By KEVIN H. MARTIN
Images courtesy of Paramount+
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By KEVIN H. MARTIN
Images courtesy of Paramount+
Science fiction has long been a key source for the gaming world, even prior to the advent of video games. A dice-based board game based on Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers novels arrived more than two decades ahead of Paul Verhoeven’s film adaptation, while at least a pair of computer games derived from Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. Troopers, along with James Cameron’s Aliens, served as inspiration to various other properties leveraging off the ‘Grunts in Space’ concept, including the Wing Commander franchise and the Battlestar Galactica reboot, as well as the immensely successful series of Halo video games.
Set in the 26th century, Halo features a variety of alien and human factions in conflict, a premise that seemed ripe for cinematic adaptation. But an early feature attempt involving Peter Jackson, Neill Blomkamp and Alex Garland failed to pan out. Steven Spielberg later took an active interest in the property, and helped shepherd it along over a span of some years, even as the Haloverse grew to encompass novels, live-action shorts and animated features, all overseen by 343 Industries.
The newest incarnation, debuting on Paramount+, is a series that retains the key heroes, antagonists and world-building of the games, but with a greater focus on characters, especially that of super soldier Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber). In addition to the many practical issues of production design, special effects and makeup prosthetics, a multitude of VFX challenges needed to be met, ultimately involving 14 vendors. VFX Producer Bill Halliday, while lacking credits in otherworldly science fiction, had overseen work on The Tudors, The Borgias, Vikings, Penny Dreadful and the futuristic Into the Badlands. Halliday boarded the project in June 2018, which, since the cameras didn’t roll until November of the following year, provided ample time for what he calls, “A very healthy prep, which was useful in helping us relate the series to the games. Halo 3 is one of their benchmarks, so we aspired to a look in that vein.”
U.K. Creature Designer Howard Swindell was brought on to render various aliens very early on. “He worked in 3D and then did a kind of paint-over. With these sketches in hand, we went to 343 to get their signoff for each look. While they were the final approval step, pilot director Otto Bathurst was also very involved. After that, we went into a testing phase on the creatures, matchmoving to a gray-suited stunt player, who also needed footwear to make them a lot taller than they were in life.”
Production’s first Visual Effects Supervisor, Tom Turnbull, began evaluating various vendors for the creatures, some of which would be partially CG while others were fully digital. He was later joined by Dominic Remane, another Vikings alum who had shared an Emmy win plus nominations with Halliday. “Our initial focus on creatures had to widen to environments later, after those designs had been largely worked out by the art department,” Remane states. “Then it was ours to take and run with, though still reflecting the look of the game to 343’s satisfaction, especially with the planet Reach.”
“[Creature Designer Howard Swindell] worked in 3D and then did a kind of paint-over. With these sketches in hand, we went to 343 [Industries] to get their signoff for each look. While they were the final approval step, pilot director Otto Bathurst was also very involved. After that, we went into a testing phase on the creatures, matchmoving to a gray-suited stunt player, who also needed footwear to make them a lot taller than they were in life.”
—Bill Halliday, VFX Producer
Another character that required a lot of iterations was Cortana, Master Chief’s AI, voiced by Jen Taylor, who also provided Cortana’s voice in the games. “We went through multiple design phases with her to bring that to a level everybody was happy with, from us to 343 to the network,” Remane explains. “We’d mocap Jen in a suit on set, tracking her behavior and performance as well as her facial features. She has played that character of Cortana for so many years that hers is an iconic performance, and we wanted our version to contain all those gestures and nuances that would ring true for fans. We wanted them to just accept, ‘oh, she’s Cortana.’”
Reference was key with the design for the Covenant creatures. “Part of my job was working with the directors, 343 and the producers to get a performance containing the necessary qualities on the day,” notes Remane. “Then it was often a matter of translating what was needed to take it all the way through post with the executing of VFX. Fortunately, we’ve had really good vendors handling the creatures, and they made sure to use the artists who caught on quickly to the nuances and the exact kind of look we wanted.”
Pre-planning the VFX utilized old-school storyboarding as well as previs. “Each director used that tool in a different way,” says Turnbull. “Some preferred storyboards, but one director actually did his own previs on the Unreal Engine. That was a very positive experience because he was quite good at it, and this pushed our typical process in a different way, one that I enjoyed quite a lot. I’m wondering if that might point the way toward something we’ll see more of in the future.” Another consideration tabled for future seasons was the use of LED walls. “When we started shooting, that was not yet a thing, outside of The Mandalorian,” observes Turnbull. “But now, two years later, there are dedicated stages, and in another two years we will have a really solid idea about what LED walls are good for versus where they don’t work so well. It’ll take a while for the process to become fully integrated with production.”
