How do you turn one of the most successful and popular video games of all time into a television series?
This month, we find out how DGC Members, VFX pros and Producers in Ontario navigated this mammoth Paramount+ project through collaboration, Post Production expertise, and for some, pure love for the Halo games and their epic universe.
Below, we chat with the team that pulled it off: Picture Editors Aaron Marshall, Geoff Ashenhurst, Dan Briceno, and Andrew Bukovac, Sound Editors David Caporale and Yuri Gorbachow, Sound Designer Brennan Mercer, VFX Supervisor and VFX Producer Dominic Remane and Bill Halliday, as well as series Producer Sheila Hockin, and the President & CEO of Take 5 Productions, John Weber.
How did this massive production land in Ontario?
Producer Sheila Hockin: Halo has had a very long development arc. Steven Spielberg optioned it way back, and Alex Garland once wrote an original script. It’s been around for a long time, and it’s a super challenging thing to pull off. The hallways, so to speak, are littered with a lot of failed attempts at bringing games to movie and television screens.
Showtime had been developing Halo together with Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment for about eight or nine years. My colleague at Take 5, Bill Goddard, who was head of Post there for a long time, had been running schedules and budgets on it for about eight years. The first official meeting that I had on Halo was July 2018 – so that’s four years to produce nine episodes of television!
Halo is the fifth project I’ve done for Showtime over the years. I produced Queer As Folk for them from 2000 to 2005, which was a real point of pride for me to get all of that work into Canada and all those Canadian creatives on the show. They then started doing a lot of historical work like The Tudors, which obviously had to be shot in Europe, but I produced the Post for that show as well. We had Canadian Post teams on The Tudors, The Borgias, and Penny Dreadful. Showtime has a long track record of working in Canada. They see a great deal of value in it and they love the quality of creative work done in this country. Our Editors are spectacular, and the Sound team on Halo is a team I’ve worked with for 20 years. This Post team was really easy to sell both to Showtime because of that history, but also to Amblin because they recognized the quality of the work that was coming out of that group.
President & CEO of Take 5 Productions John Weber: We were working with Showtime on Halo probably 10 years ago, going through numerous budget iterations, trying to figure out how to finance and where to place the show. Obviously, the scope is enormous and we needed an exceptional amount of creative lead time, but ultimately, we got to the point where we could actually put it into official Pre-Production in Hungary.
I’ve been working with Showtime for over 20 years, and they love to Post in Ontario. We’ve established a great model, and they have a lot of comfort in our company being able to handle that. We take responsibility for all of the Post Production visual effects, which on this show is huge.
We put together a great team and convinced everyone, all of the partners, that this is a team that could pull off the scope and scale and the ambitious delivery schedules – and they’ve done an extraordinary job. I can’t overemphasize just how hard this show is from a Post Production standpoint. It’s visually spectacular. It really is amazing the work that we’re doing creatively with DGC Ontario Members. We’re all pretty proud of it. The response has been great. And now Halo has been picked up for a second season, which we start shooting again later this summer.
I don’t see this level of work stopping anytime soon, and I see why people and studios around the world want to use our artists and your Members.
How did you join the Post team for Halo? Were you a fan of the video games prior to working on the TV adaptation?
Sound Designer Brennan Mercer: I’ve always wanted to work on a sci-fi production of this magnitude. My interest in sound began with making electronic music. Synthesizers, samplers and Sound Design have always been my number one source of creativity and passion. My first big show as a Sound Effects Editor was Vikings (a Take 5 production) which was epic in its scope, having massive battles and fight sequences. A show like that forces you to learn to edit fast and efficiently while maintaining high-quality sound. I’ve been waiting for a project where I could combine these two valuable assets: a background in synthesis/Sound Design, along with the proficiency to cut large, complicated sound sequences.
I was also a fan of the Halo video games. In high school, I played the original game after school every Friday afternoon with my best friends Will, Brady and Chris. Will always beat the three of us because he owned the game and knew it inside out. I remember the one time I ever beat him, by using the “Shotgun” weapon in the game. There is a sequence in the series where this shotgun is used, which made editing the sequence feel especially gratifying.
