Halo 3’s Cinematic Tool

In the last few weeks I’ve been getting out to a handful of various presentations, beginning with an IGDA Montreal BioShock presentation and most recently a week-long film and video game visual extravaganza at the 2007 Adapt Conference.

Representatives from Disney, Pixar, Industrial Light & Magic and several high-profile game development studios were in town to share work methods and techniques, for which I am all-ears, with the week ending on a high at the Halo 3 party, whereby I was fortunate enough to come home with a second copy of the game after beating a handful of Ubisoft animators into Slayer submission.

Over the next week I’ll be uploading my notes from the various lectures attended, (in no particular order), beginning with Bungie’s own Feature Presentation below:

Bungie: Creating Movie-Quality Cinematic Moments In Realtime

CJ Cowan & James McQuillan – Lead Producer and Cinematic Director on Halo 3

This talk was unfortunately beset with technical problems throughout, and as such many of the real-time editing features of their engine were unable to be demonstrated. It did, however, offer an insight into a company creating one of the most epic games ever with tools that were so technologically backwards it is amazing they managed to get anything out the door at all.


Around 150 full-time employees on Halo 3.

  • The original E3 announcement trailer was put together by a small team consisting of only a Cinematic Lead, an Art Director, a modeler and 2 Animators, and took around 3 months to complete the three minute cinematic. For the full game, they required over 45 minutes of cinematics to be created in just 4 months.
  • To that end, they had to revise their cinematic tool. The original implementation (used for the E3 trailer) was incredibly outdated, requiring a script to be created to sequence the shots, add audio and play animations etc. Their update was a complex Maya tool, the “Cinematic Toolbox” or “Uber Panel” created to generate the same script via buttons and dropdown menus with not a timeline in sight.
  • One feature that did sound interesting though was the ability to loop a chosen shot in the XBOX360, and editing would be updated in real-time on every export.
  • Via a “one-button exporter”, the tool exported cutscenes in around 45 seconds on Halo 3, whereas the same scene would take several hours on Halo 2.
  • They went into some detail on the outsourcing workflow used to overcome the time constraints, employing 36 animators from 3 external teams, many of which were subcontractors working here in Montreal. The workflow was as follows:
  1. Storyboards created
  2. Animatic created in Premiere
  3. Audio/Dialogue recorded
  4. Layout scene in Maya
  5. Some animation blocked in
  6. 1st Pass (70% complete at this point)
  7. 2nd Pass
  8. Polish
  9. Facial Animation (eyes & cheeks only the engine handles lip-sync)
  • For outsourcing, the animatic was brought into the camera image-plane to use as reference for setting up the shots. The animators were then given the maya scene once camera moves and some basic animation was laid out by the Cinematic Director.
  • Once outsourced animation was received, Bungie would respond with comments within 24-48 hours. They were at pains to stress that only one voice would critique the animation to avoid mixed messages, which sounds like a good idea.
  • On average the outsourcers were creating around 6 minutes of animation per day.
  • In-game characters in Halo 3 can require between 2000-3000 animations.
  • They will be using the same engine for upcoming projects, which has been iterated on since the original Halo.
  • Bungie strived to not have anything pre-rendered. Even in-game video screens are rendering images in real-time. Playing the game, I’ve noticed that they use a lot of matte-paintings for backdrops on particular shots – something I’m keen to adopt.

The talk picked up towards the end when demonstrating the “Save Films” feature’s ability to replay any play-through stored on the XBOX. Pausing the game and flying around received a rapturous applause from the audience when displaying some of the more impressive VFX, (unsurprising really when most of the audience consisted of people from the VFX industry).Regarding the remainder of the talk:

  • There are 3500 lines of dialogue in Halo 3 – lots of the story is given over the radio and heard from other NPCs.
  • There was only one VFX artist on Halo 3, quite an impressive feat given the effects-heavy nature of the game.
  • 2.5 hours of “Save Film” recorded data only takes up 3Mb of data on the XBOX360 hard drive.
  • Responding to questions from the audience, the Save Films feature does highlight errors in the game that might otherwise be glossed over during actual play, but they decided it was so cool they didn’t want to cut it.
  • As a result of requests from the machinima community, members of which they often invited to the studio to advise them on what they’d like to see in Halo 3, features were added such as the ability to turn off dialogue during cutscenes to allow overdubbing.
  • When questioned what Master Chief looks like under his helmet, the speaker answered “He looks like Bill Hicks”.