With the shot load initially projected to share among seven to eight vendors, another phase of testing was done to ensure the pipeline between each provider was translatable. “We wanted to avoid cases where somebody had to redo a rig, rerender or change the shading, and weren’t going to fall into a situation where some vendor said, ‘It will take a month for us to ingest this into our pipeline,’” Turnbull relates, noting that ‘cornerstone’ software packages – Maya for animation, Houdini for particle work – were most often used.
“Everybody adhered to ACES color space throughout,” Remane emphasizes, “with each vendor knowing how to look at the footage; in certain circumstances they would know to ignore the LUT and instead view it in the color space that was going to be in play when it went to the DI. Because we used the same renderer most of the time, lighting-wise things had a like quality. The one company using Renderman [Mr. X] did an A-to-B version and built an Arnold version for everybody else that looked the same.”
Given that the action spans various star systems, a variety of space-going vessels would also be required. “343 gave us a huge drop of ship assets during prep,” says Halliday. “These included models done by Blur that were used in game cinematics. Since those had been developed more in a visual effects way than most gaming designs, we tended to lean on those most. These represented much-loved designs, so our hard-surface modeling tried to only improve them a bit, taking them to finishes that weren’t readily achievable for the games.”
Adhering to the hard science fiction template of the game, the look of space was less stylized than has been the case in many recent series. “There’s definitely no ‘lens flare fever’ on this show,” Remane declares. “We made sure the environments were all lit in ways that made sense, not overlit or with the light too well-balanced. You make sure the sun source is correct, then let everything else fall off naturally into darkness.”
Realizing the extraterrestrial Prophets posed a unique challenge in that it spanned many departments, “We decided very early on that the Prophets would be only partially CG,” says Turnbull. “This hybrid approach began with prosthetic suits for stunt players, handled by Filmefex in Budapest. Wardrobe provided full costumes, while their bodies and arm movements were puppeteered on wire rigs. Sound had to wire the suits so the actors inside could hear us, while vocal performance happened off to one side, along with the facial capture that served as a reference for the later animation. It was probably the most fun I had on the whole show, seeing all these technologies and techniques come together, and it really proves the [adage] ‘Rely on Analog/Rely on Digital.’”
Further complicating scenes involving the Prophets, the creatures are seen in articulated gravity chairs. “Special Effects Supervisor Paul Stephenson’s team developed systems for moving these 400-pound loads,” Halliday reports. “SFX also built the rig to puppet these static heads, which, while only seen in over-the-shoulder shots, were absolutely camera-ready work. MR. X cut those heads off and replaced them digitally. Dom and I had used them as our primary vendor for six seasons of Vikings, where they did 95% of the work, so we had them in mind for this work right from the start.”
“Each director used that [previs] tool in a different way. Some preferred storyboards, but one director actually did his own previs on the Unreal Engine. That was a very positive experience because he was quite good at it, and this pushed our typical process in a different way, one that I enjoyed quite a lot. I’m wondering if that might point the way toward something we’ll see more of in the future.”
—Tom Turnbull, Visual Effects Supervisor
Other races ported over from the games include Jackals, the Unggoy (aka ‘Grunts’) and the slithering Collective known as the Lekgolo. “We spent a long while trying to get the CG performances just right on the Lekgolo character animation work,” acknowledges Remane. “It was kind of a balance we managed to strike between the undulating movements of a worm and that of a snake. The creatures can curl up on themselves, but then rapidly accelerate to strike a target. Finessing that so the results looked both correctly in character and credible to the eye took time, but then we found a National Geographic reference of several snakes trying to attack a small critter that really showed us a way in. The speed and ferocity of these snakes swarming and tearing through the sand to reach this target was unbelievable.”
The practical limitations arising from the armor worn by Master Chief and his Spartans imposed restrictions on the live-action battle scenes. “The actors were able to do a lot of movements in those suits, which was a big plus,” Turnbull states, “but the real win for us was that they could act and have their performance come through even when fully suited with these huge helmets on their heads. Pablo has a number of scenes where, though he is fully masked, the audience will understand what he is feeling. They were only really limited when it came to hard action, and we always knew that was going to be more our end of things.”
