Robert McLees Interviewed By You!
February 13, 2002
The second installment of Bungie's Fan Interview series is finally ready.
Robert McLees has contributed art, story and attitude to Bungie games since
1995, and his wealth of strong opinions and bizarre stories made him an obvious
interview subject. The fans came through with several good questions about the
art of Halo, as well as a few others that only Rob could answer. If you ever
wanted to learn why there's no rocket launcher on the Warthog, what budding game
artists should study, or what to do when you're on fire, you've come to the
As with the Jason Jones interview, thanks are due to the many fans who sent
in excellent questions ? and to Rob for answering them. Likewise, we must again
warn you that some of this material could be considered a spoiler if you know
nothing of Halo's story, and Rob uses a couple of words that you can't say on
television. Caveat Lector.
What kinds of art did you do with the creation of Halo?
Where did you learn your talents?
I created all of the weapons (from concept to final) with the exception of
the plasma rifle and needler. Shi Kai worked up the original concepts for those
and I took them to final. I did early concept drawings of the Covenant Elite?.
hmmm? I also did all the concept work for the Flood, all the ammo, I built the
"ball", but you already knew that. Oh, and I don't know if you'd call it art,
but I also wrote the Heroic and Legendary speeches for Sgt. Johnson.
As for where I learned my talents? nowhere and everywhere. I learned to draw
by drawing, to model by modeling, to write by writing ? and by observing
(reading, watching, listening, experiencing). I went to a "technical school" for
two years to increase my skills and get a piece of paper. I also found out how
woefully lacking my skills were and how hard I had to bust my ass if I wanted to
do this for something other than a hobby. More on this
How was the art created? Are things hand drawn first as a
model to work from? Or is it polygons from day 1? How long did (for example) the
sniper rifle take from conception to ship, and how many mutations were there
along the way?
Well, since I was responsible for the weapons in the game, let me talk about
First off, we came up with a list of the weapon types we wanted for the game.
Then I tried to figure out what those weapons meant; what comes to mind when you
think about the different weapons? I came up with really loose sketches, more
like, uh, silhouettes and their relative sizes ? then I presented these to the
group and we discussed which directions to take the different weapons (in the
beginning it was all the Halo artists and Jason; later this expanded to include
the designers.) And from there I started tightening up the sketches ? adding
detail to the silhouettes before presenting them to the group again. This is the
point where I get into trouble since I'm the only one with any real experience
with firearms (okay, except Marcus, who had access to a 12-gauge shotgun in his
youth). I tend to want the guns to be more realistic and look, well, more
gun-like, while the group were less concerned about whether or not the weapons
looked like they could function and more about how the weapons looked in the
player's hand. Which was quite a challenge considering that they were also going
to be used by the NPC Marines (remember, the player is a 7-foot tall, fairly
hulking cyborg in bulky armor, and the marines are 6'2 or 6'3 and pretty trim.).
Once the tightened sketches were OKed, I mocked the things up in polygons, and
brought them in-engine to see how they actually looked in the player's hands.
Once we were happy with how the weapon looked (size, shape and general color;
though it was more of a light or dark thing), I went ahead and built the
highest-res LOD (level of detail) ? and this is where I get "bogged down" with
all of the stuff that "nobody cares about" like correct barrel diameter,
placement of safeties, sights, magazine release buttons, and making sure that
the magazines are actually large enough to hold all the bullets they're supposed
to, that they would feed correctly and that the casings eject out of the correct
side of the gun (human weapons only). With the alien weapons, I could
concentrate more on just making them look cool, and as long as they LOOKED
functional, well, I didn't agonize over how much room I had for bolt travel.
After building the highest LOD, I threw on a real rough texture and brought
it in-engine again to see how THAT looked. That went on until the diffuse
texture, the shiny map, and its reflection map were finished. In the case of the
human pistol, the above process was repeated three times, maybe four; it
happened twice to the sniper rifle; and the assault rifle was almost like a
happy accident. It kept the same profile throughout its entire development,
though it was tweaked on a constant basis for, uh, four years.
First off, I would like to say good job on the Rocket
Launcher. That is one sweet looking gun. My question is, out of all the guns,
which was the hardest/most time-consuming design? Since all of them seem very
detailed when shooting, reloading, cooling down, and of course Pistol-Whip.
I'm really happy with how the rocket launcher turned out, though I wish I
could go back and touch it again because I know there are things that could be
improved. The hardest and most time-consuming are two different weapons. The
hardest one was the flamethrower. And that's all I'm going to say about that.
The most time-consuming, obviously, was the assault rifle, but since it's almost
a character in the game (you stare at it for the vast majority of the game ?
depending on how you play, I suppose) it got a lot of attention. Again, I wish I
could go back and tweak it some more because I know it could be improved.
