When Paramount Pictures released the trailer for its “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie last summer the response to the live- action/computer-generated imagery adaptation of the popular video game was not good, to say the least. So horrified and vocal were Sonic’s devoted fans about the new look of the iconic character — from gloveless hands, to human-like teeth — that the studio opted to postpone the movie’s release by five months to allow for a redesign of the beloved blue hedgehog.
While this isn’t the first time an animated feature has needed some last-minute design tweaks, the extent of this redesign and the pressure for getting it right on a deadline this tight most certainly posed a challenge for the team of designers charged with fixing Sonic, according to Milady Bridges, program director of Westphal College’s Animation & Visual Effects Department.
Bridges is an industry veteran who worked on the VFX team for a number of films, including “Jurassic Park 3D,” “Titanic 3D,” “The Avengers” and “Star Trek Into Darkness.” With the movie finally opening this month, featuring its new-look star, Bridges shared her insights on the process of design — and redesign — for a film like Sonic and what the design team did to fix the hedgehog’s look.
As someone with a deep background in working on animation and visual effects for movies, have you ever been in a situation where public response called for changes between the trailer release and the movie release? How common is this sort of thing?
I’ve never been in a situation where we’ve had to make major changes to a finished or near-finished project because of public backlash. Having to redo work will happen in this industry, but I do not recall another example of a central character having to be reworked this late in the game.
It seems like one of the design challenges here was that players don’t see Sonic’s teeth very often in the game, so that left some room for interpretation when the artists were creating his appearance for the movie. What sort of input and decision-making process typically happens when there’s a challenge like this?
Usually the film director, creative director or other higher-ups involved in the pre-production process of a film will make notes and approve character design. In the scenario where a character already exists in a 2D world, concept artists are tasked with redesigning that character so it can fit into our 3D world. When working with traditional 2D animated characters, you don’t have to worry about what you can’t see. If an arm is hidden behind the body, it doesn’t exist because the artist doesn’t need to draw it. This allows artists to place characters into positions that are physically impossible simply for art’s sake.
Take Spider-Man as an example, in the comic he’s rendered in exaggerated positions that would be impossible for any human to do in order to emphasize the “spider-like” qualities of Peter Parker. When adapting characters for a 3D environment, you must consider what every angle of a character will look like. Concept artists need to draw a front, side, back and three-quarter view to demonstrate the character from all angles. When animating a 3D character, body parts that aren’t visible to the camera still exist, so you have to take them into consideration.
This can make very stylized characters a challenge. How do you render Sonic’s blue spiky hair in 3D? What will his teeth look like? I imagine there were many design iterations of Sonic for the film, and they chose the one they thought worked best.
Did the animators have to go back to the drawing board, so to speak? How were they able to “fix” Sonic’s teeth?
While the teeth were certainly a bit creepy, they weren’t the only issue fans complained about. I grew up playing the Sonic games on my Genesis, so I’m very familiar with the character. When I first saw the trailer, I was surprised. And not in a pleasant way. The Sonic they portrayed didn’t have the trademark white gloves. His proportions were very different, likely the result of trying to make some sort of realistic sense out of a cartoon character. His face doesn’t resemble the character we all grew up with and then there’s the human teeth.
With the release of the latest trailers, it looks like they successfully redesigned Sonic to better resemble the original 2D design.
Once they adjusted Sonic’s look, how would changes have been made throughout the movie?
They would not have scrapped all the work that had already been done. If they only updated Sonic’s face, teeth included, this would have involved having a team remodel the face based on the newly approved designs and create a new face rig for the updated CG model.
In an effort to save time, they may have tried to re-target the animation from the old rig to the new rig. This means telling the computer which part of the rig is the mouth, cheeks, eyebrows and so on. The computer can take the already completed animation from the original model and reapply it to the new face rig.
From there, animators can clean up the animation and fine tune it to fit the new face. Character visual effects will have to be reapplied; this includes things like fur effects. Shots will have to be re-rendered and re-composited over the live action plates.
If they redesigned the entire character model, they could still have saved time by re-targeting the original animation to the new model. However, there would be a lot more animation cleanup involved. All the FX work likely had to be redone for the new model — fur, lightning effects, etc.
Why do you think there was such a negative response about Sonic’s look? — Do you think aspects were too “human-looking”? What does that mean, in design terms?
I think the negative response was due to how different the Sonic movie character looked from the original iconic 2D character everyone has known since their childhood. The proportions of Sonic’s limbs to his body, the shape of his eyes and brows, the decision to give him white fur hands instead of white gloves all take away from the original design that we know of as Sonic the Hedgehog.
It’s not always a simple process to translate a 2D character to 3D. It’s even more complicated if you want to implement some sort of logic into why the character is designed the way he is. For example, if you look at the original art for Sonic, it’s like he has one giant eye and we are given the impression that they are two eyes because they are partially separated by his prominent blue brows. There aren’t any living organisms on this planet with eyes like that. So, to make it appear more realistic, the artist brought the blue fur down to the nose line. But this now changes what Sonic has always looked like. The key is finding the right balance that makes the character believable but also stays true to their original image.
The teeth feel very prominent and it might be because we are looking at something that we recognize as a very real part of human anatomy on a character that’s very inhuman and unreal. This mixture can come off as a bit unsettling. I think making the teeth less prominent or perhaps adding a more cartoon-like effect like enlarging the tooth size so there are fewer teeth in the mouth might help.
If we examine another 2D to 3D character who recently made his live action debut, Pikachu, the teeth are practically non-existent. However, this matches Pikachu’s 2D design. Sonic does have teeth, and they can be very noticeable if his mouth is wide open. So once again, I think it’s a matter of finding a balance between cartoon and realism.
Any idea how this adjustment will have affected the budget of the movie?
This would definitely be a costly fix. Many artists — character modelers and riggers, animators, character FX artists, technical directors, compositors, etc. — and supporting staff were likely working in what we call “crunch,” which is industry-speak for working a ton of hours to hit a high-pressure deadline that’s coming up fast. Between the overtime hours, potentially hiring additional staff to help and the regular costs of operating a studio, this fix definitely cost money.
Bridges has worked as an animation and visual effects technical artist for Warner Brothers, Pixel Liberation Front, Stereo D, Psyop and Rocket Studio.
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