Virtual Visionary

I met Disney animator Jeff Gipson in the spring of my senior year of design school at the University of Georgia. In the midst of “Senior Exit” insanity, I took a break from the studio to go see Jeff, a former architect, and his colleague Jorge E. Ruiz Cano speak to students in the art program. On the topic of deadlines at the animation studio, he casually noted, “It’s never done, it's just due.” I held onto that phrase in the next few weeks, forcing myself to go home and sleep instead of working until sunrise in the studio.  

It’s never done, it's just due.

Left to Right: Jorge, Caroline, Jeff

A few months ago, I saw Jeff was directing Disney’s first ever Virtual Reality short Cycles and soon found it would be traveling to the 56th New York Film Festival. I bought tickets and went to Lincoln Center to see it. After a little while of waiting in line, my group was sent in to the VR room. Advised that our time was limited and it would be wise to wait for the longer films, I decided to head straight to the five minute Cycles.

I entered a room, stepped on to a round orange rug, and put on VR goggles and headphones. The noise canceled, the black title screen faded, and I found myself standing in a mid-century modern house.

Light flooded in and I was a literal fly on the wall, or rather, a fly in the middle of the room.

Cycles tells the emotional and familiar story of a family growing up and growing out of their home. As an invisible viewer standing in the middle of the living room, you watch their journey: a young couple moves in, they welcome the birth of their daughter, that same girl sneaks out as a teenager, and then, as an adult, she has the difficult conversation of moving her mom into assisted living. As you look around, strategically led by light, you start to notice the subtle changes in the home. Plants grow, keys placed in the same spot shift ever so slightly, furniture slowly inches around. This house is physically being imprinted by this family while leaving an important imprint of its own.

You watch this life flash before your eyes in a few minutes until you are suddenly standing in an abandoned home stripped of memories and covered in graffiti.

Jeff built the house in SketchUp and used VR tools to animate in the space.

When speaking about Cycles, Jeff pointed back to architecture school where “you are taught that every home and every building can tell a story over time.” The house in Cycles plays a fascinating primary character. In the midst of the messiness of life, it proves to be the only constant in the story. It is the only place you can rest your eyes as the chaos of the decades flash before you. That is, until you are suddenly left standing in an empty, lifeless house.

Jeff, an avid BMX biker, was inspired by his trips to abandoned LA houses where he would ride in empty backyard pools. He found himself peering into graffiti covered living rooms wondering what stories of past families it held. He moves us to question — what is a house without the people and love filling it?

Every home and every building can tell a story over time.

I waited in line to watch it twice, wiping away tears and simultaneously whipping my head around to soak in the whole experience. I felt like I knew these people and I knew this space. Even now, I could easily direct you how to get out the back door or explain the island counter in relation to the fridge. I feel as if I have actually been in that house before, something a 2D movie screen could not replicate.

How much better could we convey a space and an experience to a client?

It made me start to imagine what our industry could become if we could more readily use VR as a tool. Could we express an emotion — something we as designers may feel, yet perhaps struggle to translate clearly to the client through presentations and mood boards? The technology is already developed, but still has a long way to go to be easily accessible. Cycles was an interesting peek into the future of designing and selling spaces.

Caroline Percy

Caroline Percy