Welcome to our periodic spotlight feature where we take a look at the concept art and design of a game or film. The intent here is to get the creative juices flowing, remind people what's out there and what's being done, and to not lose sight of the quality of professional work. We can also discuss what works and maybe what doesn't, what you dig, or what you DONT dig.
Game: Halo [link]
Release Date: 15 November 2001
Company: Bungie Studios [link]
Art Director: Marcus Lehto
Master Chief. Cortana. Grunts. Elites. Covenant... Warthogs. These are all things that will forever be burned into our minds as the green space marine with the orange visor, the naked purple AI chick with numbers running up her body, the squealing cannon fodder at our feet, the stalwart 4-part-mandible aliens, the purple dolphin-like spaceships, and the most badass green ATV ever with a bullet spewing chain gun mounted on the back. These are the things that define a series of awesome games that we call: Halo.
I am PLEASED to say we are back online! Thank you for your patience. And what better way to revive this group than with some amazing concept art from the most popular first person shooter of all time. Coincidentally, TODAY is also the launch of the Halo: Reach Beta - so if you own ODST then stop reading this right now and go try it out!
Alright guys, so here go. The following article contains artwork from the entire Halo series - Halo: Combat Evolved (2001), Halo 2 (2004), Halo 3 (2008), Halo 3: ODST (2009), and Halo: Reach (2010). Some of the art is also from the doomed Halo projects from Ensemble Studios and Peter Jackson's Halo Universe. If you are part of my generation, then you know that Halo is one of the most defining franchises of our time. The premise is simple: In the year 2552, humanity fights for survival against an alien race that calls itself the Covenant - an assimilation of various alien species hell-bent on destroying the human race. A team of super elite soldiers, the SPARTAN-IIs, kidnapped as children and forced to undergo brutal military training, genetically augmented, and armed to the teeth in the most sophisticated power suit of the time, are (really) all that stand in their way. The Spartans are revered by the rest of humanity and retain an almost legendary status. The UNSC (United Nations Space Command) decreed that Spartans never be marked as Killed In Action but Missing In Action, in order to give the illusion that Spartans never die.
So we begin with the man that makes it all happen: Master Chief. The Chief is the squad leader of the SPARTAN-IIs. He is the best of the best of the best... and then a bit better. Bungie concept artist Eddie Smith describes the Master Chief as "pretty much the consummate professional. He does his job, walks off, doesn't even get the girl, he's that cool he doesn't need her."That's right, he doesn't. The Chief basks in his own awesomeness and that's all he needs (aside from something to kill). But take a look at the very first Master Chief concept sketches ever:
They might actually make you giggle. Because by now you KNOW how the FINAL design of the Chief looks, these innocent first stabs seem somewhat underpowered. But what tells you that? Do these first two sketches SAY "underpowered"? Or do they only SAY "underpowered" when compared to the FINAL design? Well, let's do a mind experiment. Lets go back in time to before Halo was made, and the lead designer has asked you and your team to create the MOST badass futuristic super-soldier ever made. One of the artists scribbles out these two drawings above and says this is it. What would you say? Is it the right answer? Does it address all the needs of the character? Could there be a better answer? The first thing to consider is how it makes you feel in that immediate reaction to the artwork. He seems a bit soft... a little too rounded, as if he were a kids toy, and not enough edge and violence to him. Like, does that gun fire bullets or Play-Doh? Part of this is indeed because of the linework - all curves and no straights. There is nothing firm about him. The other thing is his proportion. The average human stands at about seven or seven and a half heads tall - right now these two sketches are below 6 heads, which gives him a somewhat cartoony and unimposing demeanour. So how would you tackle this same question? What would you change to make him the Chief that Chief needs to be?
Fast forward a bit, and Shikai Wang has joined the concept team and reworks the ideas of the initial drawings. Right off the bat, we are now at seven heads tall and already he feels a bit more serious. His muscles have been beefed up, and his shoulders look a bit broader (or his head smaller). There is still a rounded quality to the lines but it's feeling much stronger. Marcus Lehto, Art Director, remarks:
"The Master Chief design sketch that really took hold came after heavy collaboration with Shikai. One of his sketches - this kind of manga-influenced piece, with ammo bandoliers across his chest, and a big bladed weapon on his back - really caught our imagination. Unfortunately, when we got that version into model form, he looked a little too slender, almost effeminate. So, I took the design and tried to make it look more like a modern tank. That's how we got to the Master Chief that appears in the game."
And that, my friends, is a great example of the PROCESS of concept design. It's all about doing hundreds of iterations, and each time you are getting closer and closer to the ONE. You aren't always trying to make fantastic illustrations that you pin up on your wall. Instead you are quickly brainstorming ideas and shapes, textures, and attitudes. You are trying to FIND the character. They say, get something down - anything down - no matter what, because it's hard to improve on NOTHING. Master Chief never speaks during player-controlled gameplay, making him an almost silent protagonist. This means that his essence had to be communicated mainly through visual design alone. It's hard to imagine just how many drawings of Master Chief were done before the Bungie team decided on ONE.
