Once again, Disney has blended innovative technology with beautiful animation to create something unique. Myth: A Frozen Tale is a bright and colorful expansion of Frozen’s mythology, taking audiences to an immersive world where the natural world of Arendelle comes alive as if it was popping straight out of a storybook. Though it was initially designed to be a virtual reality experience, director Jeff Gipson and producer Britney Lee turned the short into something more traditional to fit the streaming space for Disney+ subscribers.
We Live Entertainment had a chance to attend a virtual press conference for Myth: A Frozen Tale and talk to Gispon and Lee about converting the VR short to 2D. They also addressed the camera angles, how the music plays a role in telling the story, and the Disney attractions that inspired the short.
Myth: A Frozen Tale isn’t the first time Gipson has been behind a Disney VR project chair. His first was Cycles, a short part of Disney+’s Short Circuit program back when the streaming service launched in 2019. Because it made the rounds at various film festivals and managed to win awards, it motivated the studio to pursue the technology further. Jennifer Lee, the co-director for both Frozen films and the chief-creative-officer at Walt Disney animation studios, encouraged Gipson to create something using VR technology and have it be in real-time. Naturally, he was excited to expand the world of one of the biggest animated films in history. But there was also fear because he knew he had to create something that would do justice for the film.
1 – The Pitch
According to Gipson, much of the look and design of Myth: A Frozen Tale is inspired by shadow puppetry and bedtime stories’ graphic art. He also drew from Disney’s history of films that blended music and art seamlessly. He referred to Fantasia and how sequences from “Make My Music” and “Peter and the Wolf” would marry music and animation together in a way that evokes emotion. So, the goal was to replicate that but bring it to the forefront using VR technology. And he wanted to bring that heritage and traditionally hand-drawn artwork into a new medium.
After a few pitches to the visual development department, he reached out to production designer Britney Lee, who had reciprocated her interest in the project. She felt that it was a project that spoke out to her because the aesthetic of the storybook and pop-up books were so aligned with her style of art. “One of the first things that we decided we needed to look at was how do we stylize a world that is already a part of a stylized world of Frozen,” Lee asked. “We decided to look to influences that ‘Frozen’ looked to as well, and one big influence for the ‘Frozen’ world was the art of Eyvind Earle.”
It was Earle’s work on animated films like Sleeping Beauty that would serve as the basis for the look and feel, and well as the use of space for Myth: A Frozen Tale. “It was really informative in sort of an elegant shape language. It was very graphic and stylized,” Lee said.
2 – Shapes and Colors
Because Myth: A Frozen Tale was designed to be a VR short, much of the story takes place from the third-person perspective. As such, elemental spirits act as guides that take you through the wonderous and magical landscape of Arendelle. Since Gipson and Lee already defined the shape language, they needed to decide the four spirits’ language. They already had the color palettes established from Frozen 2, so they knew they needed to push that the color and shape language a little bit further. They gave the fifth spirit a prismatic effect to accentuate its representation of the idea of the elements combining and how it speaks to the short’s themes of the beauty that comes from the harmony of working together.
Gipson and Lee used the color palettes to build toward telling a color story through the film so that audiences would be able to see the emotional ebbs and flows. And the aesthetic push was necessary to help the stylizing and graphic shape language into each of them, which may not have been evident in the film. For example, diamonds, a very familiar shape to the world of Frozen 2, were a stylistic element that was pushed. “It’s in the water splashes, it’s in the fire embers, it’s in everything,” Gipson said. “I like how we just kind of tried to push it into all the places.”
The music and the artwork would work in tandem to create a miracle piece that would have a lot of emotion. Not only that, but the traditional hand-drawn work would also instill the idea that it was a part of the Disney culture and was something that was a part of the storybook design.
3 – Duality of Elements
Although, the elements do not serve a singular narrative purpose. Instead, there is a duality to them that helps draw out the emotion to each of them. The wind spirit would have protagonist traits that are soft and sweet as it gently blows through the frame. Contrast that with the more antagonistic side to it where the wind spirit would be cold. The purpose of all of this was to show how these spirits balanced each other out.
But when one of the spirits gets off balance, the surrounding world tends to get a little dramatic. It was a fun challenge to discover how the joys and dramas affected each element while also pushing the story forward. For example, the Nokk, a majestic and noble horse spirit of water, may calmly trot through the forest, representing stillness and serenity. It also transitions to a darker version that foretells an incoming flood. So, the idea was to create something ethereal and beautiful while also having qualities of impending danger.
