With three episodes of the widely anticipated Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn web series released and the fourth set to debut this Friday, Digital Trends got a chance to talk to the show’s executive producers, Lydia Antonini and Josh Feldman about the making of it, how fans have been responding so far, and where the future lies for the series. With the help of Machinima, 343 Industries, and others, the first episode has rocketed to over five million views since the October 5 premiere, and leads up to the launch of the Halo 4 game for Xbox on November 6.
Set during the first days of the Covenant’s attack on humanity, the series follows a group of UNSC cadets training at a base on a remote human colony, unaware that they will soon be at war. Principle among the cadets is Thomas Lasky (played by Australian actor Tom Green), who is destined to become a leader in the fight against the Covenant, as well as an important figure aboard the UNSC Infinity, a ship that will play a crucial role in Halo 4. When the Covenant strikes, Lasky, along with several others including cadet Chyler Silva (The Chronicle of Narnia series’ Anna Popplewell) and JJ Chen (Osric Chau), find inspiration in the Spartan, John-117, who will soon be known more famously as Master Chief (played by Twilight‘s Daniel Cudmore).
What’s the setting for the series and will we recognize some of the multiplayer maps seen in the previous Halo games?
Josh: The timeframe of the series goes back to the introduction of the human-Covenant conflict; we’re talking about an insight into a timeframe that to date hasn’t been explored. So we’re introducing some areas. We’re not revisiting areas that multiplayer gamers have previously seen.
Lydia: If you watched episode one, there’s the opening sequence with Master Chief and Cortana on Forward Unto Dawn, and that is a sequence bridge between [Halo 3] and [Halo 4]. The opening sequence picks up where they are and moves us along to the beginning of [Halo 4], and helps bring together the most sophisticated story line that we’re weaving with Thomas Laskey toward [Halo 4]. Forward Unto Dawn is a ship that preexisted.
What were the production challenges?
Lydia: Forward Unto Dawn couldn’t feel like a separate interpretation of Halo. This needed to be a complete, and parcel with the mythology. This was a collaboration with 343 Industries in the truest sense. So the story was broken with us and our writers, and 343, and they were completely involved in every iteration of the script. The biggest challenge is that there hasn’t been this length of live action. Fans have high expectations when it comes to the visual quality of Halo so we knew we had to have a stellar visual effects team that had to work quickly in order to have this launch before the release of Halo 4. So that challenge was aided by the immense design work that had existed by the virtue of the Halo franchise being around for 10 years. Each of the kinds of challenges is important. We had to respond to them by making sure we hired the best people for the job.
Can you divulge Microsoft’s budget for the production of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn?
Lydia: We can’t say, but you can tell that Microsoft gave us the resources to make something very special. They were not cheap at all about making sure that we can do everything that the brand deserves. But with that said we took every dollar and still stretched it much further than anybody thought it could go. So for example the long-form of all of the episodes will be available on Xbox Live on November 6, and plays as a movie, but I think you’d be astounded with what we pulled off with the money.
Was there a difference in the way you approached the development of the series, compared to a full movie for example?
Lydia: Because Halo is such an important franchise to many people and it has such an active fan base, we had to be extremely NDA. We had to be very, very secretive. I’ve heard stories about when they’re shooting an Apple commercial; they’ll actually have two different commercials going on. I personally never had to be that secretive of anything in a long time until this.
Josh: Microsoft had ambitious distribution plans. The first being that it’s going to be distributed as five episodes, and then it’s going to be available as part of the limited edition of the game as a long form piece, where it plays essentially in a feature style. And it’s going to be on Blu-ray and DVD.
Does the storyline follow a younger group of characters with a new target demographic in mind?
Josh: Master Chief is definitely in Forward Unto Dawn and he’ll do all of the things that fans expect of Master Chief, and that was an area that we paid a lot of attention to in building the suit with legacy effects and having a great actor who’s also a really skilled stunt performer to be able to do all of the things Master Chief could.
