Interview - Stuart Aitken from Axis Animation Talks Halo 4's New Spartan Ops CG Episodes

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on Tuesday, 29 January 2013
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Axis has been responsible for the Halo 4 Spartan Ops CG episodes 1-5 and now just recently launched episode 6 (7-10 coming soon). Stuart Aitken is the director for awesome CG trailers like Aliens: Colonial Marines (Here) and the Dead Island Trailer (Here). Aitken has been working with 343 Industries to bring players the Halo Universe they know and love through high quality CG episodes paired with 5 levels of co-op. From casting actors to his favorite member of Fireteam Majestic he answered all of Pluggnplay’s questions. In the following interview Aitken gives us insight to how he is leading the production of Spartan Ops CG episodes and how he has a hand in expanding the Halo story.

How did you end up in this part of the industry?

The CG world in general seemed like a natural fit for me. I like technical challenges as well as creative ones and I think CG tends to suit people who cross that divide well. At the time I got into it the technology to do what we do was really only first becoming within reach of mere mortals, without millions of dollars’ worth of what were then supercomputers, so it all seemed pretty exciting.

I’ve been involved with the games industry, particularly trailers, intros, cut scenes, and the like for pretty much all of my working career. I’ve gotten the chance to do other things as well. As a fledgling and largely self-taught 3d artist I got my break in the industry at Digital Animations in the mid-90s, another Scottish company that did some amazing trailers. I’ve pretty much just kept on doing that for the last 15 years or so, but my focus has shifted more heavily from being a 3d artist myself to directing over the last 5 years or so.

Is there another part of the industry you would like to try out? What would that position be?

The more I work with actors, the more a large part of me really wants to do more live action. At some point having a real flesh and blood actor on screen is a more intelligent approach than ‘capturing their performance’ and applying that to a CG character, though the reasons why we tend to do that so much in game trailers and so forth, are complex and subtle.

So directing for TV or Film is a big ambition that I would like to pursue in the future.

Given the prevalent use of CG in practically all visual mediums these days I think I have a somewhat different take on how to use that technology within a live action context than people who don’t necessarily come from within the CG world. Ironically I find a lot of CG ‘over cooked’ and rather badly art directed even on big budget features with massive budgets. When it becomes the point rather than serving the story it’s just self-defeating. A lot of people pay lip service to that idea but still we seem to be treated to an endless chain of ‘more stuff’ movies that are increasingly forgettable as stories or even just as visual experiences. I’m a huge fan of genre writing; particularly the better [science fiction] stuff out there and I guess I have enough hubris to believe I could do a better job of filming them than what’s out there for the most part.

What is your favourite part of the production? Why?

There are several parts of the process I particularly enjoy. I get a real kick out of creative ‘problem solving’ in general and being part of the initial writing process where the plot, narrative, characterization, and [the] dialogue are defined  are always a pleasure, especially when you are working with talented writers.

During main production I also tend to have quite a direct input into the cinematography and editing processes;  which are key areas for me as a director to express and develop a vision for how each of the episodes ‘work’, so I tend to enjoy that aspect.

Working with the actors and crew on set during the rehearsals and performance capture sessions are also usually one of my favorite parts of the process. Partly because it’s such a contrast to the rest of the pipeline:  everything happens in the moment and you have to develop things on your feet,  in conjunction with the many other people involved, in real time. ‘Real time’ is an interesting concept for someone used to animation production where most things are anything but.  It’s the closest that what we do feels like traditional film making but in some ways I think its purer, more like theatre, since we don’t have to worry about coverage or angles at that stage (one of the great advantages of motion capture is working out coverage after the performances are in the can!). The actors have to really imagine their character’s world, there are no detailed sets or costumes to help them conjure up the situations they are in.

That sense of ‘working in the moment’ is at once challenging and refreshing. In most other parts of the pipeline things develop much more slowly and the feedback loops necessary in any collaborative effort, are much longer. It’s less immediate, even if you do have much more leeway to make considered decisions over time as a result.

Actors and crews also tend to be fun people to hang out with, and everyone is sort of sharing the moment, so there’s a real sense of camaraderie on set, pressure included; (and it can get stressful if you are pushed for time).

