Videogame creators are quick to say they would be out of their element if they would ever make a movie or tell a live action story.
But Sergio Mimica-Gezzan thinks otherwise.
“You’re dealing with people who are more filmmakers in their hearts than many of the film executives at the studios,” the director of episodes of “Battlestar Galactica” and “Heroes” told Variety, because “they’re creating an environment that is obviously visual but at the same time, they’re representatives of their audiences because they create such an interactive experience that lives in the mind of the audience. They know their audience so well. They know all the questions their audience will ask but also all the answers. A lot of studio executives can’t do that.”
Mimica-Gezzan is specifically speaking of the team at Microsoft’s 343 Industries, the gamemakers behind the upcoming “Halo 5: Guardians” and the current stewards of the company’s juggernaut “Halo” franchise.
The director is behind “Halo: Nightfall,” a live action digital series that launched today and promotes “Halo 5,” as well as updated versions of the previous “Halo” games, redesigned for the next-generation Xbox One console that are packaged as part of the “Master Chief Collection,” available now.
With “Nightfall,” Xbox is doing more than just bringing to life “Halo’s” sci-fi world in a live action format: The series revolves around a new character to the franchise that will play a key role in “Halo 5” when it’s released next year.
“It was important for us to tell a story of a new character that we are introducing in this universe and will be very important in ‘Halo 5: Guardians,’ and show that character in a different set of circumstances and different time of his life,” said Kiki Wolfkill, “Halo’s” executive producer at 343 Industries.
Set between the events of “Halo 4” and “Halo 5,” “Nightfall is the origin story of Jameson Locke (played by Mike Colter) as he and his team of Office of Naval Intelligence agents as they’re caught in a terrorist attack while on the distant colony of Sedra, and drawn to an ancient artifact where they’re forced to fight for their survival.
Produced by Ridley Scott, Microsoft treated the promotion of “Nightfall” like a film or TV show, taking the first footage down to San Diego Comic-Con this summer.
The first two epsiodes were screened at “HaloFest,” a one-night affair Nov. 10 from Hollywood’s Avalon Theater, before launching on Xbox Live.
Scott Free Prods worked closely with and “Halo” franchise development director Frank O’Connor, and 343 to develop the series and character with screenwriter Paul Scheuring, who had worked with Mimica-Gezzan on “Prison Break.”
“The game world brings with it some dynamic opportunities in how players interact with (a game), but going into the narrative and live action space makes the world tactile,” said David Zucker, president of Scott Free TV.
“To have the freedom to say this is the space in which we would like to tell our tale but have great latitude to create within that world is something that rarely comes along.”
Mimica-Gezzan said it was key to have knowledgable producers he could turn to, given he was a first-time director on a very well established property, but because he also had a short amount of prep before shooting began.
“Whenever I needed an answer, I was able to turn to Kiki and I would get very simple or honest answers that made sense to me,” he said “It really made my job much easier but in some way, I became more confident in that what I was doing was the right thing. I wish it would be something I could repeat on every project.”
That won’t necessarily be projects at Xbox, however.
The launch of “Nightfall” comes shortly after Microsoft pulled the plug on Xbox Entertainment Studios, behind original productions like the “Halo” series.
The world of “Halo” was already established down to the design of the characters’ weapons and space-age military suits covered in battle armor.
“We would have been at a loss (if we had to) design all of that stuff ourselves,” Mimica-Gezzan said. Still the “challenge was the project itself, and finding the film language that worked with the (game) franchise,” he added.
The director admits he “walked into a world that I’d heard of but didn’t really know,” which he believes will help attract new gamers to the “Halo” franchise.
“The way I approach every project is to treat myself as the first viewer,” he said. “If it works for me then it’ll work for other people and hopefully they’ll be just as excited.” Mimica-Gezzan, however, knows “Halo’s” core audience must be satisfied first. “It has to be embraced by people who know the game, the core players,” he said. “I will very much be monitoring how people react.”
Mimica-Gezzan’s first encounter with the project was Scheuring’s script, which had been scrubbed of any reference to “Halo,” he said.
“I was introduced to something that I didn’t expect, something rooted in a whole new universe that had its own mythology, characters and own set of values: valor, loyalty, patriotism, friendship,” Mimica-Gezzan said. “It had a great landscape, the culture, the history, the weaponry, the machinery and from Paul’s standpoint, was trying to tell the best tale and delve into character that’s unique.”
Mimica-Gezzan had doubts he could pull it off.
“Awe turned into a sense of almost fear and not knowing if I’d be able to do it justice,” he said. “All that turned into a great creative energy which was fueled by a great cast and great production team that translated a project that I’m really happy with.”
Expect more videogame publishers to consider digital series like “Nightfall,” especially as more streaming platforms seek content to offer up gamers. Publishers already have been producing live action TV campaigns for their tentpole games for years, with Peter Berg recently helming the latest spot for Activision’s “Call of Duty” franchise.
“You’re starting to see a lot of big franchises branch out into linear efforts and I think everyone’s really trying to find what the right balance is,” Wolfkill said.
But Wolfkill stresses that the end result isn’t about games wanting to be movies. It’s more about “how do we create these stories that co-exist together and when they do, make a better story experience?”
Xbox already has been active in the transmedia storytelling arena when it comes to “Halo” through a series of books, comicbooks, an animated series and live action commercials.
Microsoft’s previous foray into live action filmmaking — “Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn” — generated 55 million views with five months of its release to promote the fourth “Halo” game in the franchise.
The series’ five installments were packaged and sold on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as iTunes. Microsoft has not disclosed how well it sold on those platforms other than that the results were “good.”
“For us, it’s our very nature to tell stories across different mediums,” Wolfkill said. The difficulty lies in how they all creatively connect.
“It’s easy to tell stories, but the creative challenge is making sure you’re telling stories that are compelling and unique in their own right but more powerful together,” Wolfkill said.
Another challenge is how players experience characters in a game versus an audience when watching entertainment.
“Character interactions within a game is very different when you’re watching the narative play out as a director intended in a linear or live action piece,” Wolfkill said.
What’s attracted 343 to the potential of a live action series was the ability to delve deeper in who “Halo’s” characters are and see parts of the universe that players normally don’t see, Wolfkill said.
“Character is such an important part of gaming and we’re able to inhabit a character and learn about our main protagonist through gameplay,” Wolfkill said, “but it’s a different thing for us to explore through linear storytelling.”
A live action series also enabled 343 to “create an emotional connection with fans,” especially as “Nightfall” will help launch a new “Halo” channel through which 343 can explore more avenues to tell interactive stories within its own space, provide it flexibility in how long each episode is and when they’re released.
“It’s a safe place to explore what we want as we explore the TV series,” Wolfkill said, referring to the more traditional TV series 343 and Microsoft is developing with Steven Spielberg. Showtime is considering distributing the show.