Remember those simpler times. Sitting on the bedroom floor, Lego strewn across the carpet, naked Action Man leaning against the Mega Drive. Two brothers gazing up at the 14 inch TV perched atop the chest of drawers. Neither of us able to get past Marble Zone for what feels like thousands of tries, and then finally, I make it. Unbelievable jubilation. You’d think it would prepare me for the feeling of completing Scrap Brain Zone, but it didn’t.
Ok, so maybe you don’t remember those times. Maybe you weren’t born. It’s also unlikely that anyone reading this shared a bedroom with me, apart from my brother (hi, Ste), however, you might conjure memories of at least one of the Sonic the Hedgehog games. Or maybe the TV show. At the very least, you’re probably aware of the outrage inspired by the new design for the upcoming feature film.
People hate it with a passion. The body looks like a human body in a form-fitting furry wet-suit, the head features eyes which are a long way from any previous Sonic design, and then there are the disconcertingly human teeth. Those teeth are damn controversial. This new Sonic looks weird. Yet, I didn’t hate the trailer. It ticked a few nostalgia boxes, and it just looked completely surreal to me. Admittedly, I was enthralled. I have a proclivity towards weird films, and one comes to mind which demolished the source material to tell a completely different, bizarre story.
That’s right, it’s Super Mario Bros. the movie, starring Bob Hoskins as Mario, and John Leguizamo as Luigi. I loved that film in the 90s, and I still love it now. I’ll stand by it, no matter what you say. I don’t mind that it only has 4/10 on imdb; the characters are compelling, there’s great chemistry, the set design is bold and unique, it’s funny, endearing and on the whole an excellent piece of entertainment.
It’s worth pointing out that on a scale of 1–10, gauging my obsession with Sonic, when I was young it would’ve been maxed out at 10. I used to draw him all the time, played extensively, and loved everything to do with the blue hedgehog, especially the character figurines I got inside Sonic themed Christmas crackers one year. I loved all of the Mega Drive games and the animated series when I was a child, then Sonic Adventure (1 & 2) on Dreamcast in my teens. I feel the Sonic games went down hill after that, perhaps coinciding with growing up, perhaps not, and my obsession gauge went down to a dormant 3 or 4. Yet, there has been a smattering of good games in the meantime. A new Sonic Racing game is due out soon, so combined with the new film, my gauge is back up to maybe a 7.
One of the most interesting things about this current slice of news is the influence of public opinion on a final product. I’m not sure this is a good thing. Having worked in animation for over a decade, in my experience the more people involved in decision-making for a project, the messier the workflow, the more time wasted, and all things considered, it’s at the detriment to the final piece. There has been concern over animators being overworked, and myself coming from a primarily 2D background, I had the same worries. On more than a few commissions, I’ve had character designs signed off by the client, changed for the worse in the beginning to suit their personal preferences (despite my advice), for them later to request additional design changes after completed animation. More eyes on the late stages of a project could mean even more alterations. In 2D animation, dependent on technique, this can lead to a large amount of work and stress. Even just unnecessary back and forth after agreed sign-off easily becomes a drain on time and energy. Due to the nature of ensuring future work through client satisfaction, such situations could equate to unpaid, additional amendments.
Instinctively, this led me to worry about creatives working on Sonic, however, staff are at least likely to be paid for their time. Nevertheless, the culture of overwork — and the popularity of being seen to be busy — is something all too prominent in the deadline driven creative industries. While playing Red Dead Redemption 2 I was shocked to learn how Rockstar Games boasted that employees were clocking 100 hour work weeks to deliver the game. Unhealthy modern expectations of long hours clash with the concept of smarter working. Contrary to crunching overtime, it is shorter hours which will ensure creatives are working most efficiently. Mental health seems to be rarely considered in deadline driven projects, leading to animators burning out early in their careers. All the while, studies have shown that sleep deprivation leads to diminished cognitive performance and reaction times equivalent or worse to those when inebriated. Working 100 hour weeks certainly means that sleep will be taking a massive hit. After many hours of working “drunk”, the work quality and productivity will surely suffer. That’s not even talking about the impact of lack of sleep on various health issues. So a side note, let’s stop talking about how good it is that we’re busy, and have a nap.