There is a real and very palpable sense of the script ‘coming to life’ in those sessions. But I would like to add that its always an immense pleasure when you see the amazing results of other peoples work, and in no way do I mean to belittle the efforts of anyone on the CG side. When you see things coming together [by] looking at dailies from the various departments (assets, rigging, layout, animation, lighting, VFX, audio post, etc) [and] all those various artists’ hard work being added to the mix - the whole thing takes on more life and becomes more real, that’s a very satisfying feeling.

What is your least favorite part of the production? Why?

In some ways that’s a more challenging question to answer. I really tend to enjoy what I do, but I would say the drain on your personal resources and time is the biggest factor in the ‘minus column’ rather than a specific process. It takes a herculean amount of work and effort to get a big project like Spartan Ops off the ground and delivered to the level of quality that both ourselves and 343 expect and the long hours and constant sense of responsibility for the project can take its toll.

I would add that this in no way applies to the director alone and many other peoples contributions are just as demanding, but it can be tough sustaining that level of effort over a long time.  [Also] it tends not to leave a lot of room for other things in life.

How long does it take to lock down the story for a scene? When would you need to make a change to a scene?

Well I think you tend to approach it from the other end so to speak. It’s important to get the arc and broad brushstrokes of the overall piece sorted, so you have the big picture and know who your characters are and where you are trying to take them. Then to an extent, the scenes tend to come together relatively easily from a narrative perspective, though there are always a few tricky ones where you have to expend a little more brain power working out how you get from A to B.

In general terms each batch of 5 episodes (production of all 10 was split in two) probably took about 6 to 8 weeks or so For Brian Reed at 343 and myself to get the scripts sorted to everyone’s satisfaction. We also tended to storyboard as we did this. We then go pretty quickly into rehearsals and mocap.  Then there's maybe another 6 to 8 weeks where things tend to be quite flexible and amorphous as we refine blocking, layout, coverage and the edit, but the flexibility in terms of how the building blocks come together starts to rapidly diminish after that point.  It’s not like film where you have a lot of finished footage to edit. We generally have to define the edit with rough ingredients near the beginning, then gradually refine and finish to that template.

There are various points where my main job is to assess whether what we have come up with is working creatively and also, in conjunction with producer Debbie Ross and her department, whether the scope is doable. The earlier you can tackle any issues the better of course, but generally there are diminishing levels of change going on right through the entire pipeline for various reasons.

Each production stage tends to enforce concentration on a particular part of the story telling toolbox, and due to the waterfall nature of production it’s important to lock down aspects that pertain to particular processes at the appropriate time. Once you have wrapped capturing the performances it becomes extremely problematical to suddenly decide you need to radically change the main character interactions or dialogue, once you are done with layout it becomes problematical to radically change cameras or blocking, etc.

Are there any parts of the episodes you wished turned out a little different, perhaps something you would want to add if you could go back?

There’s ALWAYS stuff you wish you could go back and change or do differently. To paraphrase EM Forster “work is never finished, just abandoned”. I suspect most curative’s have vaguely (or otherwise!) obsessive, perfectionist tendencies and I am probably worse than most.

The reality is that you are always fighting a ticking clock and the reality of finite resources, but overall I think we did a good job, and I feel that we largely succeeded in the things we wanted to accomplish.

Are the special effects and details confirmed on a higher concept level or the responsibility of the artist?

We try to define the essential art direction for everything early on, at least in a broad sense (we have several very talented 2d artist on our team - Jon Beeston, Gareth hector, Szymon Biernacki -  who perform the production design /art director role as required), but you always have further decisions to make as you get to the detail down the pipeline.

It is extremely important that artists at all stages are able to contribute and there is a definite balance I think in terms of giving people creative responsibility for their work, but also having everything come together into one cohesive piece. There’s probably quite a lot of juggling specific ways of doing things on a case by case basis to get that right. Specific things might require less or more input from me or the leads, or may or may not require additional concept work.

My experience is that most artists prefer to work from clear concepts anyway as long as they have adequate room to express themselves and interpret it.  If anything we tend to have complaints that we don’t concept stuff enough ahead of time rather than artists not having enough creative freedom.

How many people are parts of this production? How do you keep them all on one cohesive thought?

For this job we probably got close to 200 people all in including various contractors, actors, crew, etc.

In terms of cohesion I think that is largely down to structure and management. We have many bright people in the production department whose job it is to both manage the production and help communicate down the chain what is required.

