‘Halo’ TV director discusses balancing game fans with new show audience

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Familiarity with the gaming franchise for its TV adaptation became something of a hot-button issue earlier this month when executive producer Steven Kane told Variety that the showrunners “didn’t look at the game.” The snippet of Kane’s interview made waves among fans of the revered video game series and generated multiple stories speculating how the games’ stories would be treated in the series ahead of its March 24 debut. Kane clarified his comment later that week, noting the TV team had indeed learned about the game, referencing a Halo “boot camp” put on by the franchise’s maker, 343 Industries.

In Bathurst’s interview with The Post, the director explained further, detailing how the team at 343 walked the newcomers through the nuances of the Halo universe and how the lore of the games, along with their spin offs in novels and other media, impressed him.

“They took me through the whole history of Halo,” Bathurst said. “And they have this timeline, this massive long timeline, you know, and then the actual games sort of exist in like [he holds his finger and thumb up an inch apart] that much of the timeline. There’s like thousands of years this way, thousands of years that way [on the timeline] that haven’t even appeared in kind of anything, but they’ve all been kind of thought out and laid out. It’s extraordinary. It’s mad. It’s mad.”

He also noted the delicate task of placating existing fans of the game franchise and educating those coming in cold to the TV series. Bathurst went on to describe the virtues a Halo outsider can provide when it comes to a TV adaptation and discussed the crew’s decision-making around Master Chief removing his helmet and showing his face — another point of contention with invested Halo fans. A number of the factors discussed during the interview pointed to the show’s single biggest challenge: balancing an audience with such disparate levels of familiarity with the franchise.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Washington Post: So when were you first introduced to the franchise during the course of this project?

Bathurst: As soon as the job was on the table, then yeah, immediately. I did my research and dived in. Then three years ago, it was amazing, I went up to Seattle and hung out with [343 studio head for Halo transmedia and entertainment] Kiki Wolfkill and [Halo franchise director] Frank O’Connor and the rest of the team at 343 and just did what they call a boot camp and spent the best part of the week kind of immersing myself in the lore and the kind of whole vibe and the whole thing and just really getting to, frankly, to scratch the surface, to be honest. Because it’s so, so deep and so complex.

Is that intimidating to just have a tidal wave of information thrown at you? Coming into a beloved franchise cold like that?

Bathurst: No, no, no. I mean, you know, yeah, it was intimidating to start, but then you see how supportive they are. What was amazing about 343, you know, making a TV show is completely different from making a video game — completely, completely different. The narrative, the narrative tools, the narrative expectations. It’s a completely different method of storytelling. And very quickly, it was very clear that 343 understood that and embraced that.

The fact they’ve done comics and anime … they’re very aware of the fact that this a world and you come in and you take the bits out that you need and you go off and do your version. Whether you’re writing a comic, whether you’re writing a novel, whether you’re writing or making a TV drama, you know. And they’re very, very supportive of that and very kind of embracing of that. Once I got a sense of that, then I thought, “Okay, cool.”

I always maintained that — because we’re not making the show just for the fans but for a much, much, much wider audience than that — I always maintained, and I think it’s supportive, to actually have a Halo virgin in the mix. There were lots and lots and lots of questions I had. I would say, “Well, how do viewers know that [about Halo’s universe]?” And they’d go, “Of course, you know …” … Well, no you don’t, because I’ve got no idea. And they were like, “Oh crap! Wow. Yeah.” I was constantly, constantly sort of challenging the storytelling process and going, “Why did [Master Chief] do that?” [And they’d say,] “You know, because he always does that.” Well, I don’t know that.

That’s the massive challenge of taking on an IP like this, when you’re trying to cater to the fans and appease the fans, excite the fans and thrill the fans. And then you’re also going to bring this whole audience up to speed in, I don’t know how long, [and] get them on board.

It wasn’t intimidating as far as what you do and don’t know [about the universe] because I’m the same as an audience. I don’t know anything. So, if I don’t know it, then the audience isn’t going to know it. So we need to sort it out and get it in the script or show it somehow.

What was a general day like during the boot camp at 343?

Bathurst: I don’t quite know why they call it a boot camp, because there isn’t any kind of physicality at all. You’re just in the offices of 343, and they basically take you through every single aspect [of the franchise]. So you get a broad history, you get a focused history, you go through every single one of the characters, you go through the lore behind the Spartans. It was clever, though, because we roughly knew what the story was, so they focused the boot camp to be relevant. I mean, there’s tons and tons and tons and tons of stuff that we didn’t even talk about, but we didn’t need to. And then we’d go into weaponry design and sound design, expectations of the fans, the world, the planets, the geography of the whole universe. We went through everything.

