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Robert McLees Interviewed By You!
February 13, 2002

The second installment of Bungie's Fan Interview series is finally ready. Robert McLees has contributed art, story and attitude to Bungie games since 1995, and his wealth of strong opinions and bizarre stories made him an obvious interview subject. The fans came through with several good questions about the art of Halo, as well as a few others that only Rob could answer. If you ever wanted to learn why there's no rocket launcher on the Warthog, what budding game artists should study, or what to do when you're on fire, you've come to the right place.

As with the Jason Jones interview, thanks are due to the many fans who sent in excellent questions – and to Rob for answering them. Likewise, we must again warn you that some of this material could be considered a spoiler if you know nothing of Halo's story, and Rob uses a couple of words that you can't say on television. Caveat Lector.

Q:  What kinds of art did you do with the creation of Halo? Where did you learn your talents?
A: 

I created all of the weapons (from concept to final) with the exception of the plasma rifle and needler. Shi Kai worked up the original concepts for those and I took them to final. I did early concept drawings of the Covenant Elite…. hmmm… I also did all the concept work for the Flood, all the ammo, I built the "ball", but you already knew that. Oh, and I don't know if you'd call it art, but I also wrote the Heroic and Legendary speeches for Sgt. Johnson.

As for where I learned my talents… nowhere and everywhere. I learned to draw by drawing, to model by modeling, to write by writing – and by observing (reading, watching, listening, experiencing). I went to a "technical school" for two years to increase my skills and get a piece of paper. I also found out how woefully lacking my skills were and how hard I had to bust my ass if I wanted to do this for something other than a hobby. More on this later.

Q:  How was the art created? Are things hand drawn first as a model to work from? Or is it polygons from day 1? How long did (for example) the sniper rifle take from conception to ship, and how many mutations were there along the way?
A: 

Well, since I was responsible for the weapons in the game, let me talk about that.

First off, we came up with a list of the weapon types we wanted for the game. Then I tried to figure out what those weapons meant; what comes to mind when you think about the different weapons? I came up with really loose sketches, more like, uh, silhouettes and their relative sizes – then I presented these to the group and we discussed which directions to take the different weapons (in the beginning it was all the Halo artists and Jason; later this expanded to include the designers.) And from there I started tightening up the sketches – adding detail to the silhouettes before presenting them to the group again. This is the point where I get into trouble since I'm the only one with any real experience with firearms (okay, except Marcus, who had access to a 12-gauge shotgun in his youth). I tend to want the guns to be more realistic and look, well, more gun-like, while the group were less concerned about whether or not the weapons looked like they could function and more about how the weapons looked in the player's hand. Which was quite a challenge considering that they were also going to be used by the NPC Marines (remember, the player is a 7-foot tall, fairly hulking cyborg in bulky armor, and the marines are 6'2 or 6'3 and pretty trim.). Once the tightened sketches were OKed, I mocked the things up in polygons, and brought them in-engine to see how they actually looked in the player's hands. Once we were happy with how the weapon looked (size, shape and general color; though it was more of a light or dark thing), I went ahead and built the highest-res LOD (level of detail) – and this is where I get "bogged down" with all of the stuff that "nobody cares about" like correct barrel diameter, placement of safeties, sights, magazine release buttons, and making sure that the magazines are actually large enough to hold all the bullets they're supposed to, that they would feed correctly and that the casings eject out of the correct side of the gun (human weapons only). With the alien weapons, I could concentrate more on just making them look cool, and as long as they LOOKED functional, well, I didn't agonize over how much room I had for bolt travel.

After building the highest LOD, I threw on a real rough texture and brought it in-engine again to see how THAT looked. That went on until the diffuse texture, the shiny map, and its reflection map were finished. In the case of the human pistol, the above process was repeated three times, maybe four; it happened twice to the sniper rifle; and the assault rifle was almost like a happy accident. It kept the same profile throughout its entire development, though it was tweaked on a constant basis for, uh, four years. Heh.

Q:  First off, I would like to say good job on the Rocket Launcher. That is one sweet looking gun. My question is, out of all the guns, which was the hardest/most time-consuming design? Since all of them seem very detailed when shooting, reloading, cooling down, and of course Pistol-Whip.
A: 

I'm really happy with how the rocket launcher turned out, though I wish I could go back and touch it again because I know there are things that could be improved. The hardest and most time-consuming are two different weapons. The hardest one was the flamethrower. And that's all I'm going to say about that. The most time-consuming, obviously, was the assault rifle, but since it's almost a character in the game (you stare at it for the vast majority of the game – depending on how you play, I suppose) it got a lot of attention. Again, I wish I could go back and tweak it some more because I know it could be improved.

