With “Myth: A Frozen Tale,” Disney Animation has crafted a visually stunning virtual-reality short film — a project that flexes its VR muscles but deftly uses the technology in service of storytelling. Sometimes VR experiences feel like proof-of-concepts straining to justify their 3D settings. “Myth,” by contrast, employs virtual reality so effectively it feels like the film’s emotional punches would be pulled if it weren’t in VR.
“Myth,” from director Jeff Gipson, is a kind of origin story about the “Frozen” land of Arendelle. The eight-minute film takes the viewer on a largely wordless fantasy trip of the four elemental characters — wind, fire, water and earth — that appear in “Frozen 2.”
Disney Animation is showing the VR short at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. The idea for “Myth” was sparked at last year’s Sundance, when Disney Animation chief creative officer Jennifer Lee, writer-director of the two “Frozen” films (alongside director Chris Buck) asked Gipson about exploring the world of “Frozen” for his next VR project. Previously, Gipson directed Disney Animation’s first VR film, the award-winning “Cycles.”
“I was very nervous, because ‘Frozen’ is one our most iconic franchises,” Gipson told Variety. “It was really our curiosity about what ‘Frozen’ would look like in VR.”
The film plants the viewer in the center of a forest, a shadow-box-like set reminiscent of a pop-up book. That was a stylistic flourish brought to life by production designer Brittney Lee (a key visual development artist on “Frozen” and “Frozen 2”). The forest is a moody character itself, alternately menacing and inviting.
Having the viewer’s point of view fixed in the center of the forest scene was central to Gipson’s vision for “Myth.” The film foregoes any shifts in perspective. “I can get seasick in VR,” Gipson said. “We wanted this to feel natural… and I wanted it to be gentle.”
The storybook quality of “Myth” lends itself perfectly to an immersive virtual-reality presentation. “This is a story that could only be told in VR,” claimed producer Nicholas Russell, who previously worked with Gipson on “Cycles.”
Crucially, the film uses visual elements to draw the viewer’s attention to the action. The four spirits are represented by four Stonehenge-like monoliths, each with a distinct icon. They each show themselves in turn, with scenes illuminating streaks of light where your eye is meant to be drawn: Gale, the wind spirit; fire salamander Bruni, the fire spirit; the Nokk, the water spirit that appears as a horse; and the massive (and scary) Earth Giants, spirits of the Earth. “Myth’s” apotheosis is the arrival of a destabilizing fifth element — humans — leading to the Arendelle’s tragic fate.
Because there’s no dialogue through most of its runtime, music plays a large supporting role in “Myth.” The film’s original score is composed by Joe Trapanese (“Tron: Legacy” and the “Raid” series), who created different musical motifs for each of the spirits.
Disney’s “Fantasia” was a source of inspiration for “Myth,” according to Gipson. “Like in ‘Fantasia,’ each character has its own score, color palette and language,” he said. “I wanted to bring that element of Disney heritage into the medium of VR.” He also pointed to Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” which uses distinct musical themes for each character.
“Myth: A Frozen Tale” doesn’t use interactivity in the way some VR experiences do, in which the viewer selects where to take the story. “Making a choice takes you out of the film,” Gipson said. But it’s still interactive, he maintained, in the sense that the audience participates in a “gaze-based” manner.
In “Myth,” Gipson addresses one of my big complaints about VR (besides the ungainly headgear needed to view it today): that it precludes a shared experience. You’re locked in a solitary space without the ability to, say, turn to your seatmate and say, “Wow.” Gipson’s creative solution is to introduce “Myth” as a bedtime story: At the beginning of the film, you are in the family room of an Arendelle cabin next to a roaring fire, as the mother starts reading the tale aloud to the kids. That provides an effective sense of shared storytelling, before you’re spirited away to the enchanted forest.
“It’s a fairy tale within a fairy tale,” Brittney Lee said.
The “Myth” filmmakers benefited from collaborating closely with the “Frozen 2” crew, although that was also challenging because Disney wanted both the feature film and the VR short to be released together. Jennifer Lee and the rest of the “Frozen 2” team provided regular consultation on the VR project. Disney Animation also landed Evan Rachel Wood, who voices the character of Queen Iduna in “Frozen 2,” as the narrator for “Myth.”
As for when “Frozen” fans will be able to see “Myth” outside of festivals and special showings, Russell promises that it will soon be coming to VR platforms. The filmmakers used Epic Games’ Unreal Engine to render the film, which is portable to multiple platforms.
A technical challenge for “Myth” was that, unlike with traditional animation, the scenes are rendered in real-time on a VR device at 70 frames per second per eye. That meant the animation couldn’t be overly complex, said Jose Luis Gomez Diaz, who led technical aspects of the film in his role as VR technology supervisor.
And even so, the animation in “Myth” is complex enough that it requires some serious horsepower. Disney Animation is showing the film on Facebook’s highest-end VR headset, the Oculus Rift S (which retails for $400).
VR has gone through a hype cycle and has fallen well short of expectations as far as consumer adoption. From where Disney sits, creating more great VR content is an essential part of the puzzle. “We’re willing to keep exploring,” Russell said. “We’re proud of this film.” Added Gomez Diaz, “This is like the beginning of cinema. You didn’t have people say, ‘I’m not gonna make a movie because there aren’t many movie theaters.’”
Meanwhile, Gipson’s “Cycles,” which won a 2019 Lumiere Award from the Advanced Imaging Society, is now available on Disney Plus in a 2D version as part of the Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Short Circuit” film collection. It’s possible that a “flat” version of “Myth” will be coming to the subscription VOD service at some point as well. But to get the full spirit (and spirits) of the movie, you’ll want to see it in all its VR glory.