In terms of the series focusing on younger cadets, I think it adds an element that’s very relatable. Yes, our main characters may be of a similar age group to some of the fans of Halo. I think it’s an opportunity to look at characters that are on the verge of adulthood, when their identity is being forced. And to have a character like Thomas Laskey appear in Halo 4, it’s an opportunity to see the seminal moments in his life that would make the audience and players of Halo 4 that much more interested because they know this back story. This just happens to be that time, and that age that the events take place.
How have fans received the series so far?
Lydia: Overwhelmingly positive. It’s exciting as producers to be able to put something out into the world directly to the consumers and to have them comment and write and view and talk back to you in real-time, which is what YouTube allows. I’ve been reading people’s comments and they’re so supportive. They’ve been picking up on the little details that you knit into a story and that make you ask, “Gosh will anyone notice those?” But they noticed them, they loved it, and they appreciated it. They expect the best, and they really pay attention.
Josh: We were hired by 343 and followed their marching orders, and we know where the buck stops, and that’s with the fans. That was constantly in the back of our minds.
After your experience with Forward Unto Dawn and based on your background in traditional film and TV, what’re your feelings on original programming and would you distribute future content as a TV show or as a web series?
Lydia: Personally I’d like to experiment with doing both simultaneously. I still watch television and I watch shows digitally. They’re both great viewing experiences and they both offer a different amount of interaction, so it would be really fun to play at the intersection of the two to give people a really full 360 degree experience of being able to watch and engaged with the show on their own terms with the environment they choose.
Do you think a web series at the caliber of Forward Unto Dawn can replace a consumer’s TV viewing habit?
Josh: I think in some way there are some people who are going to look at this and be motivated to become a cord cutter, or any of the terms used for people who like access content via digital means, but that’s not a bad thing. But I personally think it speaks more to giving consumers choices with how they access the shows that they love, and each of the different formats offer a different viewing experience. When you watch something digitally or something online, you’re immediately thrust into a forum to debate, talk, compare, argue, critique, and praise alongside fellow members of the community. When you watch something in other formats, you trade some of that interactivity for a greater emphasis on the presentation quality. At a point there’s a convergence to all those things. Until we hit that convergence each venue has attributes that make it appealing to different people.
343′s Kiki Wolfkill mentioned in an interview that Forward Unto Dawn is supposed to make Halo accessible to its users. Was he hinting at changes to Halo 4’s game play?
Lydia: A lot of that detail is really under wraps, but one of the goals that we agreed upon when it was just Josh and I working on the project with 343 is that we wanted a show that could excite the core fan base that plays the games and gets excited that could also evolve and be relevant to the casual Halo player, who doesn’t maybe know all the granular details. There’s a third audience of people, those who don’t know Halo at all but who should enjoy the story for what it is.
And is that why you took the character development approach to the series?
Josh: Absolutely. [We had the] opportunity to convey more of the life-changing events of a character, and the people who see this and never played Halo before will have a really cool perspective. We’ve checked out the game and the people at 343 have outdone themselves, and so it’s a real thrill to be a part of something that adds a little insight into one of the characters that’s going to be featured in Halo 4.
How about the Covenant’s appearance? We see a glimpse of them in episode three, but what will they actually look like?
Is there any validity to the Halo film rumors, and what’s next for the Halo franchise as a web series?
Lydia: We certainly can’t speak for what their plans may be. They haven’t yet indicated to us if we’ll move forward, but my personal feeling is that the fans have been so excited and interested in this particular project… I’d be surprised if there weren’t more things happening in the near future with Halo live action.
Josh: If there’s one thing that history has shown is that 343 is not going to stop innovating and stop finding ways to build out the Halo franchise. So if Lydia and I – we are fans – just get to experience new avenues that Halo goes down as fans that would be great. If we’re lucky enough to be a part of them, we’d be thrilled. This was an amazing year to be very temporary custodians of live action Halo, and there’s just so much there that they’d be crazy enough not to explore.
Are there any games you’d like to translate into a Web series?
Lydia: Red Dead Redemption and Diablo.
Josh: Halo 5.
Lydia: That goes without saying, we’d love to continue working on Halo.
The episodes will be released in full on Xbox Live November 6 as a long-form 90 minute film, and sold on Blu-ray on December 5. Halo 4 will be released as an Xbox 360 exclusive on November 6. You can check out the first episode of the series below: