Ever since Master Chief was introduced to the world, in the 2001 video game Halo: Combat Evolved, fans have been waiting to know who the enigmatic character really was. Now we know: The man behind the mask is Canadian actor Daniel Cudmore.
At least, Mr. Cudmore is playing the super soldier in Halo: Forward Unto Dawn, a live-action Web series that filmed in Vancouver this spring.
Microsoft’s Frank O’Connor admitted that casting the character was a simple challenge to solve. Everyone remembered Mr. Cudmore from his role of Colossus in two X-Men films. “That’s the right spirit,” said Mr. O’Connor of the performances, “that’s the right look.”
His athletic 6’6” frame is nearly identical to that established for Master Chief in the Halo fiction. Wearing the armour created by the special effects department, Mr. Cudmore transforms in imposing seven-foot-tall “Spartan.”
“When the Chief shows up,” quipped Microsoft’s Matt McClosky, “you’re not mistaken as to who it is.”
Mr. McClosky and Mr. O’Connor are franchise directors of the team responsible for running 343 Industries, the division of Microsoft that manages everything Halo. They were deep in British Columbia’s Seymour Demonstration Forest in early May with a handful of journalists who were visiting two locations being used by the Forward Unto Dawn production.
In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 release of Halo 4, the next video game in Microsoft’s lucrative franchise, the five-episode series will broadcast in fifteen minute segments on the Web site Machinima and on Microsoft’s Xbox Live and Halo Waypoint services.
While Mr. Cudmore is wearing the suit, audiences will never see his face. Gamers have never seen Master Chief without his helmet. That decision was made during development of the first game, 2001‘s Halo: Combat Evolved, and it has been respected ever since.
It’s all part of maintaining the illusion, said Mr. O’Connor, that the player is the hero. “We just needed an actor who could capture that physicality and have a real charisma and a real presence even though his face is disguised for the entire performance,” he added.
And because the voice of Master Chief in the video games has been established by voice actor Steve Downes, Mr. Cudmore’s role is non-speaking. Regardless, series director Stewart Hendler says Mr. Cudmore is bringing Master Chief to life. “He’s able to use the suit and gestures to evoke emotion, even though we’re not seeing his eyes or his mouth.”
According to Mr. Hendler, Forward Unto Dawn may be the biggest Web series ever mounted. Budget figures were not disclosed, but executive producers Lydia Antonini (recently of Warner Bros. digital division) and Josh Feldman are on this project because of their penny-pinching backgrounds, said Mr. Feldman. “We brought that expertise, merged it with what’s going on at 343, and the net result is what you’re seeing here,” he said. “Lean and mean.”
Ms. Antonini said that she had to keep on her toes because the representatives from 343 were so engaged in the process. “They are the smartest people I’ve ever had to produce anything for,” she said, adding that they care about the Halo characters as much as the fans do. But that authenticity, said Ms. Antonini, is what will set Forward Unto Dawn apart from other Web series.
Certainly the cast reflects the diversity established for the Halo universe. Tom Green, who plays Thomas Lasky, a central figure in the Web series and the video game, is Australian. Actors from Bulgaria (Kat de Liva), Canada (Osric Chau and Mike Dopud), England (Anna Popplewell), Indonesia (Iain Belcher), Israel (Ayelet Zurer) and the United States (Enisha Brewster and Masam Holden) round out the principles. “We are super lucky to have gotten an amazing, young, breakthrough cast,” said Mr. Hendler.
Forward Unto Dawn is about a group of cadets at a military academy on another planet. “They are the children of the elite of the United Nations Space Command,” explained Kevin Grace, who manages the Halo franchise for 343 Industries. They are in the midst of a civil war when the conflict between humans and the Covenant, an alien axis, begins. “It’s the voyage of this one cadet and his friends trying to figure out themselves and then figure out how to survive in a very violently changed world,” said Mr. Grace.
Microsoft has typically come up with unique ways to promote the Halo games. Halo 2 was preceded by an alternate reality game called I Love Bees and a series of live-action short films directed by Neill Blomkamp (who was supposed to direct a Halo feature film, once upon a time) introduced Halo 3. The decision to go with a Web series this time, said Mr. O’Connor, was to attract and appeal to a broader audience.
And there were distinct advantages to shooting Forward Unto Dawn with real people on location, said Mr. McClosky, including a sense of scale and weight and size. Mr. Cudmore’s commanding physical presence, it would seem, is more than sufficient, even if he has doesn’t have any lines.