VFX Producer Bill Halliday: When I was coming to the end of my time on Into the Badlands for AMC, I started hearing about Halo. I’d been working with John Weber’s company, Take 5, for the last 12 years, and they were contracted to do Halo’s Post Production. So in the middle of 2018, Tom Turnbull, the supervisor from Into the Badlands, and I began transitioning from Into the Badlands to Halo. And then Dom joined us soon after.
VFX Supervisor Dominic Remane: Bill pulled me onto the show, primarily because they needed a creature VFX Supervisor. But, I was a fan of the games in college and played them extensively on Friday nights while I drank with my friends. I’m very familiar with the series!
What’s it been like to work with 343 Industries, the division of Microsoft that owns the Halo property?
(343 Industries, part of Xbox Game Studios, has been responsible for the Halo series of games since 2007, after original studio Bungie was acquired by Microsoft in 2000)
Sound Designer Brennan Mercer: Each time a weapon, vehicle, piece of technology, or creature was introduced in the series, we would make a point of reaching out to the team at 343 in order to decipher if a signature sound already existed within the Halo canon, if it was related to something that exists, or if it was completely new. These questions were met by in-depth answers from Senior Halo Franchise Writer Kenneth Peters, Franchise Development Director Frank O’Connor, and Studio Head of Transmedia at 343 Kiki Wolfkill (O’Connor and Wolfkill are also Executive Producers on the series). That was always a surreal moment. Here you have three incredibly creative, successful and busy individuals taking the time to personally answer your questions about your favourite childhood game. They would explain the physics, philosophy, and intention behind every sound and asset in the game. By the end of the series, our Sound team had this semi-encyclopedic knowledge of the Halo universe.
Sound Editor David Caporale: 343 is listening to all the final mixes to give their input, and they’ll also provide the scientific reasoning behind their notes. It’s amazing how much science is behind the creative decisions they made when they created the sounds and the look of the machines. We would conceptually float ideas by them – you know, what does that sound like? What should we do here? It’s definitely been a great collaborative relationship.
VFX Supervisor Dominic Remane: There was a lot of freedom for us overall and 343 were incredibly helpful. I think the only thing that we didn’t deviate from, except for upgrades, were the spaceships. So any Covenant ships or any human ships, we pretty much kept exactly the same as in-game with slight modifications, where needed, to fit the story. But even in environments like the Reach, which is very iconic in the games and the books, there was still a lot of freedom to design architecture around the practical locations that we shot in Budapest. We were staying true to the overall design but we and the Art Department had the creative freedom to create a more a believable city and world than what was represented in the games. The Rubble, which is a location featured in Episode 2, is talked about in the books, but rarely ever shown so we had a lot of freedom in designing that. 343 were very collaborative. We would come up with a design, and there was a lot of back and forth, but a good, progressive back and forth. Both parties had the ability to flex their creative muscles in a great way.
This series is intended to appeal to longtime Halo fans and attract viewers who might be unfamiliar with the video games but are interested in the universe. How did you balance both these goals in Post Production, and put your own creative stamp on the series?
Picture Editor Aaron Marshall: There was definitely a decision, right from the top, that we weren’t going to try to ape the games. There are elements, especially in some of the battle scenes, where we get a little bit “game-y”, for lack of a better term, where we do have a lot of perspective shots from inside Master Chief’s helmet. But it has to be a separate experience. I think we always knew that you can never really please that super hardcore gamer audience, because it’s not the game. And if you want to have a proper drama, then yeah, he’s got to take his helmet off, and you’ve got to see his face.
Otto Bathurst, the Director of the first block and Producer, was not a big gamer guy initially. Kyle Killen and Steven Kane, when they were developing the series and writing the episodes, were kept very much on-canon by 343. They kept everything in this special sort of sub-timeline that they call the “Silver Timeline” to tread a line between hardcore adherence to the games and its own separate, more drama-friendly sphere. That’s the compromise. Part of Steve Kane and the producing team’s goal was that they wanted this series to be totally accessible and enjoyable to someone who’s never played the game. It can’t be so jargon-laden and deep in that world that it’s impenetrable for a first-time viewer.
