Microsoft is marketing Halo 4 as "the biggest entertainment event of 2012." Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, the game's live-action tie-in web series, is a major element of that marketing push. It grew partly out of Microsoft's past live-action ads and webisodes for previous entries in the Halo franchise, tantalizingly short vignettes — 30 seconds to two minutes long — that thrilled fans.
It got to the point where "people [were] looking forward to [the] marketing" more than the games themselves, said a half-joking Frank O'Connor, Halo franchise development director at 343 Industries, to me over the phone.
Forward Unto Dawn is Microsoft's first foray into live-action content — at least, into something longer than a TV spot. And in a series of phone interviews with leads on the creative, business, and production sides of the project, it became clear the technology giant has larger ambitions for this outgrowth of its marquee entertainment property.
"343 [Industries] is more than just a tech company; they're an entertainment company," said Lydia Antonini, one of Forward Unto Dawn's executive producers. According to Stewart Hendler, the director of the series, Microsoft and 343i were clear in "wanting a high-production-value, Hollywood-style thing from the get-go." The idea was to create something that was accessible even to people unfamiliar with Halo, and something that could stand on its own as a piece of entertainment, while satisfying die-hard fans — a notoriously difficult-to-please crowd.
With such high expectations and so many masters to serve, can Forward Unto Dawn deliver? Watch the first episode in full below, and then read on for more on the series.
I spoke with Hendler separately from Antonini and co-executive producer Josh Feldman, but all three brought up how impressed they were at how humble and collaborative 343 Industries was in making Forward Unto Dawn. Hendler in particular was surprised, especially considering the "very public frustrations" Microsoft had in failing to bring Halo to the silver screen during the middle of the last decade.
343 Industries didn't exist back then; Microsoft created the company in 2007 to oversee the entire Halo franchise — the games and any related content — moving forward. Bungie, the original studio behind Halo, "didn't have time or resources" to concentrate on much besides the games themselves, according to O'Connor, although the company was "really closely involved" with many of the Halo books. The establishment of 343i allowed all decisions regarding "external-facing aspects of Halo" to be made internally, and O'Connor believes that has been tremendously beneficial for the franchise.
In the past, O'Connor told me, people creating non-game Halo content might have been restricted to "opportunistic" or "safe" storytelling. But with 343i as the curators of Halo, "All the stories that we tell outside of the game are either completely canonical, or connected to the game in interesting and unique ways," he said. "The important aspect of this external stuff," he added, is "giving yourself deeper, stronger foundations" to build upon.
Forward Unto Dawn, then, is the next logical step for the franchise, and 343i has worked hard to make it matter. Matt McCloskey, the director of business management for Halo at 343i, told me the studio wants the series to deliver a new level of "sophistication of narrative programming," and produce a "more deeply engaged consumer across multiple product lines." He pointed out the studio's consistent drip-feeding of Halo content: six weeks of Forward Unto Dawn teasers, followed by five weeks of episodes leading up to Halo 4's release, and ten weeks of free downloadable mission packs for the game's Spartan Ops co-op multiplayer mode after launch.
Forward Unto Dawn hopes to reach a new level of "sophistication of narrative programming"
An important aspect of Forward Unto Dawn is that the medium — the YouTube channel Machinima Prime — makes it the most accessible long-form Halo content yet. Microsoft and 343i wanted to "lower all the barriers to entry," McCloskey told me. Yet its makers are taking a risk in that the episodes are relatively long for web-based video content: 15 to 20 minutes instead of five to 10.
Hendler reckons he got the directing job partly because of his prior work on Warner Bros.' H+ web series, whose episodes are five minutes long on average and can be watched out of order. Forward Unto Dawn, on the other hand, is a serialized show with a narrative progression that resembles TV. According to Feldman, who is also a co-producer on Tom Hanks' Electric City web series, the producers of Forward Unto Dawn wanted to "structure it like a premium cable show" and "raise the quality bar [over] what has previously been done" online.
A die-hard fan's most important measure of quality is authenticity, and the makers of Forward Unto Dawn collaborated very closely with 343i and Microsoft to maintain it. "This was not a situation where they just gave us an envelope of money," said Feldman. Someone from the studio was always on the set in Vancouver, and series writers Todd and Aaron Helbing (Spartacus: Vengeance, Mortal Kombat: Legacy) worked with 343i to ensure that Forward Unto Dawn "adheres to the ebbs and flows of what's happening in [Halo 4]," according to Feldman.
Hendler characterized himself as "allergic to green-screen" work, saying he tried to use practical effects and real props, such as a working Warthog, whenever possible. Of course, since Halo is a science-fiction franchise about humans fighting aliens in space, Forward Unto Dawn does feature plenty of CG effects — over 500 shots, by Hendler's count — provided by Toronto-based effects house Arc Productions. Feldman told me that 343i even shared CG assets with Arc to help facilitate the process.
"This was not a situation where they just gave us an envelope of money"
Halo fans may also enjoy the deep narrative ties between Forward Unto Dawn and Halo 4. The Master Chief does appear in the web series, which takes place 25 years before the events of Halo: Combat Evolved, but the series focuses on a UNSC cadet named Thomas Lasky. McCloskey explained that Forward Unto Dawn is designed to show the Halo universe through the eyes of a teenager — a young man who grows up to become 1st Lt. Lasky aboard the UNSC starship Infinity in Halo 4. "It's been very important that both [the game and the series] stand on their own and then enrich each other in an additive way," said McCloskey.
At the same time, Feldman told me, "We think [Forward Unto Dawn] is very accessible to non-fans." Antonini explained that the series' creators endeavored to "tell a wonderful, human story" with "relatable challenges" that anyone can follow and understand, even amid Halo's science-fiction trappings. The ensemble cast helps them do that, according to Hendler. None of the actors are well-known stars, he explained, because "Microsoft never said, 'We want X level of famous person in this.'"
When I asked him if he considered Forward Unto Dawn — which will eventually be released on Blu-ray and DVD as a 90-minute piece — a Halo movie for the small screen, Hendler demurred. "We definitely sort of shy away from that comparison," he told me, although as a Halo fan "since the beginning," he said he would be ecstatic about the opportunity to direct a Halo feature film. (O'Connor told me, "I can confirm that we are not working on a movie at this time.")
For now, at least, Halo fans will have to settle for Forward Unto Dawn, although its creators would probably take issue with the word "settle." McCloskey said, "There's something super-powerful about live-action [content]" as a storytelling method, and in that sense, Forward Unto Dawn is delivering what the fans have wanted for years. Plus, if the series is successful, it could help cement web video as a distribution method for TV-like content — and rekindle discussions about a Halo film. "One day, if the stars align," O'Connor mused, "it would be great to see something up on the silver screen."
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