If there’s one thing that makes VR such a great medium for storytelling, it’s that it lets you live inside an experience. You’re not just spectating, you’re participating—moving around in the story, literally, and choosing whatever vantage point you want as you go. VR storytellers know this, and that’s why they offer you the narrative options they believe will help you get the most out of their work.
Such is the case with Mescaform Hill: The Missing Five, an animated experience that was an official selection of the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival and is available now on Oculus TV from Nigerian artist Edward Madojemu. Based on a web comic he created with his brother, Adam, Mescaform Hill: The Missing Five is a detective thriller that explores some of Nigeria’s superstitions while also examining the nuances of the joys, trials, and hardships of life in the African country. And it does so with the artistic style of a graphic novel, with interactive animated sequences built into a series of set pieces.
Set in a small Nigerian town, the story opens with a cinematic device often used to create tension and signal a protagonist’s fear and unease: a police roadblock. But surprise! The protagonist here isn’t the man behind the wheel, it’s the policeman who, before letting the nervous driver carry on, poses one more question—does he happen to know anything about four cops who have disappeared?
They are four of the “missing five” referenced by the story’s title. The fifth is a young girl whose mother has been desperately searching for her for days, and who has been pleading to no avail for assistance from the local police. But our hero cop, who has a far larger heart than his colleagues, including his boss, jumps in to help. And from here, the story really begins, taking us into the girl’s mysteriously destroyed family home, deep into the wilds of the forest, and onto a roller-coaster ride of emotions as we discover the fate of each of the missing five—and how their disappearances are tied together and related to the realities of everyday Nigerian life.
The Missing Five expands on the world the Madojemu brothers originally imagined in their web comic. But it leans much more into the Nigerian folk tales and myths explored in earlier iterations of Mescaform Hill, in this case centering the narrative around one involving the transformation of a man into an extremely protective forest creature. “While researching and making the web comics, it became clear that the folk tales and myths we were exploring play a much more complex societal role than we had previously thought,” Edward Madojemu says, “shaping the way people view the world and themselves.”
Throughout the story, we experience it as if it were a comic in 3D. We can peer into the interior of each panel, look around and behind the characters as scenes evolve, and get up close and personal with them in order to really understand their emotions and motivations. Manifesting that artistic storytelling approach took the creative team a little over a year and involved detailed storyboarding to figure out how to translate a comics style into VR.
When thinking about bringing Mescaform Hill to VR, the brothers leveraged the medium’s interactivity as a way to transport people into entirely new environments. “There was an opportunity to get audiences as close as they could possibly get to actually being in Mescaform Hill with VR,” Madojemu explains. “It allowed us to really deliver on the idea of this fictional place, grounding the characters and events in the world around them, which in turn leant the story more weight.”
Plus, Madojemu adds, bringing the story to VR let the team incorporate tension and scary moments without the edges of the audience’s screen limiting their experience. In that, he says, “these moments can have more impact.”
The Missing Five was built using Quill by Smoothstep, which Madojemu first tried the same day his brother showed him the groundbreaking VR film Dear Angelica. For the first time, Madojemu understood the power of VR storytelling. “It blew my mind and completely changed what I thought was possible with art—not only in VR, but as a whole,” he says. “I’ve been using Quill in my work ever since.”
And while The Missing Five’s core artistic elements are its visuals, the story wouldn’t have nearly the emotional punch it does without its haunting soundtrack and sound design. For that, the brothers brought on Composer and Audio Director Dren McDonald and also worked with Jonathan Buch and Chris Hanson from the Meta Sound Design Team. To make the score more authentic, they used traditional West African instruments, such as an mbira and ballaphone, while also directing a five-piece string section that included members of Sound Design playing nylon string guitar, fretless banjo, mbira, and more. “It was wonderful working with them all, and their contributions brought the project to life,” Madojemu says. “I’d send over the latest pass at a scene, and they’d elevate it to far beyond my capabilities, adding atmosphere and life to the story.”
What really hammers home the atmosphere in the end, however, is the project’s artistic style. The brothers aimed for a lighthearted and playful tone that could seamlessly become dark and heavy as the narrative demands. That meant choosing a clearly stylized art direction that maintains realistic lighting and colors. And, just as important, that style had to be balanced with the needs of the animation.
Now that The Missing Five is done, Madojemu feels ready to share some of what he learned on the project with other artists wishing to create in VR. The most important lesson, he insists, is to let go of what you know. “Come in ready to relearn everything,” he says. “You need to be willing to let go of control so you can begin to think and create spatially.”
For the brothers, at least, that process definitely seems to have worked, particularly as evidenced by The Missing Five being included in the Tribeca Film Festival. “It’s wild to think that this tiny project my brother and I would work on in our spare time is now being showcased on such a big stage,” Madojemu says. “I’m just so grateful that we were given the opportunity to do this.”
“I would like to shout out Storyboard and Previs Artist Vince Xi, who was behind some of the most creative sequences in The Missing Five, Concept Artists Chelsea Castro and Vivian Chan, who designed the environments and characters, as well as Ryan Genji Thomas and Goro Fujita, for guidance and support,” Madojemu adds. “The project would not be what it is without their contributions, and I’m very grateful to have worked with them.”