Interviewing the Creative Team behind “Myth: A Frozen Tale” Walt Disney Animation Studios as they prepare to debut new “Frozen 2” inspired VR short film at Sundance Film Festival.
On Thursday, December 5, we visited the Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, CA. This iconic building is recognizable to any Disney fan by its breathtaking monument to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, part of the Walt Disney animated classic Fantasia (1941). The purpose of our visit? To experience “Myth: A Frozen Tale” at the place where it was created!
Guests are able to experience “Myth: A Frozen Tale” by standing on a 5-foot floor radius marker with a 360 degree VR headset. The marker even interacts with The Enchanted Forest!
The story of “Myth: A Frozen Tale” begins similarly to Frozen 2, with a bedtime story. Evan Rachel Wood, who voices Anna & Elsa’s mother, lends her voice as the storyteller for this short film. Once transported into the Enchanted Forest, audiences are asked “What was Elsa’s experience in the Enchanted Forest?” as they come face-to-face with the spirits. As guests are thrust deeper and deeper into the forest, the history of this magical land becomes clearer. The sights and sounds of this VR experience are unlike any other. Combining the sound mixing expertise of Lucasfilm with the visually enriched world of Arendelle, “Myth: A Frozen Tale” is a seamless transition from the traditional Disney animation to what future films can become.
After our experience in the motion capture space, we headed to the central hub of the Roy E. Disney Animation building: The Caffeine Patch. The Caffeine Patch, named after Dr. Lucille Krunklehorn’s invention from the film Meet The Robinson (2007), combines the wonders of Disney with the practicality of modern architecture. There displays of the artwork for various Walt Disney Animation films throughout. The theming is so extensive, even the bathrooms represent some of the iconic characters.
The idea of “Myth: A Frozen Tale” came from Director Jeff Gipson, and the project came to fruition with the collaboration with Brittney Lee (Production Design), Jose Luis Gomez Diaz (VRTechnology Supervisor) and JorgeRuiz Cano (VR Animation Lead).We took our seats on a long table by the window, pulled out our notebook, started the audio recorder, and began our interview with the creative team:
Thomas Kuhlmeier: Thank you all so much for meeting with us to talk about “Myth: A Frozen Tale”. We’ve all seen it, we all loved it, and now I just wanted to hear about, um, the idea behind the story of “Myth”.
Jeff Gipson: Yeah, so the Frozen tale came about by, um, Jen Lee (CCO of Walt Disney Animation Studios, and Director/Writer for both Frozen films) came to me about this time last year. She came to me after seeing Cycle, and was interested in doing something Frozen. And I was excited, uh, to do that. So I watched some early screenings of Frozen 2, and one thing that I really loved were the Elemental Spirits: Nokk, the Earth Giants, and I was intrigued with, you know, how we might bring those characters into VR, because their scale is so interesting. The Giants are huge, and Nokk is…horse-scale and it was really intriguing. Now we love the stories of these background characters. It kind of reminds me of being told bedtime stories as a child by my mom and dad, and yeah, we just kind of went home over Christmas break, did some research on folklore, and then came back and started pitching some ideas to Jen and we landed on this idea of the spirit/myth backstory.
T: So when you say folklore, is there a specific Norwegian legend that you’re referring to?
Jeff: So the fire salamander, as well as the water Nokk, you know, living in the water, and fairy tales are dark and grim – almost like warning tales, right? – kids stay away from the water because the water Nokk might drown you? Well, it doesn’t do that in our film but, you know, there is a lot of folklore. Even the fire salamander that [refer to] salamanders that lived in wood piles in Scandinavia, and so when people would bring in their firewood they’d start a fire and the salamander would scurry out, so it was believed that the salamander carried the spirit of fire. There is something that I just really love about that. There is something so charming about learning about those [myths], or even thinking about stories that I was told as a kid. I remember wondering, you know, “why that mountain is shaped the way it is?”, or anything else. There’s something really cool about these origin stories of landscapes and things like that. I’ve always been interested in these stories, so that’s kind of what became the jumping off point. Jen was so gracious and so supportive to how she let us have creative freedom for that; that not necessarily has to be true to what’s happening in Frozen 2, but that we can be inspired by that [story element] and make it our own thing. Brittney’s artwork, her style, her storybook world is not directly what’s shown in Frozen 2 but it very much is of that aesthetic and that world. And that was a blessing.
