The director talks Sonic’s re-design and what it took to plan, shoot and post the film
By now, everyone knows that the titular character in Jeff Fowler’s Sonic the Hedgehog went through a re-design, motivated by adverse reaction to changes made to the ‘classic’ Sega character observed in an early trailer.
Fowler himself acknowledged the feedback on social media, and the production wholeheartedly took it on board in going back to Sonic’s more stylized roots, ultimately causing the film to be delayed until its February 2020 release. This somewhat extraordinary step has, of course, paid off, and Sonic exceeded box-office expectations when it opened last week.
I just had the chance to chat to Fowler about his feature directorial debut, including the practical impact of the character re-design, what it was like shooting the film, and about working with VFX studios including MPC, Marza Animation Planet, Trixter, Blur Studio and Digital Domain on previs and final shots.
b&a: Congratulations on the film. I also wanted to say I’m such a big fan of your short, Gopher Broke [which Fowler made at Blur].
Jeff Fowler: Oh nice! That’s where it all started for me. My affinity for little comedy animated rodents has been with me for a while, as you can see.
b&a: The other day I asked [Blur founder and Sonic executive producer] Tim Miller, ‘Hey, where can I buy or watch Gopher Broke?’ Because I remember buying it for like a $1.99 on iTunes a couple of years ago.
Jeff Fowler: It was on iTunes for a while as part of the short film collection. Maybe we should actually look into that because that’d be kind of a bummer if people wanted to watch it and they actually had no means of doing so! Or maybe Blur can actually just put it up on its website just for anyone who’s curious…
b&a: That’s also something I wanted to talk to you about, which is that transition from working in animation to live action directing. What is it you feel that your history and experience brought for you on Sonic?
Jeff Fowler: I think the best part was just planning. I think you really have to be very meticulous when you’re doing visual effects and animation because it takes so many people, it’s so expensive, that you really have to put a lot of thought and a lot of planning into things. Things like storyboarding, layout or previs; there’s just a lot of work done on the front-end just to get everybody on the same page.
In the case of Sonic where we had a movie built around a CG character, that same kind of planning was crucial. So I did a lot of that. And that workflow isn’t really any different whether the end result is something that’s all animated or it’s hybrid / live action, a visual effects thing or whatever. I think that’s the way I was used to working. And then I think it really helped when it came time to bring in the cast and the crew and I could hand somebody an iPad and say, ‘I have a storyboard animatic’, that would have just some temp score and music – I was actually doing some of the VO, just to have something to edit with. But you could watch it and you could see what the scene was meant to be. And it had the tone and the humor. I think it really helped get everybody excited about the work they were doing.
b&a: That planning – was that most extensively boarding or how much did you also move into previs as well?
Jeff Fowler: For some of the more complicated stuff – a perfect example is our big highway action sequence – initially we did it in boards and then we did some previs just to have a little bit more sophisticated camera work and to take it a little bit further than what boards would allow.
Also stuff in the roadhouse where we have our frozen moment of Sonic running around the frozen bar fight, just knowing that it was going to be a big visual effects sequence and just to take the storyboards a little bit further and to go into previs and have that in a 3D scene where we could play around with the cameras and the compositions.
Those just felt like a very important ones to do as much planning as possible. And then also the very last finale with Robotnik and Sonic and Green Hills. We made sure to have all that in previs just so we really knew what we were after when it came time to shoot the plates.
b&a: Was that previs done at Blur or did you have more of an external previs partner?
Jeff Fowler: There was a little bit done at Blur. We also got a lot of help from Digital Domain. They have a great team over there. And then MPC, who was our main visual effects vendor, did a little bit, too.
b&a: Given that you’ve got a CG character and actors interacting with that CG character, what kind of things did you want on set to help deal with the interaction?
Jeff Fowler: We definitely had stuffies which were really helpful for eyeline and for just giving the camera team some idea of what they’d be framing or how to frame it. We’d usually shoot a reference plate where we would have a very simplistic crude version of Sonic that was the right height. Some of them were actually posable, so you could get some very simple version of him sitting in the car or on the barstool or whatever. Then we would pull that out and shoot the plate clean. It was really helpful just to have something beyond a tennis ball that was representative of his physical self.