I can't take all the credit for how cool the weapons wound up being. Shi Kai helped out a lot designing many of the muzzle flashes. Stephen did all of the first-person animations for the weapons -- my personal favorite being the melee attack with the plasma pistol. :)

Q:  What was your favorite gun in halo? Why?
A:  The Elite's energy sword. Because it's the only one that behaves like a real weapon – you get hit with it, you die.

Q:  Are you the one who put "SPNKR" on the rocket launcher? I only know that the acronym predates Halo, and that it is endlessly intriguing.
A:  Yes.

Q:  The texture detailing in Halo is nothing short of ground-breaking. How did you guys make such detailed textures? Fractals maybe?
A: 

Uhh… wh-what?

[Editor's Note: Methinks this question confounds Rob because he and the other artists created Halo's textures the same way they always have. Any sense of "groundbreaking" progress is due largely to the artists' ever-increasing command of their craft. As for fractals, Rob proudly notes that he has never broken a bone in his body. ;-)]

Q:  Why was the weapon in the Warthog changed from a rocket launcher to a simple chain-gun?
A: 

The chain gun was on the Warthog almost a year before the rocket launcher was. And if you look at the mechanisms, hee hee, the rocket launcher was a much simpler design! But here's something to think about: while you're piloting the tank and you have friendlies riding on the tank, and you shoot at something real close with the main gun…what happens?

 

Q:  Were there times during the production of Halo where you thought, "Hmm, this would be nice, but it can't be implemented this time around – maybe next game"? Do you see the Xbox as having a lot of untapped potential in terms of what has been produced for it so far?
A: 

No, never. =P I don't know if I can comment on this, but most of the shipping titles were developed without the final hardware being available – so we didn't know what we would wind up being able to do. Now that we have it, I think you're going to find that the next wave of titles will be exploiting the hardware more fully.

 

Q:  What advice would you give to artists around the world that would aspire to work in the game industry?
A: 

Well, as I've always said, if you're going to be an artist, you should either invest in life drawing classes or a spatula – because you're going to be using one or the other in your future job. This is the way I've always looked at it… being able to draw the human figure well shows that you are serious about your craft. It teaches you proportion, balance and the ability to construct a complicated three-dimensional object in two dimensions. And the human figure is -blam!- complicated. If you can draw it well, you should be able to draw just about anything well or at least you don't have a good excuse why you can't.

Do what you can to learn to use the industry standard tools like Adobe Photoshop, 3D Studio Max and Maya, though any paint or 3D package will help. You'll be reducing the amount of time it would otherwise take you to be brought up to speed on whatever software the developer uses. Being able to work well within a group is really important.

And you had better love games, not just love playing them, but love them enough to make them a part of your life.

Q:  How large will the Universe be when the "Devourer of World on a Leash" and "Immense Lusterless Comet Hiding in Shadows" finish measuring it? Please indicate any assumed values and show all calculations.
A:  Remember, they're only measuring the diameter. "The journey of a leaf floating on the outermost ripple caused by a stone dropped in an endless ocean when it reaches the distant shore." "The flesh and blood and bone of countless unnamed spheres." "The epic tether." "The time between edges." "Plunging into darkness, chasing the morning's warmth." Calculations would be rather absurd at this point, don't you think?

Q:  How do you feel about fan art in other games based on things that were in Halo, i.e. weapon replacements in counter-strike, or Master Chief player models running around in Quake3; does it make you happy to see the fans doing that kind of thing, or do you feel that it's just ripping off your hard work?
A: 

I don't necessarily know if makes me "happy" to see them doing that kind of thing. But I certainly don't feel ripped off. I guess I get a kick out of it.

I appreciate that more than fan art that's basically a screenshot with a Photoshop filter applied, then signed with somebody else's name and a copyright – that just drives me nuts. Is that even something you can take credit for? Where's the talent involved in that? I don't know… maybe Dadaism is making a comeback.

Q:  What's this business about you being set on fire?
A: 

I was set on fire twice… get it right.

July 4 1979

It must've been cool for July because I was wearing a jacket (a wind-breaker, to be exact). My mother, brother, sister and I were engaging in the age old American tradition of setting things on fire and saying "wow". At some point during the gathering my brother (apparently seeking to throw off the shackles of warning label tyranny) hurled a firework that was meant to be placed on the ground and then set ablaze into the air.

Being on fire tends to confuse your recollection of events immediately preceding and following the moment that you begin to burn.

