Halo 4's Frank O'Connor Talks Forward Unto Dawn

by Kyle Hilliard on Oct 19, 2012 at 08:00 AM

The third episode of Halo’s live-action web series premiered today, and we had a chance to talk to Frank O'Connor, the franchise development director for the Halo franchise. He has a somewhat ambiguous job title and it means that O'Connor has his hand in just about everything related to Halo. We spoke to him about creating Halo 4's live-action web series, Forward Unto Dawn, and got some clarification about what his job is exactly.

You’re the franchise development director for the Halo franchise? What does that job entail?

Obviously I’m a spokesperson and that entails being an expert in every aspect of everything that we’re doing and then talking about it, but the vast majority of my work involves building and creating new elements of the franchise that end up in all of the various aspects of it. It’s a very large business at this point, even outside of the game. Obviously the game is the bulk of it, the game is the absolute master of everything else we do in the franchise and so everything feeds back into the game. It’s a really big franchise and it’s a big business on its own.

From that perspective, how involved were you with the show, with the production? Were you writing and that kind of thing?

We were editing and we were tweaking, really all the writing was done by Todd and Aaron Helbing realistically. We make notes and stuff like that but we were in the initial meetings with the Helbings about story and their first pitch, and the reason they got the job actually, was a story set on Harvest, which is one of the worlds from the Halo universe. We’d interviewed a bunch of writers and we had seen a bunch of pitches, and their pitch wasn’t the show we wanted to make, but it showed a really profound understanding of the universe and what the universe was about.

It also mapped directly to what we wanted to do which was tell a story about people because that’s what we wanted this thing to be. Obviously it’s going to be great for fans. Fans are going to look at just about every single detail in this and hopefully love it. We wanted this to be approachable for people who are not familiar with the Halo universe and to do some setup, not in the sense of a pure origin story, but to give context to the beginnings of events that actually end up playing out in Halo 4.

So their Harvest story did a lot of that but we needed to do something much more directly connected to it, so in the early meetings we basically helped them craft the story from the get-go and it was a completely different story from the one they originally wanted to tell. We were very involved in crafting that original plot, but we barely put pen to paper, that was those guys. We had meetings where we discussing things like Lasky’s allergy to the cryo-sleep as a sort of motivation for his character. It was basically world and story building from the get-go but they did all the writing.

You’re talking about getting pitches. Did you guys put out a call for writers?

We did, we put out a call. First we interviewed a bunch of writers and then we narrowed down that list and then we put out a call for pitches, but those guys actually had the most complete pitch to begin with and the deepest understanding of the universe. They had done really good work on serials with Smallville and Spartacus in terms of really quickly being able to establish characters. We don’t have a lot of time with this show, it’s five weeks of content, so we needed writers that could rapidly establish character, and motivation, and universe building, basically in a very rapid time frame. I don’t mean their execution on the script, I mean the five weeks of content that this thing ends up being.

What was the impetus for doing a live action show for a video game?

We  haven’t had a numbered Halo sequel in almost five years at this point, and we wanted to refresh people and we wanted to bring people back into the universe. We were talking about doing it both in the game and in TV commercials, and both of those things are actually going to happen. There’s going to be a lot of bringing people up to speed, hopefully in really unobtrusive and non-obvious ways. That conversation started extending out into, “Well what else can we do here?” What can we do to really make people sit up and take notice? And what can we do to tell a really good Halo story? I think people love watching the TV commercials, but they’re not terribly satisfying in terms of narrative content. They’re really big and you see some cool action, maybe an explosion, and while people enjoy seeing Halo stuff brought into the flesh as it were, they’re just not getting a lot of satisfactory resolution to those brief vignettes, and so it literally just snowballed from that conversation and we said, “Well why don’t we just make a show? We can do that kind of thing.”

