Cortana has always been a central character in the Halo story, but never before has she been brought to life like she has in Halo 4. Not according to Mackenzie Mason, at least, the actress behind the face and performance capture for the sexy AI.
What does that mean, exactly? Mason spent around six months acting out every one of Cortana's scenes, line for line and movement for movement. As she puts it, "It's me. My lips move her lips." Cortana's previous voice actor, Jen Taylor, dubbed over Mason's performance in post, as 343 was reportedly hesitant to give Cortana a brand new voice as well. But for all intents and purposes, Mason is Cortana.
Like the other characters in Halo 4, she's been given new life (it might be extra startling, since she's an AI) by a new cast of performance capture actors. And Mason seems perfect for the role (to see what we mean, watch her in action in this video).
She's a Super Mario World enthusiast with an acute appreciation for what makes Halo, Halo. That definitely came through in our chat—as well as some hints about Halo 4's ending, Cortana's newfound rampancy, and other parts of Halo 4's story. Read on and decide for yourself just how different the new Cortana will be—and find out just how much Mason was willing to reveal.
Complex: Are you a gamer? Do you play video games?
Mason: I don't play them like a gamer plays them. The game I've played the most is Halo. And I played it all through the 2000s (mostly the first [Halo]). And then I've played a lot of [Halo 3] just trying to get a feel for it before 4 came out. So yeah, I'm familiar, I'm just not an expert.
[She was being modest—she confessed her obsession with Super Mario World once the recorder was off.]
Halo seems to have this universal appeal. A lot of different people are able to get into it. Do you feel that way?
Well yeah, it's the only one that I—I mean, if you ask someone if they know video games, and they say no, and then you say, "Well, have you heard of Halo?" They always go, "Oh yeah! Obviously." So Halo I think resonates with everyone; whether they've played it or not, they know what it is.
Why do you think that is?
Well I think the name is great [laughing]. And then I think because it's so popular—and I think it was one of the first video games that was so, so big—and it had so much recognition, that I think that everyone's somehow heard of it.
It's almost like Star Wars.
Exactly. I was just saying that to someone. It's as much information as Star Wars, and as much knowledge and following as Star Wars does. It just needs the movies.
So what do you bring to the role of Cortana?
Well, because we're doing the performance capture, it required an actor who could do—not only physicalize Cortana, because she never has been before, it's all been computerized—so, all of the movements, the way she moves, the way she approaches things, has to be organic, and a person. I mean, I spent a lot of time trying to figure that out, and a lot of auditions. So I think that by the end I was able to do it, and the big thing with Cortana in this game is that she's going through something called Rampancy, which is deterioration of the computer that she is. So that basically happens when she's seven years old. AIs have a life of seven years.
So basically, it means that her knowledge is full, so she can't gain any more. Every time she downloads something—to tell Chief where to go, or to get them out of a situation—she has to download data. That data doesn't get erased, so it all just stays in her. So she's at a saturation point. So that basically begins to deteriorate, and she can't gather information as quickly as she used to. And her output is less controlled. So basically she has highly emotional states that are uncontrollable. So I could be talking to you right now like this, and then all of a sudden I'm bawling, saying a line from, like, ten years ago. Or giving you—you asked me a question about how we're going to get out of this ship, and I tell you how to get out of a planet that we left five years ago.
I'm a huge Halo nerd, so I know exactly what you're talking about. Was it challenging for you to act that all out?
Yeah! It's like, I mean, it's—imagine I give you one line, like "Chief, go!" and then you have to say it in ten different emotions back to back and just, like, go. So it was like, "Okay, just go," you know, in whatever order you want, like, whatever ways, so you know, it's like 100 varieties of one line—because they're going to splice them and edit them so it's like she's glitching. So I mean, every day it was like, you know, it was emotionally draining. I was crying a lot. I was screaming a lot. My voice went away a couple times. It was insane. So I think that's a huge difference in Cortana in this game than the previous ones, where she's never had to deal with something like this. So now she's dealing with mortality, and the whole thing is that Chief's human, right? And she's a computer. But in this it's opposite. She's human, and she doesn't understand why, but she's very emotional. She's a chick! And never been a chick before.
She was a little bit of a chick before. She had some attitude.
Well, sass and the sarcasm is like I think what makes her so great. She still has that. But now it's in between crying fits and confusion [laughing]. So I think that gives her a whole other element.
So I assume this was different from anything you've acted before?
Oh my gosh, yeah. I mean, I didn't even know I could do such emotional things. And because I had to do—I mean, I went through six months, about, of auditioning to get the part—and a lot of that—I mean, a lot of I think what they were looking for was someone that could portray the sass and the vulnerability that she always has, and accompany it with an emotional range to pull form and to be able to—because, you know, the performance capture is of her face, too. So when you see her face or her lips moving, it's me. My lips move her lips. So in so many ways, I mean, I'm so nervous to see it, because it's—I just put my whole—it's all me. So it was really hard. Really hard. I had some tough days. I had a lot of fun throughout the whole thing—there were some light, kicking-ass days, and, you know, Chief has to do all this stuff, and I would just tell him. So I had a lot of dialogue. But the emotion was, yeah—it was difficult. But I really think I pulled it off.
