A New Episode for Halo
Axis Animation’s Stuart Aitken and Richard Scott talk about their new CGI episodic content series for Halo 4.
If you’re a fan of the Xbox’s Halo game franchise Axis Animation has a treat in store. The Glasgow-based CGI artists have teamed up with 343 Industries to create a new story-driven experience of Halo 4.
Spartan Ops, an episodic content series – the first-of-its-kind – is an exciting new addition blending immersive storytelling, high-quality cinematics and action-packed gameplay. Through a weekly series of cinematic episodes, Spartan Ops tells the continuing story of the UNSC Infinity, following the events of the Halo 4 story.
Ten animated episodes (the first of which you can view above), featuring over 1200 CGI animated shots, will be released throughout the series, which began on 6 November with the game’s launch. The series is being directed by Axis co-founder, Stuart Aitken. Here Aitken talks about the work that went into the project with executive producer Richard Scott.
How did you get involved with the Spartan Ops project and how much creative input did you have in terms of the scripts/story?
RS: We’d been working with Microsoft Game Studios on different properties and hoped we’d get a crack at being involved with Halo at some point in the future; it’s such a massive brand in the games world. We were first approached in the very early days of the project and asked to create a proposal that contained options on how we could tackle a 10-episode series with a total running time of up to 60 minutes. We worked on treatments, creative and style frames proposing a range of approaches from stylised 2D animation to live action and CGI.
SA: In terms of creative freedom, we had a lot really, something I greatly appreciated, but from the outset 343 made it clear they were looking for a partner who could closely collaborate with them and run with it, not just take something pre-baked and execute it. Obviously there was guidance from 343 on many aspects, especially where what we were doing dovetailed with what the player would experience in game, and the scripts were primarily developed within 343’s own writing department but even there we were able to have a lot of input.
Halo has a huge cult following. Did you feel nervous about taking the project on?
SA: This might seem a little big headed, but no, I was comfortable that we could do a great job and if anything the size of the franchise meant that the resources were there for us to do that. The sheer size and scope of the project on the other hand was indeed a little daunting!
Ultimately you have to please yourself, do what you think works - I think most people doing creative work of any kind would say something similar, but we were very aware of both the expectations and the layers and layers of previous material that we needed to keep in step with.
What was the division of responsibilities between Axis and 343 Industries?
SA: 343 Industries and Microsoft Game Studios have their own narrative development team for Halo. These guys know this world and the complexity of its backstory inside out.
Halo 4 Game Director Josh Holmes would ultimately have the final say on everything, but it was a very collaborative and creatively rewarding pre-production process from my point of view, and change requests were generally minor given the scale of the project
RS: What has been great is how integrated we became with the 343 Industries team. They put a lot of trust in us and we were allowed to run with a lot of the design, concept and look development for the episodes. As long as we made it feel ‘Halo’ then it was approved.
What kind of work went into the films in terms of time and man power?
SA: A lot!
In terms of time we entered pre-production (scripts, storyboards and initial concept design) in late February 2012 and final post production is scheduled to finish pretty much one year later in early 2013. All the performances were captured in a couple of two week sessions in Los Angeles at Giant studios between April and July, and layout started as soon as we began to get data back from Giant, and the asset teams had created environment proxies for a given scene. Additionally we had various R&D teams look at some aspects, most notable shading/lighting approach, and facial animation from very early on as we knew those would present the biggest challenges.
In terms of man power this was a huge project, by far the biggest we have undertaken at Axis and we had over 100 people internally working on this at various points across all departments. We often joked that we were pretty much doing half a feature film - I think the final shot count is over 1200 shots, which is quite fast paced - the average feature is probably around 2000 or so
The facial animation is fantastic. What kind of technology did you use and were there any new kinds of tech that you got to play with?
RS: Over the last few years we’ve been developing our own pipeline in house to make our character performances as authentic as possible. This has included improved facial animation, better shaders and rendering for characters but more than anything the focus has been on working with the best acting talent.
In all cases though there’s always the hand of an excellent animator involved, refining the performance and making it as believable as possible on the CG characters - performance capture is never a perfect solution, you always have to do a final pass where you polish things and make sure they work as well as possible by hand.
What was the most challenging aspect of the project?
SA: Beyond the obvious answer which is the sheer amount of material we needed to produce at the highest possible quality, I think the aspect we were most concerned about initially was being able to pull off the kind of character-based, performance-led drama we wanted to create with CG characters, and that especially meant being able to create very expressive and believable facial performances. I am very proud of what we managed to achieve on that score.
Axis became famous when the Dead Island trailer came out. Has the success of that film transformed the company?
SA: It brought our work to a much wider audience for sure, though we have been doing great trailers for the games industry for the last ten years! I think the crossover success of the Dead Island trailer especially got a lot of attention and got our name in front of people who hadn’t otherwise known about our work, and that’s always a huge benefit. It could certainly be argued that it was one of the major things that put us in the frame for Spartan Ops and given that this project has very much transformed the studio, I think that’s a yes!
Are you a Halo fan and have you played the games much?
SA: Indeed and I’m a huge fan of the universe that has been created around the games - I’m looking forward to having some more time over the Christmas break to really sink my teeth into Halo 4!
To view more content from the series go to the Spartan Ops: Halo 4 YouTube Channel.
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