My mother seems to think that I was trying to catch the thing, my brother was drunk with freedom from common sense and my sister was utterly goofed up on youth. I was in the grip of deer-in-the-headlights syndrome. The buzzing little ball of flame was still twenty feet or so above my head but I knew that no matter what direction I jumped it would come down on me.

Just think for a moment what children's apparel was like during the late seventies and you'll understand why when this miniature blowtorch landed in the crook of my left elbow it didn't just bounce off, doing nothing more than scaring the crap out of me, but instead welded itself to the jacket and shot a lance of white-hot flame into my arm.

I screamed a little preemptive "it's coming right at me" scream and I clenched my teeth (some of them may still have been baby teeth) and the pain made me a little light headed, but I managed not to crap my pants.

Well, I pulled my jacket off before anyone (read: my mother) could stop me and a couple of little chunks of my arm came off with it and we went inside and I got bandaged up and later on we went and watched the professionals blow -blam!- up and we said "wow".

(And now the payoff: the day after the incident I'm changing the dressing on my arm and I notice a hair sticking out of the edge of the "pool of molten flesh" sort'a crooked like, so I grab it between my fingers and pull it out. Unfortunately, a big blob of flesh came out with it – but it didn't hurt! I just remember being sort'a shocked thinking "hey, I just tore a big, sloppy gob out'a my arm and it didn't hurt"! No ill effects, though. Except for a scar that you can hardly see because I'm so -blam!- pale!)

Early September 1981

I remember this happened during the second or third week of school (and on a school day, no less). My brother and I were contemplating how much fun we could extract from the sand pile behind the house and decided that it would be much greater if we were to remove the weeds that covered much of its surface. Initially we chose the slash and burn method of ridding the sand pile of its weedy covering, then decided that we could do it in half the time if we proceeded directly to the burn aspect of our plan.

Our mother and stepfather were both at work and our sister was at a friend's house so we went to work straight away with little worry of parental retribution. A fire was started and in no time we were less than happy with the progress it was making – it needed a little help. My brother ran off in search of an accelerant.

During the interim I made the second or third worst body placement decision of my life – I chose to stand near the weeds to try and gauge why the fire wasn't performing as well it might have done. My brother re-enters the scene carrying a bowl of gasoline. He is running and is intent on dousing the weeds with the stuff. I start to mention that the weeds are, in fact, still burning – in the next instant I am engulfed in a fireball.

This doesn't last long because I make a beeline toward the edge of the universe. My brother is several years older and more gracefully proportioned than I am (and thank the Lord for that), but it still takes him several seconds to catch up to me. My brother begins shouting instructions to me and we establish that "stop, drop and roll" make little sense to a panicking burn victim. I jump straight up into the air and come down on my shoulders and begin to writhe on the ground while my brother tries to slap the flames off of me with his bare hands – the hands that had been carrying a bowl of gasoline as he ran. Eventually he was able to extinguish both of us.

The fireball had singed me pretty good, but the real damage had been done to my right leg and foot. My shoes, socks and pants were a complete loss. If you were paying attention to the time period this happened in you should probably be able to guess that these items had been purchased nary a month before in preparation for the new school year.

As with any conspiracy no one could be told. If an adult found out we were sure to be executed on the spot. I continued going to school and participating in phys. ed. with a foot that ached just to limp on and blisters that continually split and oozed and bled until it healed of its own accord (read: no medical attention and no dressing beyond double socking it). In retrospect I'm amazed I didn't lose the damn thing to infection.

(And now the payoff: The shoes couldn't be thrown away, because shoes are expensive, so I wire-brushed off the "char" and played off the gas smell as well as I could – "spilled some on them when I was refueling the lawn-mower" or whatever. The socks were the easiest part, socks get tossed all the time – but something as large as a pair of slacks in the trash would draw attention – so I hid them. Several years later I moved in with my grandparents, and as grandmothers are wont to do, mine eventually rifled through enough of my belongings that she stumbled across a certain pair of blue jeans that I had forgotten almost entirely. The exchange went like this [verbatim]:

GM: Robert John!

me: yeah...

GM: What happened to these slacks?

me: uh... they got dirty.

GM: Dirty with what?

me: with fire...

And with that the interrogation ended. Being rather clever she rarely asked questions to which she wasn't already reasonably certain of the answers. I received a look of angry disappointment [a very effective parenting technique] and I left the room with a deep sense of shame to reflect on my faults.)

Q:  Do you ever go back and play games you've worked on?
A:  Yes.

Q:  Where do you see the Terran race in 100 years?
A:  More than likely they will be above me, as I will have joined the ranks of the sub-Terrans some time in the interim. I'm not a sociologist or a fortune-teller or some such… I'm just a lucky dope wot gets paid to draw guns and zombies and cars.



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