Halo 4’s Cortana: An interview with Mackenzie Mason

On November 6th, the highly anticipated fourth installment to the Halo franchise gets released to the public. We recently got a chance to interview the beautiful and talented Mackenzie Mason, the new character performer behind one of the game’s biggest characters, Cortana. We talk to her about Halo 4, Cortana, motion capture and all things geeky. She says hi to all of you, by the way.

Nerd Reactor: How did you get involved with the project?

Mackenzie Mason: Let’s go back to January of 2011, and I get an audition for this random video game.

NR: They didn’t mention it was for Halo 4?

Mackenzie Mason: It was called Lincoln or some made-up name. So I was like, “What’s this video game?” And they said, “Oh it’s a new video game, we don’t know.”

So I auditioned for it in January and at the end March, they told me, “Hey you booked a video game” and I’m thinking “What?” By that time it’s three months later, and they tell me you’re playing a cyborg. I was like, “THE CYBORG WON?! I was the worst cyborg ever!” They told me [at the audition] I needed to play a cyborg, they made up a scene, and changed all the names; I was playing Stacy or something. So I go in for a two-day shoot to test performance capture on the same stages that Robert Zemeckis used in Marina del Rey.

They told me then that this is really for Halo 4, “You’re playing Cortana and we’re testing to see if we want to use motion capture for the game. We just want to make sure that everything is working and all the stuff we want to do for her is picked up.”

I did the two days, and it was a lot of emotional stuff. I did a lot of emotional exercises all day, just to see what I can do. Then they said, “We’re casting for Cortana in the summer so when we come back, we’re going to let you know”. I thought, “Okay, I hope I did well.”

June comes around and they say, “Okay we’re casting now, and we’re calling you in.” So I went straight to the final rounds that they had, since they called in new people. A couple hundred people went out for it, and I auditioned there. They flew me up to Seattle, and I auditioned there. I got the part in the middle of July, and I started in August.

NR: That must’ve been exciting.

MM: I was so excited, because I was saying, “Wait, Halo. Cor-, She’s like the coolest character in the whole entire world!”

NR: Yeah, I mean since Halo is such a big franchise, how weird is it seeing your likeness on such an iconic character as Cortana?

MM: I mean it’s insane. It’s crazy because I’ve only seen the couple things that they’ve shown me on set where it’s my talking head; or they would finish a cinematic, like the first cinematic we shot. By the time we finished shooting they had it ready. So I got to see it and I don’t know what it’s going to be like in full, like in the game. I mean it’s not a replica of my face, but since I know how my face moves I see my face moving in her face and it’s really creepy. It’s weird. It’s cool though because I’m like, “I’ll take it, she’s hot.”

NR: So you haven’t seen a lot of the footage from in-game?

MM: No, I haven’t seen most of the in-game stuff. Well I have, I have seen the cinematics but at 70% completion. So I haven’t seen any of the full stuff.

NR: So 343 Industries said that Cortana is going to have more of a pivotal role in the next Halo, is there anything that you want to or can share?

MM: Yeah, I mean it’s a lot on her and  Master Chief, and she’s going through rampancy. Which is basically a deterioration of her system. She’s 7 now and apparently that’s when somebody decided that they start dying.

So Halo 3 ends where, you know [Master Chief tells Cortana] “Wake me if you need me.” And then Halo 4 starts where she needs him. A lot of time has gone by, she spent a lot of time alone, and just imagine that if you spend a lot of time alone for four years it’s like, it fucks you up. So she has a lot of thoughts going on.

Throughout the whole journey of this is the new threat, and this is what we have to do to save the world, but I’m also dying and she tries to hide it from him. There are a lot of instances where he’s like, “What was that?” He’d ask a question and she won’t answer it right, or suddenly say things from Halo 1, like a flashback where Chief is like, “What? What?” out of nowhere and she’s like “I’m sorry I didn’t mean to do that.” There’s a lot of that. There’s also a lot of “Holy shit… What just happened?”

So that’s what she’s going through the whole time, there’s that thread all the way through of Chief trying to save her but then always something coming up, because they have a world to save. There’s two savings that need to be going on at the same time. And you know she’s always trying to save Chief.

NR: Now you mention the rampancy, and I guess by the time the time Halo 4 starts it’s 7 or 8 years?

MM: It’s been about four years since Halo 3, I think they’re doing real time. So Halo 3 came out one day and when Halo 4 comes out… I think they calculated it. So it’s like four years, seven months, and three days, or something like that.

