Master Chief Unmasked: Powering Facial Animation in Video Games

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Sequence gears up with Faceware in Halo: Fall of Reach

Last Updated: March 14, 2016 4:18 pm GMT
(March 14, 2016) Master Chief John-117 may have spent the majority of his video game career hidden behind thick armour plating, but in Halo: Fall of Reach we see the iconic hero unmasked – both figuratively and literally. It was up to Sequence Group and Faceware to ensure Master Chief’s facial animation – as well as that of the diverse Halo cast – delivered the strong sense of personality that has seen the character endure for over 15 years.



Behind the mask

In the sci-fi future of Halo, humanity has colonized the stars, spreading into the Orion Arm of the galaxy in search of new worlds and resources. When the far-flung colonies rebel against Earth’s control, the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) responds with a top-secret super-soldier initiative: Project: SPARTAN.

Though created to suppress an insurrection that threatened to unravel civilization, these next-generation warriors are among the first to face the onslaught of the merciless Covenant, a collective of alien species that quickly makes its intentions brutally clear: the eradication of humanity. The Spartans hold the line when all else fails, matching the Covenant’s superior technology with grim determination and unflinching resolve.

For fans of the top-selling first-person shooter Halo, this is a story as well-known as any childhood fable, given that it gave birth to the Xbox’s number one mascot – the super-powered Spartan, Master Chief.

Now the Master Chief’s story has been given new life in Halo: Fall of Reach, a high-quality animated series created to support the launch of the Xbox One tent pole release, Halo 5: Guardians.

Based on Eric Nylund’s novel of the same name – Halo: The Fall of Reach covers the origins of the Spartan program, the story of how the Master Chief came to lead Blue Team, and shows their daring first strike against a seemingly invincible alien warship in the opening days of the Human-Covenant War.

In order to bring such an ambitious story to life, 343 Industries brought full-service Vancouver production studio The Sequence Group on board. With support from Faceware, Sequence worked to shed light on this chapter in the Master Chief mythology.


In Sequence

With extensive experience in video games, television, design, commercials and feature films, The Sequence Group knows how to create attention-grabbing CG features. This experience came into play for Halo numerous times in the past, with the studio contributing to such endeavors as the ‘Terminal’ cutscenes featured in Halo 4 and Halo 2: Anniversary. As such, Sequence was more than a suitable collaborator for 343 Industries on the Fall of Reach project.

“From simple logo animations to 65-minute 3D long forms, we relish an opportunity to creatively collaborate and contribute to the Halo universe,” begins Daniel Sioui, lead producer at The Sequence Group.

“Originally 343 had reached out with the possibility of producing a shorter motion comic to coincide with the release of Halo 5, but the team at Sequence was eager to produce something more ambitious that we felt would be more engaging for the audience,” he explains. “It was decided that the Blue Team origin story The Fall of Reach would be perfect to showcase John-117’s history and provide additional insight into the established Halo mythology.”

Alongside the Master Chief, Halo: Fall of Reach features characters such as Dr. Catherine Halsey, the creator of the Spartans, their advanced power armor, and – later – the legendary artificial intelligence Cortana. Considering that Halo fans regard these characters with such a high level of esteem, only the best, most realistic facial animation would be satisfactory.

Originally Sequence had looked at outsourcing the facial animation for Fall of Reach, but the cost proved prohibitive – not to mention that it would somewhat lessen Sequence’s creative control over the project. The catch-all solution to these problems was Faceware and its suite of facial capture solutions: Analyzer for facial tracking and Retargeter for animation.

“Ensuring that the facial performances were believable was imperative to the team,” states Sioui. “We needed the facial animation to draw the audience in and hold their attention over the entire runtime. Faceware helped us to achieve that at a high quality and in a quick and efficient manner.

“We could get high performance results from our captured footage using the Faceware tools really quickly, and we felt the price was very reasonable,” continues Sioui. “And not only were the solutions more than up to the task, but the Faceware team were consistently helpful and available for support, in many ways working with our internal team as a true partner.”



Military precision

Analyzer and Retargeter were vital in helping Sequence lay the groundwork for the impressive facial performances witnessed throughout Fall of Reach. And it wasn’t just the level of quality that impressed the team, but the speed with which Faceware was able to reach that level.

“In total we had 19 voice actors performing 37 roles for the Fall of Reach project,” reveals Sioui. “We captured nine hours and 24 minutes of performance video during our voiceover sessions, which translated into 21 minutes 36 seconds of onscreen facial animation.

“Each performer was different, but using Faceware their faces tracked really well – we received really detailed, nuanced mouth shapes with organic movement,” he continues.

As is always the case with facial animation at this level, additional keyframe animation work was required to refine the digital models’ various face shapes. Nevertheless, Faceware played a big part in reducing the amount of post-capture clean-up required.

“Each actor would track differently and would therefore need less or sometimes more work done, depending on the capture,” explains Sioui. “However, the initial time Faceware saved the team was immeasurable. Analyzer and Retargeter working together provided a strong base and ensured consistency for the animation team to then build upon – not to mention that we saved over 40% in costs over what we had previously budgeted based on existing outsourcing vendor bids.”

Sequence found that it was in Fall of Reach’s medium shots that Faceware’s tools really showcased their raw power: “The level of detail we could achieve quickly with Faceware was phenomenal!” says Sioui. “The eyes were often an exact match, and the mouth was fairly close to capturing at 100% depending on the talent

“We'd say Faceware is an average of at least 6 times faster than having to keyframe,” he continues. “For every 100 frames of keyframe animation we can complete, we can do 600 frames in the same time period using Analyzer and Retargeter! Considering that over the span of almost 30 minutes of facial animation in Halo: Fall of Reach, the savings in time and budget were absolutely huge for us.”



The Halo Effect

Via Faceware’s tools, Sequence succeeded in creating a dramatic, engaging, and character-driven narrative, supported by a case of believable characters. Thanks to the effort poured into every aspect of the series’ animation by Sequence, this new portrayal of the Master Chief, his comrades, and his antagonists more than stands up to the scrutiny that comes with any new entry into the Halo canon from its hordes of passionate fans.

Sequence can rest easy in having attained the difficult goal of bringing the characters to life, while staying true to the enduring mythology of the Halo franchise.

“Faceware was extremely accommodating throughout the production of Fall of Reach,” says Sioui. “Not only was the software more than up to the task, Faceware’s support team was always available and worked very hard to ensure we were maximising the use of the tools.

“Using Faceware allowed Sequence to retain the facial animation in-house at an achievable spend, while providing the blueprint base upon which our animators could finesse to create the final results on screen,” he concludes. “Faceware, without a doubt, went a long way to shaping the style of the animation in Halo: Fall of Reach.”




About Faceware
For over a decade, Faceware Tech has pioneered marker-less facial motion capture with its technology and expertise. Faceware's software has been used on Oscar-winning visual effect films, award-winning AAA video games, commercials, music videos, and web series the world over.

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