Sonic’s Redesign And The Sad State Of Hollywood VFX | Jack Saint
So last week a thing happened. And no I’m not talking about Mayday, or International Star Wars day, or Cinco de Mayo, or Karl Marx’s birthday, or any other holiday that apparently none of you decided to remind me about. No, by thing, I of course mean this: (Music) “SFPD!” Uh… Meow? AHHHHH! (gunshot) Now, if this is the first time you saw that, I’m sorry. Long story short, over a year back, a Sonic the Hedgehog movie was announced, based on the cult video game series you may have heard of. And since then it’s been a hell of a discourse. Aw shit, here we go again Most of which, understandably came down to the design of Sonic, a pretty massive departure from pretty much any other Sonic design ever made ever. Sonic now has realistic fur, beady Goblin eyes, a human physique, and the mouth of RayWilliamJohnson. There’s plenty of videos breaking down why Sonic’s design is so unappealing to so many people, so I’m not going to go into that quite so much. I think what a lot of this centers around is a lack of real vision for what they’re trying to do with the character here. Clearly there’s no interest in capturing the aesthetic of some of the more classic Sonic designs, but it also doesn’t really feel like a realistic take, Sonic still looks incredibly out of place in his surroundings and doesn’t even have real Hedgehog teeth. If we look at, say, Jim Carrey’s Eggman, Yes, Jim, Carrey’s playing Eggman. There we also see a character who seems like he’s going to spend at least most of the movie as a pretty significant departure from the original character, in how he looks, how he sounds, and to some extent his role in the story. But people aren’t quite so up in arms about him because it’s like yeah, they wanted to do 90s Jim Carrey. Eggman is 90s Jim Carrey now. If you like nineties Jim Carrey, you’re into it. I guess if you’re into like… knockoff Korean Sonic toys, or Garbage Pail Kids, you’re the demographic they’re targeting with new Sonic. It was like, “Hey, grab all those new Alvin and the Chipmunks, and like spray ’em blue, and then like get a blender, and then just shove ’em in there, and then-” And so it looked like Sonic was just another bad design translation in a big-budget, Hollywood adaptation. Onto the pile he goes. Is this my opportunity to show the fucking horrifying Woody Woodpecker redesign? Yes, it is. Now. It’s your turn. Come on kid. Show me what you got (Woody Woodpecker laugh) But this isn’t just about dunking on another misguided attempt at a cartoon character revamp. Because on May 2nd, less than a day after the trailer was released, another thing happened. On Twitter the film’s director, Jeff Fowler, released this statement: “Thank you for the support. And the criticism. the message is loud and clear… You aren’t happy with the design and you want changes. It’s going to happen. Everyone at Paramount and Sega are fully committed to making this character the best he can be. Hashtag Sonic Movie. Hashtag Gotta Fix Fast. Fowler made clear that he’d heard the overwhelmingly negative response to the design, and was gonna get to work fixing it up to give the fans what they wanted. Happy ending. Hollywood heard you. Let’s hope they stick the landing. But the thing is, I’m an animator, There’s approximately a 5% chance that if you’re subscribed to me, you’re here because I used to do these: “I have more experience with a bat. Way less experience with a knife. That’s a good point. I know what I’m gonna do with this bat. I don’t know what I’m gonna do with this knife. Stab you. That’s a good point. Rollercoaster dollars. Keep the candy bar, mister! Rollercoaster dollars! And if you are an animator, or a visual effects artist, you probably had the same reaction I did when you heard about this wonderful attempt to fix things up for the fans. Fuck that. “Snooping as usual, I see?” Back in 2012, the spectacular film adaptation of the popular novel Life of Pi managed to score itself a string of awards nominations, Including eleven Oscar nods for directing, editing, visual effects, and more, and in the end it won four of them, including visual effects. Awkward complication: the VFX production company Rhythm & Hues had been forced into bankruptcy shortly before receiving the award. And while you could probably try and pin this down on some individual failings on the part of the company, further exploration revealed this was a pretty natural consequence of the way Hollywood handles the business of visual effects and animation. As detailed in their documentary covering the bankruptcy, which I’ll link below, much of the blame lays on the fact that VFX teams are quite simply punished for creative revisions requested by the clients. See, most VFX teams run on fixed bids, meaning they’re given a budget and told to stay within it. And sometimes this just barely works out, the production team working as much within their limited means as possible, but often, requested changes add weeks and months onto the production cycle, little of which is ever backed up financially by the studio. If you’ve ever worked as a freelancer, Especially creatively you can probably relate to this experience. Roughing out the cost of your work, relative to the effort and man-hours and seeing it all crumble as your client requests revision after revision, that you’re forced to abide at no extra pay. Unfortunately, unlike many creatives, there’s very little bargaining power or wiggle room owed to VFX teams. “When you’re creating these huge fluid dynamic simulations like we did on Life of Pi, and they want to change this wave from going that way to this way, or make the rain go