These elements are all unique in terms of size, scale, and what they bring to the story. “When we were creating the VR version, part of that magic is being with each one of these characters,” Gipson said. “So we wanted to bring that same kind of feel to the streaming version.”
4 – Score
At the time of production, Gipson had discussions with composer Joseph Trapanese about the short’s duality themes and how to balance out each of the elements’ respective antagonistic and protagonistic traits. While Fantasia served as a frame of reference, it was Gipson’s love of Trapanese’s work on films like Tron: Legacy and musical artists like M83 that appealed to him. It was a real collaborative process for the director, who said Trapanese would often send him 15-20 seconds of music, and they would discuss each piece of it.
Gipson and Trapanese would go through each piece of music multiple times to get the feeling right. Fitting specific instruments to each element was also a part of their discussions. “You know, you think about winds: do you use air instruments? Or do you think about Earth – are these drums,” Gipson recalled. At times the composer would beat rocks to reinforce Earth’s elemental characteristics musically. So, Trapanese would write the scores for each of the spirits seen in the film, for which the animators had to animate to create a visual synergic effect.
5 – Pop-up Book
One way that Myth: A Frozen Tale accomplishes the look and feel of a kid’s pop-up book is the use of backlighting so that the space around the person would be immersed in shadow, creating a more dramatic silhouetted effect.
The flattened, stylized aesthetics of the paper cut-out designs and shadow puppetry lent themselves well to the pop-up book visuals Gipson and Lee were aiming for. And a lot of Trapanese’s early tracks would help with Lee’s designs. “Moments would be framed by this proscenium arch of trees. So, the monoliths in the enchanted forest really are a major set-piece, and we wanted all the spirits to be able to dance and play around them,” Lee said. And the hand-drawn elements also helped emphasize the feeling of being immersed in the world of “Myth” while also staying true to Disney culture. “It felt like it belonged in this world of the storybook,” she added.
So Gipson and Lee had to think of ways to give the elements unique personalities and behaviors while also ticking to the hand-drawn animation style. They took a practical approach and wanted to reference and lean into Lee’s paper cut-out work. Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World” attraction’s water effects also served as a source of inspiration for the short. “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,” Lee said. “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.”
6 – Transitional Challenges
Flattening a VR experience into a short for Disney+ isn’t simple though. For Lee, she never worked with VR technology, so she needed to learn a few new things about that field and “erase” some of the shorthand that she is familiar with when working with her regular team. “There is a different depth of field in VR and so we’ve had to really plan to figure out how we made the audience look,” Lee said.
According to Gipson, there they didn’t have to worry about going back in and adding depth of field. Instead, the two took a different approach. Because they already had something to work with, the two used their VR sets to go back into the enchanted forest and set dress it in real-time. “It’s almost like we were on a live-action set and Brittney and I are pointing on the tree over here a tree over there and like, you know, our amazing our environment lead Mike Anderson he was so patient working through it with us,” he said.
Another challenge was that the crew’s inexperience working with the real-time engines. But the quality of Myth: A Frozen Tale speaks to their ability to learn the technology quickly, and their ability to produce the short in a short amount of time.
7 – Character Design
But the short isn’t just about yourself interacting with these elements. “Because we are starting in a space that feels very much as if it was a part of Arendelle, we had to have characters that looked like they were a part of Arendelle, and also stylized them even further, sort of push the Frozen stylization into its own realm for the storybook version of everything that we were doing,” Lee said. “The family that you meet at the beginning of ‘Myth’ would very much be a family that you would see in the Frozen world.” Lee wanted to be very true to the world and aesthetics of Frozen. By doing this, fans would immediately recognize that the short was a part of the franchise.
8 – Production
Starting with traditional hand-drawn storyboards, the team wanted to see how they could tell a story using this medium. They then translated those storyboards into a VR painting program, which helped design the VR short and the streaming short. And the storyboards helped inform the camera movement a little bit, but Gipson said, “it was more about like how can we capture that feeling of the film the VR version, and bring that into the streaming version.”
The team would use an innovative tool called Swoop to breathe life into a windy character like Gale. It is a tool that allows the animator to be in the VR space, on the set, and animate Gale’s path. Because music was such a big portion of the story, animators would listen to the music and dance with remotes to draw out Gale’s path while also tying it together with the music.