As for how amendments to the Sonic design will impact employee hours and stress levels depends on a combination of workforce management, and the complexity of changes the team chooses to make. For me, the main problem with the design is the human in a wet-suit body aesthetic, probably animated by accurate motion capture of an actor. Correct me if I’m wrong, but my time at university dabbling in 3D leads me to think it’s unlikely they’ll be able to change the body much without tweaking a lot of animation. The original Sonic body design is a distant cry from a man in a leotard. On the other hand, the teeth should be a relatively easy fix, so they may well amend that. The eyes too, and possibly other small flourishes. The trailer also contained a few very unfinished looking shots, so I’m sure lighting diffusion etc. will be finalised. Will they change the weird jokes? Probably not, though it’s not out of the question. Footage from trailers can occasionally be missing from the final cut of a film.
Of course the sad thing is all the time wasted up to this point. How did the character’s wonky design ever get past the concept art stage? At least some staff must be sore, maybe some even tried to guide the design in a better direction but were ignored by decision makers. I’d love to talk to an animator working on this film, but the apparent radio silence from anyone involved (aside from the director) indicates that employee contracts probably contain some sort of non-disclosure clause. Maybe we’ll see some horror stories emerge from the woodwork next year.
The more cynical part of me, the part which wears a tin foil hat, might suppose that the film execs were already aware of the abysmal fan reactions to the mere silhouette of the new Sonic, which appeared 6 months ago in the first poster. Surely they got to work “fixing” the design back then; if the team were able to work with an improved design so long ago, it’s perfectly possible that Sonic could look completely different in the final product. So maybe they released the new trailer featuring unfixed Sonic knowing full well the hate it would receive. Any buzz is good buzz. Then, the quick 180 by director Jeff Fowler, with a promise to re-design the character, was bound to generate even more buzz: better buzz. Suddenly, there’s a massive slew of social media coverage, articles (here’s another one: you’re welcome, Sega et al) and online content which basically amount to free advertising. At the very least, people are curious, and brand awareness is certainly up. Marketing has always been sneaky, and psychological tricks are becoming increasingly prominent in campaign strategies. A simple concept such as priming, when used well to build brand awareness, or to spark outrage, can be leveraged to effectively guide a consumer’s reactions. The same tin-foil hat part of me might wonder about the Starbucks cup in the new Game of Thrones: is it merely Emilia Clarke being forgetful, or is this some new, devious meme-era clever product placement. Probably the former, and I very much doubt the Sonic film had such wily strategic marketing in place, but it’s still fun to speculate.
Whatever happens, it seems that the public has spoken. The final version of Sonic the Hedgehog has been impacted for better of for worse by the outcry of video game fans across the world. The current state of the internet, and the close ties of our lives with social media allowed for this turn of events. Without it, we’d definitely be getting a Sonic with human teeth. But let me just say, it was a world without Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Youtube which allowed us to experience the surreal piece of cinema known as Super Mario Bros The Movie, and I am so grateful for that. You may not share my gratitude, but flashback to 1993. Imagine if, after a trailer revealing Bob Hoskins as Mario, there had been similar platforms to facilitate an outcry. Imagine if they’d “fixed” Bob Hoskins.
Sometimes, the weird piece of art which we’re not expecting to enjoy can be a surprise treat, and if not, the subjective nature of entertainment means it might be enjoyed by many others who don’t share our preferences. Why not let projects blossom in their own weird ways? In a world where social media can influence profit, and profit dictates content, are we going to end up in a culture where nothing takes risks?
For now, none of us can know how the final animation will shape up, but I’m at least excited to see Sonic the Hedgehog on the big screen, whatever his teeth look like.