The story of space — no, not that space — lays the foundation for Disney’s unusual new short film Cycles, the studio’s first-ever virtual-reality animated short, which you don’t just have to see to believe. You have to be somewhere to see it.

As the film and gaming industries work to deduce what virtual-reality technology really means for consumers, Cycles director Jeff Gipson and production lead Lauren Brown are throwing their (and Disney’s) hat into the ring with their unprecedented short. The film — which follows two characters, Bert and Rae, based loosely on Gipson’s grandparents — began life as a pitch for Walt Disney Animation Studios’ in-house experimental shorts program; now, Cycles finds itself on the heels of a buzzy world premiere in August at Vancouver’s SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival, with plans in motion to debut the short for crowds at the New York Film Festival this fall.

Cycles invites its audience members to step onto a plush rug, put on a VR headset, and find themselves beamed to the center of a living room of a midcentury modern home, with the foyer, the kitchen, and the backyard available in 360-degree view. As the film begins, underscored by an original song penned by Gipson’s mother, participants can look in any direction (although the hope is that they look to their right) as the surroundings change and characters, holidays, and furniture usher the house from the ’50s to the present, telling the story of the people who live there — or did, once upon a time.

Credit: Disney
Credit: Disney

The concept behind Cycles emerged from the intersection of three key roles Gipson has played in his life: architect, BMX biker, and grandson. Before joining Disney in 2013 as a lighting apprentice, he attended architecture school, learning “that every building can tell a story,” he says. “The materials weather and fade, people hang pictures, furniture leaves indentations in carpets, and over time, spaces become characters of who lived there.” As a BMX freestyler, his weekend hobby plunged him into Los Angeles’ network of abandoned swimming pools, which were often attached to similarly vacant homes which Gipson photographed. The imprint that former residents left on their houses was as powerful as the one the homes themselves imprinted on Gipson.

The last inspiration came from Gipson’s relationship with his grandmother; it’s where Cycles gets its core emotion, and why its reception at SIGGRAPH earmarked the film as more than just a novel proof of technology. “Growing up, I loved being around my grandmother and seeing old photos,” Gipson says. “Eventually, my grandfather passed away and we had to have the hard conversation, much like many families do, about moving her into assisted living. And eventually we put the house up for sale, and I remember looking over it one last time and seeing the indentations in the carpet where the furniture sat, and knowing that my name was etched into the back cabinet in the music room, and my handprints in the driveway. It was just like the homes that I go to in Los Angeles, except this home held the story of my family.”

Credit: Disney

Gipson’s pitch to Disney’s experimental development program grew to involve a challenge — to use VR to see if they couldn’t achieve something that not only used architectural space to express emotion, but also expressed it in such quantity that the story would be as compelling to a viewer as the very excitement of using nascent VR technology. “I remember every time he would pitch it around the studio, we would get people crying just hearing it,” recalls Brown, who has also worked in production at Disney Animation for around five years. “I knew something was really special about this one. We had eight core members that Jeff picked out, but on top of that, people would pop their heads into the room and check in, and we picked up collaborators along the way.”

That’s because Cycles, though it bears an animation style that fits snugly within the Disney aesthetic, involved coming up with a new pipeline of tech tools and processes at the studio in just four months. Now, even with a completed short, Gipson and Brown don’t consider themselves experts on VR, but the surprise emotional gut-punch of the film, evidenced by reactions around the studio and in public, has helped the Cycles filmmakers see the technology as a promising potential disruption in animation (to say nothing of the challenge for a marketing or distribution team to figure out how to show as many people the interactive short as possible).

“I think what draws me to it is that I don’t think anyone knows [what to do with VR],” says Gipson. “I feel like we’re starting to scratch on something where you can tell stories in new ways, and I definitely wouldn’t be surprised if there were more things to come from the studio. Since we’ve shown it, there’s been so much excitement and curiosity. In film, there’s a distinct language — how a camera is set up, or how characters move across a screen, or how to compose a frame. But in VR, we’re in a state where we’re still figuring it all out, and I love that. There is no right or wrong answer yet.”

Credit: Disney

Catch Cycles at the New York Film Festival’s Convergence program, starting Sept. 29.