Then we had like a weighted version, any time when it needed some very direct interaction. Like when James Marsden is running out of the house after they’ve had their first encounter with Dr Robotnik and Sonic is a little woozy and he’s carrying him down the front steps. Obviously you need something that’s going to represent the weight of Sonic – if it’s too light or flimsy, it’s not going to look like he’s really carrying a flesh and blood creature. It really just depends on the scene, but for the most part just having a little rubber version of Sonic that was the right height and that could allow for a little bit of posing was probably enough to get us through 90% of the shots.
b&a: When there were scenes where he’s going full tilt and crazy fast and there’s a lot of fast action, what were the tricky things about filming those sequences in terms of stand-ins and camera movement? Did that pose a particular challenge at all?
Jeff Fowler: It was challenging. It really just depended on how fast he was moving. I mean, there’s the scene in the kitchen when he’s been knocked out by the explosion at the end of the highway sequence. And then they give him the smelling salts and he pops awake and says, ‘Gotta go fast!’, and then is ping-ponging around the kitchen. So in a situation like that, we actually just had very premeditated marks for the actors. We had six of them. Our 1st AD would just say, ‘One, two, three’, and they’re just moving to each of the marks based on where Sonic would would be. Or even a laser pointer that you could move around – all you’re really after is an eyeline for the cast.
If it was something where it was Sonic on his own and then we needed some really fast camera movement, we usually just do a couple of different versions in terms of how fast the camera is tilting or panning or doing. For example, when he’s playing ping-pong with himself, there’s a wide shot that’s going left and right as Sonic is zipping each side of the ping-pong table to hit the ball. We would just do a couple of different speeds just to have some options when it came time to actually do the visual effects work.
b&a: Once you finished live action photography and got into editing, I’m curious about your approach here with putting together a film that would need a CG character later on. What things helped you in the edit? What things did you do post-vis-wise?
Jeff Fowler: For my director’s cut that I screened for the studio, we basically had a full post-vis pass in the movie. So anything that had Sonic in it, we had a small team that was really just moving at a very brisk pace with the very simple version of Sonic. There was no real facial expression or lip sync or a mouth moving or anything. It was just about trying to get something in there, into the plate to represent what his acting was, what his actions were. And then of course we had Ben’s voice performance, which gives you a lot of what that was in terms of humor or the emotion.
It was all very helpful – it’s kind of like a half-pass of animation, but it certainly makes it infinitely more watchable as a movie than if there’s nothing in there and you just have no idea what you’re even looking at.
In some cases we had taken the previs to a pretty finished state. Say, the baseball scene when he’s playing all the positions and then he gets upset and we see him doing this big run that’s generating all this electricity and lightning. So we actually had some FX in there that we were able to do in the previs. Rather than just having the postvis character and dropping him into the plates – which wouldn’t have had any of those kinds of cool FX that were really story-driven – we just left in the previs. It was looking pretty good. Digital Domain did a really nice job on just creating a little extra polish on it.
b&a: With Ben’s performance, I think I’ve seen a small bit of behind the scenes where he might’ve even been facial captured, possibly just for reference. Is that what you did generally or was it a bit of a mix?
Jeff Fowler: The video reference is always really helpful. I came up through animation and I always loved seeing the recording sessions and seeing what the actors were doing. Not even just for their facial expressions, but even for their body performance. Like, what were they doing when they made that joke? What were the hand gestures when they were searching for the answer to that question? There are all these little cues where, as an animator, you’re just always looking for those and the things you can steal or incorporate into the character that ended up being the most authentic version of Sonic, where you’re taking Ben’s mannerisms and using them in the scenes.
Even though we did have some tracking markers on his face, it’s too big of a leap to go from a human face to our little hedgehog face to be worth the effort of translating it. So even though we did it just to cover ourselves, we weren’t really using any of Ben’s actual expressions and trying to map them onto Sonic.
b&a: The character re-design was such an amazing ‘thing’. Your response on social media and just the general reaction to that has been something else. Can you tell me a little bit about, practically, when you started to do the re-design, what it actually involved, both in terms of concepts and also the VFX studios?
