Drawing heavily from film noir as a genre as well as the visual language of live theatre, Madrid Noir is a 45-minute mystery adventure that unfolds across two acts. Part animated film, part interactive exploration, it follows Lola, a disenchanted young woman, as she delves into her past. Developed by No Ghost and produced by Atlas V, the team that brought you BATTLESCAR: Punk Was Invented By Girls and Gloomy Eyes, Madrid Noir premiered at Tribeca Film Festival 2021 and Annecy Film Festival 2021. And it’s now available on the Oculus Quest Platform.
We sat down with Director James A. Castillo and Writer Lawrence Bennett to learn more.
Tell us a little about yourselves. How did you first get involved with filmmaking?
James A. Castillo: Well, the interest in storytelling has always been there, whether I was illustrating or painting. But filmmaking didn't become an obsession until I started taking my first steps into the animation industry. Like for many others, filmmaking has been a source of inspiration since I was a little kid, but I remember not only being awestruck by what I was watching on the screen, but also wanting to make my own stuff from a very early age.
Once I started working in the animation industry and I started getting closer to the directors and producers, those creative muscles started working again and I couldn’t stop myself from sharing ideas and getting as involved as possible in the story process. Eventually that led to me wanting to develop my own material—stories that felt more personal to me.
Lawrence Bennett: I’ve always liked telling stories, whether that be concocting tall tales as a child or acting on the stage. I studied a mixture of creative arts and computer science, so finding ways to allow each to enhance the other has always been important to me. I started off my career in feature films, working on visual effects for Star Wars, Marvel, and Bond films. Working with hundreds, if not thousands of people on a production was good fun, but I missed the feeling of having any input into the creative! In 2016, I co-founded an immersive development studio called No Ghost.
What was your first experience with VR?
JAC: I think my first ever experience in VR was Pearl (Patrick Osborne, 2016). It had just come out, and I had been hired to be art director on Melita (Nicolás Alcalá, 2017)—I had never seen or done any VR. I was blown away by its potential to tell stories, and I have been interested in the technology ever since.
LB: For me, it was the DK1. I remember hassling my colleague nonstop to get a go on it. Eventually he brought it into the office, and I tried Titans of Space. It completely bowled me over — I was speechless and remember shedding a tear or two. I’d never before felt like I’d poked my head into the future.
What was the inspiration behind Madrid Noir?
JAC: It’s hard to pinpoint it to one specific thing. I have always been a fan of the noir genre, and I knew that, if I had the chance, I would try to develop a project in that genre. Something that I had been thinking about for a while was that (in my opinion) the theatrical language would translate much better into VR than the cinematic language. Lastly, I was travelling to Madrid a lot at that time to visit my family, and it was during those long walks around the city that these three ingredients started to merge into a seed that would grow to become Madrid Noir.
How (if at all) did the project change over time?
LB: At the beginning, we had much more humble expectations. It was a short film that involved a grumpy detective and a dog snatcher who was terrorizing the city—something much more akin to The Pink Panther than The Third Man. Back then, the project would change significantly on a daily basis. Soon it became a 20-minute film with double the characters, and then after many other iterations it became a 45-minute interactive experience where the detective was no longer the protagonist—something that we hoped would push the VR language a step further. The more we delved into the world and the characters, the more it sort of unfurled itself in front of us.
How long was Madrid Noir in development? Any favorite anecdotes you’d like to share?
LB: From the first time I spoke to James about the project to now is about four years! The final form it takes now was in live production for around 18 months, right through the middle of the pandemic. Working entirely remotely made it difficult to find moments of fun together, but we managed to spend a lot of time on video calls being silly. The script took us about three to four months to write, mostly due to getting lost in the mystery and needing to create such a lengthy and believable monologue for Lola.
Any cultural references that fans should be on the lookout for?
JAC: There are many! Myself and a lot of the other members of the team are Spanish, so there are little winks and references to local things that we like, from store fronts to signs, etc. If I was to highlight one particular thing, it would be the posters. The story takes place in 1935, just before the Spanish Civil War. We were mindful not to hammer down the politics of the conflict too hard, but we wanted to make sure that we presented a Spain that was politically divided. If you pay attention to the posters you see in the streets, those are all based on real posters of real political parties that were active back then.
What’s the best reaction you’ve seen when showing Madrid Noir thus far?
