Lydia Antonini and Josh Feldman on Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn

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At the beginning of the year, Filmmaker’s Scott Macaulay pointed out again — like many others have as well — that features are no longer the default format-of-choice for indie filmmakers. And as forms like the web series mature, we’re seeing more of the kinks getting worked out and more filmmakers and others finding innovative ways to release and promote new work. Take Netflix’s high-profile series House of Cards, which was just released all at once instead of in spaced-out (i.e. weekly) increments; we’ve yet to see the show’s long tail, but its initial viewer data (that is, its engagement of binge viewers) are worth looking at.

Another example is the return of the Streamy Awards, which will take place this Sunday at the Hollywood Palladium with, of course, a live stream online (3 p.m. Pacific). The Streamys are dedicated to honoring the best in web video; shows were held in 2009 and 2010, but it’s been on hiatus since then (you can read about that here) while sponsors have shuffled and the International Academy of Web Television has launched its own awards show, with this year’s event at CES last month. What all of this means is that, while the AMPAS or Hollywood Foreign Press Association may still not have created categories for online programming, web TV is gaining respect along with its ubiquity.

With eight Streamy nominations, one of the highest-profile series honored this week is Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, which can also serve as a model for working with corporations — in this case Microsoft — and gearing a release toward multiple markets; specifically, by releasing the episodes on YouTube — rather than a dedicated site — for a limited time, then removing all but the first few episodes (which you can still watch here) and combining them all into a feature film for release on DVD and Blu-Ray. Obviously Halo is an existing property with a huge following — Forward Unto Dawn serves as a prequel to the game Halo 4, which was released before Christmas — and Microsoft hoped to both please core fans and expand the franchise’s audience beyond gamers. As Executive Producer Josh Feldman said, “They wanted something that embraced both existing fans of the game and newcomers, so we knew striking that balance between being accessible but also incredibly detailed and authentic was going to be important.”

It was Feldman’s fellow Executive Producer Lydia Antonini who initially helped guide the 343 Industries team (the Microsoft subsidiary that oversees Halo) toward a live-action series. Once that was determined Antonini and Feldman pushed for a total 90-minute running time to allow for the subsidiary market releases. Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn was written by Aaron and Todd Helbing and directed by Stewart Hendler, shooting for five weeks in Vancouver last May.

As the Streamys approached, Antonini and Feldman took the time to talk some more about their work.

Filmmaker: Halo is a much-loved franchise. Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn had to be true to that franchise but also, as a prequel to the newest game, serve as a set-up for that particular story. How did the adaptation work, both in the screenwriting and afterwards?

Feldman: We began by establishing certain signposts that were important to 343 Industries. The Master Chief needed to be present in an important way but not be the main protagonist, for example. Ultimately it was a collaboration that included screenwriters Todd and Aaron Helbing and the franchise team at 343. The result was the academy storyline [the series is set in a military academy] which we then developed and honed. We were given a wonderful gift in the being able to use the character Thomas Lasky as our main protagonist. Lasky originates in live action in Forward Unto Dawn, lives on in a really symbolic way in the Halo 4 game itself and then continues in the animated Spartan Ops series. Having this character thread really made the project come to life, knowing that while Forward Unto Dawn definitely stands on its own, it does make a meaningful and direct contribution to the larger mythology.

Antonini: It’s a huge and wonderful challenge to play in such a big yet specific universe. The number one concern for us was to get the tone right so that no matter what story we told it felt like it fit in the universe. From there, from a creative and practicality standpoint, we needed to be able to build our own corner of that universe so that the story could feel connected to the larger world but still feel fresh and new. After cracking that basic foundation, we had to at every creative level stay in constant dialogue with the franchise team at 343 so that all those details could be iterated and worked into the creative.

Filmmaker: In creating the series’ world, how conscious are you of the fans’ expectations or things like fan fiction? How does jumping into an established franchise expand or restrict your creativity compared with original properties?