Picture Editor Dan Briceno: It’s a first-person shooter, so right off the bat the show is not going to look like a game. There are story elements, especially after five or so games, but we’re telling the story of Master Chief aka John-117 (played by Pablo Schreiber in the series), who is essentially this killing machine. His humanity has been stolen from him, and he’s regaining it. That in itself allows us to put a stamp on Halo that’s never really been done before. And there’s a secondary storyline with Kwan (Yerin Ha), somebody who’s not in the games at all. That’s a character that’s just for our series. She has her own arc, and it ties in with Master Chief’s. That’s another way that the show puts an original twist on the games.
Sound Designer Brennan Mercer: With so much sound already existing within the canon, we had to look for opportunities to add to the universe whenever sounds hadn’t yet been established. Otto Bathurst wanted us to create a sound for the movement of the Spartan’s armour, something that didn’t exist within the game. They had to sound massive, yet agile. This was a challenge, as traditionally a “moves” track is performed by a foley artist. We have an exceptional Foley team, Footsteps Studios, and our Foley Artist, Goro Koyama, tried many different techniques, but ultimately the movement of a 1000-pound Spartan had to be designed and edited as a sound effect layer. This sound is something we are particularly proud of – the Spartans sound colossal, yet articulate and sleek. I developed a workflow that allowed us to convert foley footsteps into sound effects using audio to midi, which was then further extrapolated into a movement track by using a sound design trick and the audio plugin “Envy”.
Sound Editor Yuri Gorbachow: There were a lot of creative discussions during the music spotting sessions about striking a balance between creating new themes and textures for the series while also staying connected to the wonderful music from the game. The composer Sean Callery was very respectful of the musical themes from the game and wanted to make sure that any moment in which they were performed felt authentic. We trusted the storytelling to organically inform us when these moments would occur and collectively followed those impulses. For example, there is a scene in the final episode in which a significant event occurs, and while we were reviewing the score with the Producers, we realized that this was a powerful opportunity for the iconic Halo Gregorian theme to appear one final time.
Picture Editor Andrew Bukovac: Pleasing everyone is a tricky endeavour, but I think the depth of the lore certainly did us a lot of favours in that regard. Understanding that video games as a medium can be a barrier to entry, I think the very act of adapting Halo for TV helps to make the rich world Bungie/343 created a little more digestible for those who are unfamiliar. Obviously, the difference between the two mediums is that the games have a player-driven narrative, whereas TV is very much self-propelling. That disconnect is the core of what makes game adaptations so tricky. But, for those who love the games, we’ve been working hand-in-hand with 343 through the entirety of the Post process and the attention to detail has been pretty wild.
When it comes to video games specifically, there’s something to be said about minutiae-minded developers who create something amounting to way more than the sum of its parts… Without spoiling anything in particular, we’re all pretty giddy about the little details added in the editing/VFX process that only the diehards will pick up on. Every department has been similarly focused on nailing the small things and I think that’ll go a long way to bridging the gap between the ride-or-dies and the newcomers.
Talk to us about the most creative parts of designing VFX for this series. How much are you informed by the video games?
VFX Supervisor Dominic Remane: Halo is probably the most creature-heavy show I’ve ever done. We went through a big process of first designing the creatures and aliens with 343, so we had a base to work off of. At the same time though, we had a lot of freedom to change up the armour or create our own variant, but still stay true to the video games. The Sangheili are a set of creatures where their armour is slightly different than in the games. They were actually very unique to design because their height is around seven and a half to eight feet tall. We worked closely with some performers out of Poland and the Czech Republic that use these digitigrade legs that are like jumping stilts. They have that kind of weight and compression with their legs, so we strategized and made sure that we had a set of performances from the stunt performers that were as similar as you can get to the actual creature. We had performers playing Brutes, 10-foot tall aliens, on painter’s stilts, just to get that height and a stomp to their walk that matches the video games. We worked closely with prosthetics, costumes and set dec to create as much of a physical, practical element as possible. We would have puppeteers on the day that would perform their actions, so it’s easier for the Picture Editors to understand what was going on when they get the footage, as well as for the actors so they can have proper eyelines. Then in the end for Post, we just chopped out their heads and necks and replaced them entirely for moments where you had to see a line of dialogue spoken or facial expression.
