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Forward Unto Dawn and staying true to Halo


You might think that the biggest challenge in creating Halo 4's Forward Unto Dawn series was translating one of gaming's most beloved franchises into a live-action film that was not only true to the source material, but also worth watching. You'd be right, of course, but for fans the biggest challenge was in making sure Master Chief sounded right.

During the Forward Unto Dawn postmortem at GDC, 343 Industries franchise development director Frank O'Connor noted that the casting of Master Chief was "a source of much consternation" for series fans. "We did a couple of tests using the actor who plays Master Chief in the game, and he's an older guy," said O'Connor.

The ending of Forward Unto Dawn reveals that the superhuman Spartan soldiers are just as young as the film's UNSC cadets, so giving Master Chief the gravelly voice we all know and love would be out of place. "He can't sound like he's 50," said O'Connor, "and so we had to find a young actor whose voice sounded like his voice might eventually grow into the Chief's."

Even so, fans took umbrage at the idea of not using Master Chief's longtime voice actor, Steve Downes, but O'Connor said it simply wouldn't have worked. "We have some tests where Steve Downes' voice is sort of dubbed over those scenes, and it just didn't make sense." The story of Forward Unto Dawn was about youth and how the young are affected by war, he said. "We spent an awful lot of blood, sweat and tears trying to find someone who sounded like Steve Downes will sound in 30 years." At one point, said franchise manager Kevin Grace, the audio team actually tried to "de-age" Downes' voice. The result sounded less like a young Chief and more like "chief of the chipmunks."

Of course, there were many more significant challenges for the production, specifically keeping it true to the Halo franchise while also creating a successful film and making sure both Forward Unto Dawn and Halo 4 tied into one another. Halo 4 executive producer Kiki Wolfkill noted that one of the biggest lessons that 343 learned was to find the right collaborators. "You really have to go into it knowing that you have no experience when it comes to the linear side of things, and how it works in LA and shoot schedules and casting and all of that," she said. "You kind of think because you like movies, and you like TV, and you like to read stories that you have some expertise there, but you really don't." The linear production of film is very different from the iterative production of games, she said.

343 wound up trusting the production company's expertise, and gave it a great deal of freedom, which Forward Unto Dawn producer Josh Feldman described as "a huge gift." The end result he said, was a collaborative effort that yielded more creative ideas, something that might not have happened if 343 had more explicitly prescribed how the project was handled.

"One of the important things we do as a franchise ... is trusting the artists and creators that you're collaborating with," said O'Connor, "and so there's things we'll find that we're not being prescriptive [about], like costume design for example." 343 wasn't about the second guess the costume designers, he said. "We're not going to sit there and say, 'well, I don't think that fabric is suitable for vacuum or slipspace travel.' We're there to say, 'yeah, that looks cool.'" He added that, if 343 were to ever explore the era of Forward Unto Dawn in an actual Halo game, it would use the costume designs featured in the film series.

Forward Unto Dawn and staying true to Halo
Tying Forward Unto Dawn into Halo 4 itself presented a few unique challenges as well. One example, noted O'Connor, was the character of Thomas Lasky, the main character of Forward Unto Dawn and also a major character in the Halo 4 campaign. Between Forward Unto Dawn, Halo 4 and TV commercials, there were four different versions of the character, said O'Connor. "We had young Lasky, old Lasky, CG Lasky and TV Lasky, and we had to try and pick actors that weren't available at the same times that sort of looked a little bit like each other." In fact, the older Lasky's eye color actually had to be fixed in post production, because it didn't match the other three.

During the Q&A session, I asked how Forward Unto Dawn changed 343's perception of putting Halo on film, especially after the famously canceled Halo movie that failed to make it through Hollywood a few years ago.

"It definitely was a learning experience," said O'Connor. "If a Halo movie ever happens, or any other Halo linear entertainment, we just go into with our eyes wide open. We won't be stupid enough to think that we're now experts either. The scale that we built this thing at, and the scale that movies and TV shows have is geometrically different. And so, we definitely have learned some things, and we've met some great people. I think people is going to be the most important thing we take out of this process."

"I do think it sort of reaffirmed for us [that] we want to tell stories, and there are so many different ways of telling them," added Wolfkill. "I think this is a really gratifying experience in terms of being able to tell this kind of story, and so I think there's certainly and appetite for us to do more of that in different ways."

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