Feldman: In terms of fan expectations, using Halo as the example, we knew the moment episode one launched that we’d be under the immense, unforgiving microscopic scrutiny of one of the most loyal fan bases of any franchise, game or otherwise, out there. In some ways, this was a good thing because it forced us all to mind all of our P’s and Q’s when it came to details of authenticity. 343 Industries was there for us every step of the way: they didn’t just sign the checks, they availed every arm of their operation — franchise, digital assets, sound design, and so on — to make sure we got this right.

All that being said, the pendulum does swing the other way. I truly believe that while hardcore fans do want to know that they’re watching something fluent in the vernacular of a particular franchise, they don’t want something so utterly predictable that the story and plot are being weighed down by cautious storytelling. You can’t expand a franchise that way. If you don’t take risks, things get tired. We could get every canonical detail right, but if we weren’t trying to say something new as filmmakers, with our own unique point of view, then we’d not only be letting the fans down but we wouldn’t be living up to the power of the medium.

Regarding fan fiction, this is where “new-media filmmaking” really gets fascinating. Intrepid, passionate fans are creating their own productions with their own time, resources and finances and putting these projects online, in many cases, on the same sites as professionally produced material from the same franchise. This is such new territory. Think about it, to the extent it’s a relevant analog, when you go the cinema you don’t choose between seeing The Hobbit in theater 1 and the fan-created version in theater 2. Different filmmakers will have different opinions about this juxtaposition; I won’t even get into the legalities for the moment. For Halo, we simply decided to consider Forward Unto Dawn as the ultimate fan fiction project, in a manner of speaking. Our hope was we were giving the fan-fiction filmmakers a fantastic gift — to add something into the tributary of the great creativity that’s happening online.

Antonini: Halo has an incredible and deeply talented fan following; they tell their own stories and are a big part of why the Halo fiction lives and breathes. We definitely were aware and in many ways in awe of them. We wanted to give them a story that felt unexpected and additive to the world they loved but that also brought in folks who might not have as deep an awareness of the fiction. That balance was very important to all of us every step of the way. Working in a franchise that is so large and so deep is a bit like the best mix of original storytelling and branded storytelling: we had rules for the universe but we were able to tell a new unique story and break new ground. Practically speaking, having all that design work done was a huge time saver as we had less than a year to write, produce, and distribute the show.

Filmmaker: Tell me about the actual production.

Antonini: We had an incredible crew with a mix of backgrounds based in Vancouver. We shot in spring in Vancouver for about five weeks and honestly couldn’t have had a better time. There was a wonderful spirit throughout the entire team to do something that they could all be deeply proud of — and I think they blew even their own expectations out of the water.

Feldman: As Lydia said, we shot in the spring in Vancouver: principal photography commenced on April 30th and we wrapped June 1st, 2012. The fictional military academy setting was comprised of locations at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby and the British Columbia Aerospace Technology Campus. When we found these locations, they just seemed so tailor-made for our futuristic environment — they required minimal embellishments. That said, we built some fantastic sets for the interiors. Kasra Farahani, our production designer, created dorm rooms, corridors and a cryogenic training room that continued the visual motif of the location filming and was able to weave in an incredible amount of nuance, interface panels, school mantras, and architectural design in the most organic ways.

The day-to-day on the set was a blast. I know people often want to hear horror stories of filmmaking and I wish I could offer up some juicy ones, but we were a pretty well-oiled machine. Tackling something as epic as Halo without an epic budget meant we had to be really buttoned up. We brought on Chris Symes as the supervising producer. Chris is known for his savvy in managing huge films that shoot in Eastern Europe, where we were originally considering filming. This was the first show Chris had done in Vancouver and he kept the train running smoothly. Of course, at the end of the day the tone of the set came from Stewart Hendler, our director. He was able to move at an incredible clip, capturing the visual aesthetic we wanted and creating a calm and supportive atmosphere, allowing the actors to shine.

Filmmaker: What was the postproduction workflow? There are a lot of effects going into a science-fiction film like this, and your editor Michael Louis Hill got an editing Streamy nomination as well.

