There have been some pretty incredible live-action Halo projects in the past, but nothing on the scale—in terms of both scope and quality—of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn. The five-episode digital series chronicles the genesis of the Human-Covenant War, the decades-long conflict that was brought to a close in Halo 3. It also tells the story of a young UNSC recruit named Lasky, who comes to play an important role in both the single player and multiplayer campaigns of Halo 4.
Forward Unto Dawn is currently being released piece-by-piece via Halo Waypoint and Youtube, and a code to watch it in its entirety will be included with the limited edition of Halo 4 when it comes out on Nov. 6. In the meantime, though, we caught up with digital filmmakers Josh Feldman and Lydia Antonini to chat about working within the Halo universe, the possibility of a full-fledged Hollywood Halo film, and more.
Complex: You were both described to me as "trailblazing digital filmmakers." What exactly does that mean?
Feldman: Well, we're incredibly good-looking, and we're really fun to be around. And somehow we've been lucky enough to work on, you know, separately and together, really big franchises and really exciting projects that have been in kind of non-traditional distribution. Lydia has the background that she should talk about, and I'll just quickly mention myself that I came from Playtone, which is Tom Hanks' and Gary Goetzman's production company, and we did Electric City there, which was, you know, a pet project of Tom's. So that was, you know, a really exciting opportunity—to work with someone like Tom and kind of build that project at Playtone, which had been known for doing something giant, you know—epic mini-series, and movies. So that was a great thrill. And Lydia should talk about her background, because she's been involved in some really big, kind of forward-thinking digital projects.
Antonini: Actually, when I met Josh I was handling all of the digital creative a Warner Bros., so I was the main point on shows like H+, the Mortal Kombat series—that kind of caught everybody off guard—under my purview. And the shows that I managed, we did a lot of kind of fun projects that were slightly higher-end in which we were really experimenting with this notion of television and digital sort of colliding, so that we could make really, really great shows that were direct to WHAT
How have you enjoyed working with Halo?
Feldman: It's been a blast.
Antonini: It's pretty incredible.
Feldman: Yeah, it's so fun—because it's not too dissimilar, you know, to make this comparison—when you're talking about some of the things that we had been involved in, in traditional media, whether they're from a historical perspective, you know—Halo has a decade's worth of franchise, and so many different avenues, be it the novels, of course the games, comic books, consumer products—there's so much franchise that fans are so knowledgable about, you know, when you step into it, and you're going to do a project like this, it almost requires the same type of diligence and research that if you were doing like a historical epic. You know? You have to kind of dive into a similar amount of mythology. But it's a great resource to have so much to pull from. So when we were putting this together, you know, we were able to go really right to the canon and kind of exploit a lot of details that we knew fans would really love.
Feldman: Yeah, I mean, we're huge fans of that in particular, but really all of the live-action commercials, which in some ways are some of the best commercials period, let alone for Halo. So we knew that, if we were going to do live action, we knew that we couldn't be less than the quality level that those commercials set, because the fans have already come to identify the live-action ads with live-action Halo.
How closely does Forward Unto Dawn tie in with the story of Halo 4?
Antonini: Well, pretty closely.
Antonini: We're actually—there are two—the main story of Forward unto Dawn, which is the story of Lasky, is essentially a look into the origin story of Lasky, who is in game four, and also in the multiplayer. And he's a really kind of interesting and wonderful character. So that was a really fun part of the show: to give the very emotional backstory to a character that matters to the franchise. And then we also—don't know if you've gotten a chance to watch any of the episodes, but if you have—there's the opening sequences with Cortana and Chief, that find her where we left off, where Chief is in cryo sleep, and she's trying to figure out when to wake him up. So we live—that particular story, from a time perspective, goes right between 3 and 4. It takes you from the end of 3 to the beginning of 4 and kind of fills in that space. And then the live-action, sort of main, big story with Lasky provides beautiful emotional context for the character.
