The Halo universe expands into anime this spring via Halo Legends, a DVD anthology of episodic films based within the popular game's mythology produced by 343 Industries, a unit within Microsoft Game Studios. One of the key orchestrators of Halo's morphing from interactive entertainment to on-screen magic is Frank O'Connor, the Halo franchise development director.
Warner Home Video will distribute Halo Legends as a Special Edition 2-disc version on DVD and Blu-Ray™, as well as single disc DVD and available On Demand and Digital Download. The new street date is February 16, 2010.
Born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland, O'Connor is renowned throughout the gaming industry for his insightful expertise and innovative direction working with Halo. After a long career as a journalist for several gaming publications, O'Connor has parlayed a keen sense of the gaming industry - and a devout love for the games therein - into a career as a creator of content and story lines for the worldwide phenomenon that is Halo.
For Halo Legends, O'Connor worked directly with Japanese screenwriters on each of the seven stories - spread over eight episodic installments - that include all the elements familiar to Halo fans. Exploring the origin and historical events of the Halo universe and its intriguing characters. Halo Legends has been created in the same breakthrough format as The Animatrix and Batman Gotham Knight with each individual episode imagined by a cutting-edge, renowned Japanese anime director/animator.
Most of the individual episodes fall within Halo's 26th Century mythology as the battle between humanity and aliens rages on in an attempt to protect Earth and mankind's ever-dwindling collection of space colonies. The dramatic, action-packed stories feature characters and locales familiar to Halo fans, and episodes range in length
between 10 and 17 minutes - resulting in nearly two hours of animated adventures.
O'Connor took a few moments from his busy schedule to discuss the exciting production and offer a glimpse behind the scenes in the creation of Halo Legends.
Halo Legends not only shifts from interactive game to animated film, but also to a variety of anime styles. Was there any worry that going anime would make the production unrecognizable as a Halo brand?
Frank O'Connor: The Halo brand is strong enough to survive and even thrive through interpretation. Halo iconography is recognizable in virtually any form. When you look at a Warthog that's drawn by a Japanese artist or a Spartan that's animated in a way you've never seen it before, it's still intrinsically Halo. The brand really lends itself to comics and animation beautifully. It withstands all sorts of interpretation and is still recognizable Halo, rather than just diluting and becoming generic sci-fi.
The wonderful thing about a completely immersive world like Halo is that it's not just the visuals that are instantly recognizable. There are so many elements involved in playing the game, including the audio, the music, the sound effects - it's all part of the experience. When you've played these games for six or seven years, and you hear a Warthog engine, you instantly recognize it. So in an episode as distinctly different visually as "The Duel," it may take a while before you actually see that energy sword and it's apparent that this is Halo, but the sounds might bring you into this story much earlier as being from the Halo universe.
This is a world that people come to know with great, detailed intimacy. You might've watched Star Wars 20 times, but Halo fans have played the game hundreds and hundreds of times. Most of our mid-level players, say those at Level 33, have logged more than 2,000 games just on Halo 3. If you're a Level 50 player, that number goes up geometrically.
How did you decide which stories to tell in Halo Legends?
Frank O'Connor: There are really two driving forces behind our creative development. First, there were things we were curious about. We wanted to investigate what shaped the Elite civilization, their solidifying of the Covenant, and their place in it. The second, but equal part of the equation was that we wanted to provide backstory about what fans are curious about. Our story for "The Package" fits that neatly - fans want to see more about the Spartans, and they wanted to see them fighting in a group. Normally you see one Spartan in battle - the question came up, "What happens when you have that force multiplier?"
We came up with dozens of topics, but these were the hot button stories. For "The Babysitter," we were interested in the rivalry between the ODSTs and the Spartans, so we wanted to put them together and see what happened. "The Duel" gave us the chance to delve into the pure civilization and the futile aspects of that society. We used "The Package" to present a story that not only featured the Master Chief but had multiple Spartans fighting together.
Can you give a quick breakdown of what fans can expect in the other Halo Legends stories?
Frank O'Connor: "Prototype" is very Japanese in style as we worked with Bones and director Yasushi Muraki - both the studio and Muraki are huge in Japan right now. He has created an anime sub-genre called Muraki Circus, which features a lot of flying, mecha fighting, weapons, explosions, dog-fighting - and that fit perfectly with the creation of a Halo prototype weapon. Still, we really wanted to make it a human story, so we worked with Muraki to blend those two ideas. Ultimately, it's the introduction of a prototype of Spartan equipment that's never been employed, and played out in the very pure anime style of Muraki Circus.
