Stewart Hendler admits that he wasn’t much of a gamer when he was tapped to direct Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, the live action web series that serves as a prequel and a curtain-raiser for the eighth installment of mega-successful Xbox 360 first person shooter.
Even though Halo 3, released in 2007, sold 14.5 million copies and probably occupied several billion collective gameplay hours worldwide, Hendler, who previously directed the horror film Sorority Row and the Bryan Singer-produced H+ web series for Warner Brothers Digital Distribution, says he was only peripherally aware of it.
"I’d always been someone who tracked the Halo franchise," Hendler says. "My roommates were big gamers and that was the game that drew me in."
Starting Friday, Hendler and Microsoft Studios, producer of the Halo series since 2001, are hoping to draw in hardcore fans and casual viewers alike with Forward Unto Dawn, which runs on the Machinima Prime channel on YouTube. Forward, set 30 years before Halo 4 begins, revolves around a group of young soldiers training to be part of the UNSC (United Nations Space Command) who find themselves drawn into battle with alien invaders. While Halo has spawned an entire genre of digital machinima (plotted episodes created out video game graphics), Hendler was excited about using real actors and real locations to bring depth and dimension to the world of Halo. "Even though it’s set in a scifi world and action-packed, it has to be character driven. We tried to hire the best actors we could to bring the flavor of reality to the world. You can look into their eyes and feel their emotions in a way that you can’t with video games now."
Hendler cites Children of Men as a visual influence, and says he was aiming for a world that felt "real and elevated." Shot in Vancouver, British Columbia, Hendler and co. set part of the series at Simon Fraser University, a brutalist slab atop Burnaby Mountain, whose futuristic campus has also been used by the makers of Battlestar Galactica and Underworld Awakening. "That was amazing," Hendler says of the hard, concrete- and glass-heavy campus. " We’d never seen anything like it. It was really tragic and so bad. It’s so bleak and such a soulless place. I would never want to school there but it shoots amazingly."
In addition to the campus, several scenes were set in Vancouver’s surrounding rain forests, where a full-scale replica of a Warthog, a futuristic armored Jeep seen in earlier Halo installments, ripped around real paths. Bringing the imagined world of the game to reality and remaining faithful to fans’ expectations about the series they’d invested so many hours in was a constant challenge, Hendler says, and something that kept him up at night. "The authenticity of the world was a huge part of it," he says. "Errors or just unexpected things are gonna get called out or debated online. Our goal was to show that we paid attention to it… We had a guy whose job it was to ensure authenticity. To sort of fact check. For three months, twelve hours a day, that’s all he focused on."
So, with the series beginning October 5 and game set for release on November 6, has Hendler finally been drawn in fully into Halo 4? "I’m definitely gonna play," he says with a laugh. "It’s pretty fucking rad!"
This article has been updated to amend the Halo 3 release date.