Cycles

by Walt Disney Animation Studios
The studio
Running the real-time gauntlet

“We knew we were taking a huge risk,” begins Jeff Gipson the director of Cycles, a touching VR short film that shows the time-lapse of a whole life lived, flashing before our eyes in a series of milestone memories.

Gipson, a trained architect, used to design skateparks and is an avid BMX freestyle enthusiast, has been a lighting artist for the last six years at Walt Disney Animation Studios and has worked on award-winning films such as Big Hero 6, Frozen, Zootopia and Ralph Breaks the Internet.

Thanks to the studio’s experimental shorts program, he was given an opportunity to experiment with real-time animation on a short film he envisioned, and enlisted the help of Senior Software Engineer, Jose Gomez. His passion and risk-taking nature attracted other collaborators in the studio, and soon Jorge Ruiz, Animation Lead, and Lauren Brown, Production Lead, joined his quest to produce the studio’s first-ever real-time animated VR short in Unity.

Left to right: Jose Gomez, Senior software engineer; Ed Robbins, Character lead; Lauren Brown, Production lead; Jeff Gipson, Director; Jorge Ruiz, Animation lead; Mike Anderson, Environment lead

Left to right: Jose Gomez, Senior software engineer; Ed Robbins, Character lead; Lauren Brown, Production lead; Jeff Gipson, Director; Jorge Ruiz, Animation lead; Mike Anderson, Environment lead

As the team got under way to push the boundaries of storytelling in Unity, they encountered many challenges. The small crew had to develop a way to previs, storyboard, and produce a VR short film while utilizing as much of the existing pipeline as possible.

“We had to be okay with failure,” explains Gipson. “Every day presented a new problem. We were pushing boundaries, but because we were surrounded by talented artists who really believed in what we were doing, failure seemed less likely.” They also had to fail as fast as possible, because Gipson only had four months carved from the studio’s feature-film schedule to prove himself.

The project
Every home tells a story

In Cycles, you are immersed in the story. You are in someone’s home and you witness a family’s series of intimate moments through the years. From a young couple entering the newly purchased home and spontaneously jumping in the pool fully clothed, to the same couple struggling on a sleepless night with a crying baby, it’s relatable and life-affirming, and does justice to Disney Animation’s ethos.  

Interestingly, Gipson was inspired in the most unlikely of places: riding his BMX freestyle in empty outdoor pools in Los Angeles . . . and exploring the properties attached to them. Gipson imagined the lives once lived in these unoccupied places. His study of space and light comes through in the piece, as does the bittersweet impermanence of family.

The team also had to develop a method to guide the viewer’s eye through the story. “There is a very subtle yet effective look-away mechanic that darkens the space, guiding you to stay with the scenes that are in the light,” explains Gipson. This experiential technique – affectionately dubbed “The Gomez Effect” – helps focus the viewer on his story, which is told through a series of milestone memories. The team also wrote an original vertex color shader in Unity giving a living quality to the pixels of characters and environments. This allowed Gipson to accomplish the “physicality of memories” look he desired.  

The overall result of Cycles is as soulful as it is masterful. And thanks to their existing VR project, the team was able to produce an AR poster prototype in a few hours. This excited the core team as they pondered the future of storytelling and art in VR/AR.

The reveal
Decimating polygon counts in the pursuit of greatness

Every aspect of the process broke new ground for the Cycles crew and maximized Unity’s extensibility – from bringing in alembic files from Quill storyboards to programming directional real-time lights in order to augment the global light probes’ ambient occlusion. “It was hard,” admits Gipson, “but every time we fell down, we picked ourselves up again.”

The biggest challenge was the time-lapse structure of the film. The team struggled to get so many assets into a single shot, with lights changing and perfectly timed animations flowing. To solve for this without losing any quality, Gomez worked with Gipson to optimize the look and the models.

“We tried to reuse assets from the film pipeline, which greatly slowed down our frame rate,” explains Gomez. On occasion, it was a game of hide-and-seek, as they searched to find which assets might be breaking the experience. It turned out there were very complex models weighing in at thousands of polygons. “Once we cleaned everything up, it made the shot faster to render smoothly in VR,” explains Gipson.

Director Gipson scrutinizes the work in progress

Director Gipson scrutinizes the work in progress

Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, stopped in to check out the short and was pleasantly surprised, immediately congratulating the team on having created something truly special.  

The learnings from this process have rippled through the studio. Thanks in part to Cycles, they are open to exploring new ways of storytelling, and seeing how VR might inform their production process for feature films.

The team premiered Cycles at SIGGRAPH 2018 in Vancouver. See it next at Unite Los Angeles, October 23–25, where Gipson will be showing the experience as part of the Made with Unity Showcase.

Join the real-time revolution — and tell your story in a new way.

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