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April 28
2020

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

The Speedy Recovery of SONIC THE HEDGEHOG

By TREVOR HOGG

Before becoming one of the most successful video game adaptations by earning $307 million worldwide, Sonic the Hedgehog was racing in the opposite direction with the release of a teaser that showcased a photorealistic title character which became a source of anger for fans. To the credit of filmmaker Jeff Fowler, who was making his feature directorial debut, and Paramount Pictures, the decision was made to return the blue, furry speedster to his cartoon origins, which led to a major redesign process and shifting the theatrical release from November 2019 to February 2020. It was no small task as the title character appears in 800 of 1,300 visual effects shots created by main vendor MPC and Sega-owned Marza Animation Planet.

“Our initial intent was trying to be more grounded in a physical reality and for Sonic to feel like he was a creature from another planet with an understandable physiology,” states Sonic the Hedgehog Visual Effects Supervisor Ged Wright (22 July). “At the same time, we were trying to honor and faithful to the design from the game. That’s a challenging thing to achieve. We weren’t quite there at the point where we needed to share Sonic with the world. Obviously, there was a clear message back from the fans and everyone else that it wasn’t quite the right direction to go in.”

Ged Wright, Visual Effects Supervisor

Brought in to guide the redesign was illustrator Tyson Hesse. “It’s an exaggerated hedgehog whatever you do, and without one clear voice of what that is that’s what leads you down a difficult path,” observes Wright. “Tyson has a strong relationship with Sega and has worked with Sonic for a long time. He has a clear idea and understanding of what Sonic looks like in the games and comic book form. There were still fundamental things that changed, and a long list of them were solved in concept/modeling phase. Live sculpting sessions were had with a ZBrush artist, Tyson and I looking at how to solve the desires of a 2D Sonic in a 3D form and still be able to deliver a performance within the context of our film. This film Sonic that we have ended up with is an evolution of the core design. It is a lot rounder and softer than how angular and aggressive he is in some of the game art.”

Veteran Sonic the Hedgehog illustrator Tyson Hesse was brought in to guide the redesign process.  

A trademark for Sonic is his bright blue fur that goes from being wet to fluffy.  “We still use the same toolset as far as it being photorealistic fur, and kept pushing until it was the right visual gag rather that being technically exactly how long his hair would be if we hit him with a hairdryer,” explains Wright. “Whereas animals have variations of their fur color that is driven in a naturalistic way, Sonic’s fur color variation was driven by how you would accentuate his forms to make him feel more like Sonic. The actually quality of the fur was translated over, as well as the eyelashes, underlying iris and eye geometry. We gave him white gloves and added peach fuzz all over them so that they felt soft and could exist in that world. We paid extra attention to his limb length and height. Nearly all of the blocking work that we had done to that stage was still applicable. We could actually take the animation from the old rig and copy across to the new rig in a number of different shots. There were exceptions such, as with his hands, because a direct translation looked ridiculous as they’re enormous.”

It was important to be able to get Sonic to emote, says Wright. “Part of that is a negotiation with everyone’s expectations. Once you have something that feels like Sonic from the game in 3D then you work your way towards a more neutral character that is able to emote and communicate different emotions beyond him just looking that he wants to run really fast.”

A blank plate shot from the scene where Sonic plays various baseball positions.

“[Illustrator Tyson Hesse] and I looking at how to solve the desires of a 2D Sonic in a 3D form and still be able to deliver a performance within the context of our film. This film Sonic that we have ended up with is an evolution of the core design. It is a lot rounder and softer than how angular and aggressive he is in some of the game art.”

—Ged Wright, Visual Effects Supervisor

A major challenge was to avoid the bright blue fur of Sonic from turning to pink or purple during the various lighting conditions. 

Practical effects of burning cars were part of the plate. 
Sonic and Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) face off against each other in a climatic showdown. 

A plate shot of a high-speed chase between Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) and Sonic.

