Halo 4: Behind the Scenes of $3 Billion Blockbuster's New Chapter
By Neal Karlinsky, Brandon Chase and Dan Przygoda
Take big cameras, big special effects, a music score by a full orchestra recorded at Abbey Road studios in England, world-class artists and a crew of hundreds, and what you get is the lead contender for the year's biggest entertainment blockbuster.
Not a movie - a video game.
Halo 4 is the latest in what has become a $3 billion franchise, all based around a sci-fi game played on Microsoft's Xbox. It's like "Star Wars" for a whole new generation.
Even more surprising, this male-dominated game, about a futuristic, intergalactic war between humans and an alien species known as the Convenant, is run by a hip, working mom from Seattle.
"I think it's a cultural phenomenon," studio chief Bonnie Ross said. "I think that it's beyond a game. I think it's a beloved universe that fans love."
The game brought in more than $220 million in just the first 24 hours after its release - eclipsing countless movies. It took years and a massive, though undisclosed budget, to produce a blockbuster like Halo 4. Ross said part of the reason is that games like Halo are not just games.
"You see a movie once at the theater, maybe a second time on DVD or on demand," she said. "But with a game, it's your story, and you keep going back again and again, and it's your story with your friends and so it's always new, it's fresh."
The Halo series tells a multi-layered story with complex characters, which the staff obsesses over down to the smallest detail.
"When you look at a film, a film has three major considerations, which is narrative, drama and presentation," said narrative director Armando Troisi. "With games, you have this added consideration of interactivity."
Stage actress Jen Taylor does the voice of an artificially intelligent (AI) character named Cortana, a main character, as well as the cinematic motion capture performance for Cortana's creator, Dr. Halsey. This isn't Taylor's first video game role. She also voiced the character Princess Peach for Nintendo's Mario franchise.
For Dr. Halsey, Taylor also donned a suit loaded with sensors and captured by a series of cameras to have her body digitally inserted into the game.
"It's awesome, it's super fun," she said. "It's lovely to go and see all of your work and how it is then manifested by 50 people who take it and then create this beautiful character."
The visuals in Halo 4 are stunning, often more like watching a movie than a game, and graphic designers slave over every frame. There's even a lighting department to add light and shadow artificially. All sounds are produced in-house.
"We are crazy perfectionists," said Halo 4 executive producer Kiki Wolfkill. "Because some of the lighting, not unlike a movie, is about focusing the eye on where you want the player to go or what you want them to notice, so some of it is purely for dramatic reasons, and some of it is to make it look real."
Between the games, stories, a series of Web TV shows the team has now launched, and possible plans for a movie someday, Bonnie Ross hopes to take the multibillion dollar franchise far beyond Halo 4.
"I feel like our universe and our ability to tell hundreds of stories in our universe, if we do it right, we should be able to tell stories for the next 20 years," she said.
ABC's Lauren Effron contributed to this report