In December of last year Halo 4 came out and the world rejoiced. Along with it came a web series called Forward Unto Dawn which was a live action VFX set that brought the Halo universe to life. It opened with 5 fantastic title sequences created by Polynoid a German Design/VFX house.
From the Press Release:
Polynoid’s microfilms illustrate the intense relationship between Cortana, an artificial intelligence entity and indispensable aide to Master Chief, the long-time hero of the Halo series. Set aboard a spacecraft, the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn, as it drifts towards imminent doom, Cortana must battle to awaken Master Chief from cryo-stasis before it’s too late.
“For us, Cortana was the centerpiece around which we spun our story,” said Polynoid’s Jan Bitzer. “When we started working out the scenes and shots, we did it under the premise that Cortana is the only ‘alive’ being we could play with.”
With elegantly framed shots, drifting cameras and gloomy lighting, Polynoid emphasized the soul-crushing loneliness aboard the nearly empty spacecraft. To effectively communicate the passing of time, Polynoid switched from the relative calm of zero-gravity to intense time-lapsed action.
“[The time lapse sequence] was technically the most challenging. We spent a lot of time tweaking it; always trying to improve every shot simultaneously to guarantee a consistent quality for the overall piece,” Bitzer noted.
Polynoid and Blacklist collaborated with 343 Industries every step of the way, carefully guarding production from the massive press surrounding “Halo 4.” “Polynoid are gamers, and this was a dream opportunity,” said Blacklist Executive Producer Adina Sales. “This project was a perfect fit for our team. 343 was looking for a sophisticated interpretation and they encouraged us to push the artistic lense. Polynoid had a clear vision from the outset and we were determined to deliver in spades. We’re very proud of the results.”
Here you can see a detailed making of that goes through their entire process from conception:
Don’t forget to check out their site page for the sequence for some stills and styleframes!
We dropped them a line to do a little Q&A with Polynoid’s Jan Bitzer and Fabian Pross. Here’s a snippet but click ‘Full Interview’ to view the entire thing!
Fabian Pross on the FX:
We used Softimage ICE for almost all our effects work. The rampancy is actually not simulated, but a combination of procedural modeling and some keyframes.
Jan Bitzer on the Asset Development
343 Industries provided us with most of the CG assets which we had to bring together on an equal production level. Some elements where very high poly and had to be optimized, while others were simplified game assets and needed detail work.
What made your company interested in taking on the Halo franchise and creating an opening cinematic web series for their game?
JB: The epic Halo universe, the geek factor, science fiction and space, the storyline, the darkness, the mood and the chance to work on an unusual format of creating five individual title sequences – these were all big factors. And then we were pretty stoked to be given the chance to add our little part to the vast amount of artwork that has formed Halo over the years.
Taking on an IP as big as Halo must have come with some pretty unique challenges to keep the storyline and timeline in order. What sort of hurdles did you have to overcome to match everything up?
JB: We did a lot of research on facts and trivia concerning the world of Halo before we started working on the script so that everything was seamless.
Of course we were eager to implement our style and new elements into the Halo glossary — the Cortana Rampancy for example. We had a bit of back and forth about designing the elements of the data sphere and the way the rampancy should look.
Did you have much creative freedom with the project? What sort of things were provided and what were some of the freedoms you enjoyed?
JB: 343 Industries provided us with most of the CG assets which we had to bring together on an equal production level. Some elements where very high poly and had to be optimized, while others were simplified game assets and needed detail work. Besides that, we received style sheets on how to treat certain elements, what to do and what to avoid.
I think the biggest creative freedom besides the creation of the Cortana Rampancy was probably the influence we have through our way of storytelling. We wanted to honor the slow-paced features of a title sequence while at the same time progress in a storyline. The show director Stewart Hendler and 343 Industries where very open to our approach and ideas.
The Cortana rampancy simulations look great! What software did you use for all of the simulations? How difficult was the R&D and were you able to drive the creative force behind the look and feel?
FP: We used Softimage ICE for almost all our effects work. The rampancy is actually not simulated, but a combination of procedural modeling and some keyframes. Since we’ve worked on stuff similar to this in the past, the R&D came along naturally in only a couple of days and the rest was spent tweaking and animating.
In terms of look and feel, the rampancy was in fact the one thing we were able to add to the ‘Halo dictionary.’ We were very happy to design it more or less from scratch and push it through.
To further that question what sort of real life references did you look at to create that effect?
JB: To be honest, none. We studied a lot of recent effects work from “Tron” and “Prometheus.” Those specific looks were procedural animations using Processing, but since we were unfamiliar with that program at the time, we approached it in Softimage with ICE.
With a project this scope there are bound to be some issues that pop up. What were any technical limitations or frustrations your team had with the project?
JB: We struggled a bit with the optimization of the shading and lighting setup. Since this was one of our first excursions into the world of Arnold as primary renderer, we had to learn the do’s and don’ts of handling the renderings – the interior set especially took a while to be production ready.
We had to deal with huge amounts of polygons and a lot of image noise caused by a room full of metal shaders and lots of lights. And then there was all this ice, snow and frost which is a whole different story!
It took us a while to figure out a workflow that gave us the result we wanted.
The time lapse effect looks great and serves really well to further the storyline, what went into the development of that effect?
JB: We pulled some references from the web of ice growing and camera behavior during time lapse effects. We tried to implement all the little flaws that time lapse capturing characterize – things like exposure flickering and small inconsistencies in the camera movement.
The lighting looks fantastic, can you speak about any techniques you used?
JB: Heiko Schneck did a great job on creating the lighting setup for the interior set.
We used Arnold for the rendering. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to make use of any diffuse bouncing due to a lot of noise issues, resulting in the combination of an interior set with lots of lights and metallic surfaces. But Arnold is a monster when it comes to high poly counts and its shading capabilities were a big time saver.
Even beyond further reference gathering there must have been troves of concept art to deal with. What sort of inspiration did your team take when working on this project?
JB: Since the “Halo 4” teaser was already released, we had a strong guideline on the look we needed to achieve. Story wise, the end of our work marks the start of the teaser, specifically when Master Chief wakes up. Naturally, a part of our task was to ‘blend.’ We put our efforts into detail work, refining the shaders and textures and creating a realistic mood.
The new character redesign for Cortana is very human and the Master Chief looks spectacular with tons of new detail. What sort of influence did you have on the character development or how did you reinterpret what you were given?
JB: The time we spent on the characters was mostly targeted towards Cortana’s appearance. Master Chief was an easier task – he came with all the maps so we just did some shading work and kicked him off to render.
Cortana was a different story – she was to appear photo real but very stylized. There was a lot of look development that went into her rendering and quite a bit of back and forth with the client until we settled on the final setup. But it all worked out well at the end!
We all know that both Bungie and 343 Industries/Microsoft are quite fond of hiding little gems in their projects; Are there any fun easter eggs you guys left in the project?
JB: We wish we had! We planned on implementing a bunch of little ‘die hard fan’ surprises, but at the end of production they all got chopped due to edit and shot changes and prioritizing work hours. A bit unromantic, but we do wish we could’ve made it happen.