight at Siggraph conference in downtown Vancouver. “I love to ride empty swimming pools around Los Angeles. A lot of these pools are in amazing places—Beverly Hills, Hollywood Hills—in the yards of these amazing homes. I love to take photos of the houses. You can’t help but start to think about all the stories, and what led up to what they are now. You can get a sense of who lives there. This person loved yellow, so everything in the house is yellow. This person loved the ocean, so every knob in this place is replaced with a seahorse or seashell. I love the contrast of the life that happens in these places, and where they are now.”

      Gipson’s photos soon led to an idea. At Disney, he says, employees have the chance to participate in an experimental program to create their famous animated shorts. Gipson wanted to make the company’s first virtual reality (VR) film. Pitching his vision to the adjudicators, he weaved his fascination with exploring the characters of homes with his own personal story. The result was Cycles, a three-minute experience that paid homage to the lives of his grandparents.

      “Growing up I used to love going through old photos of them, seeing them young and in love on the hillside, being young parents, and then being my grandma and grandpa,” he recalls. “When my grandpa passed away, my family had a hard conversation like many do, about putting my grandma into assisted living. I remember my mom at the time said, ‘Mom, you can’t take care of yourself—the house is too much,’ and my grandma, who is such a strong-headed lady, replied, ‘As soon as I’m better, I’m walking home. This is where I belong’.”

      “Eventually we did have to move her out,” he continues. “I remember looking around one last time before we put it up for sale, and I remember seeing my name etched on the back cabinet, and my handprint on the driveway, and it was just like those homes in LA, but with the story of my family. It was really powerful.”

      Gispon’s storyboard for the short would be as close to life as possible. He settled on creating a narrative that would run in reverse, tracing the story of his grandparents—Bert and Rae—from the moment his grandma realized that she would be leaving the house, back to the memory of Bert first carrying her across the threshold. Interspersed are beautiful vignettes that chart their life with their daughter from rebellious teen to tiny baby, including warm nights by the fire and setting up the Christmas tree. For Gipson, the process offered him both a sense of closure, and a way to honour his family.  

      “It was an emotional process for sure,” he says. “Especially being in the room with the characters for the first time, and seeing them right in front of me in VR. Because it’s such an intimate thing, it’s a different experience to have them there. When we came to do the score for this piece, my mom’s a professional musician, so I asked her whether she’d be willing to compose the music for a film about her mom and her dad.  Being in the room with Bert and Rae, and hearing my mom’s score for the first time, I was in the headset alone and I just teared up.”

      Gipson is not alone in his reaction to the three-minute short. Showing the film to the public for the first time at this week’s Siggraph festival, the director recalls that many who have watched the movie have left with wet eyes or smudged makeup.

      “It’s cool that there’s so many things that people could connect with as we were filming,” he says. “Showing it to people at the studio, everyone relates to it—whether someone has just bought their own house, or been up with their child all night. At Siggraph, I’ve been talking to some of the burliest guys in line, and they’re curious about VR. And then they watch Cycles, and you can see them in tears. They’ll pass by without making eye contact, and they say, ‘You got me.’ It’s surreal to see people connect with something that they’ve watched for three minutes, and then share their own intimate stories with me.”

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