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Video game publishers Microsoft, Ubisoft invading Hollywood's turf

July 22, 2009 | 11:16 pm

Assassin1 For decades, Hollywood's relationship with video games has come down to one word: licensing. Game publishers have been licensing and adapting movies all the way back to 1984's "E.T.", and studios started doing the opposite with 1993's "Super Mario Bros."

Both those projects were infamous flops, as were many of their follow-ups (remember such big-screen fiascos as "Wing Commander," "Doom" and "Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li?"), but neither could long resist the easy name recognition and potential crossover audiences that came from the others' properties.

In the last few years, however, the licensing flow out of Hollywood has slowed as studios increasingly produce their own video games. Warner Bros.' recent $49-million purchase of Midway Games and the rapid growth of Disney Interactive Studios illustrate how two of the biggest movie companies are more interested in publishing their own games than having others do it for them.

As a story in Thursday's Times explains, some game companies are starting to flip the tables. Microsoft and Ubisoft both are unveiling at Comic-Con a series of short films based on their bestselling game series, Halo and Assassin's Creed. The article explains just why the anime "Halo Legends" and live action "Assassin's Creed II: Lineage" represent a major shift in the relationship between game publishers and movie studios.

Why not work with Hollywood, though? Doesn't everyone dream of seeing Paramount or Universal bring their ideas to the silver screen? To get a good answer, I checked with one of the guys behind a hugely popular video game series that pretty much every producer and studio executive has tried to get their hands on over the years, to no avail:

"We don’t believe that the Grand Theft Auto games, which are massive in scope and structurally complex, can be adequately compressed into a two-hour movie," said Dan Houser, vice president of creative at Rockstar Games.

"It seems obvious to us that maintaining the long-term integrity of any entertainment property has been dependent on not making substandard spin-off products to people whose primary interest is making a quick buck. If we ever decide to do a film, it will be because we have resolved our creative doubts, and while retaining enough control to ensure that if the movie is terrible, at least we will know we ruined the property ourselves."

Will Microsoft and Ubisoft ruin two of their biggest properties? Here's an expanded look at both short film series with details we couldn't fit in the paper:

Assassin's Creed II: Lineage

Assassin2 First announced at E3 with very little detail, Ubisoft has explained for the first time just what its trio of short films based on the upcoming Assassin's Creed II game are all about.

Directed by Yves Simoneau, "Lineage" is a prequel that focuses on the father of game-hero Ezio, an assassin in Renaissance Italy. The three movies, each about 10 to 15 minutes long, were shot over four weeks at the headquarters of Hybride Technologies, the special-effects firm Ubisoft acquired last year. The company previously created digital backgrounds for movies such as "300" and "Spy Kids" and is utilizing the same process for "Lineage." In this case, though, it's doing more inserting than producing sets. Seventy percent of them are taken directly from the game, according to Hybride Chief Executive Pierre Raymond. (An earlier version of this post misspelled Raymond's last name as Ramond.)

Hybride has a sizable staff working on "Lineage" -- about 20 actors, 100 people behind the scenes and 200 doing effects and post-production -- but developed it in close consultation with those producing the game.

"The film series is a part of the puzzle, and there's no way we could have achieved that without making sure the story at the center was made by the scriptwriter of the film and the game," said Yannis Mallat, who is overseeing both the game and the film as head of Ubisoft's Montreal studio.

Most of the actors were cast simultaneously for the movies and game, meaning they're not only performing on screen, but also doing voice-over work and motion capture.

"These are the game team's characters, so we did mutual casting where we tried to find actors who fit the shooting and can do motion capture and voice work," said Raymond. "In 80% of the cases, we realized somebody was perfect for it all."

After four months of preparation and a month of shooting, Hybride is now in the middle of post on "Lineage." Mallat declined to give specific plans but said the three films will be released separately leading up to the game -- most likely meaning through some digital means -- and suggested there will be a DVD compilation as well.

Halo Legends

HaloLegends Microsoft's new project, which it's announcing Thursday at Comic-Con for the first time, is a series of seven shorts set in the Halo universe and done in Japanese anime style.

Anime geeks will recognize the five production houses working on the films -- Bones, Casio Entertainment, Production I.G., Studio4[Degrees]C, and Toei Animation -- as well as the creative director helping to oversee production for Microsoft: Shinji Aramaki, director of "Appleseed" and "Appleseed Ex Machina."

Microsoft is financing and overseeing production through 343 Industries, its new internal division that's in charge of everything Halo. It's planning to preview them on the online gaming service Xbox Live this fall and has then enlisted Warner Bros. -- the game companies still need a little help from Hollywood -- to release them on DVD, Blu-ray and other digital platforms in early 2010.

Aramaki is directing his own short that tells the history of the Spartans, a warrior class in the game's fictional universe that main character Master Chief is part of. Though Halo isn't particularly popular in Japan -- most of its 27 million units sold have been in North America and Europe -- Aramaki said he's a player and was immediately interested in the possibility.

"I liked that this would be an anthology of human stories told from different characters' perspectives," he explained.

Frank O'Connor, creative director of 343, gave a peek at some of the other Halo Legend shorts. Studio4 C's project, tentatively called "Origins," is a two-parter that's about 30 minutes long in total and tells the entire 100,000 year history of the Halo universe. Another, from Toei, is the only one outside of the official canon and pokes fun at some of the game's characters.

Within the general anime style, the visual look of the projects differs widely.

"It's a wildly varied genre, but anime creators do things with weapons and vehicles and technology nobody else does, and that marries very well with Halo," he explained. "It's amazing to see some of the new stuff they're introducing and how neatly it maps to the visual aesthetics in the Halo universe."

Microsoft gave the production companies largely free reign in how the shorts looked, but O'Connor and others were heavily involved in developing the stories and making sure all the details were right.

HaloLegends2 "Depending on the studio, we did everything from writing the stories to feeding them with characters and scenarios they could explore," he said.

At first, he was a bit wary about revealing any details, but O'Connor quickly granted that when Microsoft releases a trailer for Halo Legends at its Comic-Con panel, fans are sure to pick apart every frame.

"I think the core 'Halo' fans will recognize key moments from the universe never shown in the game," he said. "They're moments where people wanted more depth. That's where this fits."

-- Ben Fritz

Related: Video game companies move onto Hollywood's turf

Photos: Shots from the set of "Assassin's Creed II: Lineage." Credit: Ubisoft. Images from "Halo Legends." Credit: Microsoft.

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