LOS ANGELES — Microsoft’s blockbuster “Halo” franchise has sold more than 42 million video games and been featured in novels, comic books, trading cards and an animated series. But Master Chief, the “space marine” protagonist who wields two guns and takes no prisoners, got his butt kicked on his first foray into the live-action world, when 20th Century Fox and Universal Pictures’ 2006 attempt to develop a big-budget “Halo” movie fizzled over budget concerns.
Now “Halo” has gone in front of the cameras, but without any movie studio assistance. Microsoft has produced a Web series, called “Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn,” which will premiere this October in five episodes leading up to the release of the “Halo 4” video game. The segments will then be collected, along with 15 minutes of additional footage, into a 90-minute feature film. Microsoft will announce “Forward Unto Dawn” and preview it to fans at Comic-Con International in San Diego during a panel Thursday.
Financed at a cost insiders pegged as between $5 million and $10 million, “Forward Unto Dawn” represents the technology giant’s first significant step forward into the traditional entertainment world. Its backers hope the step will allow 343 Industries, the Microsoft subsidiary that oversees everything “Halo,” to tell new types of stories and reach new audiences.
“We want this piece to do all the things that a game, by virtue of being a game, can’t,” said producer Lydia Antonini, a former Warner Bros. executive who is one of several experienced Hollywood hands Microsoft hired. “When you have real people, you can have real stakes and make connections.”
Produced over five weeks this past spring in Vancouver, “Forward Unto Dawn” is a prequel story that portrays the first invasion by the Covenant, an alien force that has been the primary enemy in “Halo” games thus far. Set in a military academy, the futuristic science-fiction series focuses on a young trainee who will also appear in “Halo 4” and other upcoming games.
The cast includes Australian actor Tom Green, relatively unknown in the U.S., as its lead. Daniel Cudmore, who played Colossus in two “X-Men” movies and was in the most recent “Twilight” film, costars as Master Chief. Other cast members aren’t household names but have appeared in everything from “Footloose” to “Supernatural” to “The Chronicles of Narnia.”
Director Stewart Hendler, who previously made the horror movie “Sorority Row” and science-fiction Web series “H+,” said his goal was to temper a franchise known in the game world for over-the-top action and grandiose plots.
“I wanted to bring a sense of reality and gravity to the world,” he explained while editing the series in a North Hollywood office. “Everything from the performances to the aesthetics should be tethered to a sense of authenticity and grittiness.”
Key to that ambition, the filmmakers said, was using computer effects as little as possible. All the “Halo” hardware — from Master Chief’s armor to the “MA5” gun, Warthog vehicle, and Pelican drop ship — was made with real materials.
“Our hope is that nobody will look at a frame of this and go, ‘Oh, that’s a green screen,’” said producer Josh Feldman. “We built a disproportionate amount of our sets and brought in a visual effects supervisor who won an Emmy for ‘The Pacific.’”
An inspiration, the filmmakers said, has been the popular live-action commercials used to promote previous “Halo” games. An ad for 2009’s “Halo 3: ODST” helped to win director Rupert Sanders the director’s job on this summer’s big-budget tentpole film “Snow White and the Huntsman.”
In producing “Forward Unto Dawn,” Microsoft is putting itself among a small group of video game companies expanding into the live-action world. After producing several live-action Web videos based on its “Assassin’s Creed” franchise, French game publisher Ubisoft recently recruited “X-Men: First Class” star Michael Fassbender to play the lead character in a movie version it is developing. Like “Halo,” the “Assassin’s Creed” movie is being developed without a Hollywood studio.
While the primary business of “Halo” is still selling video games, Microsoft executives say they don’t see their foray into live action as a purely promotional move. “It’s really important to us that this is a stand-alone product that can make money on its own,” said Matt McCloskey, director of franchise business management for 343.
Toward that end, Microsoft licensed 343 to Machinima.com, the game website and YouTube channel. That will be the only place to watch “Forward Unto Dawn” webisodes, beginning Oct. 5, save for Microsoft Xbox 360 consoles connected to the Internet.
When put together into a film, the “Halo” movie will be given away free with limited editions of “Halo 4,” and be available to rent or buy on DVD, Blu-ray and in digital stores.
Millions of hard-core “Halo” fans are sure to stream the episodes and scrutinize whether every detail is exactly right. Hendler said he exchanged hundreds of emails with staff at 343 during preproduction. “They were checking every costume stitch, the placement of LEDs on the guns, and the bevels on the visors,” he said.
But if “Forward Unto Dawn” meets the ambitions of its makers, it will also draw viewers who think warthogs are animals and a Master Chief can be found at Camp Pendleton.
“One of the things we’re trying to do is reach new audiences,” said 343 franchise development director Frank O’Connor. “If Mom watches, she’ll completely understand it.”