You may have seen the introduction video to Halo 5: Guardians when it did the rounds a few weeks ago. Visually spectacular, the action packed footage reignited buzz for a game that had been surprisingly quiet, even after the glitz of E3 and GDC. Featuring Hollywood talent including Mike Colter and Nathan Fillion, the sequence is largely made up of one epic shot that recalls the best parts from the Avengers films. It’s frankly awesome and we were lucky enough to ask a few questions of Debbie Ross (Executive Producer) and Stu Aitken (Creative Director) from Axis Animation, the studio behind the video.
TDF: How do you go about planning such an epic, single shot sequence? Was it always conceived to be one single 'take'? How challenging was it compared to other projects?
Debbie Ross (DR): We knew from the pitch stage that this piece would include a massive single shot action sequence and that was both an obvious challenge and a huge attraction for us! 343 Industries conceived the sequence and provided us with the cameras and animation scenes. The task for Axis was to really make the most of the incredible choreography and bring it to life from end to end. Yes, the scale of the single shot meant there were additional logistical issues to overcome but we always knew that. Once we had our approach in place our focus was on the important stuff - creating an awesome visual spectacle that people would want to watch again and again.
Stu Aitken (SA): These types of unbroken takes can make things very challenging indeed, but Axis have done a couple of these monster one-shots before so knew in advance that we had our work cut out!
You lose the easy structure that normal cuts and shots give you in terms of required frame ranges for all sorts of things, so you end up finding other methods of structurally dividing the work up. For example a whip pan might take the camera off in a new direction, or we might go over a cliff edge or a vehicle wipes across the shot. These sorts of moments allow us to bookend various bits and pieces within the overall sequence and to split the work out to various people who can work on those in parallel.
The insane amount of action happening all the time was also a challenge. Just to make sure the audience could read it properly, so the important elements stood out, but you could still 'delve' into the frame to see other things in the background. You had to be able to fully grasp what was going on at every point, that was quite a tricky balance.
TDF: What kind of assets did the team have access to, such as music, Halo 'lore' and so forth?
DR: Having worked with 343 Industries previously on Spartan Ops for Halo 4, and the E3 2013 teaser trailer for the game that would become Halo 5: Guardians, we already had a good familiarity with the universe and assets. We also have a number of big Halo fans in the studio, including Stu Aitken who was our Creative Director on this piece. Stu has consumed vast amounts of Halo material over the years, immersing himself in the lore for pleasure as well as work.
343 Industries amazing composers and sound designers did all of the audio for this piece - as always contributing massively to the overall impact and keeping it very much in the Halo universe.
SA: The way 343 Industries wanted to play it meant that they dealt with everything up to animation and we dealt with FX and what that animation would look like rendered. Fortunately there is a pretty clean separation between animation and the lighting shading and FX stages internally at Axis anyway so we could make that work to our advantage with fairly minimal changes to our normal workflow.
A lot of the reason any job like this works is based on our clients trusting us to get it, but the day to day interaction across all the details was quite intense. I enjoy that though and especially with 343 Industries it means that we all can feel a shared ownership in the end result, and that's actually quite important I think in terms of getting the best results, and really enjoying the process.
TDF: What was it like working with top-name talent such as Nathan Fillion etc?
DR: When it comes to performance capture, the talent of the actor is key. No amount of animation tweaking can truly make up for a bad performance so having talent like Nathan involved is such a gift. It’s not unusual to find that the most talented people are also the most pleasant and professional to work with.
TDF: What inspirations did the team use? Were there any movies/games/art that gave the trailer its look?
DR: Halo is an inspiration in itself as it has such a rich canon of material. The look of the characters and the universe in general is so well-established, you can’t stray from that. Nor would you want to.
TDF: What was the main target of the trailer? Was there a particular mood you wanted to evoke or particular gameplay features you wanted to reference?
DR: The trailer has more than one purpose and mood. It has to set the premise for what the player is about to experience and that’s done with an air of seriousness and only a little wry humour. But of course the fans want more. The big opportunity we had with this piece was to create a jaw-dropping roller-coaster ride in the snow - something new that no one has seen before. This is what has really grabbed the fans attention.
SA: There were a number of gameplay features that the 343 Industries team had already embedded into the pre-viz and animation, things that will give fans plenty to look at across multiple viewings. We focused closely on making sure that FX and the look of all the characters and assets were a mirror of what is seen in gameplay, although we do have a bit of creative license to push things a bit further.
TDF: How have you found the reaction to the trailer?
DR: You never know how people will react to work like this - the devotion of the fans can make them fierce critics as well as great supporters. We’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response to the work. It’s why we do what we do. We have a driving passion for the work we create but when we receive recognition from a community of dedicated fans it gives us an added sense of satisfaction to know we’ve nailed it for them.
Huge thanks to the chaps at Axis Animation for answering our questions. You can check out their work below: