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Xbox’s Halo franchise gets a human face in “The Life”

By Kevin Ritchie on September 10th, 2009

img_8365An ODST soldier walks through a Hungarian coal mine, guns blazing on the set of “The Life”.

Fans of the Halo video game franchise hungry for news to leak about an inevitable  feature film can satisfy their appetites with a new ad campaign that has the look and feel of a short film.

In a bid to solidify the brand as an entertainment juggernaut to be reckoned with, Xbox and its creative agency, San Francisco-based T.A.G. “premiered” a two-and-half-minute commercial on Spike TV earlier this week called “The Life”, introducing fans to Halo 3 ODST, a prequel to Halo 3.

“You want to do something that speaks to and excites the core fans,” says T.A.G. executive creative director John Patroulis. “You have to stay true to the fiction and true to the details to excite them. But you also want to speak to a bigger human and emotional truth so it reaches a bigger audience. You can watch this film and not know anything about the game and still feel and understand a human story.”

Unlike previous Halo releases, Halo 3 ODST does not star superhuman protagonist Master Chief, but rather an elite force of specialist soldiers known as Orbital Drop Shock Troopers - or ODSTs.

Though there’s plenty of alien-blasting bombast in “The Life”, the agency aimed for an emotional story arc, book-ending the action with somber funeral sequences. The spot opens with a young boy watching a military funeral service. The audience follows him as he grows up, trains as an ODST, battles alien Brutes and buries his fallen comrades.

T.A.G. reunited with MJZ’s Rupert Sanders, who helmed the Halo 3 launch campaign Believe in 2007, and the creature specialists at Legacy (formerly Stan Winston Studios). Post-production company Asylum completed the VFX and music company Human Worldwide composed the soundtrack.

The agency had five weeks to bring “The Life” to life, including three shoot days. “I really wanted to do something a bit Eastern Bloc, so I started scouting Chernobyl,” says Sanders. “I liked the idea of doing urban warfare in Chernobyl, but we had very little time to make the film, which meant we couldn’t really move locations.”

img_8583An open-cast coal mine provided an appropriately ashen setting for the battle sequence.

The shoot took place in three grueling locations just outside the Hungarian capital of Budapest. Sanders filmed the opening funeral scene in the cavernous cooling tower of an active nuclear power plant where temperatures climbed above 100-degrees. The battle sequence took place in the pit of a nearby open-cast coal mine. To access it, the 30-odd cast and crew members boarded military trucks and traveled for 30-minutes down a treacherous roadway.

“There were these giant machines basically eating the earth and spewing it out on top of where we were shooting,” he says.

The final funeral sequence took place in an abandoned aluminum factory. During shooting, a rainstorm with gale-force winds surrounded the building and sent glass from the building’s broken windows swirling through the air.

With the decrepit and grandiose locations providing the Spartan futurism Sanders and the creatives desired, the director set about injecting the sci-fi story with earthy realism.

To do that, he studied raw news footage posted on YouTube by Scott Kesterson, a citizen journalist and freelance photographer embedded with Canadian forces in southern Afghanistan. Kesterson, a blogger for The Huffington Post, brings his camera to the frontlines, capturing the war from the perspective of the soldiers battling the Taliban.

“I’m much interested in the realism of warfare rather than the cinematic nature of it,” explains Sanders. “A lot of the time, the way war footage is shot you see the enemy fire, you look back, you see the hero fire and then you look back and forth. I really wanted to have much more of a feeling of being in there with them.”

The look of “The Life” is a lot less lively than the game on which it’s based. The color palette, especially during the battle sequence, is a stark ashen-blue punctured by bursts of orange in the form of fireballs. To give the already gloomy landscape added texture, production designer John Beard dug craters and filled them with orange liquid and laid out concrete tank traps designed by the director.

For visual references, Sanders showed DP Greig Fraser two classics of Soviet cinema: Tarkovsky’s 1979 sci-fi masterpiece The Stalker and Elem Klimov’s 1985 World War II drama Come and See. For added Eastern bloc authenticity, Fraser shot using Russian lenses he’d purchased in Moscow.

The Russian influence on the shoot also touched the crew in a more immediate way. “We had a very limited budget,” says Sanders. “Our tracking vehicle was a 1950s Lada four by four with quite a lot of steam coming out from under the hood.”

img_8631Legacy designed the Brute creature (pictured) as well as all the armor and weaponry in the spot.

Xbox is notoriously picky about details in its Halo ads - as are the game’s fans, collectively known as the “Halo Nation”. To get the military armor, weaponry and fur color in the alien Brute just right, T.A.G. worked with animatronic creature specialists Legacy.

“[The client] knew what rank of Brute they wanted and there were a lot of discussions about the armor and where things should be stenciled on to,” says Sanders. “But it was fairly plain sailing on this one. When we did Believe we had a whole world to create and we did that pretty much on our own without much help.”

To stoke interest in the Halo Nation further, the agency worked with music company Human to compose a soundtrack that fans could obsess over. T.A.G. asked for primal, emotive music that would start in the funeral scene and take on a more inspirational air as the story progressed through the soldier’s life.

Human’s Gareth Williams worked with art director Aramis Israel, copywriter Rick Herrara and agency producer Joyce Chen to craft the “right” amount of music for the spot.

“We would add things in and gradually pull down the volume until it wasn’t audible but it was there,” he says. “We would shift timings of where the vocals came in to get just the right rhythm working to the picture and we mixed the vocals endlessly until they had just the right amount of contact to the film but weren’t overbearing.”

The music starts off big and emotional during the funeral before morphing into howling over an increasingly fast-paced solitary drum beat during the training sequence. As the battle approaches, more percussive elements were layered in along with recordings of WWII troops marching, an out-of-synch hand drum, log drums from Samoa and stones being tapped together in a recording from New Zealand.

“Under this I added a double bass and cello to create an off kilter sliding sort of sound just to subtly throw the listener off balance,” says Williams.

The vocals were especially important to the soundtrack. The agency and client wanted lyrics that fans could interpret and agonize over on message boards and online forums. Singer Kathy Fisher sang the lyrics in Welsh, then Hungarian and then in Welsh again. To complicate things even further, Herrara wrote the lyrics in English, translated them to Welsh and then back to English again.

“We went with an ancient language to create the feeling of pride and ceremony, and to also create a cultural ambiguity around the whole piece,” says Williams. “We spent about 16 hours recording vocals for this piece and at the end of the day the take we used was the very last one… It just had this weirdly strong, slightly pissed off vibe that everyone liked.”

Though Williams couldn’t reveal the meaning of the lyrics, he could say that they relate to the game and “you need to know Welsh and some Welsh mythology to unlock it.”

To watch “The Life” in the screening room.

Check out behind-the-scenes photos from Halo 3 ODST below.  (All photos by Rob Moggach)

Check out Ruper Sanders’ hand-drawn storyboards for Halo 3 ODST:


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May 2010

Our May 2010 issue features a roundtable of directors, agency execs and production company EPs discussing the dire lack of women behind the camera on commercial shoots, our annual list of the year's top spot helmers, the story behind Philips' "Parallel Lines" shorts and more.

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