In more creative terms I rely very heavily on our wonderfully talented department leads and supervisors (Andy Miller, Serge Caires, Bruce Sutherland, John Allardice, Marco Godinho, John Barclay, Drew Robertson, Ewan Wright, Graham McKenna, Luc-Ewen Martin-Fenouillet, Jayden Patterson, Alex Pavlovic)  to organize and direct their teams, and to a large extent come up with creative solutions that meet the criteria that its my role to set. so often I will discuss aspects with the leads and supervisors and try and stay out of what they need to do to get the results. That’s sometimes hard to do, but on a job this scale trying to get intimately involved with all aspects is a mistake. I can shape things but ultimately what ends up on screen is down to all the talented people who are involved in making it.

Its maybe a more obvious concept in regard to performances. As a director you can guide the actors to an extent but ultimately they have to perform the parts and bring the characters to life, and part of getting good performances is letting them find that internally rather than trying to impose your opinions too much - I think its kind of the same for the rest of the process.

What were your criteria for casting the motion capture actors?

Primarily picking the ones that I felt most naturally inhabited who I thought the characters were. Though you also have to think about how they might play off each other as well. I also wouldn’t discount the notion of just “clicking” with people. We had a tough schedule and its vitally important you get on well with the cast on set when you’re under pressure

It’s maybe one of the most instinctive parts of the process but also one of the most crucial - cast the right actor and you have an easy time as a director, cast the wrong actor and you are in trouble!

A couple of the actors were in the main campaign and were thus a given as they had already been cast. Technicolor and their casting director Jamie Mortellaro were instrumental in helping me find the right pool of actors for the roles unique to Spartan Ops, and Halo 4 Creative Director Josh Holmes came down to the casting sessions in LA so that we would make those decisions together. Overall casting took a week in itself.

I made a short-list from hundreds of choices for each role based on audio line tests then Brian Reed knocked up some great sides (short casting scripts) for each role that we had the shortlist (maybe 6 to 10 for each role) go through. The sides were written to try and bring out the key characteristics for each role in a short monologue, though I also had people do more physical stuff as well given many of our characters were supposed to be bad ass military types with almost superhuman physiques and abilities. For the Spartan’s especially, casting had as much to do with posture and how people moved as to acting chops.

How exactly did you coordinate the scene? How did you get the actors to be so convincing?

We went through the entire script in more informal rehearsals. Generally I try and match rehearsal time to shooting time and we had a week on both for each batch of 5 episodes.

Rehearsals are crucial for me in terms of getting to know the actors better, developing a rapport with them, and to start seeing how they are coming at their roles and specific moments in their scenes.

Practically it also means you can establish the basic blocking for each scene and work out the essential physicality of what needs to occur (e.g. where someone comes into the scene, what/who do they need to interact with and how, etc.) and you can also start refining the tone. Though I always feel that its a good idea not to over-polish things in rehearsals and leave something to ’find’ when you’re doing it for real so to speak. Essentially, I’m trying to build up some ‘muscle memory’ of each scene so that you don’t have [to] work everything out from scratch on set. Anything to help save time on the shoot is a good idea [because] you suddenly have a large and expensive crew hanging around with a tight schedule, and things tend to slow down a lot anyway due to various technical aspects.

As for the actors being convincing that is down to them being good actors.  Apart from casting the right people, I might know more about how a specific part or scene needs to fit within the whole than maybe they do, but its the actors themselves who have to be convincing and natural and make the character and dialogue come to life.

At that point your job as a director is basically to give them good feedback. Let them know whether what they are doing is working or not and the “odd prod” from time to time on ways to change it if necessary, or perhaps even changing the lines if needs be. It’s more important that they can make a line convincing than insisting that the script stays verbatim.

There was one particular tricky scene where two of the main characters needed to display some real emotion far beyond what their characters would normally express and where I had to get out my comfort zone a little. We did some improvisation to help breakdown where they needed to get to, that was actually very productive and not something I had done before. I think that ended up being my favorite scene in the whole series (it’s in ep09).

What are some of the ways you hint at the massive size of the Halo universes that the average player might miss? (I.e. dropping the name of other places like Rio, or New Phoenix).

That was actually one of the primary production challenges. The Halo universe is one written very large indeed and we knew that resource wise we had to concentrate on the characters and performances. There wasn’t a lot of room for extravagant set pieces, so you have to use the more exciting moments judiciously.

