Helmer Stewart Hendler aims to raise bar on prod'n quality, storytelling vision

Directors like Stewart Hendler are about to become pretty common in Hollywood.

The filmmaker, behind the theatrical thrillers “Whisper” and “Sorority Row,” recently wrapped two high-profile web series: Warner Bros. Digital Distribution’s “H+,” produced by Bryan Singer, and Microsoft’s “Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn,” which will be promoted at Comic-Con today.

With the likes of YouTube, Netflix and Hulu Plus hungry for original content, digital productions are providing filmmakers with a growing additional creative outlet. Even more attractive is that the web series are being backed by considerable coin — Microsoft ponied up around $10 million for its 90-minute “Halo 4″ series, which is launching in the weeks before the 343 Industries-produced game bows exclusively on the Xbox 360.

In fact, the size of the crews and the amount of equipment needed to produce both projects rival those of most cable TV series.

“It’s equivalent to the resources that would go into making high-quality television,” Hendler said. “Our bar was to compete with ‘Game of Thrones’ or some of the beautiful, well-produced shows out there,” and differentiate from the amateur videos that play on YouTube.

That distinction is important to Hendler.

“We’re making these for the web but peoples’ ability to watch video online is getting progressively better. People now have the ability to stream sites like YouTube or Hulu Plus on their big screens in the living room. One one hand we’re making something that can be viewed small, but our primary concern was to make something that had gorgeous production values and works in the classic home theater setting.

“It’s less about making something that can only live on the web and making a great piece of content that deserves to be something beautiful. Web content shouldn’t be confused with poor-quality stuff.”

The concepts of the projects, not the platform, are what initially attracted Hendler.

And in producing them, he’s learned that “a lot of the rules and red tape and big machinery of studio filmmaking isn’t yet built up” around web series, he said. “There’s more creative freedom to experiment and play.”

But that can also be a drawback. “With that comes more of the burden of whatever you decide to do, it’s your fault if you mess it up,” said Hendler. “It’s still a high-pressure environment.”

And there’s always development hell to deal with.

Hendler signed on to “H+” four years ago and aimed to speak to the iPhone generation even before the devices became as ubiquitous as they are now. The web landscape has since matured, and Hendler said it “feels like the right time and place” for “H+” and “Halo 4’s” film to bow.

Both productions took considerable time and resources to produce.

Hendler spent 29 days shooting “H+” in Chile, with two months of prep time, while “Halo 4″ received three months to prepare and 24 shooting days in Vancouver.

Hendler said digital productions are still in their experimental stages.

The crew on “H+” called the production “the biggest student film ever made,” he said, given its learn-as-you-go process and limited budget. On the other hand, props like the Warthog truck and Pelican drop ship were actually built for the “Halo 4″ series, and “if you stood on set and looked around, you would have thought you were on the ‘Halo’ movie set,” Hendler said. “It had all the trappings of a full-scale Hollywood production.”

The “Halo 4″ series takes place between the third and fourth games, telling the backstory of a new character that will play a pivotal role in the new release and the game’s war against the alien Covenant.

“If you know nothing about ‘Halo,’ it should still be something that’s engaging,” Hendler said.

On Thursday, Microsoft will unspool the first trailer for the “Halo 4″ web series during its panel. It’s the latest live-action project for “Halo” that Microsoft has produced, including one for “Halo 3: ODST” that “Snow White and the Huntsman” helmer Rupert Sanders directed.

In addition to Hendler, project was penned by Todd and Aaron Helbing (“Smallville,” “Spartacus”) and features a cast that includes Tom Green (“Dance Academy”), Anna Popplewell (“The Chronicles of Narnia”), Daniel Cudmore (“X2,” “X-Men: The Last Stand”) as the Master Chief, Ayelet Zurer (“Angels & Demons”), Mike Dopud (“Mission Impossible — Ghost Protocol”), Enisha Brewster (“Footloose”), and Masam Holden (“Grey’s Anatomy”).

Project also was produced by former Warner Bros. and Playtone execs Lydia Antonini and Josh Feldman, with costumes and armor created by Legacy Effects (“The Hunger Games,” “The Avengers,” “Avatar”) and John Sullivan (“The Pacific”) handling visual f/x duties.

The series will initially be distributed on Machinima’s new Machinima Prime channel, as well as on Halo Waypoint, on Oct. 5, before being packed as a full-length feature on the special edition of the game, priced at $100.

Meanwhile, “H+” comes out on Aug. 8, bowing on YouTube.

“H+ The Digital Series” is a futuristic live-action web series and looks at what happens when technology goes horrifically wrong. It stars Alexis Denisof (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), Amir Arison (“Law & Order: SVU) and David Clayton Rogers (“Jane by Design”).

“It’s been a pretty crazy ride,” Hendler said of the leap to making web series. “I never saw myself headed in this direction, but it’s all starting to gravitate there. It’s exciting to feel like you’re on the verge of something new. I’ve learned it’s less about filtering things by the type of platform and more by the quality of the content.”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more