I can't take all the credit for how cool the weapons wound up being. Shi Kai
helped out a lot designing many of the muzzle flashes. Stephen did all of the
first-person animations for the weapons -- my personal favorite being the melee
attack with the plasma pistol. :)
What was your favorite gun in halo? Why?
The Elite's energy sword. Because it's the only one that
behaves like a real weapon ? you get hit with it, you die.
Are you the one who put "SPNKR" on the rocket launcher? I
only know that the acronym predates Halo, and that it is endlessly intriguing.
The texture detailing in Halo is nothing short of
ground-breaking. How did you guys make such detailed textures? Fractals maybe?
[Editor's Note: Methinks this question confounds Rob because he and the other
artists created Halo's textures the same way they always have. Any sense of
"groundbreaking" progress is due largely to the artists' ever-increasing command
of their craft. As for fractals, Rob proudly notes that he has never broken a
bone in his body. ;-)]
Why was the weapon in the Warthog changed from a rocket
launcher to a simple chain-gun?
The chain gun was on the Warthog almost a year before the rocket launcher
was. And if you look at the mechanisms, hee hee, the rocket launcher was a much
simpler design! But here's something to think about: while you're piloting the
tank and you have friendlies riding on the tank, and you shoot at something real
close with the main gun?what happens?
Were there times during the production of Halo where you
thought, "Hmm, this would be nice, but it can't be implemented this time around
? maybe next game"? Do you see the Xbox as having a lot of untapped potential in
terms of what has been produced for it so far?
No, never. =P I don't know if I can comment on this, but most of the shipping
titles were developed without the final hardware being available ? so we didn't
know what we would wind up being able to do. Now that we have it, I think you're
going to find that the next wave of titles will be exploiting the hardware more
What advice would you give to artists around the world that
would aspire to work in the game industry?
Well, as I've always said, if you're going to be an artist, you should either
invest in life drawing classes or a spatula ? because you're going to be using
one or the other in your future job. This is the way I've always looked at it?
being able to draw the human figure well shows that you are serious about your
craft. It teaches you proportion, balance and the ability to construct a
complicated three-dimensional object in two dimensions. And the human figure is
fucking complicated. If you can draw it well, you should be able to draw just
about anything well or at least you don't have a good excuse why you can't.
Do what you can to learn to use the industry standard tools like Adobe
Photoshop, 3D Studio Max and Maya, though any paint or 3D package will help.
You'll be reducing the amount of time it would otherwise take you to be brought
up to speed on whatever software the developer uses. Being able to work well
within a group is really important.
And you had better love games, not just love playing them, but love them
enough to make them a part of your life.
How large will the Universe be when the "Devourer of World
on a Leash" and "Immense Lusterless Comet Hiding in Shadows" finish measuring
it? Please indicate any assumed values and show all calculations.
Remember, they're only measuring the diameter. "The journey
of a leaf floating on the outermost ripple caused by a stone dropped in an
endless ocean when it reaches the distant shore." "The flesh and blood and bone
of countless unnamed spheres." "The epic tether." "The time between edges."
"Plunging into darkness, chasing the morning's warmth." Calculations would be
rather absurd at this point, don't you think?
How do you feel about fan art in other games based on
things that were in Halo, i.e. weapon replacements in counter-strike, or Master
Chief player models running around in Quake3; does it make you happy to see the
fans doing that kind of thing, or do you feel that it's just ripping off your
I don't necessarily know if makes me "happy" to see them doing that kind of
thing. But I certainly don't feel ripped off. I guess I get a kick out of it.
I appreciate that more than fan art that's basically a screenshot with a
Photoshop filter applied, then signed with somebody else's name and a copyright
? that just drives me nuts. Is that even something you can take credit for?
Where's the talent involved in that? I don't know? maybe Dadaism is making a
What's this business about you being set on fire?
I was set on fire twice? get it right.
July 4 1979
It must've been cool for July because I was wearing a jacket (a wind-breaker,
to be exact). My mother, brother, sister and I were engaging in the age old
American tradition of setting things on fire and saying "wow". At some point
during the gathering my brother (apparently seeking to throw off the shackles of
warning label tyranny) hurled a firework that was meant to be placed on the
ground and then set ablaze into the air.
Being on fire tends to confuse your recollection of events immediately
preceding and following the moment that you begin to burn.
My mother seems to think that I was trying to catch the thing, my brother was
drunk with freedom from common sense and my sister was utterly goofed up on
youth. I was in the grip of deer-in-the-headlights syndrome. The buzzing little
ball of flame was still twenty feet or so above my head but I knew that no
matter what direction I jumped it would come down on me.