Part of the solution is the plot in general. The storyline takes place against an epic backdrop and the things the characters get up to (the players as well as the on-screen characters) will have effects on the entire future of the galaxy.

The visual corollary of that is use of backdrop in terms of the actual sets. The suggestion, however subtle, [is] that these events are taking place on a colossal 6km long space ship or inside a metallic shell that encapsulates an entire planet. So the design of the spaces within Infinity, or the hints you get that requiem is not a ‘normal’ planet, of the huge “maw” that connects Infinity to Requiem’s interior constantly hovering in the [background]of each episode - all of that helps sell the audience on the underlying sense of scale.

I think the richness of the world helps as well - every design of every single item that you see has been thought about and is part of a visual development and enrichment process that has been evolving over 10 years and hundreds of artists. Audio too, even the fact that there is a now an actual Sangheili language helps sell that sense of a wider universe.

Are the Spartan Ops levels and the episodes created simultaneously?

Yes, in that the storyline evolves from the player mission requirements and vice versa. I think its a really intriguing concept actually. In some ways I think this is just the start of something that could be actually taken much further, a sort of new approach to how you can meld gameplay with more straight forward linear storytelling that in some ways is less problematic and more natural than having to stop the interactive action at every important plot point to have a ‘cut scene’. It’s a more elegant solution to what is a pretty nuggety issue in games today where there is at least a perceived need to combine the two quite different experiences in the attempt to enhance both.

Who do you meet with from 343 industries?

Many, many people, not all of whom I’ll attempt to list here. Even some old friends from previous lives who have ended up at 343.

Day to day Lani Barber, Corrine Johnson and especially Tyler Jeffers were our main points of contact, and we would generally speak to them and ‘swap notes’ every day. In pre-production I was working with Spartan Ops script writer Brian Reed pretty closely and would check in now and again with Creative helmer Josh Holmes as his busy schedule allowed as well as Narrative director Armando Troisi.

In earlier stages we had various meetings with exec producer Kiki Wolfkill, Brand director (and fellow scot) Frank O’Conner and Brand Manager Kevin Grace.

We also met up with some of the key members of various asset teams (Andy Bradbury, Matt Aldridge), Cinematics team (Brian Goodrich, Clive Burdon and Maggie Oh),  Art Director Kenneth Scott and on audio we worked with Ken Kato and Kazuma Jinnoushi

I can honestly say it was an absolute pleasure working with everyone from 343, who were more than supportive and really allowed us to do our thing in their playground. I think they did a great job inheriting the Halo mantle.

What’s your work environment like?

I think we strike a good balance between a (relatively) relaxed environment where people don’t take themselves too seriously and a place where we are very serious about creating great work.
Like any high pressure environment it can get hectic and stressful at times but we also have fun.

The fact we are in Glasgow makes a difference, I guess. It’s a more relaxed down to earth environment than somewhere like London and we have some of the world’s most amazing scenery literally half an hour from our doorsteps which is nice.

What makes this production unique compared to your other productions?

Scale, scale and did I mention scale?

Looked at one way, this was like doing 15 game trailers at once, or another way like doing about 2/3rds of a 100% CGI feature. We have something like 1200 shots in total through the 10 episodes of Spartan Ops series 1, spanning over 50 minutes of content, about 30 different characters, [and] a similar number of environments. To do all that within a 10 month production schedule, including pre-production and post, is a remarkable achievement for us.

Creatively I think it was different because normally we usually have about 2 minutes to hook an audience and tell a story and here we could really spin that out over a much longer duration. That changes things in lots of subtle ways, there isn’t quite so much focus on every single shot or trying to be relentlessly flashy, instead you start to focus more on the traditional elements of drama and more conventional storytelling stuff- typically in a trailer your usually trying to be clever or somewhat abstract in terms of narrative approach all the time and it was actually a nice change to tell a story in a more conventional manner for a change where you could really get into the characters and dialogue.

Who is your favorite Spartan on Fire Team Majestic?

Well not strictly answering the question I would say Catherine Halsey.

She is truly my favorite Halo Character (out of all the games), and Jen Taylor who played her was just awesome.

If I had to pick out only one of the Majestic bunch then I think I would pick Madsen, for being a bit of a dick, but an entertaining dick - though I love them all in their own ways :).

One of the great things about having that many characters is that there’s so much more you could do with them. I think Grant and Hoya especially need more screen time!

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