Cortana spends most of her time in the Chief's helmet, or standing still on some kind of platform—so was most of the mo-cap you were doing concentrated on your face?
We had to do some pips—like, for when they have the helmet view, and then she pops up in the corner—those were just like head-turns or, like, things to indicate something going on off-screen. And then every other time you see her she's on a plinth. So no, she doesn't move. So most—90 percent of what was registered for me was face. Everyone else got more movement in, more like—you know, action, fighting or whatever. So my physicality was face. And then there's other things that she, you know, like—something I noticed in the other games: Cortana, just, she's always kind of like hands by her sides, and says the information, and then she's gone. So because I was a real person playing it, and I had, you know—she touches herself for the first time. I make her do, you know, she's scared, she's like huddled in a ball. Her hands are crossed, or like, she can use her arms to display her anger or whatever it is. So I think that there's going to be a lot outside of the face. I think that she has more physicality in her body movements than ever.
So she'll seem more human?
She's going to seem a lot more human. Yeah. I mean, I really think I brought her to life. And because—she's me. I'm so close to her now at this point it's like—anything you see is a real person feeling what you're seeing. I think that it's so life-like.
Is it going to be weird to play Halo 4 when it comes out?
It's going to be really weird! But I'm definitely going to play it. I mean, I really want to see the cinematics before each level, too, because that's obviously where all the scenes were. But yeah, it's going to be strange, because I even see the pictures of her now that are coming out, and if she's in thought, or whatever, I see my face. I'm like, "Oh my god!" because it's all of my expressions and the way my face moves. So I know it doesn't look like me, but it does to me because it's my movement, you know? Like, how my lips move.
It looks like you a little bit. I can see it.
It's definitely strange. And I've definitely been pointed out—I mean, you learn how your face moves when you have 500 dots on it. So it's like, "Hey, you know your mouth's a little lopsided, right? And like, your lip goes down when you talk."
Someone actually said that?
Yeah, they're like, "Well, we were watching video of your lips just doing this. So we see how they—" I'm like, "Great you guys." [laughing] So there's a whole joke that I have a lopsided face.
So you have a complex for the rest of your life?
[laughing] You've never been this familiar with your own face. It's like a microscope, but like on every movement. I mean, I feel bad for the programmers, because I've met a bunch of them, and they're just like, "We have spent hours staring at you and registering all of your facial movements." And I'm like, "I'm really sorry."
In any other situation that would be the weirdest thing to say.
It's so weird now! "I've been staring at you for days!" [laughing] It's definitely weird, but the ones I met, I mean, they're all amazing, and they're such an incredible team. They've been working for years, so I think at this point everyone's just ready for the damn thing to come out.
Having played Halo 3, what do you think about the way they're continuing that story?
Well, I think that they made sure to stay true to what Halo is, so that fans aren't going to be like, "This is a whole—" something they can't recognize. So a lot of the elements, and a lot of the things that fans have loved over the years, are still there, and I think that the relationship between Cortana and Chief is something that's stronger than ever, and that's something people really resonated with in the past ones. So along with how it looks physically, I mean how the characters look—it's so real, I think people are going to be really immersed in it—I know they brought a lot of the maps back, and multiplayer is supposed to be amazing. I haven't gotten a chance to play all the little sneak peaks they're giving people, but I went to PAX and I saw everyone playing it, and people are really digging it. So I think people are going to feel the old Halo, but still have a new freshness to it.
So you haven't got to play it yet?
I know! Like, I thought I would get a pre-copy or something. Maybe I will.
The ending of Halo 3 seemed so resolute—do you think they've done a good job of picking it back up?
It picks up right where it leaves off. I mean…it's really, you know, "Wake me if you need me," right? She needs him. And that was one of the first scenes we shot, actually, and that was a hard one to do. I mean, as we went along, I knew her better, so starting from that as the first scene was—I learned a lot. But I mean, she's alone in the ship for—she'll tell you how long. I don't know if I'm supposed to tell you how long it is. But she says, at the first scene you'll know how long it is. And she's just been alone the whole time. And then she needs to wake him up, and it starts right away. I mean, there's no lull period where you just get to—so like, right away, it's like climax.
She really waited until the last possible moment.
Yeah, I mean, you don't just wake someone from one of those sleeps, you know? So she really had to, and then they have to—I mean he doesn't get any rebound time. He has to right away be Chief.
She couldn't just go into sleep mode? She is an AI.
That's what I thought! I'm really mad about that. If he could cryogenically sleep, she should also. Or if she's dormant for four years, how much information could she have gathered? Anyway…the way that Halo 4 ends is, like, crazy.
Setting it up for Halo 5 or whatever?
Yeah! And I think that the—I'm just like, where it could go, and where they'd said they think it could go, I'm like—excited. I don't even know if I'm doing 5, but I'm just saying that it's—the ending is, I mean, the ending was like a lot of crying.
Like, of the characters, or just you crying more?
Uhhhh, people cried. A lot of people crying [lauging]. A lot of people crying, a lot of people dying. A lot of people just doing shit. So I think that along with picking up from Halo 3, you will also love where it ends.