Jeff Gipson’s path to Walt Disney Animation Studios was unique in that he didn’t study animation, but his experience in architectural design led to a role at the studio as a Lighting Artist before directing his first short film for the Short Circuit program, Cycles, Disney’s first animated project in VR. Now streaming on Disney+, I had the opportunity to interview Jeff during a recent visit to the studio in Burbank.
Alex: Being that this was developed for a VR medium, how do you think the film plays differently in a VR setting versus a fixed aspect ratio the way we will see it on Disney+?
Jeff Gipson: When we were making the flat version, it was always how do we maintain the story and that emotion that the story invokes. Hopefully the feeling if you watch both you’ll still get a similar feeling. In VR, the thing that’s unique to it is that you’re in that space and you feel approximated characters. You feel them come close to you as they move into that house for the first night. Or you feel them dancing or you see them… I think that’s something that’s unique to VR as well, it’s a special cinema language. If they’re further away from you, maybe you’re not connecting with them in the same way you would be if you were close to them. That’s what’s unique about it as well, the architecture… I was an architect before coming into animation. I was excited to design a house and how you use the space to frame each story moment. But you can see it in the flat version that you see the spaces framing each story moment even though it’s one long shot. There’s still a sense of architectural composition.
Alex: The house itself really tells a story. You can tell when it was created based on the items on the wall and how they change in the timeline. Can you talk about your architectural inspirations for the house?
Jeff: I love mid-century modern architecture and think about all the case study houses here in L.A. and Frank Lloyd Wright. I love the kind of Southern California Palm Springs mid-century vibe. There was a hope to this post-war era where Burt and Mary are married and move through their life into the late 90’s. Just trying to capture that feeling and hopefully when you watch the film it is very reminiscent of that time period.
Alex: Since your background wasn’t animation, one of the things that really sets it apart from other films is that it’s more like a sequence of poses than fluid animation. Can you talk about the choice to tell the story that way?
Jeff: Those time-lapses, the stepped animation, I loved that because those were initially how are we going to drive the audience from story beat A to story beat B, the main dining room to the kitchen. Visually in VR, how do you guide them to the solution to that, but also using them as a storytelling device. They cover that time span between when Mary is told she has to move into assisted living to she and Burt and Rachel having dinner, there’s a big time lapse that happens in between there. So trying to use that as a way to move those story beats. But if you look at each of those poses, there’s a little bit of storytelling in each one of those and that was something I was really excited about as we were animating that. One of my favorite time lapses is when they first move into that house, and we’re moving in reverse, so you see their first night in the house. They’re on the mattress in the living room eating food and just you see these cute little sweet moments. Even moments of conflict are peppered into these time lapses, the ups and the downs of their life. It was just a unique way that I thought would help bridge the beats as well as move the story and keep you engaged.
Alex: Your short has dialogue and the dialogue that’s there is very powerful. Budget wise, did you have to use it sparingly? And what were the decisions between when you would and wouldn’t use dialogue for a story moment?
Jeff: For the dialogue, I wanted it to be very universal. It’s meaningful to me because I’ve heard some of these lines but also try to play into that sense of memory. If you remember any of your conversations, you kind of remember little bits of them, maybe not all the bits of a conversation, so that’s how I approached the dialogue. I was thinking what are the major beats that can happen through each line and not focus on all the specifics of this, that, and the other. Just having it almost like a memory, where there’s this kind of surreal ness to it. Disconnected and sometimes they make sense, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you remember things differently than they actually were maybe, but there’s kind of an idealism as well to our memories that I’m really intrigued by and tried to capture in Cycles.
Alex: I remember hearing about this short before I ever heard the term ‘Short Circuit.’ Was this before the Short Circuit program officially existed or was it still part of that?
Jeff: This was part of the Short Circuit program. It came about at the same time as the other shorts and we finished it and we had shown it to some of our executives here. We were fortunate enough to, because it was VR the executives were excited, we showed it to Ed Catmull. That was one of the most nerve wracking experiences. I’ve talked to him now and it’s all good, but then I had not had many interactions with him. So okay, we’re going to show Ed because it’s cool and let’s just see what he thinks. We had the camera capture stage and its foam floors and he walks in, kicks off his shoes and said ‘I’m ready’ and I was just like ‘Oh my gosh.’ So we showed it to him and it affected him emotionally. I think he got excited about ‘Wow, we should share this VR storytelling’ because it’s so new, it’s still kind of the Wild West in VR. And so I think he was just excited to share that with our executives here and at Pixar and ILM. And as we showed it to our sister studios, there was this, well, we should share this with audiences and how do you share VR? That’s another big challenge with it and so we started going to Cigraph and some of the other film fests, New York Film Fest, Sundance, and some other venues. It was cool that after we showed that VR version this opportunity with Disney+ came about. What’s great about the technology that we’re using to create the short, real-time technology, is that we can create a flat version for folks that may not have a VR headset to watch it on Disney+ or my family, a lot of them haven’t seen it yet. So this allows them to see it and hear my mom’s music. But we even have augmented reality pieces for Cycles. We have an interactive poster, an augmented poster, but also this moment in the film where they’re dancing, she’s pregnant and they’re happy. We have that moment in augmented reality as well where you could bring them into a physical space and move around them. It was cool because it was so new for us as a studio and these new technologies.
Alex: Your mom got to collaborate on this with you and this really is the story of your family. Was any of this healing for you guys or did it feel like opening up old wounds?
Jeff: I think it was a healing process. Remembering the time with my grandma and having this experience with my mom where we’re working on a film but also a piece of music that’s inspired by their lives. Not all true, not all of the moments are exact reality, but inspired by that feeling and those memories of my grandma. I think it was something really special and also really emotional as well, especially being in VR with the characters because you have such a different relationship with them. It’s almost like I’m sitting here with you hanging out, the same with the characters and you know them almost in a different way than you do in a film on a flat screen. So when she saw the film, even my dad saw the film and my sister, she just saw it last May in VR, it’s emotional for us. So I think when my family sees the film on Disney+, it will be emotional but a sweet emotion.
Alex: Shorts are often a testing ground for technologies that end up in features. Do you think there’s a future where a feature could go the VR route?
Jeff: I always hate to say never. Maybe in some future that happens. As of recently, I directed another VR short, Myth: A Frozen Tale, and so it’s cool that our studio, our executives, and our leadership are excited about this technology, but the stories that can be told in it. How do you tell a story using this technology? So Myth: A Frozen Tale is about the elemental spirits of Frozen 2 and almost like a bedtime story. If you grew up in Arendelle, you were told a bedtime story like this about these elemental spirits. And bringing audiences into a world where they’re able to be with the Nok, see the giants towering above them. So in terms of a future, I think never say never. It could happen.
Alex: As a first-time director, what was it like being supported by your peers and then turning around and supporting them back?
Jeff: It’s so cool, I think it’s something that’s really unique to here, to this place. I had never worked in VR before but one of our VR tech leads, Jose Gomez, had done some things. And I remember articulating the idea, talking, pitching him through the idea and immediately he was like wow. There was something that he really was excited about and just seeing how that happened throughout all the departments. I used the phrase ‘Yes, and’ like an improv statement. Here’s what I’m pitching, but they brought so much more to the table. So much more excitement and that’s what’s great about it is the projects turn out better than what you originally thought because of people bringing their skill set, whatever it might be in their respective department.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.