Working on the VFX for a Halo TV show is a bit of a headtrip. You’re taking the imagery of assets made for over 20 years of one the most beloved shooter franchises around, translating them into the practical, “real” world of making modern TV, and then bringing them all back digitally to make the show’s big set pieces and alien foes come to life. But as wild as Halo: The Series got, that VFX work was always cool to see in action.
io9, the sci-fi vertical within our sister site Gizmodo, spoke to Pixomondo VFX supervisor Phil Prates — currently working on Halo’s second season — over email to learn more about Pixomondo’s work on the series so far, from geeking out over Halo to the work it takes to translate the gaming franchise’s creatures, vistas, and technology from video games, to TV, and back again to digital imagery. But before you read that, check out the full Pixomondo VFX reel for Halo: The Series below.
James Whitbrook, Gizmodo: Completely out there first question. I love that you set this reel to Halo 3‘s “One Final Effort.” Can you speak a little about putting together work reels like this, and how you select music to show off your work (why a track from the games, rather than the show for example)? Is it a chance to geek out a little bit about the stuff you’ve done?
Phil Prates: This one is easy; we have some super fans of Halo on the team and we had many chats about how iconic and epic the music from the games is and we wanted to pay homage to the original source material that our work was based on. We spent nearly three years on this project from the early character development to our final shot delivery so just seeing the title of this song “One Final Effort,” it felt like a great match.
Gizmodo: 343 Industries was a close partner on this project. When it came to VFX, what was that relationship between Pixomondo and 343 like? What was it like sharing resources and assets with the people directly behind Halo while working on the show?
Prates: 343 was a great resource to have on this project when designing characters, weapons, vehicles, and environments; they always had a lot of guidance and backstory for every asset we were creating. This information was crucial for understanding the world of Halo and making sure our VFX felt like it was part of that same world.
Gizmodo: A big challenge for Halo was balancing what we knew of the franchise’s aesthetic from 20 years of video games, and creating something for a contemporary streaming show. What was it like translating the Covenant creature designs we see in this reel from the ways gamers have seen them move and look across all the past Halo games?
Prates: The Covenant creature designs were a joy to work on, we had so many references from all the games and the process was more about balancing the elements from those 20 years of video game source material with the world of the show. We maintained a lot of the original characteristics and looks to make sure you can recognise all the signature characters and weapons, toning down some of the more vibrant video game colours into a pallet that fit this world.
Gizmodo: When it came to portraying the physicality of the Covenant creatures, how much of your animation work leaned on trying to emulate what we knew of their characterization in the games vs trying something that made those alien designs feel real as part of this live-action world they were now in? What was the balance like there?
Prates: We use motion capture, the actors emulating the movements from the game, then our animation team worked on top, adding the subtle differences for each species. Our Brutes were made to look large with slow but powerful movements, Jackals were given a jerky, bird-like movement, while Grunts were stalkier and more fun; we even got to do a very game-inspired sleeping Grunt in the show.
Gizmodo: Obviously part of your work is also translating physical props from the series into digital assets as well. Can you tell me a little bit about your process and relationship with the production team when taking things like weapons and vehicles like the Warthog that had a physical element on set, and digitally recreating them?
Prates: A lot of elements had both fully physical builds, like the warthogs. They had on-set practical and fully digital builds, for these we would simply recreate what was built on set. We could then dynamically could switch from one to the other based on action and also completely create additional elements that were never there. Some objects did not have a practical portion, these were designed based on concepts provided, like the Brute spiker and hammers. Also, a large portion of weapons, characters, vehicles, and environments were just small pieces of the total objects to allow the actors to interact with and the rest was recreated digitally, like the Pelicans. We would remove or extend the stand-in props and replace them with our digital builds.
Gizmodo: A major part of your work we see here is translating Jen Taylor’s mocap performance on-set to the digital Cortana hologram. Talk me through the process of working with Jen and 343 on bringing this version of Cortana to life, as well as your approach to presenting her in this way “alongside” the other characters on the show.
Prates: Cortana was a fantastic asset to work on and it was so great to have such a true-to-game performance from Jenn as our base for her iconic performance. We built the Cortana hologram with over 850+ blend shapes to allow a wide variety of facial performance as well as dynamic hair sims to give her life. We retargeted Jen’s on-set facial performance with a series of tracking markers, allowing us to pick up the subtle details that she would emote. She would perform in a motion capture suit, alongside her co-stars allowing good eyeline and more realistic interactions. We would then remove Jenn from the images and add her digital version as Cortana. Her hologram would adapt to its environment’s lighting as she moved around, while still maintaining the more subtle blue tone of her look in this show. Her hologram was made up of an array of photons that are connecting and disconnecting with energy. As she appeared and disappeared, these photons would break apart or come together to form her finished body.
Gizmodo: What was a particular sequence or scene Pixomondo was really excited to work on? Is there a standout moment or episode you’re most proud of?
Prates: We had a fantastic shot in the final episode, Master Chief goes to help Riz after she gets thrown against a pillar and we being to go into a long one-take shot as he fights his way through an onslaught of Brutes. This shot was a very long action with so many characters and moments, it was a huge amount of work but also a lot of fun. We started blocking it out in a rough animation at first, hitting the desired moments and story. After the story was there, stunt actors used this animation guide to perform the stunts in motion capture suits and then we retranslated this mocap back to our scene. With this base, we began to build up the power and secondary details to ensure the Brutes moved like towering beasts. Also, the whole scene took place on the Raas Plateau, so in a huge sand pit for them all to fight in.
Halo’s first season is now streaming on Paramount+.