Cortana is one of the most iconic characters in Halo, and we went through a few stages of her development, primarily trying to hone the design and the approach that we wanted to take. Jen Taylor, who has been the voice of Cortana over the last 20-something years, joined us, and she performed all the actions on the day. So we would have her there physically with a facial capture rig and a full mocap suit that was capturing her performances. That way we could get the proper eyelines and performance between Dr. Halsey or Master Chief and Cortana. And then we’d replace her entirely with the digital character.
VFX Producer Bill Halliday: For characters, we started primarily with the Blur Studios models from the Halo 2 anniversary edition, and worked up to our own versions of them, in conjunction with 343, with a character designer out of the UK. The weapons were all very faithful to the games. Even the weapons that we built that were purely CG, were always very faithful to the game. In terms of the environments, The Rubble is mentioned in one of the books called Protocol, but it wasn’t an illustrated book, it’s a novel. So we had a lot of opportunities to create there. The Reach is almost entirely digital, so we had the ability to craft that. Often we were following the set design to some extent, or the location. The interior of The Rubble, where all the “walk and talk” scenes with the actors happen, was all done in a tunnel system that is part of a brewery in Budapest. A lot of the genesis for what it looked like started with the Production Designer, Sophie Becher, and then we expanded on it with VFX.
How did you design sounds for the series that would pay homage to the games?
Sound Editor David Caporale: With sound effects, we had to research and were in constant dialogue with 343. What are the ships like? How are they constructed? What propels them? There are also various human armies and alien armies, and they have different technology – what’s that based on? So we were in constant communication, and we had a whole sound library from the game to incorporate into our work. Then we beefed it up and added to it, just to stay true to the game and to make it dynamic for TV.
How does designing sound for sci-fi differ from other genres?
Sound Designer Brennan Mercer: Sound Designing for sci-fi means that a large amount of sound, a majority in the case of this show, doesn’t actually exist in our present-day world. If you’re working on a show about muscle cars, and you need the authentic sound of a 1966 Dodge Coronet, you can go out and record the engine. You can’t necessarily do the same for Halo‘s Warthog. If you need the sound of a washing machine on a spin cycle, there are countless recordings of it, but how do you create a myriad of sounds for alien spacecrafts like the Phantom or Banshee? That’s the biggest challenge, creating sounds that don’t exist, but which still sound believable. Furthermore, it’s not enough to create one interesting sound for each asset, you need to be able to create multiple sounds with differing perspectives, speeds and intensities, and they all have to feel cohesive.
Season 2 was greenlit even before Season 1 hit the airwaves. What does the scale of this project mean for Post in Ontario? Do you feel Halo will usher in even more Post Only projects?
Picture Editor Aaron Marshall: Let’s hope it’s a precedent-setting thing! It’s not the first big production to Post here, but it might be one of the biggest. Obviously, Ontario has a massive foothold as a production center and it would be great to see the Post Production foothold be just as big. So if this is one of the first stakes in the ground in that respect, that would be fantastic.
Picture Editor Geoff Ashenhurst: Halo feels like it’s next in the progression of projects like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Shape of Water that brought a lot of attention to the capabilities we have with Post in Ontario. This is just another extension of that.
Sound Editor David Caporale: I think it’s great, and Halo isn’t the only production that’s contributing to this. Sound Dogs, for example, worked on The Shape of Water and Nightmare Alley. We’ve also got The Expanse and Foundation. It shows that we’re becoming a destination for top-of-the-line, high-end work. I’m really proud to be a part of that legacy.