It was really amazing. And I think what I came out of it [with] was a sort of reverence of this franchise and what we were taking on. It’s so, so different making a TV show from making a game. The whole point of the show is to try and ground it in reality … and also the physicality. We talked about physics a lot. We talked about how would things actually work. Because in the game, you just do it.

The classic maneuver … Master Chief in the game constantly puts his gun on his back and then pulls it out of his back. And so I said, “Cool, how does that actually work?” In the game there’s no fixture that holds the gun on the back. You just put it there, and it stays there. They never actually had to design how the gun holds on to the back of the armor. That piece of technology just doesn’t exist. It’s never even been thought about. So, okay, cool, we need it. And then there’s the physicality of a human arm being able to go around there [behind your head with a rifle] like that while wearing armor. … This is the joy of the game. You really can do anything. So that’s one tiny example, and that expands out to much bigger examples of just the translation between game into drama.

So how did you solve for the weapon attachment problem?

Bathurst: We created this quite cool sort of ball and socket thing. And I mean — spoiler alert — it became physically impossible to actually do it in one cool move like in the game. So if you watch very carefully, you’ll see that we always sort of have to cut around that moment. In the game, it’s super cool. ZOOM! And it stays there. But you actually try to put an AR rifle into the perfect slot behind your back, where you can’t see, while you’re running and being shot at by aliens. Not gonna happen. Certainly not in the first 100 takes, and we didn’t have time.

At what point do you sort of just abandon it and suggest coming up with a different solution?

Bathurst: Actually, what happens is that once you go around there [he imitates holstering a rifle over his shoulder], it’s seamless, so you can’t see it, but it actually becomes what we call a handover to CGI. Then, basically what happens is when he does it, he just drops the real gun and it falls on the ground. But we switched it to a CGI gun in the shot and we see [that] slot in.

You’re constantly doing that digital handover [in this series]. Like when Master Chief does a big jump, for example, he’ll do the start of the jump in real life. You’ll pick him up on the wire, but the wire might fall apart, so you’re then doing a CG handover to a visual effects Master Chief. And then the visual effects Master Chief is doing the whole jump.

The visual effects ended up being split across 13 different companies. It’s massive, massive shot counts. I mean, last year on average, I think there were between 400 and 500 shots per episode. Episode 1 had over 600 shots, which is huge, huge, huge. And they’re all incredibly complex. They’re not just like a bit of scene replacement. A shot would have scene replacements, plasma hits, aliens, body parts.

We had a lot of visual effects spend, just working on it a lot. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people working for two years solidly.

How much of scenes like the opening fight sequence in the pilot, for example, was actors having to just sort of visualize with their imagination? Like, there’s going to be a bad guy there, an energy sword there …

Bathurst: For the Elite, the Covenant, what we did is we had stuntmen on … they’re not called stilts, but you see them in the Paralympics, the blades. We have stuntmen on versions of blades, which get them up to the right height. And they would be men in gray motion capture suits. They didn’t have plasma swords, they’d have the hilt, but obviously not the full blade. But I mean, we showed everybody the game, we’d shown them all the tests, we’d shown them all the concept work, we throw them all the pre-visualizations, and that whole sequence you’re talking about, every frame was sort of storyboarded, so everybody could see kind of where everybody was and what was happening. So it’s pretty well organized.

It’s very much part of the process now. I mean, you’re often having to act to a kind of thing that might not be easy. You’re often looking out a window at a burning ship, but there’s no burning ship. You’re looking at somebody put a stake in the ground for where the bloody ship is. That’s kind of acting, I guess.

Coming out of the boot camp, was there anything you gained an appreciation of — about Master Chief’s character or the Halo universe, etc. — that you didn’t have going into it?

Bathurst: Oh, I mean, tons. I tell you one thing that really, really blew me away and continued to blow me away throughout the whole of the shooting was just the design of the show. That suit, that helmet and that visor, just the design of the outfit. Just the whole vibe — it’s very, very clever what they’ve done. It’s set 500 years in the future, or more than that, but the military aspect of it is very today. I mean, it makes no sense, you know, I would presume that far in advance we wouldn’t still be using ballistic weapons and driving around in Warthogs. But it’s cool because it makes it very relatable. And you got this kind of crazy alien show, but yet you recognize humanity’s weaponry and their modus operandi, and it’s based very, very tightly on the American armed forces and the way they operate in the hierarchy and the structures and the movements.

