The evolution of cinematic storytelling within video games over the years has been an impressive one. With major improvements in both technology and narrative design, games continue to push the boundaries in their pursuit of delivering powerful story moments to the players. Similar to how the film industry manifests these moments with great care and detail, Matt Campbell contributes his wealth of knowledge, technical expertise, and passion to help craft the incredible story moments found within Halo Infinite.
As a Narrative Animator, what does your set of responsibilities include, and what does a typical day look like?
As a narrative animator, it’s my job to help make our game experiences more immersive as it relates to the storytelling happening throughout the experience. We’ll use traditional methods of course, but our engine technology and advancements in the craft have given us the ability to create narrative sequences that fluidly incorporate into the gameplay experience. Some degree of immersion is lost every time a cutscene has to load or play, so we’ve committed to a telling our story in a way that is more organically connected and integrated into the entire experience – without losing any of the emotional, dramatic or visual impact players have come to expect. And you see some elements of this approach in the trailer we released at E3.
What path did you take to get to this role, and is it something you always saw yourself doing?
Much like the Master Chief, my path has been built on the foundation of evolution, perseverance, and luck. I know that sounds cliché, but it’s true.
I’ve always been creative, and thanks to my parents I grew up in an environment that allowed my imagination to flourish. When I was young, I’d spend my days immersed in my own stories. I’d pick out specific toys for the characters, I’d spend hours creating environments (usually box or blanket forts), and then I’d transfer the narrative in my mind to those objects to create my stories. I’m sure they were absolutely ridiculous, but I didn’t care – I loved it. I never wanted to stop.
The next evolution came as I grew up and gravitated towards like-minded individuals. All the friends I had, and still have, were just as goofy and creative as me. We all had stories we wanted to tell, but the way in which we told these stories evolved. Now we had our parents' video cameras at our disposal! Oh boy! Naturally, we started to transfer our ideas into “movies” because we obviously believed they deserved to be immortalized works of fiction (we were such dorks). Seriously though, we’d spend our free time making the most absurd videos, and again, despite how ridiculous they were, we all loved doing it.
Then 2001 happened, and I stumbled upon Halo: Combat Evolved. As a freshman in high school I was blown away. This was the first game that had a narrative experience that truly grabbed me. I was immediately immersed in that universe - so much so that I played that campaign about 30 times over the next couple years. I couldn’t get enough! I loved the concept of telling stories in that format, so when my Senior year came around and I had to start planning for college, I instantly knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be an Animator.
I moved to Florida in 2006 for a Computer Animation degree at Full Sail University. After a grueling 22-month program, I got my bachelor’s degree, moved back into my parent’s house, and quickly realized that I was, well, not that great of an animator. Turns out, animating characters was extremely difficult, and since I didn’t evolve as quickly as I had hoped I got scared. I didn’t have a teacher to help me, I hadn’t met anyone in the industry yet, and the friends I gained at college were amateurs like myself. I had no outlets to help me grow, so I started doubting my career decision.
That’s where my perseverance kicked in. I grew up in Kansas City, and even though I love my hometown, I knew that failure meant staying there, and that was unacceptable to me. I stayed focused, kept my head down, and managed to acquire a few small contracts with indie game developers. I created quick gameplay animations and put together an updated demo reel within six months. I still didn’t feel like a competent animator, but I knew I was never going to grow until I landed a real job in the industry, so I sent that reel all over the country.
A small studio in San Diego, Pendulum Studios, contacted me about an internship. This studio specialized in pre-rendered cinematics and trailers. In this internship I’d learn about complex camera work, motion capture techniques, sequence editing, and how to hand-key facial animation. Adding all that on top of the already daunting character animation skillset was absolutely terrifying, but I accepted anyway, and moved to southern California.
I met a lot of talented individuals when I was there, but three stand out with my development: The Creative Director (Mike McCormick) and the two Senior Animators (James Jones Jr. and Jeremy Chapman) molded me into the artist I am today. I spent about two and half years learning everything I could from them. Turns out, it was everything I needed to get a job at 343 Industries as well. (Thanks, guys!)
When the opportunity to join 343 popped up, I submitted my information immediately. I was still an amateur at the time with only three years of experience, so I knew it was a shot in the dark, but I had to at least try, right?! Well, luck kicked in again, and I was at the right place at the right time. I gained an interview, and then another, and the next thing I knew I was at 343 Industries, working on Halo 4. Mind. Blown. I still can’t believe it sometimes. The rest is history.
Do you have an ideal productive space? One that really drives and/or inspires your creativity?
To be honest, the most ideal space for me is less about the physical space itself, and more about the people surrounding me (I can feel the eye-rolls from them already). I claim to be creative, but I’m only as creative as the peers around me. All the ideas, sequences, and moments that I have ever worked on were generated by collaboration. Having the ability to (quite literally) lean over to my neighboring colleagues for critiques, brainstorming, etc. is vital to sparking my creativity and staying productive.
So, you’ve been handed a script for the E3 video (“Discover Hope”), tell us a bit about what some of the next steps are for you. Where do you get involved?
In the E3 2019 video for Halo Infinite, I worked on the scenes that had the Chief inside the Pelican. From the moment Chief drops to the moment he jumps out, my responsibility was to make that section feel special. Getting a new script is always exciting because the first steps in our process allows my creativity to come into play.
After I was assigned my section of the trailer, I went over the script with Paul Crocker and Dan Chosich. We discussed the thoughts they had, the tone they wanted to hit, the pacing expected, the surrounding moments, and a broad guideline for what they’d like to see visually.
