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A human hand reaches into the “Halo 3: Believe” diorama to place the body of Master Chief. Photo: Matthew Gratzner

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An oral history of the iconic ‘Halo 3: Believe’ diorama, including a version fans never saw

The story behind the epic advertising campaign, as told by the creatives who made it

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Halo 2, released in 2004 for the original Xbox, helped Microsoft to consolidate its reputation as both a world class hardware manufacturer and a video game publisher. When 2007 rolled around, executives saw an even bigger opportunity in the release of Halo 3. The franchise had already captured the attention of an entire generation of early adopters. The third game in the series was therefore seen as an opportunity to push gaming even further into the mainstream. The strategy? An epic advertising campaign the scale of which fans had never seen before. It was called “Halo: Believe.”

Polygon spoke with several of the creatives behind the “Believe” ad campaign, including one of the makers of the Halo diorama featured in the ads. We’ve also uncovered an alternate television spot, one that few outside of Microsoft have ever seen before.

The story starts with Scott Duchon, now chief creative officer at San Francisco-based advertising agency 215 McCann. As the creative director of the “Believe” campaign, he was involved in some of the original pitches that landed the deal.

“We had just had some success with the Mad World ad for Gears of War,” Duchon recalls, name-dropping another of video gaming’s most memorable ads of all time. “No one had ever played it before, so we were setting the stage with that ad. With Halo 3, we were building off the success of Halo 1 and Halo 2, and there was this hype of how big gaming was getting and how much of the fandom already existed for Halo. We wanted to figure out, ‘How do we expand the universe?’”

“Our goal was to do something that the core [audience] would respect and they would love because they’d been on the journey [with Master Chief],” Duchon continued. “Then the new, broader audience coming into gaming would go, ‘I want in on this. I don’t care if I’ve never played 1 or 2 before. I want in on this, because this is a story and something that I could get excited by.’”

The solution, Duchon said, was to wrap the Halo 3 marketing campaign itself into the fiction of the universe that the team at Bungie had already created. They would make a museum-quality miniature display, depicting a fictional battle scene from the Halo universe, and use it as the fulcrum for a whole series of ads. Supporting that physical prop would be actors portraying the veterans who fought on Halo 3’s fictional front lines. “Believe” was more than just the tagline: It was the entire concept itself.

“If we believe it to be so true, and we never blink in the marketing,” Duchon said, “then that’s how we have to approach everything [...]. We have to all kind of lock hands on this, and if we do then we will make everyone else believe that this is how important gaming is.”

The crucial step was finding a team of model makers that could help to bring that vision to life. Incidentally, that’s also where things started to get a little bit out of hand.

“I think it was four weeks to do everything,” said Matthew Gratzner, one of the partners at New Deal Studios, the special effects house that ended up assembling the final diorama. 215 McCann and Microsoft had already worked out a rough digital concept of what the final diorama might look like. Gratzner says that Stan Winston Studios, now known as Legacy Effects, had already started working on the detailed human and alien figures that would be required. A director, Rupert Sanders (who would later go on to direct Ghost in the Shell with Scarlett Johansson), was already lined up, and casting had already begun for the various actors.

A top-down view of the brute holding Master Chief by the nape of the neck. Photo: New Deal Studios
A UNSC Marine slowly marching to his death in chest-deep mud. Photo: New Deal Studios
A UNSC Marine kissing his dog tags in the background of the Halo 3: Believe diorama. Photo: New Deal Studios

Now it was a footrace to construct the set itself. The trouble was that, as conceived, there was nothing “mini” about this build at all. It all has to do with the size of those Stan Winston figures, and the amount of detail required for the close-up photography that 215 McCann had dreamed up. With each model standing roughly six inches tall, that meant creating a set that was far larger than anyone had originally conceived.

The hero characters were modeled from scratch. The team used early face-scanning technology to capture the expressions of actors and crew members along the way. As for the rest of the figures, Gratzner explained, “What they used for background pieces were McFarlane Toys’ Operation Desert Storm figures.” Those minor figures were quickly dressed and added to the inventory, which he said required nearly 1,000 figures in all.