JAC: Something I never get tired of seeing is players talking to Lola as if she were really there. It’s so genuine. I think it taps into something very primitive, very human. Because she locks eyes with you many times and acts around you, I think people connect with her on a very personal level. Due to the pandemic, we’ve not had many chances to show our team the final experience but where we have, it’s been a lot of fun! Fanny, a key part of our design team, recently watched it for the first time, and she couldn’t believe how the whole thing came together—she was spotting her work all over the place in VR having only ever seen it in her own drawings. Fanny even shouted, “Is this the same project I worked on?!” at one point. That was great to see.
How did Madrid Noir build on your previous work in VR and/or animation? In what ways is it a departure from what came before?
LB: It’s our first full-length experience that is entirely of our own making, so all the years of work that the team had put into the animation industry lead up to this point. No Ghost has collaborated in VR with other artists and brands across the last five years, but original content has always been core to our goals. We were always going to do something heavily narrative-focused—we strive to tell stories with all our work—but the direct interaction with a complex character is something that we felt was fresh, innovative, and also necessary to the space.
What technical challenges did you encounter during production? How did you overcome those obstacles?
LB: A lot! It’s no mean feat to squeeze any experience onto the Quest—you’re working within very tight performance restrictions and absolutely everything that goes into the experience has to consider this. Lighting is extremely important to the storytelling and being able to only use one dynamic light per scene definitely presented a challenge. Careful and considered texturing was one way around this and sometimes even reconsidering how the scene played out in order to compensate. Getting the character rigs to be performant was a massive challenge. The number of bones in each rig quickly exceeds the recommended limit when doing high-quality animation, so the rigs would go through many rounds of back and forward between the 3D team and the engine to make sure they were efficient.
If people take away one thing from Madrid Noir, what do you hope that would be and why?
JAC: I hope they come out of it realizing that typecasting in this technology is limiting its potential. We’re just starting to form a language around virtual reality, and it's going to keep getting more and more nuanced as more creatives come up with ideas on how to tell stories effectively with it. The more open people are about the idea of what VR can be, the more freedom people will have to explore its limits. And I just hope they enjoy it, that they’ll come away with a feeling of friendship towards Lola—we really want people to share her emotional journey.
How do you think VR and AR will continue to change the face of the arts moving forward?
JAC: Probably the biggest impact on the arts won't be the fancy technology or the new hardware—it will be the possibility for people to interact with the art, somehow make it theirs. As we continue experiencing art through these new devices, it will become more important for us to make each time unique, something that changes with us. I think the more creatives try to involve the viewers into their projects, the more successful they will be.
LB: For me it's about story, story, story. The hardware has been available to consumers for eight years now. I think it’s taken all this time to even begin to understand how the technology can be used. A lot of effort has been spent trying to apply our learnings from traditional storytelling methods, and at times it’s been really useful, but I think we should be wiping the slate clean, looking at what we know really works, and seeing how we come up with totally new narrative methodologies.
What advice would you give to a creator looking to start building for VR?
JAC: Follow your gut and prototype fast. We don't have enough of a VR library to assume that we know how to solve every situation. Also, I would recommend always questioning why you are adding interaction and if that interaction helps further the story or if it just feels gimmicky.
LB: It’s a classic one, but start simple. It’s quite amazing how quickly your brain fills in for the things that are missing once immersion begins to creep in. I think it’s hard to trust your gut in this medium—you make assumptions of how things will feel physically and then, more often than not, it won’t feel like that at all. Focus on the sensations and emotions you want to impart, not necessarily how they work mechanically.
What’s next for you? Any exciting updates in the works?
JAC: I’m going to lay in the grass and read a book. Haha. It’s been a very demanding project, so I’m looking forward to taking a bit of a rest. I have some ideas that I want to develop and explore, but it’s still too early to know what they will become.
LB: We’ve got a big vault of ideas stashed within the studio all at different stages of discovery and completeness. We’re working on some more experiences in the interactive narrative space, but also some much more experimental projects that I hope we’ll be able to share with the community as they develop.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
JAC: Nothing much, just to thank them for reading and that I hope they enjoy Madrid Noir. A lot of people have worked really hard to make something special.
LB:Madrid Noir is heavily influenced by the theatre. It’s in theatre, an art form thousands of years in the making, that I think we’ll find some of the most important solutions for the immersive space. Virtual reality is regularly compared to cinema, but it’s something entirely different and we should be treating it as such.
Get ready for some serious sleuthing. Madrid Noir is now available on the Quest Platform.