Finding Master Chief: the making of Halo 5’s new opening cinematic

Axis Animation reveal how their team used Fusion Studio to complete the opening cinematic for Microsoft’s new “Halo 5: Guardians” Xbox game, in collaboration with 343 Industries.

Now boasting more than four million views on YouTube, the new “Halo 5: Guardians” opening cinematic by BAFTA award-winning Scottish animation studio Axis Animation has been a resounding success.

Introducing the main characters of Fireteam Osiris, the action packed cinematic goes through the delivery of a mission briefing before launching viewers into a preview of the infamous first person shooter series’s gameplay world. In one continuous take, the team jump out of their Pelican dropship to join a massive battle featuring hundreds of characters, vehicles and ships on a planet with a snowy mountain landscape.

 The Axis Animation visual effects team relied extensively on Blackmagic’s Fusion Studio, a VFX and compositing tool they’ve been using since the company was founded in 2000, in order to bring together all the elements and render passes needed to complete the cinematic.

Gaming Roots

Founded in 2000, Axis is an award-winning, international studio of directors, designers, artists, animators, writers and producers that creates content for the biggest names in video games, film, television, commercials and online entertainment.

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“From the start, we’ve had close ties with the games industry,” explains managing director at Axis Animation, Richard Scott. “Our founders all met and worked together at a video game studio before Axis was born, and Axis itself was originally backed by another video game developer.”

Working on the “Halo 5: Guardians” opening cinematic was a natural progression for the studio and its team. As well an exciting introduction to the game, the work also represents the latest accomplishment in Axis’s long standing partnership with the developers of the Halo series, 343 Industries, which Axis has worked with since 2012.

“The first project we did together was a ten episode companion series to the main “Halo 4: Spartan Ops” game. That project allowed us to form a great relationship between the studios,” continues Scott. “For the opening cinematic to “Halo 5: Guardians”, the brief was simple. Take on the pre visualization created by 343 Industries and make it look amazing!”

From Modeling to Post Production

To complete the project, a team of 20 artists worked for six months, using ZBrush, Maya, Modo, Houdini, and Fusion to build, rig, animate, light, render, and composite together the final assets. They started with help from 343 Industries in the form of an initial low res pre vis, and even assets such as a mountain range background which was taken from an actual game level.

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Full performance capture, including both facial and body capture, was combined with key frame animation to help establish the character’s realistic movements, and the snowy environment was developed by Caires to be completely procedurally generated: research for which has already begun to filter into future projects as the team use his tools to more accurately represent planetary atmospheric scattering.

Fusion Studio was then used for all of the compositing work required to bring together the hundreds of elements and render passes necessary for the cinematic to come too life. “When undertaking the composite, I approached the sequence in a way that meant a lot of the elements, and all the main passes, actually lived in a single scene file,” Caires explains.

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He continues: “This was a challenge when you take into consideration the project included such a long, uninterrupted sequence, but was driven by the way we planned to work on the various shots. We always felt it would be as it was easier to have a limited number of artists focused on one difficult scene than to let many different artists start putting their ideas into it, which would have been counterproductive.”

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“The rendering was split in two: the primary expensive passes and several less expensive  passes. We made sure that everything that wasn’t as labour intensive to render, such as a lighting pass for the muzzle flashes or the Spartan suit thrusters, would be split off, as we expected these elements to update later on in the project. This approach meant we didn’t have to re render any of the more expensive passes just to update those elements. This also made it much such simpler to reintegrate those elements into existing plates within Fusion, with the help of tools such as masks.”

Picture Perfect

“Throughout the whole project, Fusion really allowed us to finest the final picture to perfection,” begins Sergio Caires, CG supervisor at Axis Animation. “It did what Fusion always does for every project we have ever worked on with it over the past fifteen years, helping us pull together all of our passes and giving us a fast, interactive compositing environment.”

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“Overall, I think the biggest success is the visual impact of the result,” Caires concludes. “This is a perfect blend of the amazing choreography, created by the team at 343 Industries, and the insane levels of detail, subtlety and action that our team put in there via the lighting and effects work.”

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