“We built a foam maquette, a small sculpted version that was a scale version of the scale model,” Gratzner said. “And that whole thing was maybe three feet by maybe a foot and a half.” Perched next to that mock-up was a cardboard cutout of a human being, roughly the same size as one of the McFarlane Toys’ figurines. When representatives from 215 McCann and Microsoft came by to view the maquette, they were stunned by its potential size.

“Are you sure you want to do it this way?” Gratzner remembers asking. They were sure, and so he spent the better part of a month building out the landscape — including ruined buildings, vehicles, explosions, and more. He says the final diorama measured roughly 40 by 20 feet. The video documentary was even created alongside to capture that process, cleverly baked into the fiction of the Halo universe itself as an extension of the “Believe” campaign.

“We took that maquette — that original scale version,” Gratzner said, “did a grid, cut it all up, and then we cut it into profiles, [...] then that was all transferred to giant patterns. Then we were able to build this huge plywood and one-by [wooden framework with] metal wire cloth on top, and then that was all sprayed with urethane foam. On top of that we would sculpt certain pieces, cover it with sand, and paint, and texture. It was a hell of a lot of work.”

Gratzner said that he and his team dug deep into their bag of tricks to pull it all off. He’s especially proud of the explosions, which were made using fresh heads of cauliflower as the base for vacuum-formed hollow plastic molds. Lit from underneath and dressed with cotton and fiber optics, the vegetable-shaped structures looked like gasoline bombs frozen in time.

A big yellow blossoms of fire, vacuu-formed using cauliflower.
A mock-up of a cauliflower explosion. The can of Coca Cola was used for scale as the photo was taken before the widespread adoption of the banana.
Photo: New Deal Studio

Unfortunately, Gratzner says that he was never truly happy with how the final shoot of the “Believe” commercial turned out. The depth of field was intentionally very shallow, calling attention to the relatively small scale of the final product. For years prior, he and the team at New Deal Studios had worked on miniatures for major films like The Aviator, putting in time and effort to make their miniatures work blend in with live-action cinematography. That meant shooting with much longer depth of field. Gratzner says that Martin Scorsese chose his team so that he could shoot all the plane crashes in The Aviator, as well as all the exteriors of Hollywood Boulevard, in miniature with the same depth of field as the regular production. New Deal also worked with similar techniques in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Gratzner’s business partner, Ian Hunter, would even go on to win an Oscar for the visual effects in Interstellar.

With “Believe”, the goal was to make a miniature that actually looked like a miniature. While it was 215 McCann and Microsoft’s vision, Gratzner felt like it didn’t really show off the massive scale model’s true potential. So, after helping out with the creation of an online fly-through of the model that fans could tour online, he got permission to shoot some additional footage on the diorama he helped to make.

That production led to a completely different, unreleased television ad shot in an entirely different way.

“The concept for the spot was that it’s this Marine’s recollection of what the battle was, but in a hyper-realized slow motion,” Gratzner said. “I took all the miniature frozen moments [scattered around the diorama already] and we augmented them with digital effects, like really slow-moving particulate and that kind of stuff. Then I photographed the Marine in a frozen position. It was ridiculous! Then just did a motion control shot around him, and then [composited in a miniature of] the brute that’s firing the gun.”

A closeup showing the snorkel camera in between the brute and the halo Marine. Photo: Matthew Gratzner
A production team huddled over the Believe diorama shooting an alternate take for Matthew Gratzner. Photo: Matthew Gratzner
A UNSC Marine in flight against a blue backdrop. For the alternate ad Matthew Gratzner shot using the Halo 3: Believe diorama. Photo: Matthew Gratzner

The commercial never made it to air, but it’s lived on in Gratzner’s promotional reels ever since.

But what about the 40-foot-wide “miniature” itself? Bits of it were cannibalized during production, of course. Scott Duchon says he still has the Stan Winston miniature sculpted with his own face. Other sections were eventually auctioned off by Profiles in History in 2010. But the largest remaining section is still with the creators of Halo.

In 2020, the “Believe” diorama — including Master Chief himself — held a place of pride at the Bungie studio in Bellevue, Washington. It was recently put into storage to allow for an office move and related renovations. Representatives tell Polygon that it will be back on display again soon.