Behind the Work: Remember Reach
Planetary Destruction, A Robot Monument and 54,439 Points of Light: AgencyTwoFifteen and AKQA on Building the Epic Campaign for Xbox's Much Anticipated Halo ReachBy: Ann-Christine Diaz, Published: Aug 24, 2010
It's only just begun. Microsoft Xbox has started to roll out what promises to be its biggest Halo campaign yet, "Remember Reach," which introduces fans and future inductees to the doomed Planet Reach and the Spartan Noble Team. Earlier this year, AgencyTwoFifteen got gamers twitching their thumbs when it launched the Noam Murro-directed "Birth of a Spartan" film to announce the Reach Beta. Yesterday saw the debut of a moving site created out of AKQA, whereby visitors can manipulate a real-world robot to plot a point of light in a virtual tribute honoring fallen Spartan soldiers. There, we also find at trio of live action webfilms. Created out of AgencyTwoFifteen and also directed by Murro, they hint at the impending doom about to befall Reach, a drumrolll to an epic 60-second film to debut on Thursday.
So far, the work lives up to rich emotional legacy established with spots like "Starry Night" and the much-awarded "Believe" campaign. Creativity caught up with AgencyTwoFifteen ECD Scott Duchon, AKQA GCD Pierre Lipton and CD Stephen Clements to get the details on how they built the story so far, and what more we can look forward to before the game hits the shelves.
What was your strategy behind this latest Halo effort and what was your brief from Microsoft? Historically, the work you have done for the franchise has revolved on rich history and emotional backstory. What were you are trying to preserve, and what's different this time around?
Scott Duchon, Executive Creative Director, AgencyTwoFifteen: The brief was simple. Make this the biggest marketing launch XBOX has ever done. As far as the approach we took, it was important for us to pivot off the emotional hook to this part of the Halo story. This game is the prequel to the Halo fiction and it's about hope being born out of the massive sacrifice of a planet (Reach) and the people whose lives were lost. We looked for the humanity that anyone could relate to and it hit us right in the face.
Pierre Lipton, Group Creative Director, AKQA: As any creative knows, the clearer and more concise the brief the better. This one was distilled into three simple sentences: "Remember Reach. Focus on the heroes, not the victims. Expand our audience beyond Halo fanboys." (To put the first two sentences in context, in the game, the planet Reach is invaded by an alien force known as the Covenant. There are tremendous losses amongst both the military and the citizenry. Meanwhile, six super-soldiers, called Spartans, are humanity's last and best hope. )
Can you tell us about the various elements of the campaign and how you guys were involved in each? How, if at all, did you guys coordinate your efforts?
SD: When XBOX says "go big" we try not to disappoint. First was the idea "Remember Reach"—an idea that anyone who touched this campaign could work off from sponsorship, media, content, CRM, PR. . . College football coaches could even weave it into a pre-game speech. It lets everyone know we are talking about something that already happened. Remember the Alamo. Remember Pearl Harbor. Remember Kirk Gibson. The story is about 700 million people and a planet that died soon after a surprise attack. What was that like? [We addressed that with] films about life on the planet moments before the attack. How will it be remembered by humanity on other planets? AKQA [created a] monument. What was it like in those fateful last moments for those who fought til the end knowing the end was inevitable—and who will you play the game as? —[see the upcoming] launch film. The campaign actually started in April with the "Birth of a Spartan" film.
PL: AgencyTwoFifteen wrote the line "Remember Reach." After that, we worked independently. AKQA's first task was to interpret what exactly "remember" should mean. Was it an expression of loss (like "Remember Pearl Harbor")? A call against apathy or forgetting? A term of reverence? Or was it more of a rallying cry, like "Remember the Alamo?" While AgencyTwoFifteen's initial films were an expression of the first sentiment—loss—we were more interested in the reverent and heroic elements of the story. The idea of a monument and its design are meant to reflect that.
Scott, what was your thinking behind the online films? Why did you decide to go with live action? Who directed and what were the biggest challenges in terms of the production?
SD: This was probably the most human and relatable piece of the campaign. We wanted to put people in the same emotional place as anyone of the 700 million fictional people on a fictional planet 500 years in the fictional future. What was happening on Reach in the hours before the surprise attack? Life was happening. Arguments. Disagreements. Talk of tomorrows that were surely to come. We wanted people to know they were watching people who will be dead in less than 72 hours. We turned to Noam Murro to bring the entire campaign to life. Everyone knows Noam is one of the best there is, but his conviction and determination to make sure that this Reach campaign lived up to the work we've done in the past was above and beyond anything. He truly is a master and we could not be more grateful for his partnership and collaboration on everything. The challenges on Halo are unlike that on almost any other product you can imagine because you have 6 million rabid fans who comb over every detail of every piece of content. To give you a sense of how rabid they are and how much they look forward to the content created around Halo, some fans hacked into a holding site where the webfilms were located and leaked the online film "Patrol." How they found it and how they got it was straight out of War Games.
Meet The Robot:
What inspired the monument? Were you always planning on having a robot be a part of the Remember Reach site? Had you guys had any experience with any robot-driven initiatives before?
PL: The dichotomy between technology and humanity is central to the Halo universe. Spartans themselves are genetically-enhanced humans who fight with the aid of a technologically advanced exoskeleton called "MJOLNIR." On the field, these men and women are essentially part machine. We felt that a robot building a monument to humans was in perfect keeping with this theme.
