Making the Halo 2 Trailer, Part 2
By Marty O'Donnell and Jay Weinland
September 13, 2002
Last week we brought you the story of how the Bungie Cinematics team wrenched all that graphical beauty out of an Xbox. This week we turn our attention from the gorgeous graphics to focus on the audible beauty delivered by our two sound specialists, genius composer Marty O'Donnell and the only man in Washington both talented and crazy enough to work as Marty's assitant, Jay Weinland. These human Swiss Army Knives of digital audio offered up some heretofore unrevealed details of what we heard in the trailer, and all the work that went into making it happen.
Obviously the soundtrack to the original Halo trailer made quite an impression. Was there any pressure to top what you'd already done?
Marty: The original trailer came out of nowhere and blew everyone away at MacWorld in 1999. I felt like there was no way to top the effect that the original had on people, so I didn't let that kind of pressure affect me. This time we were scoring final picture with music, sound design and dialog, rather than simply producing an exciting piece of music that could stand alone as well as accompany a real-time tech demo. We had already established the mood and feel of Halo and now we are building on that.
Tell us a little about your working process. How did you compose the music for this trailer?
Marty: I worked with Joe on the script and storyboards right from the beginning. At one point we recorded his voice doing all the parts, including a very sexy Cortana, and he made a rough cut "animatic" which gave me a general idea of the pacing and emotional highpoints for the final. I must say however, that the "Joe" version didn't inspire me a whole lot. My initial instinct was to score the whole thing with kazoos, but after I saw the real art and voice work, I switched to orchestra and choir.
I understand there was a live orchestra involved. Could you tell us a bit more about conducting and recording them?
Marty: I write and produce the score on samplers and synths. Then I copy out the score and parts and record the live musicians while they hear the original track in their headphones. That way I don't need to conduct since the music they're hearing is essentially a frame accurate click track. I think I had Jay run out and conduct the horns while I frantically copied the choir parts. We also conducted the "go crazy" section without a click. That's the part where the Master Chief prepares to jump out and the music swells like "A Day in the Life".
Jay: We could not have cut it any closer. Marty booked 35 musicians a couple weeks in advance to begin playing at noon on Friday August 30. We received the trailer at midnight on Wednesday and Marty started in on the final scoring. I went to the studio on Friday at 9 AM and got the session set up with the engineers. At 11:59 Marty appeared gasping on the doorstep holding string and horn parts. We worked with the strings first with Marty at the production helm while I focused on being an extra pair of ears. Since Marty had not written out vocal parts yet I took the production helm for the horns which we did next and then Marty both worked and sang with the singers. I then spent a bit of time with the engineers readying the session for transfer to a firewre drive; we transferred the data from that to our Pro Tools rig on Saturday and then the real fun began.
Fans are already dissecting the trailer music and picking their favorite parts. Are there any subtle touches that people haven't picked up on yet?
Marty: Well let's see. Jay and I wrote some lyrics for the cello theme that appears midway. If he shares those lyrics with anyone, he's fired. Jay also did a great job actually playing oboe and English horn during the transition before Cortana speaks. It's nice to have a professional woodwind player right on site.
Jay: I have not heard anybody comment on my fabulous oboe/english horn playing *pfft*. Oh wait Marty just did... how nice of him...
The familiar "monks" from the first Halo soundtrack don't appear until the end of the trailer, and even then they are augmented with "nuns." Will the Halo 2 soundtrack feature similar reworkings of familiar themes and motifs, or are you focusing on new material?
Marty: One of the characteristics of plainsong chant is that it's monophonic. In Halo, the sung chant theme is never harmonized, or developed. Also, I only used male voices even when doing choral themes. I felt that Halo 2 should not only be something new but also feel like a continuation of the Halo universe. That meant bringing back the monks, but this time stacking the theme in 20th century harmonies and adding "nuns". By the way, we had a 14 voice choir which included my wife as well as myself.
At what point in the creation of the trailer did work on non-musical audio commence? How long did it take to finish?
Marty: We recorded the actors almost two weeks before the music. That gave Joe something specific to cut to. We couldn't really start on much foley work until the cut was just about final, which was basically a few days before our final mix.
Jay: I had pulled a lot of material out of our sound libraries that I thought I might have use for but this work basically began the minute we had a finished trailer to work on. Throughout the day Thursday I worked exclusively on the sound design. Friday we were both at the studio with the musicians, but on Saturday while Marty mixed the music I got the rest of the sound design and dialog roughed in. On Sunday morning I moved about 12 tracks of sound effects and dialog data into the music session and set up the surround panning. Marty and I then spent the rest of Sunday and Monday going over the whole mix with a fine tooth comb. We finished up about 6 PM on Monday and immediately turned over a 5.1 mix to Joe, who made several DVDs to hand to Hamilton Chu who was on his way to the X02 event the following morning.
There's a lot of information in the trailer conveyed exclusively through audio. How do you decide what needs to be seen and what needs to be heard?
Marty: We were still experimenting with that right up until the end. I had one version that had no dialog at all until Cortana's line "What if you miss?". It didn't work, but it's fun to keep trying different things. The difficult part of this trailer was the fact that we didn't have a narrator, and you never saw the people who were actually talking until the last two words "I won't". Information and emotional content needed to come from the audio.
Jay: I always try to make sound effects for anything that would make sound in real life. In the final mix however we have to make sure that what needs to be heard is heard clearly and sometimes that means other items take a backseat. Music, SFX, and dialog each have their moments to shine in this trailer and in anything we do.
Could you describe the process of adding sound effects to a cutscene in the Halo engine?
Marty: A big pain in the ...
Jay: The nice thing is that the engine takes care of all audio that would normally be triggered during gameplay. That means that we do not have to post audio to the cutscenes for footsteps or ambient sound for example. For stuff in the cutscenes that is unique (such as Cortana getting inserted in the panel in the Control Room or the lift in the Library that contains the index descending) we capture the cutscene directly off the XBOX and make a QuickTime movie of it. We then bring that QuickTime into ProTools and post audio to it. Then we make audio files based on camera cuts and import them into the game. The final step is sitting down with Joe and going through his scripts and finding the places where we have specific audio to be played back; then in his script when he has a camera cut scripted he adds a line to call the sound effect. We then repeat above process hundreds of times, so like Marty said...
The entire Cinematics team are big proponents of 5.1 sound. We'll assume everyone knows the basic idea behind such a setup, but are there any specific examples in the Halo 2 trailer where the benefits of 5.1 sound really shine?
Marty: The sound should just envelop the listener without a bunch of gimmicks. Ok, we had a couple gimmicks in there, like the voices swirling around your head before the Master Chief jumps and the sound of debris that shoots from back to front in the hangar bay.
Jay: The hangar bay is where we pulled out all the stops with the debris, flying wind howling all around you, and the orchestral sweep swirling around your head as the Master Chief hurls towards the camera...good stuff.
Do you have any grand plans for sound design in Halo 2 that you can share? Are there any new capabilities you didn't have in the first game?
Marty: All audio more better, plus the sound of flaming Ninjas chasing you.
Jay: Of course we'll get new toys, it's the only way to keep us happy.