Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn’s Director Chats Up The Live-Action Series
Halo’s live-action web series premiered its first episode today, and we had a chance to talk to Stewart Hendler, the series’ director, about the show. Hendler is no stranger to directing web series, or full-scale film production. He directed the recent H+ web series and the 2009 horror film Sorority Row. We asked Hendler about his thoughts on the Halo universe, video games, and how he feels about 3D as a filmmaker.
Do you consider yourself a gamer?
I’ve always been a gamer for Halo. I’m sort of a partisan gamer in that sense. I would be completely lying to you if I said that I was good at anything beyond that. The way that I discovered Halo was that my roommates in college were huge gamers and I really wasn’t. When they got Halo for the first time, that was the one property that kind of sucked me in, and I felt myself spending a lot more time on the couch than with any other ones. So it’s always been my favorite franchise. Over the years I’ve sort of drifted in and out of playing other stuff, but always kept up with Halo, and always kept up with the story world of Halo, which is what I’ve always loved about it. So Halo is my main game.
Working on the Halo series must be a dream come true.
Oh dude, yeah, for sure. I actually got an e-mail from the producer on the show who was an exec at Warner Bros. when I did my last project over there. And she basically said, “Hey, I’m doing another web series, it’s for one of the major game franchises. It’s sort of the vein of…” and she listed some of Halo’s direct competitors. “Would you be interested?” I wrote back, “You know, probably not my thing. If you were to say Halo, that would be a different story. Thanks anyway.” And so the phone rang thirty seconds later and she told me what it was. And of course, I dropped everything.
So you really like Halo. If it were any other video game franchise would you probably have just passed on it?
Yeah. Never say never, but I was just coming out of H+, which is a different web series with Warner Bros. Web series are so much fun to direct but they’re a hell of a lot of work. It’s kind of like guerilla film-making. You’re wearing a lot more hats. So I was at the peak of exhaustion from that when she called, and I was like “Oh dear god, no.” And of course, the magic word came out, and I said “Okay, yeah, for sure.”
This is the first time you’re working with a license. Was it intimidating to create something based on a franchise that people already know and love?
Yes and no. In some ways working within that world is super exciting, because it’s built so you can come play in a sandbox that has so much depth and rich characters already established in it. On the flip side of that, there’s a reason why it’s such a big franchise, and that’s because it’s beloved by millions of people. But we also felt a huge sense of responsibility coming into that space and being the first long form live-action to try and bring this stuff to life. So yeah, absolutely, it’s super intimidating and exciting, all rolled up into one.
How familiar are you with the expanded universe of Halo with the novels, comics, anime, etc.?
I dabbled in some of it before I got this job. Obviously, now I’m way more caught up than any human being should be. But I had read a couple, and I definitely had the encyclopedia, all that nerdy stuff. The amazing thing about the Halo universe is that it’s so big that I don’t know if there’s ever a limit to what you can find if you want to explore it. They’ve done so much with graphic novels and anime that it’s just immense. They brought me in and they didn’t really have a sense of story, so it was funny because where do you even start in a world that has a timeline that’s like more than 100,000 years long, already filled out? It’s also been horrifying trying to figure out which corner of that universe to focus on and bring to life.
How different is working on an online web series from working with film or television?
Some stuff is obviously the same. You work with actors, you work with gear, and you put shots together in a certain order, that’s what it is. But the infrastructure and mechanics of the big studios that come with a feature just haven’t been built in a web series yet. So everybody is trying to figure out what the right way to do it is, and there’s a different sense of experimentation and adventure and freedom within the web series space. So from a director’s standpoint you spend a lot of time on a studio feature just managing the machinery of the studio, and dealing with the mechanics it takes to make a movie that big, which are very well entrenched. In a web series, there’s a totally different vibe. From a director’s standpoint, anything goes. You can pitch anything; no idea is too crazy. The sky is the limit, creatively. It’s also tempered with the fact that web series don’t have the budget that movies do yet. It’s a balance, but from my point of view, I’ve spent the last two years doing it, and I’ve had a blast being in this space.
Read on for Hendler's thought's on 3D, which one of the Halo games is his favorite, and how much freedom he was allowed with the Halo universe.
How much freedom were you allowed within the Halo universe? Were there very rigid guidelines for production?
