Modeling Mayhem

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Having shined a light on the creative thinking behind the Halo 3 integrated marketing blitz, it's time to turn our focus to the behind-the-scenes work involved in erecting the campaign's centerpiece: the diorama. The huge structure, a combined effort between Los Angeles-based Stan Winston and New Deal Studios, along with the interactive contributions of AKQA and the creative leadership of McCann, San Francisco and T.A.G., is a remarkably rendered landscape that's featured on the site and in the TV commercials. Recently, we spoke with FX veterans Matthew Gratzner of New Deal Studios and J. Alan Scott at Stan Winston to get a detailed report on the making of this war-torn monolith honoring Halo 3's hero, Master Chief.

How did each studio contribute to the Halo 3 diorama?
Matthew Gratzner: Obviously, the scale of this thing was pretty huge. One of the hardest things was determining how big or what scale to build it in. There was a discussion at one time to do it in one-sixth scale, which would make it like a G.I. Joe scale. That would have made the model like 200 x 100 feet and that would've been insane. So we ended up all agreeing to this nominal 12th scale. The whole thing was based on Master Chief in the game being 7'2". If he was an eight-inch tall figure in our world, it would be about 1/12th scale. A marine is like 6'4" so the figures are like six inches tall or so.
J. Alan Scott: That was a big hurdle, trying to figure out exactly what the size was because it set the tone for everything, what we could provide and how close you could get to it. As Matthew will probably reiterate, the bigger it goes, the more detail you could put in. But you have to balance that with how much you could physically produce in the time frame and how much you could afford to do.

Tell me about the real life scans of people to create the very human features.
JAS: Rupert [Sanders], the director, had six to eight actors including stuntmen and Marines and we did a session down at New Deal where we tried to reenact some of these scenes, just so we could get the spontaneity and the life of that frozen moment in time as they were moving, running, jumping, hiding, [showing] anguish, all these different expressions.
Then, we took them over to a facility called Cyber F/X, where we reproduced those facial expressions only with head scans. We took that digital information of all the actors and we ended up with 37 different heads that were custom that Rupert chose. We scanned probably 70 different expressions and then he had to choose, again as a function of time and economy, how many that he wanted. There were very specific moments that he was looking for so he directed those with the guys during the scan. We took that data and cleaned up all the resolution problems there might be from the scan and then put them onto the action figure models that we got from Bungie. All the models from Bungie had to be re-created and rebuilt—all the armor, the helmets, the weapons and each of the different species like the Brutes, the Grunts, the Jackals and the Hunters.

Talk about the creative process for the other parts of the diorama construction.
MG: (The vehicles) were game quality which means for the game, they're very simple computer models and then they just projection-map textures that are flat pieces of Photoshop artwork on them. But for what we were doing, we wanted to get rivets and all that detail and take the weathering and texturing [to make it] look real photographically. But that wasn't in the computer model so we had to recreate a lot of this stuff in the computer.
For the city area, the production designer James Chinlund referenced a book on Afghanistan [featuring] basically blown-out buildings and wanted to use that as the overall bible. These were really great bombed-out desert city references but (the question) became, how do we incorporate them into Halo? Because Microsoft at the time didn't really want to represent anything specifically from the new game, we took the first and second game, looked at the overall architecture and style in which these games were designed and built and put our own spin on taking those designs and incorporating them into this bombed-out city. It was an amalgamation of everything to get it to look not only photo-real, but we certainly didn't want it to look like you were looking at the Mideast with space marines running around.
Fortunately, for the last number of years, I worked on a lot of science fiction pictures including the last Alien picture. In Alien Resurrection, a lot of that detail and those designs are completely used throughout video games. So, we have a huge library of details, we've done it before so it's really easy to mass-produce that stuff. Because as Alan said, unlike a feature, we only had about five weeks to do everything. The overall landscape is about 35 x 40 feet and maybe there's a 4 x 8 foot area in the entire thing that's flat. Everything else had terrain from undulating sand dunes all the way down to this huge ravine that had sculpted rock. It was all hand-done and it was an insane amount of work at the time.

Was time the biggest constraint?
MG: It was not just the time and technology, the challenge for us was that nothing like this has really been done before. Here's this videogame, it's got to still look like the game. It has to be photo-real but it can't have any sense that you don't recognize it as Halo. We had to incorporate all the details and intricacies of the game, make it photo-real and then on top of that, it has to look like a moment in time that was frozen. One of the things within both the commercial and on the website, when you go past the explosions and dust hits, those are exactly how we built them and how they were shot. There was nothing composited in, all the fire is literally freeze-frame explosions that were done out of clear, vacuum-form plastic that's backlit and it's all hand-painted. Everything is literally what you see.
When we first talked to Rupert, he said it should be photo-real, but it should also feel like the best diorama ever made. My big challenge was that all the shots we do are photo-real shots for film. We really wanted it to be a little over-the-top and beyond just a display model. For me, I didn't want it to feel like oh, that's just a bunch of cotton pulled out or a bunch of explosions that are crumpled-up tin foil painted red. We really tried to make it look absurdly photo-real and I think we did a pretty good job, at least getting that still frame. That was probably the biggest challenge, the moment in time, as well as making sure it looked like the game. A lot of folks [at New Deal] who worked on it play the game as an obsession, so they were really good about making sure we were on track.
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