Antonini: In many ways, the post workflow had to react to a delivery date that was fixed and couldn’t move. That forced an efficiency of creative decision making on both the creative/production team and the 343 team. We spent a lot of time educating everyone upfront as to the realities of that schedule and thankfully everyone came to the table with great communication, which allowed us to use every second possible to tell a great story but still make the date.

Feldman: To echo Lydia, we had to back into a very rigid completion date in order to get the project released before the launch of the Halo 4 game. It was, without question, a sprint to the finish line. In order to complete all of the complicated visual effects in time, we began by cutting and locking the effects-heavy sequences before going back and working on the balance of the show. Once locked, these scenes went to ARC Productions in Toronto, which served as our visual effects house, to fill in all of the CG elements (aliens, ships, set extensions, etc.). This was a bit of an editorial tightrope because we were locking scenes before the rest of the picture was locked, but it goes back to planning. We “previs’d” most of the scenes that featured heavy CG and Stewart had his action choreography so well planned and boarded that we felt as confident as possible locking these scenes first.

When it came time to work on the balance of the show, we repeatedly tested the strength of the narrative. In some cases, we identified areas to add exposition if we thought something needed clarification. In other cases, we made some bolder editorial decisions by removing exposition and trusting the intelligence of the audience. I’m really proud of how we used every part of the buffalo in post-production. We had a lively, collaborative camaraderie in the editing room and Michael Hill’s Streamy nomination is well deserved.

Filmmaker: You’ve both had a great deal of experience with online content. How has producing and distributing web series changed since you both started out?

Feldman: Well, for one, online content creation and distribution is a bona fide facet of the industry. With each passing year, I get fewer and fewer glazed-over expressions when I talk about new media content. The big agencies in town have departments devoted to new media talent and strategy, well-funded companies are cropping up, producing and aggregating content for YouTube, and notable personalities are throwing their hats into the space. This is a huge shift from the early days…but we stand on the shoulders of the web pioneers.

Antonini: More and more talented people at every level are realizing that there is great creative freedom in making web series and, with a thoughtful strategic plan, the budgets are big enough that it makes sense for more seasoned folks to come and experiment. It’s a wonderful mix of experienced talent and younger, more entrepreneurial talent that is resulting in great storytelling that can live on any screen.

Filmmaker: How does Halo compare with other high-concept projects you’ve done? Lydia, are there any similarities with H+, for instance? Josh, what about Electric City?

Feldman: Electric City, which was an original idea of Tom Hanks, was created from scratch. We spent many years working with him, building out the mythology, and then we had to identify the entry point for the narrative within the expansive world. Electric City depicts the evolution of civilization and takes place in a distant future. From a production design standpoint, there were some similarities in talking about the aesthetics of the future: in Electric City and Halo we had discussions about what the architecture would look like, building materials, clothing and attire… In both projects we wanted the futuristic setting to be as realistic as possible and for the characters to seem native to these environments.

Antonini: Stewart Hendler directed H+ in addition to Forward Unto Dawn. It was really fun to take the lessons from that show and apply them to a more ambitious budget. I think we were of the mind that you have to cast an ensemble of talented people who understand and are excited by the challenge. H+ had a terrific, experienced team behind it which was invigorated by the challenge of doing something new and different. We wanted to capture that same spirit on Halo.

Filmmaker: In terms of finances and logistics, how is it different working with an established property with a sponsor with as deep of pockets as Microsoft from creating an original property from scratch? Can you disabuse us a bit about what it’s like to work with a large corporate funder?

Feldman: We actually never thought of Microsoft as a sponsor, per se. Sure, they were the financier — we were in their sandbox and we never lost sight of that — but much in the same way that Microsoft/343 Industries works with novelists to expand the Halo mythology in book form, we were doing the same cinematically. Halo gave us our budget, but Halo was also the intellectual property. Compared with working on an original property, because we can look at past work, we have a sense what is important to the franchise and the fans. Arguably, this knowledge aids our ability to be fiscally responsible because we can be more targeted in our decision making.