What do you want to get across, as a director, in the first two episodes?

Bathurst: I wanted to get the non-fans on board. I wanted it to feel that there was a purpose and a human connection here. I know how Halo has a big story behind it, but ultimately, on a very crude level, it’s [a] first-person shooter. So you’re taking that, and you’re trying to expand that to something that has some kind of purpose and connectability to an audience so that people are engaged on a human level to what’s going on. That was what I hope we’ve done.

The production value and scale of it and all that kind of stuff is out of this world. But after a while, that stuff … Okay, whatever, you know? What’s the story? What am I actually connected to? That’s the challenge. And I think that will be the sort of test of the show, whether it stands up.

Along those lines, one of the unique challenges of this series is that your protagonist tends to wear a helmet that hides his face, and I know Master Chief takes it off and we see his face in the show, but how tough is it to show emotion and convey character without having a protagonist that can always show facial expressions?

Bathurst: Take that scene in Episode 1 where [Master Chief] is sitting in the ship with Kwan, and Kwan’s having a meal and talking about the fact that, actually, Master Chief shot her mother. Initially, when I read that, you know, I thought, okay he’s going to have his helmet on and that stuff, but I mean, that’s what I mean by that impressive piece of [costume] design. I could look at that helmet and that mirrored visor for hours and kind of be intrigued as to what was going on inside. I mean, I actually sometimes found it more engaging when you’re looking in the mirror [of Master Chief’s visor] going, “What’s going on in there?” I didn’t find it disconnecting at all. I found it, actually, more intriguing. To hear that incredible story about this guy now sitting next to this young girl, [and he] actually killed her mother and you just kind of go, “Oh my God, where is this going …” and to have this sort of cold, unreadable [person], I find it very effective.

It’s interesting. There was this conversation of, like, at what stage do we take [Master Chief’s] helmet off, you know? And I thought we got it about right [when it happened in Episode 1]. But then watching it, I was kind of going, “Actually, I could have gone another episode or two before he took it off.” And maybe it doesn’t matter at all, because I think it was a great moment to have him take it off. It worked very well. But as I said, I loved just looking at [that] helmet and just hearing the voice and wondering what was happening inside there.

I think the most common comparisons you might hear are with “The Mandalorian.”

Bathurst: When we first started out making “Halo,” Mando hadn’t come out. And in hindsight, I’m thrilled that we did take it off so early, because it immediately separates you from Mando.

So you have the two audience components, how do you balance that audience service to fans of the game with onboarding newcomers?

Bathurst: It’s super challenging. You’ve got the gaming crowd. And the gaming crowd is split very, very roughly into those who just game and don’t really know the universe and those who are, like, fans. And there’s some crazy, crazy committed fans out there who really know that stuff and that whole terminology, that language. And I’m sure [the show] is going [to be] nitpicked, and I’m sure there’ll be terminologies we got [wrong]. But even just in describing a planet, you can’t call it by its full sci-fi sort of galaxy name. For a Halo virgin, you have to have them actually understand that it’s a planet out in the outer reaches of the galaxy and in the inner reaches is this place called Reach, which is actually the sort of Pearl Harbor of this planet called Earth. I mean, the disparity in the knowledge of your audience literally couldn’t be bigger.

It’s one of the most challenging parts of the project. I can’t think of any other show like that where you’ve got some people who just know way, way, way more than anybody involved in the film, apart from Kiki Wolfkill, Frank O’Connor and a few other people. And then you’ve got another part, like my friends who are going to watch it for the first time. I mean, with my friends I’d go, “I’m working on Halo,” and they say, “What’s Halo?” That’s the extremity of what you’re dealing with. So you just have to kind of find a happy place.

There are a lot of Easter eggs in there for the hardcore fans — a lot — that most of the audience will miss. And there are some really, really, really, really deep, deep, deep Easter eggs that only if you pause your frame and zoom in you’ll actually spot them. I hope that will sort of satiate and excite and enthrall the fans. But on a much, much, much more kind of macro, broad, basic storytelling level … we had to educate. We had to bring people along for the ride, you know, and that’s a real balance.



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