Feldman: Forward Unto Dawn takes audiences back to the beginning of the Human-Covenant War, so for people that are very familiar with Halo, they're going to get a great new perspective on that conflict that they've lived with in the games for so long. But it also talks about the insurrectionists, which is the kind of former enemy that a lot of fans might not be as familiar with. But in either case, giving a little bit of a recap is a perfect setup for then venturing into Halo 4, which expands things in incredible new directions. So there's a lot of links, like Lydia was saying. The Lasky character is introduced in Forward Unto Dawn, and then lives in the game and then beyond, and it's a great recap or introduction if you're new to the franchise.
The first two episodes seem to have this slow build-up, and it feels like it's leading somewhere big. What is that payoff going to be like?
Feldman: Well, at the risk of creating a spoiler—what people do know, certainly, from the trailers and what we've said about the show, is that because this is the introduction of the Human-Covenant conflict, you can expect to see that introduction in all its action glory. So we can promise that there's going to be great action. And of course—this is no surprise, it's been announced in the trailers—that Master Chief will be absolutely front-and-center. And we think fans—old fans and new fans—are going to get a real kick out of seeing Chief in all his action glory as well.
Do you think that this is sort of a test-run to see whether a live-action Halo feature film would work? And would you want to work on that film?
Feldman: Well, to answer the second part very quickly first, yes. Emphatically.
Feldman: Emphatically yes. Yeah, I mean, it's like, you're just working with such incredibly knowledgable people at [Halo developers 343 Industries]. You know, I always say that when I see Seattle pop up on my caller ID, I'll answer it very, very quickly. In terms of what this project means in the larger whole, that's ultimately up to 343. All we can say is they really deserve a hell of a lot of credit for deciding the quality was going to be the scale at which they wanted this project judged, and they put the resources behind it, not just in terms of the ability to make it, but also themselves. We had a 343 individual on-set every day. This was very much a true collaboration, and their goal was to make something great, and deliver it right to where the fans live: online. So who knows? The sky is the limit for them. The fact that they could really pretty much choose whatever venue they want, and they chose to go this route—and a lot of credit goes to them for that.
Antonini: I think one of the amazing things about the team at 343 is how much they respect their fans. And you know—this is my personal opinion—but I think if the fans react positively and watch the show and love the show and talk back to 343 and support the idea of continuing to move forward, that they'll do everything in their power to keep giving them great entertainment experiences. But it's really—it was wonderful to watch that relationship and to even watch—you know, when [Halo franchise development director Frank O'Connor] appears in episode 2, and to watch all the comments, how much it really means to the Halo fan world, that Frank is in that episode, and enjoying it and a part of it—it's really an inspiring group of fans that they have. And I think the'll continue to be inspired by them and create great stuff for them.
Speaking of the production value, the setting, the choreography of that fight, the futuristic UI stuff of their computers—it's all fantastic. Was it fun getting to implement all of that stuff in that futuristic setting?
Feldman: Yeah, it was. You know, one of the things—it was really fun to think about how to convey the world of Halo, which is so visually dynamic and quite beautiful, in a live action setting in a way that could sustain over 90 minutes, which is longer than any of the commercials, of course. And, you know, one of the things that Lydia and I take very seriously is the kind of being between CG and practical effects, and made a beautiful set, and our production designer, Kasra Farahani, knocked it out of the park, along with our CG team, and really the entire crew. And we take that blend of approaches very seriously. And the great thing, too, is: remember, there's ten years of Halo, you know, design to pull from. So if this was complete, you know, a completely brand new IP, it would be that much more daunting. For us, there was ten years' worth of design to pull from. You know, we had a wonderful head start that made us feel like this was possible.
What do you think about how successful it's been?
