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Disney greenlights 'top secret' VR short film project

The move signals a bigger investment by Disney Animation Studios in the burgeoning medium.

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Cycles was Disney's first virtual reality short film. 

Disney

Walt Disney Animation Studios has been showing off its first ever virtual-reality short film, Cycles, at festivals for the last five months. Over the weekend at Sundance, Disney revealed that Cycles isn't going to be its last venture into VR.

In the last month, Walt Disney Animation Studios gave the greenlight to another "top secret" VR short from Jeff Gipson, the director of Cycles. That was the word from Gipson on Sunday, as Disney showed off Cycles -- about the life of one family -- to press and movie industry insiders on the sidelines of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. 

"What Cycles is proving is VR is something the studio wants to explore," said Nicholas Russell, one of Cycles' producers and the head of the Disney professional development program that created it in four months. "The fact that they greenlit another one this quickly is proof that they might not know exactly what tomorrow looks like for Disney and VR, but we're going to keep exploring."

Disney's interest in VR -- as a storytelling medium in its own right rather than simply a marketing tool -- comes as the media titan is poised to make several big leaps. Set to take over much of 21st Century Fox later this year, Disney is not only expanding into the biggest traditional studio but also reorganizing itself around launching a Netflix-like streaming service, Disney+. 

With Disney CEO Bob Iger calling Disney+ the company's top priority, Disney Animation Studio's VR experiments like Cycles and Gipson's next project suggest Disney's embrace of risky new tech is broader than streaming. 

If VR is to survive, it needs heavyweights like Disney buying in. VR was one of technology's buzziest trends in the last three years, attracting giant investments by heavyweights like Google, Facebook and others. But its hype has fizzled lately, as widespread adoption of VR proved elusive. Without gotta-see-it content compelling people to try the unfamiliar format, consumers have been ambivalent about these odd headsets you strap to your face.

But Disney has show a wider interest in VR over the last several months. Earlier this month, Disney showed off a Marvel-based VR game that you play in the back of an Audi electric car. In September, the company was among the lead investors in virtual-reality startup Jaunt VR's $66 million round of funding. And it made a location-based VR game based on Disney Animation's Ralph Breaks the Internet.

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Russell and Gipson could discuss only limited details about the next VR piece. It's likely to also be a short that falls in the three- to five-minute range. And the company is allowing Gipson and his team to explore using Disney's existing cast of characters in VR, Russell said. 

"The studio is super excited about it," Russell added. 

With a look and feel that's unmistakably Disney, the 3-minute-long Cycles depicts the history of one family in their midcentury modern California home, with vignettes about them that jump back and forth in time over the course of about 40 years. Beyond demos at film festivals like Sundance, the company hasn't defined a release plan for Cycles. Most of the shorts created in the internal shorts-development program led by Russell are never released. 

"Because this is our first VR, it's raised so many questions for the studio" that challenged presumptions about how things are always done, Gipson said. But the team that created Cycles is open to wide public release on a platform like the Oculus store. 

"That'd be nice," Russell said. "Talk to our bosses, let's get that sorted out."

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