The next step is to create a layout for that section – which is a rough form of previsualization. This is my favorite part, because it allows me to run off and put my own style of imagery to it.
I start by creating “blocky” versions of the characters needed for the sequence. These are essentially low-poly versions of our characters, but without rigs, materials, or shaders. The goal here is to stage the actions, block out the scene, and figure out what we want the end-product to be as quickly as possible. This often involves a cycle of failing and rapid iteration, so I prefer to use my “blocky” versions of our characters because the file size of our in-game character assets can slow that process down.
Now that I have my blocky characters in the given environment, I start sliding them around – essentially staging them in the scene. I’m roughly blocking out their actions, and I’m adding a camera so that I can start exploring the way I want everything to be framed. While I’m doing this, I’m keeping in mind the major beats we want to accomplish, the messaging we’re after, and the tone we want to hit. For example, I knew my section was going to be the first time our audience got to see the Master Chief’s new armor, and my personal goal was to make him feel as massive as possible, so I setup the camera to reveal and frame him perfectly centered, and I blocked in the Pilot walking behind him (to check on the cables) because I knew it would show contrast between their heights.
During this phase, I also have the flexibility to add or adjust things that aren’t in the script. Whether it’s for blocking purposes, to support and strengthen an idea, or to interject some Halo nostalgia, it’s easy for me to implement a new or updated concept because of how fluid the process is. If I add something and everyone likes it, then it stays. (Yay!) Conversely, if I add something and everyone hates it, then it’s easy enough for me to remove it.
One example of an addition “gone right”, is the Pilot’s exclamation “We’re going home!” That laughter and relief wasn’t in the original script. I quickly stubbed it into my premise because I thought it would give context to his efforts (reviving the Chief was his ticket home), and my hope was that it would provide a greater sense of contrast from the moody first half of the trailer.
Lastly, I’ll continue to develop my layout, by constantly churning with Paul and Dan, until we get an animatic (a rough movie version) that we’re all happy with. Now that we have our vision laid out, we’ll start conversations with the rest of the team on how to achieve it, and I’ll work with our performance crew to get the motion capture sessions setup so we can make it a reality. The rest is implementation into the engine and animation cleanup. (It’s more complicated than that, but it’s just about as straightforward as it sounds.)
The “Discover Hope” video from E3 2019 is a more intimate reveal than the Halo Infinite reveal trailer from the prior year, with story and engine highlighted in very different ways. What do you want fans to take away from this glimpse of narrative and technology?
As a team, we set out to create something tense, relatable, emotional, and triumphant. We wanted to capture the essence of why we fight, and we wanted to bring back a sense of mystery that filled our audience with questions and anticipation.
I want this small glimpse into Halo Infinite to get our players excited for the special things yet to come. I hope our new art style, armor, brand-new character, and technology show our desire to push the franchise forward while maintaining a solid link to the things that the original games captured so beautifully. I hope the return of classic Halo themes and sound effects gives our fans chills of nostalgia.
As proud as we are of the work we’re doing, I also hope in a way that we’re making our fans proud, because everyone at 343 is working tirelessly for them above all else.
The camera work in the new trailer captured some great detail and made the space feel larger than the Pelican it took place in. Was that always the intention?
I think that was part of our intention. At a high level, one of our goals was to show the contrast in the Pilot’s world before and after the Chief arrives. We ultimately wanted our symbol of hope to feel larger than life, and in order to make the Chief feel like an enormous, hope-gracing juggernaut, we needed to start by showcasing how small and hopeless the Pilot was in the same environment. To do that, we picked wider lenses to make our Pilot character feel, not only regular in size, but somewhat lost and insignificant. In contrast, when the Chief comes online and steps up to the Pilot, we shift our lenses to be a bit longer, so our Hero feels like he’s taking up more screen-space, and thus feels gigantic in comparison to his human counterpart.
What would you say is the one of the major focuses of the new E3 video?
“To capture why we fight and what we need to preserve.” This quote from Dan Chosich sums up my opinion as well. One of our main focuses moving forward, which is also highly prevalent in our trailer, is the return of the Chief’s connection to humanity. We’re literally putting a loveable human in front of him to save, and we’re using him as a symbol for our entire race. That’s what the Chief is fighting for. That’s his motivation. That’s why he puts his life on the line.
“Our duty as soldiers is to protect humanity…whatever the cost” – the Master Chief
We hear you’re a longtime Halo uber-fan, what’s one of your favorite memories -or thing- from the series? Are there ways you try to capture and convey these moments within Halo Infinite?
You heard correctly! Halo is, without a doubt, my favorite IP. There’s something so unexplainably beautiful about it. I always feel entranced by its captivating storytelling and wonderous landscapes. Getting lost in that universe is something that has always made me happy. I quite literally live and breathe it these days, and I still can’t get enough.
I’ll never forget the first time I played Combat Evolved. It was Christmas morning of 2001, and my parents got me an Xbox bundle that contained three games. I had never heard of Halo before, so it was the last game of the bunch I played, but it made an immediate impact. I was hooked. Addicted really. The story was revolutionary, the first-person mechanics were buttery smooth and easy adopt, and the music was flawless. Everything about that first playthrough was special to me.
My goal, now that I’m at 343, is to create content that captures the magic I felt from my first Halo playthrough. I want others to feel the same way that I did as a teenager – to experience something truly special and revolutionary. I’m constantly implementing the knowledge I have of our universe into my work, because I believe the lineage, the spirit, and the wonder that Halo brought into my life should be gifted to the next generation of gamers.