The Halo universe is big and expansive, and "Origins" gave us the chance to take Halo newbies through that universe one step at a time. At the same time, for Halo fans, we wanted to go really deep and show them things they've imagined but never seen before. Part I of "Origins" is the forerunner of civilization, and the advent of the flood threat that led to the creation of the Halos. "Origins Part 2" deals with the current Halo universe and everything from the advancement of human space travel to contemporary Halo fiction.
"Odd One Out" is just flat out fun. We worked with Toei Animation to create an episode that Halo fans and responsible parents could show their kids. It's all fun, lots of parody and no gunfire, along the way poking fun at all the macho archetypes that inhabit the Halo universe.
You're going to have to see "Homecoming" - it's about Spartan origins, and it's just too spoiler-filled to describe it. I will say this, though - it's got the cutest poster of any of the stories, and that's ironic because it's a really dark story.
How did you balance giving the Japanese artists balance specific instructions vs. creative freedom?
Frank O'Connor: We didn't try to control their every pen stroke. There were some things that needed to be maintained - a Warthog has to look like a Warthog. But we gave them a lot of creative freedom. "Prototype" is an excellent example in that the actual prototype is an entirely brand new piece of Spartan equipment. I think the Japanese artists had a good time trying to create new inventions, and for the most part we embraced those creations. There were a few things we rejected or simply worked with the artists until we had them just right. We gave very loose descriptions, mostly emotional threads rather than pinpoint direction. But in many cases, we simply said, "Here's some goalposts,but we want your interpretation." In most cases, they exceeded our wildest expectations.
Why go with anime over animation?
Frank O'Connor: The funny thing is that the question these days is "What is anime?" It has expanded in so many directions. But still, there's a distinct way anime deals with the narrative in animation, exploring ideas and ambitious techniques that we don't often do in western animation. That was one of the things that drew us to anime.
The other difference is that there aren't that many outfits (in the U.S.) that can produce shorts or an anthology of shorts in the way we saw this project playing out, and yet Japan has a very rich pool of talent and studios that are perfectly suited to this type of production. And we were anxious to work with those talented artists and studios. We made a wish list of the studios and pretty much got everyone we wanted.
Were there any artists that wanted to work no Halo Legends as badly as you wanted to work with them?
Frank O'Connor: Shinji Aramaki is sort of a central figure - he works well with everyone. There's no ego there - he's a nice collaborative force. We worked closely with Aramaki on "The Package," and with Aramaki and Bones on "Prototype." The great part is that he's a huge Halo fan - he has completed the game on "Legendary" difficulty, which most people haven't done - let alone a legendary Japanese director. He'd always wanted to work on a Halo project, so he was already well versed on the fiction and was excited about the opportunity.
How much of a learning curve was there for the anime studios in getting fully vested in the Halo universe?
Frank O'Connor: Some of the studios had to learn Halo from scratch, so we educated them in the universe and they took that and ran with it - and they became genuine, passionate fans. I've spent a significant amount of time in Japan, going over the game, the artwork, the concept art. A lot of the artists were playing the game at the same time, so I played with them. We felt it was important that they were very understanding of the game. As we went along, every single overseas team had someone on their staff that became their resident Halo nerd, their internal expert.
Does Halo Legends have an overall theme that unites all seven stories?
Frank O'Connor:These episodes don't have a rigid super arc beyond the theme of artistic interpretation. The individual pieces are made up of a lot of very universal story themes. It's the idea of a hero's journey - every single episode features a heroic archetype. There are the more traditional Achilles and Ulysses types, the clever ones that succeed through craft and guile and wit. Sacrifice and heroism are general themes, but that's germane to the game of Halo. There's not much time for romance when you're shooting at everything. Ultimately, the episodes are like the game in that you're putting yourself in the shoes of a hero and his or her journey.
Halo is a very interactive experience. Why will fans embrace the opportunity to sit and watch rather than interact and play?
Frank O'Connor: Halo Legends does the reverse. I think we have a lot of players that probably don't fully understand the narrative of the fiction. A lot of people don't stop and smell the roses while playing - mainly because it's easy to miss the narrative when you're surrounded by explosions and Banshees. This gives fans a chance to enjoy Halo in a completely different experience - to sit down on a couch and take in the story without worrying about being shot or how much health you have left. For anyone interested in a preview I suggest they log into to Halo Waypoint on Xbox LIVE to see preview episodes of Halo Legends running through early next year every Saturday.
Halo Legends arrives on DVD February 16th, 2010.