As for our experience with robots, we had used two robots with Autofuss in a shoot for the new Xbox 360 console [viewable here ]—one to control the camera, and one to manipulate the console itself.
How exactly does the robot work? Where is it located? Why did you decide to use a real robot? Couldn't you have just created a virtual arm that existed on the site?
Stephen Clements, Creative Director, AKQA: The robot is located in an undisclosed location in San Francisco. It will be running live for 20 days and can be controlled online via the website. Each person can choose a point in 3D space and the robot moves to those coordinates and illuminates their point. We wanted to do it with a real robot because of the theme Pierre mentioned. It is also much more innovative and exciting than a CG robot.
What happens when the sculpture is finished? Are there an unlimited number of points that can be added?
SC: There are 54, 439 points of light in the sculpture. We chose this number because the number 7 has a cultural significance in the Halo Universe and 54, 439 divided by 7 is 7777. When the sculpture gets full, we fade some of the older ones out, allowing them to be re-illuminated.
Tell us about the various stages of production, from concepting through the various phases of execution.
SC: We started with some loose concepts based on the notion of remembrance—what it means to remember our heroes and how we collectively remember events. These ideas were all in the right zone but none of them really stood out. What was coming through was the desire to do something real-world—to celebrate Halo with an event that can be experienced on and offline. It was then that we touched on the idea of using a mechanical robot to express a deep and emotional sense and the idea of the online community became fundamental to the experience.
What sort of team was involved in the building of the site? What outside partners did you work with (for production, music, etc. )
PL: Internally, our team includes creatives, creative research & development folks, technologists, a quality assurance group, project managers, an account department, and producers. But we don't think of this as a compartmentalized effort—rather, it's the work of one very dedicated and large team.
Who did you work with to build the robot? You decided on a Kuka robot, right? Where you looking at any others?
SC: Autofuss is a creative production studio with a habit of using industrial robots for incredibly precise motion control shoots. It just seemed like the perfect fit. As for the Kuka robot, it was the aesthetic lines that drew us to their particular design. And they were kind enough to loan a robot for our use.
PL: We can't say enough about Autofuss. They are mad geniuses, and were passionately devoted to the project. The music on the site is a track from the game itself, entitled "Ghosts of Reach."
Jeff Linnell, CD/Founder, Autofuss: The Kuka comp 140 robot used in the piece was generously donated to the project from Kuka robotics. After working with industrial robots from other manufacturers, we selected Kuka due to its relatively open platform. Kuka is known as the "Engineer's Robot" and they are known to be far more cooperative on projects that fall outside the norms of manufacturing. Additionally, the Kuka is strong aesthetically, so much so that it has won the Red Dot Award for design excellence.
How long did the various stages of digital production take?
SC: The timeline was extremely compressed and it was about 10 weeks from concept to completion. This obviously left very little wiggle room but it also meant that gut decisions were made along the way, without over-thinking. This has led to some unique thinking and a very simple approach to the campaign.
Outside of the robot, what else was involved in terms of the building of the site? Any other interesting challenges?
SC: When we chose the space we wanted it to feel reverent and timeless. We chose to keep it minimal and austere and let the robot and the sculpture become the focus. We also wanted to make it a space that people can come and pay their respects to the game that they love.
What were the biggest lessons you learned from this particular project? If you were to do again, would you do anything differently?
SC: Allow more time for testing and QA. A joint welding robot, a camera and the internet are all complex systems of parts that are not meant to be interfaced. So far so good, but I would rather have preferred more time for additional testing. It would make me sleep easier.
Film-wise, what else can we look forward to? Will the webfilms be shown on broadcast, or are there different spots rolling out? If so, can you tell us a little bit about those?
SD: As I mentioned earlier, there is one more film to complete the "Remember Reach" launch. Noam Murro really outdid himself on this one. I wasn't sure we could go much bigger on Halo than we have, but I think Noam did it. And the beauty of it is that it's not just big, it's got that emotional hook that we always hope to bring to life.
How much "research" did you guys do to create the campaign? Did you get a chance to preview and play the game? If so, how did that inform what you came up with?
SD: "Research"? Oh you mean how many hours of Halo did we play under the guise of "research"? Yes we did get to preview and play an early beta. Xbox and Bungie brought us in early to sit with the creators of the game to get a good understanding of everything that goes into it. Characters, story lines, new weapons, vehicles, levels, how multi-player and single player game play is changed. But they definitely hold some stuff back from us. So don't go hacking into our servers people! All of that informs how we concept for an idea. But the prequel idea was it from the beginning. Halo Nation knows the story. There are books written about the Fall of Reach. So we just wanted to find a compelling way to bring it to life. Keep it simple.
What other components can we look forward to? Any events or installations in the works, as with the previous Halo efforts?
SD: Oh there will be plenty of efforts happening up to and through the launch. This is the biggest global marketing push for a title XBOX has ever done.
Given the success of Halo campaigns of the past, did you feel any pressure to top yourself? What are you ultimately hoping to achieve?
SD: With "Starry Night," the Believe campaign, ODST and now Halo Reach, we were just hoping to continue to build the Halo brand. Fans not only look forward to the marketing, they look to it as what the feature length films should be, and for XBOX, it places the brand as more than a gaming brand it's an entertainment brand. Also it's fun to try and live up to expectations.