If there’s one thing that everyone loves about going to the movies to watch the latest Pixar film, it’s got to be the shorts. These mini-movies that appear before the main feature are often filled with as much love, laughs and innovation as the film they’re shown in front of. Madrid Noir: Prologue brings those fuzzy feelings into a VR headset.
Produced by No Ghost and directed by James Castillo, Madrid Noir was awarded the Best Debut VR Experience prize at this year’s Raindance Film Festival, and it’s easy to see why. Though it offers only a taste of what will hopefully be a more fleshed out experience, I was utterly charmed by its short story, which introduces us to a private investigator named Manolo and his reluctantly-adopted dog, Paquita.
Speaking to UploadVR, No Ghost’s Lawrence Bennett explained that the film had be devised as a love letter to Castillo’s hometown of Madrid. “As a good friend of the studio James bought the character concepts and story pitch to No Ghost and we immediately fell in love with them,” Bennett said. “Having a shared background in animation we wanted to create something that featured high end and expressive character animation that could communicate the story without the need for narration or character voicing.”
And the Prologue is indeed expressive. Set in the lull of early evening, Manolo treks his way back to his apartment, berated by Paquita, who simply wants to play ball, at every turn. The detective’s weary eyes tell you all you need to know about the kind of day he’s had, as does his slumped body language. You can’t help but wince as Paquita starts to push his buttons as he drags himself around a 360-degree stage, which is beautifully realized as a virtual theater production.
I also can’t help but notice just how easy Madrid Noir is on the eyes. A mix of vibrant colors bring both scenes and characters to life with welcoming warmth. “No Ghost has a bit of a historical obsession with mixing 2D and 3D styles, and Madrid Noir was a perfect platform for that,” Bennett adds. “Creating shaders that appear hand painted and mixing them with realistic and volumetric lighting was key to realising this look.”
This is a VR production, though, and naturally I’m interested to hear what Bennett thinks the platform brings to the piece. “We had a simple story in our hands, and we felt that if we made it in 2D we wouldn’t be able to create such a strong relationship between the characters and the audience,” he explained. “Because you exist in the same world that they exist, anything that happens to them happens to you too and that’s a very special thing that VR can do that no other medium can.”
Rewatching the brief clip above, it’s certainly true that Madrid Noir has a more immediate impact in VR, though I’d like to see it go deeper. It’s fascinating to watch these characters come to life, but the concept of the audience being a physical presence within this virtual world isn’t explored in great depth here. This feels like its testing the waters of such ideas rather than fully embracing them, though it’s a fitting venue to do just that before the main series gets underway.
I can’t wait to see where No Ghost takes this experience next, especially as the studio gains the confidence to try truly new things with VR. There’s no word on when the prologue itself will be available more widely – it still has a few more stops on the festival circuit before we hear about that.