NR: Oh that’s cool. Since it’s been that amount of time, has there been any evolution to Cortana’s character from the end of Halo 3 to the start of Halo 4? I mean Cortana is very humanistic for an AI, and when you know when your time is up soon, some things will seem to change in you.

MM: Yeah, yeah, I mean the whole thing is, she’s never been more human. This whole time she’s dealing with her own mortality, and she’s dealing with Chief and kind of realizing that out of everyone she’s the most human. She’s like, “Chief you’re the human one, and you feel nothing.” There’s a line that she says, “When this is all over, remind me which one of us is human.” I don’t think she’s ever expected to deal with such a struggle and her death, so she’s jacked up about it. Chief just doesn’t get it as much as she does. There’s that whole aspect of her being just more human than she’s ever been.

NR: I mean you think he should, because Chief is human.

MM: Yeah, I mean he gets it. He’s like, [in her Master Chief voice] “We’re going to save you.” [Laughs] That was my Chief voice. I think there’s always that thing where he’s like, “Were going to get you back to Halsey, you’re going to be fine.”

NR: But she doesn’t expect to…

MM: I think she brushes it off, but it just keeps coming. It’s just something you can’t ignore. The player might forget about it, then there’s something that comes up where you’re like, “Oh man, what the fuck?” and you’re thinking, “Oh man, something’s really happening to her.” So I think that the human side is where people are going to relate to her more than they have been.

NR: Now you play the character performer for Cortana, and Jen Taylor is doing the voice. What was the collaboration between you two like? Have you talked with Jen?

MM: No, actually I haven’t. It’s basically the way they used to be is Jen would do the voice and then the animators would make the computer image of her. For this I did everything first, then I think they would have to play the audio for her and she would have to match my actions. Since if she says it in a different timing, then it won’t match the lips. I think that was more on her end, so I think it was a lot of her watching what I did and having to make sure the movements match. I mean for me I just did whatever I wanted.

NR: So Jen played off from what she saw?

MM: Yeah, cause I think they would play, this is the line and this is the clip. I think it’s really hard because there’s a lot of physicality that goes along with my performance that was never there before,  because there was nobody that did that before. So I think even hitting influxuation would be important because if I tense on a word, or say a word a certain way, then Jen would have to tense up to. I think it would’ve made sense if they would’ve done that, but I think Jen’s talented enough to be able to do that part on her own.

NR: Now what studio did you guys do the motion capture studio at? Because you said Marina del Rey and I know there are three around there.

MM: Yeah, we shot at Giant Studios in Marina del Rey. We did the first half at the Marina del Rey, Zemeckis, then the second half after Cameron finished his stage for Avatar 2. Cameron built the Titanic on one of the sets and he built three sets in a row so that a horse can run without the mo-cap stopping. We also saw a huge Titanic model that they shot for the 3D re-release. It was huge and it was about 50-feet long, and the mo-cap community was small enough that they all have worked on Avatar. They all basically worked on every mo-cap project.

NR: So do you think this is something you might want to do again later on?

MM: Yeah, fine I’ll be in Avatar 2! You don’t have to ask me twice. [Laughs] I would love to visit it again. It’s cool with the whole process with the dots, but it’s such a refreshing form of acting because you don’t have to worry about anything. It’s just not superficial at all. You’re not hiding, it’s like cameras are on you at every single angle. A dot on my suit could be a camera. I have no idea how it works, there are no wires, there’s nothing.

NR: How hot does it get in the suit?

MM: A lot when the lights are on, or when the audio pack gets hot. You can’t change, but you can when you’re on your lunch break on the set. When you put that thing on, it’s like skin. Then they would want the dots to not move, since they would have to rescale everything. So when you get back from lunch, before you move, you would have to do certain exercises.

NR: How long does that process take? I imagine that takes a while to do.

MM: It’s about a minute, minute and a half; it’s like “lunge left”, “lunge right”. It’s a whole recalibration process.

NR: So when you’re doing a cutscene, are all the actors there at the same time or do they film one guy then composite everyone together afterwards?

MM: The thing with performance capture is that in a movie I could do one scene 500 different ways and use any part of what was shot, edited, and make it one scene. For performance capture though, you can’t use a scene unless it’s from start to finish. So I could do a perfect take, then someone might mess it up at the very last line and we’d have to do the whole take again.

We can’t use the take, so everyone has to be perfect. It’s more like a theatrical play where everyone has to do everything right. You can’t just pick up where you left off. So when you see any of the cinematics, that’s all one take.

NR: Wow, that must’ve been a lot of hard work?