But what is a hero without a foe? The Covenant consists of several alien races who humans have named Elites, Grunts, Jackals, Hunters, Brutes, and Prophets. Elites are the primary warrior class of the Covenant - relentless, merciless, and fearless. Elites possess energy shields, and fight with a variety of energy and hand-to-hand weapons. Their rank can be determined by the colour of their armour: Gold-armoured Elites are field commanders; black armor denotes a commando or "special ops" role; red armor indicates a veteran (the equivalent of a sergeant or other noncom); and blue armor indicates a low-ranking "rookie."
"Jason Jones always wanted to put a tail on the Elite," explains Shikai Wang. "That became the source of a lot of debate. I felt it made the alien look too 'animalistic,' rather than a sentient, technologically enhanced creature. Plus, we would've had to figure out where to put his tail when an Elite sat in a vehicle. At one point, we considered just having the Elites tuck their tails forward, between their legs, but abandoned that... for obvious reasons." The grunts breathe methane and wear sealed environment suits to contain suitable atmosphere.
Although Chief is a one man army, he is also an exceptional team player. The loyal incidental marines that follow you on your missions are there to remind you who you are fighting to save. They are there to be used and lost. An elite group of marines called ODSTs (Orbital Drop Shock Troopers) feature sparingly in earlier Halo games, but because of their badassness they were given a game of their own in Halo 3: ODST. If you've read the Halo novels, you will know that ODSTs are extremely hostile men and women - so violent and blood thirsty that they would attack even their own if provoked. The helmet design of the ODST is what makes them so cool. The visor advances in a forward protrusion, giving the soldier an intimidating, threatening, powerful presence.
One of the other things that defines Halo is the blend of tight corridor firefights that are shaken up by vast exterior vehicle battles both by land and air. Vehicles play a huge part in Halo, and serve as -really- the main theatre for combat in the Halo experience. The dropship rides. The warthog rushes. The spaceships. In comparing the human tanks and aircraft with that of the Covenant, there is a huge difference in design and aesthetic. Although sleeker and meaner than military vehicles from World War II, the UNSC forces are reminiscent of the chunky, thick armoured green plating of American tanks. In contrast, the covenant use a purple alien metal that is completely foreign to us- their ships are rounded and streamlined for space travel like whales and dolphins underwater. Their technology is more advanced and its functioning parts less obvious.
All of their vehicles were intentionally designed with insects and beetles in mind, which would explain the rough sheen and sloping humps. The majority of Halo's concept art falls into the 'industrial design' category - vehicles, architecture, and environments. The artists' primary tools are pen and marker - with a little bit of digital colour here and there. There were not many digital paintings done for the earlier games, but there are a few for Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach.
Take a look at some of these silhouettes. Particularly striking and unmistakable is the silhouette of the Covenant Banshee- with hits curved front-heavy head and split wings - it almost looks like some kind of dragonfly.
Although Halo has a wide appeal, as the years went on and games like Gears of War sprung up, players began to feel that the Halo style was too "cartoony". The colours were unrealistic, there wasn't enough gore - players wanted a darker, grittier, more violent depiction of the universe they'd become familiar with. Halo: Reach is supposedly the answer to that call. This game will feature a squad of SPARTAN-IIIs on the human military fortress planet called Reach, as the Covenant armada destroys every human planet on its way to Earth. Unlike the Master Chief's SPARTAN-IIs, these Spartans use customized gear and customized armour. The game, therefore, introduces a new line of weapons that the Spartans have modified themselves. Whether or not Bungie has in fact gone in a darker direction, only time can tell.
I'm looking at these gorgeous environments and cities of the future, and I just think how. HOW? This stuff is so good it makes me cry.. amazing. Amazing artistry. Dark or not, Bungie has developed a unique and interesting style that meets the needs of the game and the story. The shape and design language used for the Covenant seems fresh and is very successful in describing what their race is about from a purely visual standpoint. We live in a world where shooter games spring up every day - and it's extremely challenging to come up with something original without stepping on the toes of everything that has come before. But I think Bungie has done a great job in making something of their own: Master Chief is like the Superman logo of the future.
Here's a cool quote from Bungie concept artist Eddie Smith: "To be an artist is a life experience like no other and is the reason why my world turns and why my heart thumps. I can’t imagine life any other way. For me, artistic expression is the soul of mankind’s existence and the key to mankind’s survival. Without art, we are nothing more than death in due time, and life without true purpose.
So, do you think you have what it takes to work at Bungie?