The making of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn

Microsoft’s experimental Halo live-action miniseries Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn has received over 50 million views since airing online last year. The five ‘webisodes’, produced by 343 Industries and directed by Stewart Hendler, were shown on MachinimaPrime’s YouTube channel and are now available on DVD/Blu-ray. Helping to craft the series was overall visual effects supervisor John E. Sullivan, who enlisted Arc Productions to craft creature and weapon effects, environments and even a CG Master Chief.

Sniper fire

In one sequence from the series, Master Chief Petty Officer John-117 assists the United Nations Space Command in fending off a sniper attack. The attack was filmed at the Simon Fraser University Library, a location, like others in Forward Unto Dawn, that Arc measured and photographed extensively. “We did a lot of photogrammetric reconstruction, laser measurement, and more traditional location information gathering so that when we came back from the shoot our camera department was ready to hit the ground running,” says Arc visual effects supervisor Terry Bradley. “It was almost like an archaeological survey in the way that it was approached. We quartered it up, divided and conquered.”

Watch the previs for the sniper shootout.

In some locations, such as the forest seen in the later episodes, photogrammetry proved difficult with the complicated tree surrounds. To combat this, Bradley “scattered LEDs on the location and measured the distances between the markers in order to triangulate the space. And we photographed at different levels of detail – bird’s eye photographs, medium level stuff for higher detail and then tighter shots in areas of particular interest.” 123D Catch was used as a photogrammetric tool, and then Maya and Sketch-Up were relied upon to help construct environments, either for final shots or to help with camera tracking.

Production filmed the sniper attach based on detailed storyboards and previs. Most of Arc’s work became muzzle flashes and enemy fire, which it identified in post-viz paint-overs once photography had wrapped. “Some of the enemy firepower looks like traditional laser fire but they’re actually high velocity crystal shards called ‘needles’,” explains Bradley. “Whenever a ‘needle’ struck a hard surface it would shatter accordingly, a rigid body sim in Houdini.”

“The rule of thumb was that the good guy’s weapons were treated as if they were typical gun powder weapons,” adds Bradley. “We took our cues for Master Chief’s rifle from a 50 caliber weapon and referenced contemporary military arms, but the bad guys were more sci-fi looking. The game was our compass.”

See part of the final shootout sequence.

A military advisor on set also proved extremely helpful. “He referred to Master Chief as a ‘weapons platform’,” says Bradley, “and suggested that Chief wouldn’t fire indiscriminately. In fact, he’d be very sparing with ammunition and only take a shot when he was confident that he was going to hit the target. He’d aim and fire, so unless he was looking at the target he wouldn’t fire his weapon. We tried to respect his skill for combat in a way befitting his experience. I think that those subtleties really make a difference.”

Additional effects in the sniper sequence were wall destructions, again using Houdini to create fractured elements, matte painting work and pyro blasts rendered in Mantra. Arc comp’d shots in Nuke, with camera tracks imported by pfTrack.

Not so welcoming wagon

Arc’s environment work included shots of a space elevator, and its destruction by Covenant vessels in one of the eps. Interior shots for the elevator were made of greenscreen hallway plates and CG geometry, with exteriors rendered as matte paintings and set extensions. Its destruction relied on rigid body sims and pyro effects created in Houdini. “The major destruction was animated for the most part as keyframe in Maya,” explains Bradley, “but when the elevator actually fell apart we turned the piece off in animation and effects took over to trigger the crumbling.”

See the environmental work behind the space elevator.

Delete the Elite

One of the creatures brought to life by Arc for Dawn are Elites, Covenant warrior aliens. “343 Industries gave us a fantastic headstart with geometry for that character,” says Bradley. “Those guys really know their stuff and I couldn’t think of a better partner to work with.”

The Elites featured iridescent markings and a glowing sword, all created in CG. “The game engine creations weren’t directly transferable in regards to our Mental Ray renderer, so we we re-topologized it in ZBrush and Maya and then took it through our surfacing pipeline to add the details and textures,” notes Bradley.

A static light on set served as a stand-in for the arcs and sparks effects from the sword, which were realized in Houdini. Geo of the locker room set where an Elite attacks also enabled Arc to re-light the environment to kick off lights onto surfaces.

Arc’s visual effects for an Elite.

Hunting the Hunter

Even more imposing creatures were the fierce Hunters, which Arc featured in a fight against Master Chief. “The Hunter in that scene was a real challenge because not only would we see him up close but under his armor he was made up of hundreds of eel-like creatures, all behaving and reacting independently of each other” recalls Bradley. “It was a rigging challenge to say the least, and knowing that he was going to blow up at some point he was built to facilitate our Houdini rigid body and pyro pipeline for the incendiary effects.”

On set, an 11 foot pole stood in for the Hunter to provide camera and actor eyelines. Arc animated the creature to be “big, heavy, menacing and intense,” says Bradley. “He was also luminescent in some respects and we payed special attention to the lensing artifacts that were generated by those qualities.”

The Hunter and Master Chief.

Rendering Master Chief

In only a few shots, Arc was required to create a CG Master Chief. A live action practical suit built by Legacy Effects was used for most shots. “They were very generous with files and documents,” says Bradley. “We also had geo from 343, and we took hundreds of photographs on set and worked literally for weeks on surfacing. He was the bar to which everything would be compared.”

“However I think that capturing the majority of that material in camera goes towards the believability of the digital work,” he adds. “I heard once, ‘The best lies are mostly truth’ – if you can mix the approach you really keep the audience guessing. And getting an actor to respond to something in front of him or her makes all the difference in the world.”

The practical Master Chief suit by Legacy Effects.

To see the Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn episodes, go here.