The movie design of Sonic the Hedgehog was so disastrous that the film-makers are changing it at the last minute - but that will only exacerbate the problem. The first trailer for Paramount’s adaptation of the iconic Sonic the Hedgehog video game franchise arrived in a flurry of skepticism that was always going to be tough to overcome. What audiences saw didn’t exactly delight them, and if the filmmakers were hoping to reverse the project’s status as a meme, it failed miserably. There were many problems to dissect, from the questionable decision to shift the setting to the real world to the inclusion of the Coolio song Gangsta’s Paradise. However, the majority of viewers’ ire was reserved for the design of Sonic himself.
Audiences were hopeful about the choice of Parks and Recreation star Ben Schwartz as the voice of Sonic, but the visuals of the famous blue hedgehog himself were less than stellar. Everything just looked weird, from the human-esque eyes to the lanky body shape, to the choice to give Sonic fur, to the unnerving mouth full of teeth. Not only did it veer heavily into the uncanny valley, it didn’t look all that much like the instantly recognizable design of Sonic that fans have been familiar with for decades. It didn’t take long for fans and artists to offer their alternative designs, most of which more readily adhered to the classic style from the games, while the internet mostly had fun with memes and reaction videos.
Then something unexpected happened: The film’s director agreed. Jeff Fowler took to Twitter and admitted that the design needed changes, saying, "Thank you for the support. And the criticism. The message is loud and clear... you aren't happy with the design & you want changes. It's going to happen. Everyone at Paramount & Sega are fully committed to making this character the BEST he can be..."
Thank you for the support. And the criticism. The message is loud and clear... you aren't happy with the design & you want changes. It's going to happen. Everyone at Paramount & Sega are fully committed to making this character the BEST he can be... #sonicmovie #gottafixfast 🔧✌️— Jeff Fowler (@fowltown) May 2, 2019
This is a pretty gutsy declaration for any director to make, especially since the release date for Sonic the Hedgehog has not been moved to accommodate what will inevitably be major changes (the movie is still scheduled for a November 9 release). While it is admirable that Fowler and his team want to satisfy the fans and it’s always good to see a major studio admit when they’ve screwed up - and the character's co-creator thanked them for the effort - this ignores both the realities of the business and the collateral damage such a U-turn will inevitably cause.
There's Limited Time to Get it "Right" This Time
In the current blockbuster market, film-makers and their post-production teams are all too used to working up to the movie’s release date, or as close as they can get before the studio pulls the plug. With the increasing regularity of drastic re-shoots for major titles, it is now a normal part of the business to hear about VFX teams working round the clock to get every detail finished in time for the premiere. However, making an announcement for changes like the ones Sonic the Hedgehog will require in May and hoping to have them done in six month is, to put it mildly, a risk.
We have already seen what happens when a studio has to make dramatic changes to a big-budget effects-heavy film in the late stages of pre-production. For one of the more notable examples, look at Justice League and the now infamous removal of Henry Cavill’s mustache. It may have been one of the tougher challenges in VFX to reanimate an actor’s face in order to wipe out facial hair, but with more time than they had been given to accomplish the task, perhaps the movie’s effects teams could have pulled off something more believable. The VFX team of Sonic the Hedgehog are being tasked with completely reinventing one of the film’s main characters. The basic act of designing and creating this version of Sonic did not happen overnight. It probably took many months or possibly years of collaborations to get to that final product (which in and of itself is somewhat baffling to think about). Even with a solid foundation, a redo will be a tough job for Paramount and the multiple effects studios working on this.
Fans Are Going to Hate the Design Anyway
Sonic’s design has changed before. The original games have him as a smaller, more deliberately cutesy figure, while later stories, particularly ones in 3D, have him leaner, taller and more “cool," playing up the idea of him as a sarcastic teenager. That change came with its own levels of fan dissent, as is inevitable when an instantly recognizable figure in pop culture gets a makeover. Think of when Wonder Woman got a pair of pants or when the Batsuit removed the yellow from that iconic logo. Granted, the Sonic redesign has inspired more ire if only because it’s such a weird change that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and it also seems as though the creators didn’t work from the original design at all.
That’s not to say the changes were without reason. As executive producer Tim Miller told IGN, when explaining the addition of fur to a blue hedgehog design, "It would be weird and it would feel like he was running around nude if he was some sort of otter-like thing. It was always, for us, fur, and we never considered anything different. It's part of what integrates him into the real world and makes him a real creature." It’s a choice that makes sense on paper, as does the decision to give Sonic two distinct eyes and a more humanoid form. Detective Pikachu's cinematographer even suggests the problem is that Sonic the Hedgehog was shot digitally instead of on film. It may not necessarily look great but it was done for a reason. Given the often contentious nature of the Sonic fandom, it seems likely that any design would have incited some push-back, although maybe not on this scale.
VFX Workers Will Be The Biggest Losers
The people who will feel the pressure most from this U-turn are the effects teams themselves, which include Industrial Light & Magic, Blur Studio, Digital Domain, and the Moving Picture Company. These are notoriously overworked and underpaid fields, one where the profit margins are extremely tight and room for error even tighter. Layoffs are frequent, as is unpaid overtime and extremely high staff turnover due to the pressure. Even as the biggest movies on the planet remain effects-laden technical extravaganzas, visual effects companies are struggling. As noted by Kelly Port, a visual effects supervisor at Digital Domain in an interview with Variety last year, "It's an incredibly competitive industry. For as much money that’s spent on visual effects, it’s an incredibly low-margin business." It can take a massive crew eight months to a year of full-time work to finish one film, depending on its content and style. Studios want to keep costs down and this is one area where workers can be squeezed.
The teams working on redoing Sonic were probably expecting to have some work to do leading up to the film’s release, be it retouching a scene here and there or fixing some errors that needed proper polish. What they are now tasked with is a whole other level of pressure, one where they probably won’t be treated well, be it financially or emotionally. Crunch mode is a destructive enough process in the video games world – one that has led to intense industry pressure, mental and physical health problems, and questions of labor law violations – and it’s not much better in the movie world. And if they still don’t meet those fans’ specifications come November then it’s the effects teams who will take the brunt of the criticism. Even if the film is a financial success, it’s doubtful the hundreds of VFX workers will see any of those benefits.
It’s understandable and in some ways admirable that Jeff Fowler and Paramount are keen to please fans and overcome such a high level of mockery so far placed upon the shoulders of Sonic the Hedgehog. If they pull off this drastic redo of his design then there will be a great scrappy underdog story to tell. After all, if the movie is legitimately good, fans will forgive an imperfect design, while a good Sonic design won't fix a bad movie. Ultimately, though, this is an issue of workers and labor, and in the long run, they’re the ones who will miss out on this promise.
- Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) release date: Feb 14, 2020