MM: Yeah, I mean there are so many good actors on it. I mean people are still thinking that, I mean I read stuff on forums where people say Mackenzie’s just a stand-in. I mean do what just do this? [Moves her arm like a robot] No, that’s not what we did. People ask me, “Were other actors there?” I tell them, “Yeah the whole scene you see everyone present.” There were no splicing people together. I mean the stuff with Andy Serkis, he’s been doing it since forever, and I was watching [Rise of the] Planet of the Apes and he moves across the room like a monkey and people are saying, “That’s a computer!” I’m thinking, “No, no, no, no he moved across the room like a monkey.” You do it, be a gorilla right now. Can you? Cause I can’t.

NR: Yeah, because I was watching the behind the scenes with Andy Serkis and I saw the side-by-side shot of Andy Serkis’ performance and Caesar and the facial expressions are exactly the same.

MM: Yeah, they think that just because it’s animated something else is altered.

NR: Now we would like to ask you a few geeky questions. Just to get a feel on the geeky side of Mackenzie. It’s nothing too hard, just your basic, standard geek questions. So, Marvel or DC?

MM: Marvel.

NR: Marvel? Why?

MM: Because I love Strike Force, and I love Thor.

NR: Nice! Now why Thor? What about him makes him so awesome?

MM: [Laughs] You know it’s such a random story, but I don’t know if you’ve seen Adventures in Babysitting?

NR: [Laughs] Actually yeah I have seen that movie.

MM: [Laughs] Well the little girl was obsessed with Thor, and I watched it when I was probably younger than her in that movie. They made him look so cool. She was always with that hammer, the helmet, and I was just into Thor. But DC, that’s Superman right?

NR: Yeah, Superman, Batman…

MM: Batman? Man, I don’t know. Since Batman is my all-time favorite. I mean Batman is THE coolest superhero of all-time. You can’t be a hot, billionaire, playboy and expect me to pick Superman over here that can’t feel anything.

NR: What about Tony Stark?

MM: Second to Batman, and definitely above Superman. Maybe it’s because Robert Downey, Jr’s playing him, cause he did such a good job.

NR: Yeah I mean the whole correlation between Batman and Iron Man is there. They’re both super smart; they don’t have any powers, and both extremely super rich.

MM: But I still do love Thor and Strike Force.

NR: Maybe we can call it a tie. I think everyone’s allowed to do that.

MM: Touché, okay, so let’s call it a tie.

NR: Now, favorite video game?

MM: Super Mario Bros. Super Nintendo… I’m going to go with all-time favorite console, which was Super Nintendo. Then I’m going to name Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., and Lion King. [Laughs] Because I beat Lion King and it’s the only game I’ve ever beaten by myself. I sat for days, after weeks, after months, just trying to figure out how you’re supposed to beat Scar. And when all your lives are done, you’d have to start from level one, and you’re just like DAMMIT! You couldn’t even pause it without leaving it on, there was no saving.

NR: There was no password in the middle of each level?

MM: No, no so let’s say I’m on level 10 and mom’s calling for dinner. I’m going to pause this sucker and hope that something doesn’t fail because you’d be back at level one again. There’s no save where I left off. You remember?

NR: Oh yeah I totally remember. Ninja Gaiden being one of them, or Battletoads, or Ninja Turtles.

MM: Oh, I never played that.

NR: Well you don’t have to; it’s just super hard and no saves.

MM: Mortal Kombat, I played that a lot. I think that by the time Nintendo 64 came around I felt like I always found myself at a wall, or on a cliff, or a tree, and I’d be like, “Where am I?” I couldn’t find where I was supposed to go.

NR: Now, I read that you were born in the Philippines, which is where my parents are from.

MM: Oh nice! Do you speak Tagalog?

NR: I can only speak certain words here and there. I can understand it fully though. I just have to reply back in English.

MM: Like Mahal kita.

NR: Hey! Love you too [Laughs] See.

MM: Yeah, I was fluent but I’m not anymore. I remember that though, “you’re beautiful” I can say. I had a nanny that was Filipino and she basically took care of me the first years of my life, so she’s very special to me. She taught me it.

NR: Yeah it’s a good language; I just never spoke it to my own family.

MM: You should! You got not even half of your life done yet. You can still make changes.

NR: [Laughs] Yeah, I will learn it, surprise my family by speaking it. [Laughs]

MM: Yeah it’s out in public now. You can’t escape.

NR: I’ll learn it, I mean eventually I’ll learn it, but for now I’m going to bide my time until Halo 4 comes out November 6th.

Oh and if anyone from 343 Industries is reading this, be sure to send Mackenzie a copy of the game. Better yet, make it the Legendary edition while you’re at it.

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