Explosions and Sonic are digitally added into the composition.

“The whole redesign took six to eight weeks before we were back in shot production again, which is short period of time. It comes down to a strong collaboration, good communication and some good compromises, or at the very least paying attention to making the right changes so we threw away as little work as possible and kept things moving forward rather than just starting everything again. That was absolutely crucial and allowed us to be able achieve the work.”

—Ged Wright, Visual Effects Supervisor

A plate shot from the point of view of Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) who embarks on a road trip with Sonic. 

A realistic approach was taken with the fur simulation and embellished depending on the gag such as when Sonic returns from a quick visit to the Pacific Ocean.  

Ben Schwartz provides the voice of Sonic. “The approach was similar to if we were doing a photorealistic character,” explains Wright. “During the voice sessions Ben was filmed with a facial rig. All of that data and information was made available to the animators to reconstruct the geometry of Ben in his different extreme facial shapes and tried to inform Sonic’s expressions based on what Ben does with his face. That is less apparent than something like the Hulk where you can clearly see that the actor is in there. It is helpful to come up with different relationships between what Ben is doing and what we would like Sonic to do.”  Sonic was too small of a character to have a stand-in actor portray him on set. [Actor] James Marsden did an amazing job feeling present and engaged with Sonic. We did a stuffie pass in order to have an eyeline for James and then did a clean plate pass. Those things were helpful as far as showing that your camera setups were appropriate and that Sonic was going to be in the right place. One of the things that we did was to cast Scott Patey as the voice actor who was delivering lines either off camera, or if we couldn’t hide him anywhere was later painted out.”

Previs helped to guide the shot composition during principal photography. “We had a lot of plates with nothing in them – that’s impossible to cut together and have as an assembly to understand what the movie is going to be,” remarks Wright.  “There was an extensive postvis effort with a team about of six to seven people where we would treat it as a real shot, put a 3D version of Sonic in and a rough version of his performance. Because we working quickly on QuickTimes with a small team we were able to populate the whole cut for the director’s screening so you had an idea of how it might play.” Integrating Sonic into the live-action photography was complicated by his bright blue fur color. “We needed to establish a temp look to try to find the right balance to sit Sonic into a particular sequence or shot to make him on model in Sonic blue,” notes Wright. “Sonic couldn’t be just one color throughout, otherwise it wouldn’t look like he’s in any of the photography.”

James Marsden did an excellent job being present and engaged with Sonic. A  stuffie pass established an eyeline for the actor and they then did a clean plate.

No motion control cameras were utilized for the roadhouse fight where Sonic is captured in slow-motion weaving between characters and setting up various pratfalls. “Originally, we were looking at doing motion control and shooting things at a high frame rate,” reveals Wright. “From a technical perspective that can get you some amazing stuff in camera; however, it is difficult to control and art direct.  The decision we took was to have everyone move very slowly or frozen so we could art direct how they were dressed into the scene, and then moved the camera at real-time through the scene and filmed it normally. We were still shooting it at a slightly higher frame rate, 48 fps, and would look at re-timing, taking any movement out of the people trying to stand still, and adding additional props into the plate.”

In addition to Sonic’s fur, the eyelashes, underlying iris and eye geometry were also accentuated.

“The whole redesign took six to eight weeks before we were back in shot production again, which is short period of time,” states Wright. “It comes down to a strong collaboration, good communication and some good compromises, or at the very least paying attention to making the right changes so we threw away as little work as possible and kept things moving forward rather than just starting everything again. That was absolutely crucial and allowed us to be able achieve the work.” The effort paid off as the video game adaptation earned $307 million worldwide. “Everyone associated with Sonic the Hedgehog is thrilled by the fact that it has been received so well. Even when it wasn’t the most positive environment around how it was being perceived externally, internally it was consistently an enjoyable job to work on.”

 

Sonic the Hedgehog will be available On Demand, DVD, Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray on May 19.


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