Sound Editor Yuri Gorbachow: Halo presented us with an opportunity to work together in teams like never before. Given the scale and complexity, Ontario Post crews have been repeatedly tasked with these challenges and have built a strong knowledge base of workflow. We now have the experience to do this well.
Picture Editor Andrew Bukovac: I hope that what we’ve achieved here helps to open the floodgates. I think over the years as more and more shows that have posted here go on to receive global acclaim, the trust in talent to the north begins to rise, so even without us, it’s definitely an upwards trajectory.
VFX Producer Bill Halliday: In terms of visual effects, we were doing seasons of The Tudors with 250 visual effects. Episode 1 of Halo has 683 visual effects shots. We did Vikings, which was a fairly big show, with primarily one vendor, which was Mr. X in Toronto. But this show has 17 vendors, and the majority of work was done in Ontario. It’s employed hundreds of people. There were 3,300 shots in the show in nine episodes, which is considerable, and they’re not just run-of-the-mill visual effects. These are enormous, feature quality, Marvel-scope, visual effects, and we have companies in Ontario that could deliver really, really great work.
What was the coolest part of transforming this series into TV?
Picture Editor Dan Briceno: I remember there was a scene where there’s a character named Makee, and she’s with the Prophets. It was mostly in blue screen, and there were these giant aliens sitting in these giant chairs. On set, they had these massive puppets, and they were being handled by a bunch of people, and I just thought, this is insane! These puppets were going to be animated later, and they were speaking an alien language on top of that. It was this surreal moment on this giant stage in Budapest. It was very, very cool to see and to be able to go on set for some of these scenes. It was quite incredible.
Picture Editor Aaron Marshall: When I heard the mix of the first episode, the scale of it really hit home. It took me back to seeing Star Wars or Indiana Jones, or whatever movie you saw as a kid on a big screen with great sound, and it was like, wow, we made this great adventure story. And it was very satisfying to see that all come together at that point.
Picture Editor Geoff Ashenhurst: It is incredible how much of a difference it makes when the Post elements are complete and all the effects and the sound are done. The immersive quality just gets raised to this whole other level that’s almost strangely surprising. Every time, you’re like, “oh, yeah, this is what’s supposed to happen.” It’s a very pleasant experience for sure.
How did you grow creatively on this show?
Picture Editor Aaron Marshall: There’s something about being on a show for so long. Working for two years on three episodes is an unusual thing for me. You’re going through so many stages, and there were so many rounds of notes and producing passes that keeping the original intent and preserving the storytelling drama through this incredibly complicated process was very a big challenge. Navigating all that, and trying to protect the original intent of the cut, was a really interesting process and challenging for sure.
VFX Producer Bill Halliday: A lot of the projects I’ve worked on over the last 15-16 years have been historical drama. With Vikings, we were really committed to the history, and it was a big mandate for the show that you don’t go into fantasy territory. You try to keep it as grounded as possible, and in order to achieve that, there’s a ton of research that goes into developing that world.
Going into a series like Halo, even though it’s not based in history, there’s equally as much background on it. It requires the same level of research and analysis, you’ve got to dig through a lot of different source material over the past 20 years of Halo.
Picture Editor Dan Briceno: This is obviously the biggest show I’ve ever worked on, but also the most visual effects I’ve ever worked with. To tell a story while having to imagine so much of what’s on-screen was definitely an immense challenge and something that I loved being a part of because of how much learning I did along the way, throughout the whole project.
Sound Editor David Caporale: That’s probably the biggest thing for me, the level the growth that Brennan and I had on this show, how fast we had to make decisions and how fast we had to sharpen our workflow to meet the demands needed to pull this thing off. Even the different various tricks that I’ve learned; plug-ins, tricks with Pro Tools, and different software and methods of getting things done. How to take advantage of different frequencies within sound. I can make an explosion really sharp by adding on something in the high-end frequency. I can add a whole bunch of weights to different feet by creating a MIDI trigger track. We figured out how to hone in and focus on the most efficient way to assist in telling the story with our sound.
Watch Halo on Paramount+