It cuts in two directions, because on one hand, the Halo universe is very established and specific. Our task and oath was to uphold all of that, so we wanted to make sure that every detail that already existed in the Halo world was realized as accurately as possible. The Microsoft guys and girls were really cool because they spent a lot of time figuring out who they want to work with and who they want to bring on the team, but once you’re on the team, they put a ton of trust on you. That seems to go down the line through the entire studio on the game side and at that point it belongs on our side. So basically, their edict to us was, “Look, as long as you don’t contradict anything that exists in the universe, you can have a lot of freedom, you can do whatever you want to expand the world outward.” Granted, we were super reverential in making sure that they were happy with everything, but I was frankly shocked. By comparison to working with a studio, here you go in and pitch them an idea or send them a photo saying “Here’s why I love this!” and they say “Yeah! Do it!” It was awesome; it was a really fun experience. On the flip side, we had an entire staff position whose only job was to make sure that everything was authentic. Literally, 12 hours a day for three months, they were just checking and approving that the armor, guns, lore, and dates were all dead-on.
You guys had to deal with plasma blasts and crazy alien vehicles. Were there any production challenges in replicating the visual style of a science fiction video game?
The cool thing about the Halo world is it’s epic, it’s huge, it’s grand, it’s everything you’d ever want. The thing that we went into this knowing is that we needed to focus on what live action can do that the game has a harder time doing. The 343 folks and us agreed that live action has the power to connect you to real human faces and to tell stories about characters. So everybody wanted to make sure that that was up front. We definitely delivered on all of the action and pyrotechnics that are required in the Halo world, but we never lost sight of the fact that if we didn’t use this other way to tell a great story and connect people to the characters, then we weren’t doing our job right. So we came in with that vibe, which is really cool. Right off the bat, I pitched them the idea that we try to tell as realistic and authentic a Halo world as possible to counter the fantastic sci-fi of it all. They were awesome about it not having any need for it to look like the game. They didn’t want us to replicate the game experience. They wanted this to be its own thing and to make people feel like they were standing in the room with these characters.
So from an aesthetics standpoint, that’s what we went in with, that kind of District 9 pseudo-documentary vibe in some ways. But we pretty quickly identified the places where we really needed to focus our resources and absolutely do up to the level of a 100-million-dollar-budget movie. That was definitely the visual effects, the Chief’s suit and the gear of it all. By comparison to our overall budget, we spent a much higher percentage of those elements that we would have otherwise. But in other areas we really tried to be guerilla. The Chief’s suit was done by Legacy down in L.A., which is the top of the top. These guys are the ones who did all of the Avengers suits and Terminator 2. Every cool creature or suit you’ve seen in a movie, those are the guys. This was Master Chief. We wanted to get the best possible thing. For the visual effects, we’re going to top out at just under 500 effect shots. These include fully-realized CG Covenant. Five hundred is a number that’s highly unusual for a web series. A gigantic blockbuster movie would be between 1,500 and 2,000. We’re not there, but we’re creeping up towards a really big show, and we felt like that was important. We actually literally got the last 17 shots in today. It’s definitely been a big part of where our priorities were - to make that stuff look awesome. The live-action stuff shot before this was pretty amazing, so we came in knowing the bar was already set, and that we could at least match it. Hopefully, we sort of took the next step and show people something else.
Did you make sure to demand an early copy of Halo 4 for research?
I’ve gotten to play it a couple of times. I’m kind of torn on it, because I love the anticipation of waiting and not knowing what I’m going to get when it comes in the mail. I’ve read the script, and I know exactly what happens in it, and we’ve tied our characters into it. On the one hand, I’m like, “this is the coolest job in the world!” and then in the background I’m a little bit sad that I don’t get the surprise of playing the game for the first time. But it’s okay. I do think they’re going to give me a copy though.
Which Halo is your favorite of the ones that have released?
I like the first one and I like ODST. They’re different, but I just like the look and vibe of ODST, the certain noir vibe of it all. I don’t know; the first one will always kind of have my heart.
This doesn’t have anything to do with Halo, but in the field of film, how do you feel about 3D? Do you like it?
That’s an interesting question. I’m not a huge advocate of 3D. I think it’s interesting. There are very few movies I’ve gone to in 3D that I feel are better for it. I guess I get frustrated because I see a lot of decisions being made from a financial standpoint within the industry based on 3D, and not necessarily based on what’s better for the material at hand. I think I have a pre-loaded knee jerk against it in some ways. When it’s used beautifully like in Avatar or Prometheus, I think it’s cool. But it has to be in the right filmmaker’s hands and it has to suit the material.
Be sure to keep an eye out as Forward Unto Dawn’s new episodes release week to week for interviews with Daniel Cudmore, the actor playing Master Chief, and Frank O’Connor, the curator of Halo’s universe at 343 Industries.