T: Brittney, when you were designing this short film, how much of Frozen 2 had you seen or worked on then?
Brittney Lee: I had been working on Frozen 2 for about two years, probably a year and a half, and having worked completely on Frozen as well, so it was kind of like at this point – six years later- it’s in my DNA. So it felt like *turns towards Jeff* it felt like you were pitching to me when you–Jeff was pitching this story book, but it’s Frozen setting, but it’s not. It’s like close and “pop-up-y”, and I was like “Wow, that’s right in the ballpark! I could probably figure something out here.” So I knew a lot about what [Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck] were already planning for us, and how the elements were going to be seen and used in the film. But I didn’t get to work on the elements in the film. I was mainly working with the characters we know already, so it was also intriguing to…be able to lead a project like myth to explore further these characters, and make our own version of them.
T: But in many ways they act and feel like the characters, so had you seen concept art for Nokk and the Salamander?
Brittney: Oh yeah. That artwork – I think those were characters that were being developed early on – and they were such a huge part of the building of Frozen 2, so they were kind of second nature for those of us who were working on it, but it felt like a really great idea to take it on. There are various versions in the film, but for you as a viewer get to spend time with them and be immersed by them, it felt like an experience made sense for working in VR.
Jeff: I think part of it, too, is “What’s Elsa experience with [the spirits]?” and “how can we make the audience feel those experiences?” But also feeling with those spirits and those characters. So there’s something really cool about that. It’s funny, because when we were pitching through – and this pitch was almost greenlit – and I remember telling our producer Nick “oh man, it would be amazing if we had Brittney” because Brittney, we always say this, is one of our rock star artists. Her personal work is so much about paper cut-out, pop-up book that we knew was the flavor for early beginnings, so I remember telling Nick “oh man, it’d be great if Brittney is down to work on this, it’d be really cool,” and she was down! So when Brittney said that we was interested, we knew it was so cool to have her on. You can see that her style is meant for storybook world. There is so much silhouette and flats. One of the challenges for the team was taking that flat artwork – Brittney does these beautiful paintings – and copying that in CG. Maybe that can be seen on screen, but in VR, when you’re standing in that world, we wanted to capture that feeling. So Jose and the team –
Jose Luis Gomez Diaz: Yeah, the challenge was to make it feel like it was real. You are there, and it’s true to [Brittney’s] artwork and true to VR. You are transported to a different place that is believable, right? So yeah, there were some challenges. We also struggled with the transitions; the transitions are really hard right at the beginning. The characters look like the characters from the movie, and then we transition [the audience] into the Enchanted Forest. Being able to show the two styles, but keeping it real, was the challenge.
T: What was the most challenging part in “Myth” to build this transition? From going from a cabin in Arendelle to the Enchanted Forest, was there a challenge in Brittney’s artwork, a challenge that kept coming up?
Jose: I think that there are many, many challenges. But it’s something cool! This team, we all love pushing it and getting these effects just right, and [Jeff] can tell you the challenges of the stories. I can tell you the technical stuff, such as frame rate and all that boring stuff. You need to run at 90 frames per second, and we have a lot of different stuff. Everything is changing. You are in the forest, but there is not a moment that is like the previous one. Different colors, one is raining, one is winter, one is day, one is night; it’s like eight minutes long, but it feels like, you know, the full range of things. And on top of all that, there are no cuts. In a movie, there is one scene, and then you move on to the next one. So all the transitions [in VR] have to make it seamless. Jorge can talk a bit about how from one scene to the other and without feeling, like, “hey, you have to look here!” and instead you feel like it’s flowing in different places.
Jorge: Even with Cycles, clarity was the name of the game. Clarity, clarity, clarity. If the beats would flash, we couldn’t follow it, and the audience wouldn’t care. So that was something really good to figure out at the beginning. And also, the range and composition. We played with a whole world. At first, we wanted to move through the architecture of the room. But now we have the architecture of the forest. This was something that we wanted to play with, to give the viewers something to look for.
