Inside the frantic race to fix Sonic

This is the story of the long nights and soul-searching behind the blue blur’s rapid redesign


15 Feb 2020
Paramount Pictures

It’s April 4, 2019. The first Sonic the Hedgehog movie trailer has just dropped and the reactions are as damning as they are derisive. ‘I’d pay $15 to never see bad Sonic again’. ‘He’s like a mascot for a disease in a pharmaceutical ad’. ‘They’re missing the point of the source material’. ‘It’s an utter abomination’. ‘Absolutely horrifying’.

The comments and memes were brutal. Overnight, the trailer became one of the most disliked YouTube videos on the platform. Jeff Fowler, the film’s director, was hurt by the criticism. Rather than wallow in self-pity, though, Fowler found himself motivated to make amends.

“I felt personally responsible,” he admits. “It’s my name on the movie so I wanted it to come from me, and quickly. The message was so clear. I wanted the fans to know that they’d been heard and that their voice means everything. The timing was important too as I wanted them to know that we were on it and were going to figure it out.”

Remaking CGI characters is an unprecedented step for any studio. Countless hours go into designing, modelling, animating and rendering to achieve the required aesthetic. Starting over is a huge undertaking and, in Sonic’s case, one that was a byproduct of misplaced artistic direction. “Finding a balance between Sonic’s look, that fans have known and loved for a long time, with this added detail was the trick,” Fowler explains. “Obviously, we didn’t get it right the first time. The fans called it out in a big way and we got to work fixing it.”

Sonic’s rich history extends beyond video games. His appearances in comics and animated shows meant that there were many character incarnations that the film’s creative team could initially draw inspiration from. Trying to distill the character down to his most iconic features was priority number one, but for the live-action movie to work, compromises were needed – something Fowler knew longtime fans wouldn’t agree with.

“The challenge was always going to be that this is a character that’s existed in games from the 16-bit era,” Fowler says. “Knowing that he was going to be on Earth with real actors, we knew he’d require a level of detail that no-one’s ever seen before. One element was what we were going to cover his body in. We also couldn’t have a flat shade of blue that’s in the games, so we were already introducing something new with that. We knew there was going to be a knee-jerk reaction to some of it, so the trick was finding a balance.”

Achieving that equilibrium proved to be harder than the team envisaged. In an attempt to please diehard fans, craft a photorealistic look, and place him in the real world, Sonic’s maiden design proved to be an amalgamation of ideas that didn’t work. Aylish Wood, professor of film at the University of Kent, believes that the team made a mistake with Sonic’s movie blueprint by failing to meet the needs of longtime fans and alienating wider audiences.

“I personally don’t have particular investment in Sonic, but I can look at that and think there’s something strange and vaguely repulsive about the initial design,” she said. “For an adaptation like Sonic, you need to give fans something. You don’t need to give them everything, but you need to meet the right design expectations that satisfies what people associate with Sonic. Whatever they were thinking with that initial plan failed.”

The original design for Sonic was met with widespread horror when the first trailer dropped

Paramount Pictures

The negativity that greeted the film’s first trailer was unequivocal. Fans chastised Sonic’s filmmakers for their humanoid interpretation of the beloved Sega mascot, and the memes borne out of it spread across social media as fast as Sonic can run. Naturally, social media is where they turned to put it right. A month later, Fowler candidly addressed fans on Twitter and vowed to make drastic changes.

Step one involved deciding what was wrong with Sonic’s appearance. Muscular legs, human teeth, a disproportionate body, and narrow eyes that were far apart were removed or tweaked. With a complete character rebuild necessary, the movie’s release date was pushed back to February 14, 2020 – a three-month delay that ensured a speedy turnaround was necessary.

Fowler argues that this slight hold up was solely down to Sonic, and wasn’t representative of the film as a whole. “If the challenge was really limited in terms of going back to the drawing board a bit on Sonic, that was manageable,” he says. “It meant that the movie was in great shape and we just needed to address Sonic. We brought in the right people who know Sonic inside out and got to work on figuring it out.”

Bringing in those experts proved to be the turning point for the character’s design. Takashi Iizuka, head of game developer Sonic Team, was drafted in to consult on what made Sonic the speedy, wisecracking hedgehog he is. Illustrator Tyson Hesse – best known for his work on Sonic Mania Adventures and the character’s comic series – led the redesign and refined how Sonic should look.

“These were the right people to bring in and work on it,” Fowler says. “They’re both very talented artists – Tyson has such an amazing style and good grasp of the character – so it was just working through every little detail to identify what made Sonic appealing and recognisable, and just trying to get that all incorporated into the movie version.”

Appealing and recognisable were the key notes to hit. Bigger, more expressive eyes, Sonic’s signature white gloves, a sandier hue for his mouth, cheeks, and chest fur, and body dimensions comparable to his gaming sprite gave Sonic the traditional look that he needed. In altering his dimensions and aesthetic, however, other steps in the animation pathway had to make changes for the CGI character to move, speak, and live in every scene.

“They would have started with the model,” Wood explains. “They would need to think about the shape of it, the face, and the legs, and the rigging will have had to be changed. They would have to do trial runs on the animation to see how the new rigging works, and then fix how this moves. They would also have to do a lot of work on the lip syncing. They’ve changed how the face looks and the teeth in particular, so there would be a lot of work on the lip sync. Once that’s done, they would have to redo the texture of the fur to fit the new body and its movements and, finally, plant it into the live-action and tweak how the lighting looks.”

The sheer amount of work, conducted in a short period of time, inevitably led to one of the industry’s biggest controversies – crunch. According to an anonymous source close to the film’s production, staff were expected to work 17-hour shifts – staying as late as 3AM in some cases – to ensure that Sonic’s redesign, and the movie, were ready for February 14. Claims of being pressured to work overtime at weekends have also been reported, while MPC Vancouver – the studio behind Sonic’s initial and new looks – was permanently shut just weeks after work on the redesign was completed. The Sonic fiasco, coupled with the above claims, were quickly linked to its closure. MPC had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.

Sonic’s revamp debuted in the film’s second trailer last November. The universally positive response to the overhaul alleviated fears of a box office disaster, and helped fans to feel vindicated in their clamour for notable changes. While sympathetic to Sonic lovers who wanted to see a conventional character design first time around, though, Wood issues caution to studios who may feel pressured to give fans exactly what they want, especially if it comes at the cost of their workforce.

“The point of making a film version of a comic or video game is that you’re aiming to tell a story in a different way,” she says. “If you use some of those other elements, not every fan is going to be satisfied. I think to play it safe and only satisfy their needs means that you’re building your own niche and you’re in danger of not bringing in a wider audience. As a model for profitability, that’s not a good one. Crunch also brings its problems, and I think it’s very difficult as people can come under pressure.”

For Fowler, the decision to remake Sonic was a necessity despite the hurried turnaround. In tackling it headfirst, he says the team captured what fans love most about the character’s aesthetic – apart from a few creative tweaks – and ensured that Sonic would appeal to general film fans and decade-long superfans.

“I love the idea of honouring the fans’ support that they’ve given to Sonic for almost 30 years,” Fowler says. “I also like introducing him to a whole new generation of fans too though, and nothing would make me happier than seeing people go to see this movie. I had an amazing time working on the movie with this cast, the artists, and everything else, so I’d gladly do another one in a heartbeat.”

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