Jeff Fowler: We definitely took a step back and we went back to the 2D concept stage. I mean, we had the 3D model that we could take a still frame of from a turntable and then just paint over it and do some explorations. And then say, ‘Okay, clearly we need to bring back a little bit of the cartooniness of the design. This is what Sonic fans seem to really want and respond to.’ So, just taking the proportions and playing around with it and making the eyes bigger and making the hands bigger, and just knocking down the realism a little bit.
Then once we had a design or a paint-over that we all felt like was the step in the right direction, we looped in MPC and they were able to jump on that really quickly and make those adjustments.
b&a: Did they need to do a lot of extra character work, extra rigging and whatnot? They were obviously manipulating what they had to fit the new design but can tell me a little bit about the work involved there?
Jeff Fowler: I mean, the nice thing about the re-design was, it wasn’t like we were turning Sonic into a four-legged character that runs around on all fours. We were still basically taking a bipedal character that acts with his hands, kind of like a human does. You could take some of that animation work that we had already done and, sure, it’s not as simple as just copying and pasting it onto the new character, but there’s certainly some stuff that was very much salvageable.
I had had that experience before as an animator where you do your first or second pass of animation and then for some reason you get a note and the character changes and the proportions are a little different and everything breaks and you have to go back in and fix the silhouettes and adjust poses and everything – which is not ideal, but it’s certainly not nearly as kind of catastrophic as you might think.
There was certainly work from some of that initial character animation work that we were able to just port over to the new design. I think there’s a perception that we had to redo the whole movie, but we really did not have the whole movie done in terms of visual effects and animation when we decided to do that redesign. It wasn’t a page one re-write of the movie. It was really just fixing some of the animation work we’d already done. Then obviously any of the new sequences that were being started were done based off the new design.
b&a: I think some people don’t always realize that there’s a lot of work done just to deliver trailer shots while the rest of the movie is still being made.
Jeff Fowler: Absolutely. I mean, if you have 60 VFX shots in your first trailer, you probably have 60 visual effects shots done on the whole movie! Those are the tip of the spear. Those are the shots that get rushed in order to get finished. Those will even often change. There are whole websites devoted to comparing the trailer version of a visual effects shot to what the final ended up being – because you are just constantly working on it and plus’ing it and pushing it and trying to make it better. So it was not quite what was reported in terms of, ‘Oh, we had a finished movie, then we had to redo the whole thing because we were changing the character.’
b&a: I was curious though, because you then went with a more stylized character with bigger eyes etc, whether that ended up giving you more scope to be more stylized in general with the animation?
Jeff Fowler: That’s a great point. I think it definitely allowed for us to be able to push the expressions a little bit more than what you normally would have, just because he did feel a little stylized and the animators could go a little further and have a little more fun with expressions and make them a little more over the top. I think it really added an extra kind of layer of personality.
b&a: Is there one scene from the film that’s your favorite that might’ve turned out differently than you thought – better, worse – that you really wanted to pinpoint, Jeff?
Jeff Fowler: I really loved the baseball scene. It was one of those scenes that I felt captured the tone of what I wanted from the movie and Sonic as a character. I really loved the idea of him being this fun-loving, imaginative kid with this incredible gift of super-speed and him going out and be able to play baseball by himself and play all the roles and create all these little characters for the third base coach, the pitcher, the batter, the outfielder. It just was so fun.
I think it made Sonic very likeable and relatable because I think every kid’s probably done that, where they’ve imagined themselves hitting the game-winning home run, or hitting the game-winning shot in basketball. But it also has a lot of heart and in that moment where Sonic realizes that he’s going to be alone for the rest of his life, that really lands in a very emotional way.
Then just having a really cool visual effects moment at the end of the sequence when he goes on his big run and he’s generating all this electricity. That checked three boxes for me that I thought were important for the movie.