A day on the set of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn.
I’m sitting in a folding high chair that feels like it’s about to crumple under my weight at any second. To my left sits Frank O’Connor, franchise development director at 343 Industries. To my right sits Jeff Easterling (site administrator for Halo.Bungie.Org), Dan Hammil (vlogger and creator of ReadyUpLive), Fran Mirabella III (director of video production at IGN) and Jessica Shea (Community Manager at 343 Industries). It’s the first time the six of us have all been in the same room at the same time together….. yet nobody is talking. In fact, we’re barely paying any attention to each other. Our eyes are fixed on a collection of televisions in front of us, and each of us is wearing a headset connected to a wireless receiver. The screens are filled with young UNSC cadets sitting down to have lunch in the Academy cafeteria. As the scene plays out, we witness an intense confrontation that bursts into a brutal fist fight. The camera remains close up on the faces of the young actors as they grapple each other to the floor. It is a simple scene, but a passionate one. These young cadets are in the midst of the all-too-volatile transition from childhood to adulthood. They are struggling to define who they really are, both to themselves and to those around them. This struggle will be at the core of the new live action web series - Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn.
We were in Vancouver to visit the set of Forward Unto Dawn, watch some of the filming, and interview some of the cast and crew behind the production. Jeff, Dan and I were on cloud 9; soaking in every single detail we possibly could. The first thing that struck me was the look and feel of the location: the reflective floors, white and grey uniforms of the UNSC cadets, the squeak of combat boots echoing off concrete walls…. it all felt right. The next thing I noticed was the cast: they were young. Very young. Even before I spoke to anyone, it was clear to me that Forward Unto Dawn is not going to be a story of battle-hardened veterans taking the fight to the Covenant. Rather, it will be about young characters, coming to terms with who they are in the midst of war. A “coming of age” story.
One point worth mentioning: I expect some fans will be surprised to find that Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn is not directly part of the Halo 4 story (as far as I know). From what I can gather, it is predominantly a prequel, set in the early days of the Human/Covenant war. Over the course of my time on the set, there were several hints that the plot and characters of Forward Unto Dawn will connect directly to the story in Halo 4. But make no mistake; this is a self-contained story set years before the Master Chief arrives on Requiem. In fact, the idea of seeing a much younger Master Chief in action is one of the most intriguing elements of the entire project to me. Will we see the same confident, unstoppable force we know and love from the games, or something a little different?
Another thing that struck me very strongly was the various members of 343 Industries. I could see how seriously they are taking this project. Watching Kevin Grace and Frank O’Connor as they followed the shoot, they were clearly examining every moment with a meticulously critical eye. But I also saw an enthusiasm and excitement that mirrored my own. After all, 343 themselves are in the midst of their own “coming of age” story; on the verge of proving to the world who they are and what they can really do. I couldn’t help but smile at the similarity…
This enthusiasm extended to the cast as well. When they weren’t in front of the camera, many of the actors would come to the greenroom to relax. Dan, Jeff and I were initially weary of crowding them, but they seemed as excited to talk to us as we were to talk to them. Before I knew it, we were sitting with Anna Popplewell, Iain Belcher, Kat de Liva, Osric Chau, and Tom Green, talking about Halo. They wanted to know what we (the hardcore Halo fans) thought of what we had seen so far. The giddy laughter and incoherent babble that erupted from our mouths brought a collective smile to the cast’s faces. They shared stories of boot-camp style military training they had all gone through together in preparation for their roles as UNSC cadets. The group had clearly bonded in a few short weeks of working together. This bond, in my opinion, is crucial. Forward Unto Dawn is not a galaxy-spanning epic following a cast of thousands. It is a personal, character-driven story about a small group of adolescents whose survival may very well depend on each other. In many ways, the weight of the story falls on the shoulders of this small group of young actors.
Conducting our interviews over the course of the day gave us an opportunity to talk at length with Stewart Hendler (Director of Forward Unto Dawn), Daniel Cudmore (Master Chief), Anna Popplewell (Cadet Chyler Silva) and Tom Green (Cadet Thomas Lasky). Despite their varying levels of familiarity with the Halo franchise previous to this project, I found they all had a common love for the scope and wonder of the Halo world. More importantly, they all seemed to recognize the potential for powerful dramatic storytelling within that world. Stories about futuristic warfare can often rely on nothing more than effects-driven action sequences to justify their own existence. Forward Unto Dawn will certainly feature its share of action-packed Covenant fighting, but it was clear to me that the true focus of this production is to tell a meaningful, character-driven story, with the Halo universe as its backdrop.
Our day was beginning to wind down. We’d completed all of our interviews and returned to the greenroom to continue watching the filming-in-progress on the monitors. A few minutes later my attention was drawn away from the screen in front of me, when a voice from the doorway called out: “Hey guys, someone wants to say hello!”. The next moment, a 7 foot tall super soldier walked into the room. This was not just some guy in a costume; THE MASTER CHIEF was standing right in front of us. The look, movement, size… it was all perfect. As if we’d rehearsed it, Jeff, Dan and I stood in a row with our jaws collectively dropped. I turned to glance back at Jessica, and found BS Angel herself in just as much awe as the rest of us. I was again reminded that the people now at the helm of the Halo franchise are also some of its biggest fans.
We were introduced to David Monzingo of Legacy Effects: the team responsible for the creation of the Master Chief costume. He explained the construction process, as well as some of the design challenges that needed to be overcome. A great deal of work needed to go into making the suit look as authentic as possible, while still allowing a full range of motion and mobility. The results are truly impressive. The combination of Daniel Cudmore’s imposing size and athleticism with the iconic form of the Master Chief’s armor is a powerful match. What’s more, the effect of seeing Sierra 117 real and in front of you could be seen on every single person who laid eyes on him. As we followed Chief down the long hallway back towards the main set, I watched every member of the cast and crew who passed by stop and look up in awe. Exactly the same way countless UNSC Marines would turn their attention towards the Chief while playing through the original Halo trilogy. I though to myself: “You know… this just might work”
- Nevin Douglas / CruelLEGACEY
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