Just think for a moment what children's apparel was like during the late
seventies and you'll understand why when this miniature blowtorch landed in the
crook of my left elbow it didn't just bounce off, doing nothing more than
scaring the crap out of me, but instead welded itself to the jacket and shot a
lance of white-hot flame into my arm.
I screamed a little preemptive "it's coming right at me" scream and I
clenched my teeth (some of them may still have been baby teeth) and the pain
made me a little light headed, but I managed not to crap my pants.
Well, I pulled my jacket off before anyone (read: my mother) could stop me
and a couple of little chunks of my arm came off with it and we went inside and
I got bandaged up and later on we went and watched the professionals blow shit
up and we said "wow".
(And now the payoff: the day after the incident I'm changing the dressing on
my arm and I notice a hair sticking out of the edge of the "pool of molten
flesh" sort'a crooked like, so I grab it between my fingers and pull it out.
Unfortunately, a big blob of flesh came out with it ? but it didn't hurt! I just
remember being sort'a shocked thinking "hey, I just tore a big, sloppy gob out'a
my arm and it didn't hurt"! No ill effects, though. Except for a scar that you
can hardly see because I'm so fucking pale!)
Early September 1981
I remember this happened during the second or third week of school (and on a
school day, no less). My brother and I were contemplating how much fun we could
extract from the sand pile behind the house and decided that it would be much
greater if we were to remove the weeds that covered much of its surface.
Initially we chose the slash and burn method of ridding the sand pile of its
weedy covering, then decided that we could do it in half the time if we
proceeded directly to the burn aspect of our plan.
Our mother and stepfather were both at work and our sister was at a friend's
house so we went to work straight away with little worry of parental
retribution. A fire was started and in no time we were less than happy with the
progress it was making ? it needed a little help. My brother ran off in search
of an accelerant.
During the interim I made the second or third worst body placement decision
of my life ? I chose to stand near the weeds to try and gauge why the fire
wasn't performing as well it might have done. My brother re-enters the scene
carrying a bowl of gasoline. He is running and is intent on dousing the weeds
with the stuff. I start to mention that the weeds are, in fact, still burning ?
in the next instant I am engulfed in a fireball.
This doesn't last long because I make a beeline toward the edge of the
universe. My brother is several years older and more gracefully proportioned
than I am (and thank the Lord for that), but it still takes him several seconds
to catch up to me. My brother begins shouting instructions to me and we
establish that "stop, drop and roll" make little sense to a panicking burn
victim. I jump straight up into the air and come down on my shoulders and begin
to writhe on the ground while my brother tries to slap the flames off of me with
his bare hands ? the hands that had been carrying a bowl of gasoline as he ran.
Eventually he was able to extinguish both of us.
The fireball had singed me pretty good, but the real damage had been done to
my right leg and foot. My shoes, socks and pants were a complete loss. If you
were paying attention to the time period this happened in you should probably be
able to guess that these items had been purchased nary a month before in
preparation for the new school year.
As with any conspiracy no one could be told. If an adult found out we were
sure to be executed on the spot. I continued going to school and participating
in phys. ed. with a foot that ached just to limp on and blisters that
continually split and oozed and bled until it healed of its own accord (read: no
medical attention and no dressing beyond double socking it). In retrospect I'm
amazed I didn't lose the damn thing to infection.
(And now the payoff: The shoes couldn't be thrown away, because shoes are
expensive, so I wire-brushed off the "char" and played off the gas smell as well
as I could ? "spilled some on them when I was refueling the lawn-mower" or
whatever. The socks were the easiest part, socks get tossed all the time ? but
something as large as a pair of slacks in the trash would draw attention ? so I
hid them. Several years later I moved in with my grandparents, and as
grandmothers are wont to do, mine eventually rifled through enough of my
belongings that she stumbled across a certain pair of blue jeans that I had
forgotten almost entirely. The exchange went like this [verbatim]:
GM: Robert John!
GM: What happened to these slacks?
me: uh... they got dirty.
GM: Dirty with what?
me: with fire...
And with that the interrogation ended. Being rather clever she rarely asked
questions to which she wasn't already reasonably certain of the answers. I
received a look of angry disappointment [a very effective parenting technique]
and I left the room with a deep sense of shame to reflect on my faults.)
Do you ever go back and play games you've worked on?
Where do you see the Terran race in 100 years?
More than likely they will be above me, as I will have
joined the ranks of the sub-Terrans some time in the interim. I'm not a
sociologist or a fortune-teller or some such? I'm just a lucky dope wot gets
paid to draw guns and zombies and cars.