Disney’s acclaimed VR short, “Myth: A Frozen Tale,” a bedtime story about the elemental spirits from “Frozen 2,” launches February 26 on Disney+ in 2D. While not as immersive in 2D, the short still captivates as a gaze into the mysterious and moody forest outside Arendelle (narrated by Evan Rachel Wood’s Queen Queen Iduna). Director Jeff Gipson, who made Disney’s first VR short, “Cycles,” was inspired by his own family tradition of telling bedtime stories, particularly his great-great-great-great grandfather’s brush with Jesse James as a youth growing up in Kansas City.
Gipson tapped that sense of excitement and wonder of hearing about his ancestor swapping horses with the James gang, and applied it to the mythology of the forest characters: the Nokk stallion water spirit, the massive earth giants, the Bruni salamander fire spirit, and the swirling wind. “And I also wanted to draw from the history of [Disney],” he said, “where this traditional animation is tied to the music it’s animated to. Looking at films like ‘Fantasia,’ the pink elephants sequence (in ‘Dumbo’), ‘Make Mine Music,’ ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ it almost moves exactly with that music.” As a result, “Tron: Legacy” composer Joseph Trapanese tied his score around the characters in a similar manner.
“There’s also something really amazing about how even back 80 years ago, Walt and his animators were really pushing on technology, and pushing on art styles, and trying to create something fresh and new,” Gipson added. “Even today we all reference back to segments from [‘Fantasia’], we want to see that on screen again.”
Similarly, production designer Brittney Lee drew on the legacy of Disney greats Eyvind Earle (“Sleeping Beauty”) and Mary Blair (“Peter Pan”) to create the visual landscape and rich color palette dominated by purple and aqua. The challenge was to make an immersive forest also work like a pop-up book. Lee therefore came up with a proscenium arch and a dramatic silhouetted effect, which also translate well to the streaming version. “The shape language was definitely more based on Eyvind Earle — the long, elegant and etherealness of that,” Lee said. “But color wise, pushing into less realism or fantasy, absolutely Mary Blair. And the way that we were working, we were actually pulling and picking, choosing colors specifically in the frame.”
The experience was one of trial and error in real-time (using the Unreal game engine), so the team could gauge how emotionally everything worked in the space around them. “But then as we move to each of the elemental spirits, we really wanted to push that stylization further than what you would see in ‘Frozen 2,'” Lee added. “For ‘Myth,’ diamonds were stylistic elements that really pushed in each of [the spirits], and as you watch the film, you can see diamonds sort of in each of the characters.”
There was experimentation with water, too, in a way that made it part of the storybook world. “There’s a lot of different ways in a pop-up book that you might see water stylized based on the different uses of it, like a waterfall, or river, or in a splash,” said Lee. “I think we were looking to references on all of those fronts to caricature it and draw from some of the linear aspects of that.”
An important part of the VR experience is the presence you get with the elemental spirits: the wind swooping around you, or the tiny salamander moving on top of you. But, thanks to layout supervisor Terry Moews, the framing and camera choices also work in the 2D version. “There’s a different depth of field in VR and so we’ve had to really plan to figure out how we made the audience look,” Gipson said. “And hopefully in the streaming version that ends up working in our favor.”