The next step was starting to talk to first a production company and our producers, so we hired Lydia and Josh (the executive producers behind Forward Unto Dawn) and with those guys in tow  we started farming out the pitch to various writers and directors. We were really trying to pick people who would fit the scale of this project and honestly give us the most bang for our buck. All of the people we’re working with have worked on pretty cool things that are able to do a lot with fairly limited resources. We’re trying to get as much of our budget up on the screen as possible.

Read on to find out exactly how Forward Unto Dawn fits into the narrative of Halo 4.

How important Forward Unto Dawn to the plot of Halo 4? Will players who only play the game and skip the show be lost?

Certainly not. They’re connected via characters and some elements I can’t talk about, but if you don’t play the game, Forward Unto Dawn will make perfect sense to you. In fact it’s very self-contained, again kind of like a superhero origin story where you’re finding out all this stuff and hopefully that will drive people to be interested in the game, not the other way around. People who play the game and have watched Forward Unto Dawn are going to recognize characters and scenarios and certain pieces of setup that should provide really cool resonance. They will work really well together but they’re absolutely not essential to each other. They both need to be their own stories and they both need to be complete.

Is there a fear that this might turn into what the Matrix kind of had, where there was almost too many versions of stories that all came connected into one place and left people out in the cold a little bit?

I think if you have a matrix, and I don’t mean the movie, if you have a matrix of things that are required to understand something, you’re just creating a mess for yourself. We don’t want to make an ARG. We wanted to tell a story that established the human covenant conflict, the basic ideas and premises of the Halo universe like the UNSC, what are Spartans, and this story actually does all of that. In some ways it’s kind of the origin story of the Halo universe as we understand it today, and it’s a completely standalone story. The connection points, again, are sort of through lines for characters. The character of Thomas Lasky, who’s the lead in Forward Unto Dawn, is going to be in his 40s by the time you see him again in Halo 4. Just that simple fact means that the stories, while connected, are not linear or chronologically connected and they both stand alone completely. Even in Halo 4 we want to make sure we have a story with a beginning, middle and an end that doesn’t require that you read a book, that doesn’t require that you have any previous understanding of the Halo universe. These things should all be complimentary, but not essential. If you do watch Forward Unto Dawn, and you do read all the books, and you follow all this fiction, and you check out all the terminals you’re going to have a very different experience. But if you shoe-in all of that stuff you’re still going to be in a perfectly safe and valid narrative space. You’ll understand everything that’s going on no matter which of those discrete pieces you consume, or all of them. Your experience should be enhanced by it, not required.
You just talked about a character that ages 40 years when he appears in Halo 4, are there any other ways you can talk about how Forward Unto Dawn ties into the Spartan Ops or the main campaign of Halo 4?

Not without giving away some spoilers. There’s a device that’s used throughout the show that does have a very direct connection to Halo 4, but I don’t want to ruin it. It’s a piece of context for the overall premise of the show and it will make sense by the time you see episode two, that will completely make sense, but I don’t want to spoil that for viewers.

Do you feel like you had a good experience making the show? Do you think you would want to do more stuff like this? Not even necessarily for future Halo games but even just to keep going with the story?

I think we had a great experience with the people in the production and actually seeing the final show last week, we had been watching it with ADR caption and the wrong colors and placeholder special effects and all that stuff. It was already really compelling at some point a couple months ago, where you could watch the whole thing from beginning to end, and we really enjoyed the story, but seeing it all come together as this polished piece – I had to watch the first two episodes for feedback in their finished form a couple of days ago and I was genuinely disappointed and irritated when I got to the end of episode two and I didn’t have the finished episode three to watch, so I went back and watched one of the unfinished builds of it just to keep the story going. It’s actually just a good story, it could be set in the 20th century or the 30th century and it would still be a good story about compelling characters.

Be sure to check out our interviews with Forward Unto Dawn's Director Steward Hendler, and Daniel Cudmore, the actor playing Master Chief in the series. Halo 4 releases November 6 on Xbox 360.