completely differently, that’s a lot of simulation time just to make the change, and then finally it gets shown to the client, who says something like why is it even raining in the shot? It’s not supposed to be raining in this shot.” Which is why they often wind up forced to either shut down or accept huge amounts of underpaid or even unpaid overtime. That’s right folks. It’s crunch. Which sounds way more light and fun than the reality, which is sitting in an office space, Day-in, day-out, away from your families, for a very little real reward. That is, if you haven’t already been forced to move away from your family for months at a time because tax subsidies are a thing, which often forces production companies to arbitrarily move from place to place and yep, that happens a lot, too. And as I say these kinds of working conditions aren’t just limited to visual-effects teams but animation studios as well. Hey, remember Sausage Party, huh? No, I wish I didn’t either. “Whose side are you on? You know, this isn’t just about me, I mean first they come for the bagels, but–” “I don’t know, isn’t there room for both of you and your aisle? It seems like a pretty big aisle.” (airhorn) When animators over at Nitrogen Studios complained of being intimidated and threatened into working hundreds of hours overtime for free, almost half were blacklisted and left uncredited in the final film. That movie made over 50 million dollars profit, and the fact that the animation is pretty good, is probably the only positive thing I can say about it. Just last year Halo VFX, one of the teams behind the visual effects in the critical and commercial hit Bohemian Rhapsody, were also forced into bankruptcy. Tens of thousands of pounds of fees for their work still unpaid. And when the Life of Pi VFX team even hinted at their unfortunate situation on accepting their award, you better believe they got sharked the fuck out of there. My mom and dad, thank you for telling me to do any crazy career choice I wanted. Finally I want to thank all the artists who worked on this film for over a year, Including Rhythm & Hues, sadly Rhythm & Hues is suffering severe financial difficulties right now… I urge you all to remember… Thank God for meritocracy. And while these are one- off examples I’m going into now, the point I’m making is not that these are exceptions that make the rule. By and large this is the norm of how visual effects and animation production companies are treated, and the enormous strain they’re put under by studios. Dozens of these companies file bankruptcy every year, many of which provide effects for big-budget blockbuster films often praised for, say it with me, having pretty damn good animation and visual effects. The tricky thing with this kind of work as opposed to, say, an actor’s performance, is that rather than the work audiences usually find so impressive being front and center, instead it’s often what you don’t notice that indicrates— indicrates… That indicates great work. Everyone likes to meme on the totally out of place, borderline cartoon look of Black Panther’s last act, but it’s easy to forget basically all of Infinity War was also drawn in by visual artists. And incidentally, yes, those subpar visual effects were also the result of a production team overworked, underpaid, and rushed to the point where the film was due to release before effects had even had time to be completed. So basically when audiences find the effects look bad, everyone blames the visual effects team. And when they think it looks good, often, they just get ignored. Audience is uneducated on just how much of the piece is on them. This is how we get campaigns for almost entirely CG characters like Thanos and Planet of the Apes’ Caesar to score Oscar nominations for Josh Brolin and Andy Serkis respectively. But not for better treatment of the production teams that sculpt around 90% of that performance. This isn’t to undercut the great work either of those actors did, but once again audiences just really underestimate how much of that work is on the animators and visual artists. Back in 1997, Titanic was considered a special-effects extravaganza, a film with just over 300 VFX shots. And now we have Infinity War, which boasts more than 3000. So if you were wondering why there’s this odd split between the average Sonic fan excited to see a director admit to his mistakes and correct course so we can get the Sonic we really deserve, and people who’ve actually worked in animation and VFX and see a sudden design change less than a year prior to the film’s release as a pretty terrifying prospect. That’s why. There’s been a sentiment I’ve seen floating around that this is the animation and VFX teams being forced to fix their own mistakes. That this extra work is some kind of Just Desserts for them, and I’m not mad at hearing that so much as sad. Because it speaks to such a lack of knowledge about what this work entails, despite audiences seeing its results in almost every shot of almost every major Hollywood release in the last decade. And certainly it benefits the studios, as they push production teams to race to the bottom just for an opportunity to work on these projects. You’re not going to raise a stink if as far as you know, this is just some incompetent animation team who did the design wrong. Sonic’s new design was done by a marketing team, illustrated in a style guide that the animators and VFX teams were likely forced to work with. These teams are not these wild maverick creatives who get to just make up their own better design and throw it at the studio. They work within the confines they’re given as they did here. And even if these teams did have