“With Master Chief, the design and performance aesthetic was assembled based on the game character’s actions, plus what was and wasn’t achievable on set,” Remane acknowledges. “The actor himself brought so much to it, but there were aspects that were never going to work practically, owing to the limitations of wire gags and how any actor or stunt personnel could move while inside that suit. Spartans often got replaced digitally when they were running and shooting, so we’d have to translate the actors’ movements into digital versions of those characters.”
Most of the battle scenes feature practical explosions, though these were occasionally augmented with CG enhancement. “Paul Stephenson really almost overdelivered with the pyrotechnics,” Turnbull enthuses. “Things blew up really large when they needed to, and he was always in a good dialog with us, right from the start and carrying on through the end of shooting.” Except for one scene involving an actor playing two roles, no motion-control was used during filming. “Twinning is a kind of traditional use for mo-con,” says Turnbull, “so it made sense to use what worked. But the rest of the time we shot free cameras, with all the plate photography done wild, because we were all about letting each director make his movie his way.”
The division of VFX labor had been well-planned, but when COVID hit and interrupted production, the resulting delay ultimately impacted the vendors in a significant way. “We had three different major battles throughout the season,” explains Halliday, “and so we knew that creatures were going to have to be shared among vendors to get that done in time. Dividing up the shows went pretty clean at first, as we knew the first, fifth and final episodes were going to be big and we could allocate resources accordingly. But after we came back from COVID, it was winter in Hungary, so we couldn’t go outside to shoot these big scenes. This meant pushing the three biggest, most VFX-heavy sequences to the end of the schedule. Our careful plan for apportioning the work so nobody would get overwhelmed went right out the window, requiring us to bring in larger facilities with the capacity to take on 250-shot sequences. MPC’s episodic division is really helping us now, while ReDefine has, I believe, access to the entire DNEG network, so they can really throw bodies at a volume-heavy project to get it done quickly. It was kind of regrettable that the companies building many of these assets didn’t get to always execute those scenes, but we faced a real logjam.”
Halliday was philosophical about how the best laid-plans don’t always come together, acknowledging that, “You always go in with expectations on how things will play out – but then you adjust. You learn more about each company’s strengths, and your relationship with them develops over time. For example, we knew it was going to be a very big creature job, but actually, while that proved to be true, it also was the smoothest part of the operation – partly because we already had a good idea of how things would look from the existing franchise. But there were certain high-concept bits – otherworldly things – that didn’t always have visual precedents. Each of these challenging VFX-driven moments required us to invent a new playbook, because it was new territory, so visualizing many of those required a lot more effort in the conceptualization process.
“Rodeo FX has this enormous reputation for doing marvelous environment work,” he continues, “so initially we wanted to take advantage of that with them. But they soon became such great partners that the possibilities expanded, as they showed us how much wider a gamut of work they could do for us, and those wound up including a number of these far-out effects.” Other vendors utilized throughout the series include Pixomondo, MR. X, Rocket Science VFX, Rodeo FX, Cinesite (Montreal), Fillscrn, FuseFX, MPC (London), Goodbye Kansas Studios, The Frame Distillery, Mavericks VFX, Stereo D, RedefineFX and Rayon FX.
Turnbull, who left Halo during post to take the VFX reins on Tim Burton’s The Addams Family-inspired Wednesday series, thinks this Paramount+ effort – already renewed for a second season before its debut – strikes a balance between meeting expectations of die-hard fans and offering up greater depth to that universe. “We had a charter to go bold,” he states, “so the objects, environments, creatures and vessels that were new to the Halo universe were very fun. But even with that mandate, these additions are respectful of the legacy, with roots based in hard science fiction, which I happen to enjoy. So for me, a big part of the job was maintaining that focus to deliver a style that is more realistic, rather than some fantastic or magical reinterpretation of spaceships and planets. That was my MO from day one.”
“We’d mocap Jen [Taylor] in a suit on set, tracking her behavior and performance as well as her facial features. She has played that character of Cortana for so many years that hers is an iconic performance, and we wanted our version to contain all those gestures and nuances that would ring true for fans. We wanted them to just accept, ‘oh, she’s Cortana.’”
—Dominic Remane, Visual Effects Supervisor