During the Forward Unto Dawn postmortem at GDC, 343 Industries franchise development director Frank O'Connor noted that the casting of Master Chief was "a source of much consternation" for series fans. "We did a couple of tests using the actor who plays Master Chief in the game, and he's an older guy," said O'Connor.
The ending of Forward Unto Dawn reveals that the superhuman Spartan soldiers are just as young as the film's UNSC cadets, so giving Master Chief the gravelly voice we all know and love would be out of place. "He can't sound like he's 50," said O'Connor, "and so we had to find a young actor whose voice sounded like his voice might eventually grow into the Chief's."
Even so, fans took umbrage at the idea of not using Master Chief's longtime voice actor, Steve Downes, but O'Connor said it simply wouldn't have worked. "We have some tests where Steve Downes' voice is sort of dubbed over those scenes, and it just didn't make sense." The story of Forward Unto Dawn was about youth and how the young are affected by war, he said. "We spent an awful lot of blood, sweat and tears trying to find someone who sounded like Steve Downes will sound in 30 years." At one point, said franchise manager Kevin Grace, the audio team actually tried to "de-age" Downes' voice. The result sounded less like a young Chief and more like "chief of the chipmunks."
Of course, there were many more significant challenges for the production, specifically keeping it true to the Halo franchise while also creating a successful film and making sure both Forward Unto Dawn and Halo 4 tied into one another. Halo 4 executive producer Kiki Wolfkill noted that one of the biggest lessons that 343 learned was to find the right collaborators. "You really have to go into it knowing that you have no experience when it comes to the linear side of things, and how it works in LA and shoot schedules and casting and all of that," she said. "You kind of think because you like movies, and you like TV, and you like to read stories that you have some expertise there, but you really don't." The linear production of film is very different from the iterative production of games, she said.
343 wound up trusting the production company's expertise, and gave it a great deal of freedom, which Forward Unto Dawn producer Josh Feldman described as "a huge gift." The end result he said, was a collaborative effort that yielded more creative ideas, something that might not have happened if 343 had more explicitly prescribed how the project was handled.
"One of the important things we do as a franchise ... is trusting the artists and creators that you're collaborating with," said O'Connor, "and so there's things we'll find that we're not being prescriptive [about], like costume design for example." 343 wasn't about the second guess the costume designers, he said. "We're not going to sit there and say, 'well, I don't think that fabric is suitable for vacuum or slipspace travel.' We're there to say, 'yeah, that looks cool.'" He added that, if 343 were to ever explore the era of Forward Unto Dawn in an actual Halo game, it would use the costume designs featured in the film series.
During the Q&A session, I asked how Forward Unto Dawn changed 343's perception of putting Halo on film, especially after the famously canceled Halo movie that failed to make it through Hollywood a few years ago.
"I do think it sort of reaffirmed for us [that] we want to tell stories, and there are so many different ways of telling them," added Wolfkill. "I think this is a really gratifying experience in terms of being able to tell this kind of story, and so I think there's certainly and appetite for us to do more of that in different ways."