input, these projects are massive endeavors, and guess what? most of those people who are now almost certainly going to be striding into crunch time for the next few months, had nothing to do with the design that you’re upset about. As it stands, the people least at fault, the teams who’ve already put a tremendous amount of work into this film that frankly is probably going to be okay at best regardless… I mean, it does star a cop. They’re the ones who are most going to suffer as a result of this announcement. Even more frightening is the prospect that production involves work over at Marza animation planet, a Tokyo based animation studio. Japanese companies already famously overworking their animators, with workers often falling ill during projects and even reports of deaths. So when I see Hashtag Gotta Fix Fast, Besides seeing a cold attempt to turn clear disdain for the project into some kind of cheap positive press, I see a few more things. I see an established release date far too short to make the kinds of changes being suggested, which means either a delay, or an incredibly overworked staff. Despite what tweets may suggest, revising a main character’s visual design across an entire film takes a bit more effort than slapping together a photoshop. Or I see that delay, wherein these teams are unlikely to receive the bonus pay they sorely deserve for further months of separation from their families. And I see underneath all that, the implicit notion of blame on these artists, that this is their mistake to be “fixed.” I’m not shifting the blame here onto Jeff Fowler, and you probably shouldn’t either. Certainly, you can call it unfair that he’s the one soaking up the good press for announcing reworks that he won’t be the one who has to actually follow through on. But this is not an individual problem. It’s a systemic one. Because this is how this industry works. Animation and VFX teams are in greater demands than ever, but as opposed to the pull of a big-name star, they are the last thing on a budget’s mind. While I can’t confirm it, there’s a fair chance the teams involved in this film even dropped their rates to work on such a high-profile project, as is often the case. When I look at Hashtag Gotta Fix Fast, I see another Black Panther. Another Sausage Party. Another Life of Pi in the making. All of which could have been avoided, if the producers had actually listened to the voices of visual artists, many of whom had already worked on projects tied to Sonic before and would have recognized something was wrong. The best we can hope for right now is that enough of us can put our voices out there, and express that, yes, there needs to be a delay if you really want to make these changes. And yes, proper payments of these teams needs to be secured instead of pushing them into an unavoidable, unpaid crunch. But again, collective problem, not an individual one. Because even if a lot of eyes are on this specific project, and as a result these artists are treated fairly in this specific instance, these studios can and will sweep it under the rug, and return to status quo the second you’re not looking. At the end of the day, at least on this occasion, it’s just about making adjustments to one character, albeit the main one. Other projects do not get it that easy. This is why unions matter. This is why campaigning against allowing these kinds of exploitative business practices matter. And voting for candidates who want the same. And hey, maybe this is why it’s worth advocating for a system that doesn’t literally run on the notion of getting the most out of your workers at the lowest possible cost. Because this is not meritocracy. Animation and visual effects are some of the most labor-intensive work in the film industry, and it’s hard to deny that in the last 20 years we haven’t seen tremendous advancements in how this stuff looks. But it doesn’t matter how much praise you receive, how many awards you win, when at the end of the day, you live in a system not based around how you can most comfortably do the work you need to do, but how to provide you with as little as possible to get the work out of you. And if you go bankrupt afterwards, who gives a shit? And like with so many other industries, it’s a system that is not working out for these teams. All this to say, Hashtag Gotta Revolt Fast. (water dripping noises) Hey folks, just a quick one there, while this is still a fairly hot topic. Again, as an animator myself, this is obviously an issue that particularly bothers me. So I was really glad for the opportunity to discuss this stuff. Looking forward to seeing your thoughts down below, and you’re also welcome to get in touch with me on Twitter @LackingSaint. As always if you want to support the show, you can throw me a buck or two over on Patreon, or Ko-Fi for one-time donations. Five dollars or more gets you on the credit scrolling by now. Fifteen gets your name read out, as with A Recusant, E. V. Roske, LaborWavedashing, Taurun the Exile, with an extra special thanks to Cowrara, and Pamphleteer. If you can’t support with money, sharing my videos on Reddit, Twitter and your local Discord server also helps a lot. Mark your calendars because May 18th marks the official end of Jack Saint Year One, the anniversary of my first ever video essay. Or, well, I guess technically Rational Big Boy’s first video essay. Haven’t seen that guy in a while. Anyway, expect a special surprise on that weekend. Reminder once again that I also have a Twitch stream where I play video games and chat with viewers over at twitch.tv/LackSaint. Other than that, look forward to more content in the coming weeks. Love you all and stay safe.