Antonini: On any project, regardless of who’s signing the checks, the goal of a producer is to stretch every dollar as far as possible. We were fortunate to have a very collaborative relationship early on with 343 so we could determine a budget, creative plan, and business model that made sense and gave us a clear picture of what we could spend. However, once a budget is locked I personally haven’t been in any funding situation were you can rely on deep pockets to keep funding for any production eventuality. It’s always going to be hard to get more money once you are funded; it’s not impossible but it requires a lot of planning and preparing to make that successful ask. Forward Unto Dawn was funded with its own profit and loss statement, so it had to be managed with that level of fiscal responsibility.

Filmmaker: To approach that issue another way, what can filmmakers who want to move into web content do to make that transition? What are some good ways to pursue funding or seek work-for-hire?

Feldman: Identifying companies and intellectual properties that have shown themselves to be open to experimentation when it comes to storytelling is a great start. Working on a Halo project for Microsoft directly removed a “middle man” — there was no studio or network at the outset. Their willingness to explore and try something new, combined with our past experiences, made for a very fulfilling and fascinating filmmaking experience. I have to believe there are other companies that will see the creative opportunity.

In terms of pursuing funding, I’m amazed at how many filmmakers are using crowd-funding solutions to successful results. When it comes to pitching a project and getting the attention of a financier, this new media space requires some elbow grease. Putting together sizzle reels, pilots, or visual presentations is no small task, but warrants serious consideration to stand out from the pack.

Antonini: If a filmmaker is represented at an agency, then the first thing to do would be to set a meeting with his/her agency’s digital group. CAA, WME, ICM, etc. all have great people working there and I even turn to them often for market intelligence. There are also many companies that are interested in content for digital at various funding levels. If you have a particular story that you’d like to tell, chances are there is a channel or buyer somewhere who might be interested, provided that you can demonstrate an ability to do something creative and on budget. A little research can connect you to a lot of cool groups once you have a clear idea of who your target audience is.

Filmmaker: What kind of response have you gotten since the series launched?

Feldman: The number of worldwide views — over 50 million across all platforms — is insane! It’s hard to fathom that many people. My biggest sigh of relief came when the first episode went online, I waited for the fans to find some mythology detail we overlooked…but it really never came. Again, that’s a testament to our collaboration with Microsoft, but knowing we did right by the fans is a good feeling.

Antonini: It’s been extremely positive, the Halo fans are some of the most generous and thoughtful people I’ve had the privilege to make something for. One of my favorite things to do is scroll through the comments on YouTube and see what they are picking up on and finding exciting.

Filmmaker: What would you do differently if you were able to produce Forward Unto Dawn again?

Antonini: The number one thing I wish we’d had more of was time; another three months would have gone a long way on this show.

Feldman: Well, every endeavor offers a wealth of learning every step of the way. Of course, as Lydia is saying, more time is always nice. I suppose if I was going to pick one aspect it might be exploring different online release strategies. We launched a new episode each week. I’m fascinated by how Netflix is launching their original programming in one fell swoop, every episode at once.

Filmmaker: Conversely, what was the most rewarding thing about this project?

Feldman: Even though there was an important strategy behind the project, to bring existing fans to the front door of the new Halo game and help indoctrinate new fans to the franchise, the most rewarding aspect was that we were really permitted to let the creative decision making lead the way. We had great collaborators in Microsoft but they weren’t micromanagers — they let the team play to its strengths and when we all came together for a cast and crew screening in Los Angeles I think there was a genuine feeling that the finished product was greater than the sum of its parts.

Antonini: Hands down, the people we got to work with. We had an incredible and wonderfully talented team every step of the way.

Filmmaker: What’s next for each of you?

Feldman: We’ve had the good fortune to expand our relationship with Microsoft and we’re working on a separate project for them now. We’re also working on some other fun intellectual properties, both separately and together, which we hope to be able to talk about soon!

Antonini: The digital landscape is growing and maturing at an alarming rate. It’s exciting to be at the forefront of that revolution and I think in 2013 you’ll see us as well as many other talented people continue to move the ball forward.