Jeff: If you notice, there’s a lot of windows. There’s the obelisk window, there’s the window over here where the reindeers are playing, there’s the window where the Nokk comes out. So there’s a lot of compositional elements that come out. It may not come across as leading the audience, but we’re using a lot of the same composition as movie; the stage frame and bringing that into the art. One of the great visual moments brings back Disney classic. If you notice in a lot of Disney 2-D animation films, the fire is 2-D, the water splash is 2-D animation. The spirit of the background of this short film is all the 2-D animation of Disney classics. So trying to lean in on that heritage, and even the styles of like Eyvind Earle and Mary Blair, make it feel very Disney but in this new medium.
T: There is so much of the visual elements that remind me of Mary Blair’s work. One of my favorite scenes is when Nokk trots in front of the viewer and the sequence slows down. Is this still filmed at 90 frames per second?
T: So how does that work? Because I think there’s a moment with the Earth Giants that everything slows down. So technical aspect, how does that work?
Jose: Well, I mean, everything runs at 90 fps. In that version, it’s 80 frames per second which is what that headset runs, but yeah, there was a lot of optimization. And how to frame it properly. We try to never compromise the art, so it was a challenge to decide between the story and the visuals, you know? For example, in that fifth element, with the music. The particles are reacting to the music. There was a moment when it wasn’t reacting at all, so we had to find a way to combine things or change things, but never compromising the art. Making sure the experience is good, and never losing the immersion. That’s the challenge.
T: Jorge, with the transitions, acting like the leading lines, of Gale and also the cracks in the earth because of the Earth Giants. How did you come up with that idea?
Jorge Ruiz Cano: Well, we all started doing it very early with the storyboarding, elements, and stuff like that. It’s really important it didn’t go too crazy. Especially when we put the layout in there. Sometimes the elements are separate, and in this case, the time that we got overlapped and helped the development. The capturing of the movement in stage, and we used Swoop, which is a bit of a tool that captures a lot of timing and space. Timing and space is a huge thing. In VR, you can’t take it for granted. That was a challenge too. I know we wanted it to be loud-ish, more stylized, and more graphic. We needed to create this mass and how it would react in a mass-less world. That way we can feel its weight and its presence. Yeah, but the effects would sometimes fight. It’s like a marriage, no one can lose, but the project is the baby. So how did we come up with that? We had to sometimes use cubes in place of mountains or trees just to see how the effect would work, because it’s easy to turn on the imagination and see this cube or sphere to see if it’s working at all. There’s a lot of stuff, and we had to check the final stuff. Nothing in what we created was entirely new. We borrowed a lot of the pipeline from different projects we’ve worked on.
Jose: What he’s talking about is that we can use film to shoot the VR, but we can also use VR to shoot the film. So we did 3-D visualizations and models. And then we have Swoop which was created for Frozen actually, which created Gale. So that tool has a VR version, and it helped with timing. Super important. Timing and listening to the music.
Jeff: And being in the set, being the perfect safe. We could use it as a conductor.
Jorge: Not just for lines, but for space and time. For entire performances. It’s more like a play. You design the set and grow. Sometimes the effects don’t show up. Too many zeros, too many ones.
Josue Mendez: Is there something, due to limitations, that was cut out from the short film?
Jorge: I mean, there is limitations, but to what you are saying, we all worked together. We don’t have the full village of Arendelle, it’s only a cabin. We tried, though! I don’t think there was anything that we cut. We tried certain things.
Brittney: Yeah, they tried to say “oh, no” so many times, saying that it wasn’t possible, and then the next day they had the test ready to show that it was. Their poker faces are not very good.
T: Jeff, what is the future of ‘Myth’?
Jeff: So we’ll be showing it at some film festivals. We’ll be at Sundance in January, but then there are lots of other opportunities for when the general audience can also experience this short film. We’re hoping for an opportunity for this to be downloaded, at some point, around the world. But it’s cool because that’s where our executives here at Walt Disney Animation are currently talking about it: how does VR affect our company as a whole? With all of our properties here at Walt Disney Animation, there are so many possibilities for this to be used as a tool to meet with our characters. Even though we’re limited for where we can show this to our audience, I’m optimistic about what the future holds for us.
“Myth: A Frozen Tale” is just as much a part of the Frozen 2 film as any sequence show in theaters. We’ll have more information about how and when this short film will be distributed to a wider audience. Until then, keep on journeying into the unknown!