Antonini: It's incredible to see a video on Youtube that has, like, 30,000 likes and only 600 dislikes. I mean, who gets that lucky? It's pretty fortunate. I mean, I barely even remember to "like" videos that I watch on Youtube. So, that people are this passionate and excited is great. I mean, my absolute favorite thing to do is actually read the comments and see what people are picking up on, what they appreciated. If they picked up on all the little details that we knitted into the story and into the visuals. And by and large they do. It's really fun to see all that work pay off. And we had an incredible team of craftsmen on this movie, and they did an incredible job. And to see that so passionately praised online is pretty awesome.
What are some of the details that you're particularly proud of?
Feldman: Oh man, I love that question. Well, I think one of the things that I think is incredibly emotional, and has so much storytelling built into it—and this is something that's not from the canon, but is just the design of the dorm rooms themselves. You mentioned the UI interfaces. And beyond that, you know, so there's that great digital UI interface. But then carved into stone above the beds are all of the mottos and, you know, positive messages from UNSC. So it's like these cadets are constantly getting a reinforcement of, you know, the expectations that are placed on them. And I think that's the level of detail that you'd be hard-pressed to find in other quote "blend" series. But then beyond that, it was really fun to learn about the insurrectionists. Because again, that's not something that was made up for this projects. Insurrectionists have a direct connection tho the mythology. And it was interesting, because —there may have been, and forgive me if I'm forgetting some aspect of the mythology, but there may have been one or two simple visuals of what the insurrectionists look like. But as far as I know, there really was never anything that defined what they, you know, what they look like. That was a situation in which we had to come up with what the insurrectionists looked like, even though they had been very present in the novels, for example. So that was really cool. That felt like an awesome responsibility—to actually add a visual touch to the canon.
Antonini: You know, one of the ones that I was noticing in the comments recently—that I wasn't sure if people would actually catch—that there are a couple of little Covenant clues in some of the static that has been caught and noticed, which I think—it's just really wonderful that people are paying that much attention. Because they're pretty hard to find. So that was really special. Because honestly, I was like, will anyone really figure this out? Are they really that—and the answer was yes, absolutely.
Halo fans are particularly good at picking that stuff out. Moving on—with The Hunger Games doing so well, and the Ender's Game movie in the works, do you think this is sort of an ideal time to have this kind of story come out? With the young people in these dire situations?
Feldman: Well, I think any time you have a storyline with impressionable adolescents that are on the verge of adulthood, you have a story that's relatable. So I think you can look at lots of examples—not just in recent blockbuster movies, but in literature and in novels, for a very long time, of main characters that fit the format of what you're describing. That's the great thing about Forward Unto Dawn—is that, like any great story about adolescents, there's a relatable, emotional, compelling through line, and then on top of it you have the great science fiction mythology and action of Halo. And you have something that works in dual ways—it's emotional, it's compelling, but it's also all of the fun that you expect from Halo.
Were you worried at all about the taboo that surrounds video game movie projects?
Antonini: Not really. I mean, after doing—for me after doing Mortal Kombat and seeing how fun it was to explore, and explore in a way that you could put it right out there for the fans, I think if anything it's much more exhilarating than anything. I mean, making a movie and having to go through the process of making a big movie with a big budget and on and on has—you know, there's just a lot more pressure. But we really—after Josh's earlier point about quality—we had such great partners in 343, they just—really the mandate was tell the best story that you can, don't worry about anything else. Cast the best actors you can find, don't worry if they're big names or not big names or whatever. And because we had that license to just do something that was great, it was just fun.
Feldman: I was just going to say, you know, I've been somehow really lucky to have great mentors and people like Tom and Gary from Playtone, and you know, the—that was the mandate of how they run Playtone. And that was: you have to be true to the story you're telling. So, you know, are you always aware of who and what's come before, in terms of the genre landscape? Sure. But you know, if you're true to the story, and you're true to the quality of the story, then that ends up being the roadmap which you follow to completion.
I recognized some of the actors, and others were unknown to me, but everyone seemed really solid.
Feldman: Everybody came and brought their A-game. They brought their A-game, and we were just—we couldn't be happier.
Thanks to both of you!