Inside MPC’s character animation for ‘Sonic the Hedgehog 2’.
In this interview with befores & afters, MPC visual effects supervisor Matt Jacobs examines what it took to bring three different CG characters to life on Jeff Fowler’s Sonic the Hedgehog 2, as well as deal with aspects such as integration, ‘Sonic streaks’, destruction and re-times.
b&a: Although Sonic and Knuckles and Tails are ‘cartoony’ characters, I really felt like they were integrated so well into the live action here. What are the challenges of integrating characters like that?
Matt Jacobs: Obviously, you want to get all the lighting and the color of the lights all to be in the world, but we’ve also got a highly saturated blue character and a highly saturated red or yellow character. The production team had a little bit more leeway and desire to take specific lighting cues and work them into a beauty-lighting situation.
So it’s a little bit more of your three white light set up, key fill rim, and soft area lights. I’ve worked on other films where if we did the lighting, the director would’ve had a very different reaction to it, i.e., they would have wanted to match what’s in the plate exactly. But I think with these characters, since it might be a function of their non-realistic proportions and colors and overall physical qualities, that meant we had some leeway to try and beauty light them a little bit more or take something from the plate and then augment it to be more complimentary than do exactly as the plate says.
b&a: During filming, what were the typical things that were there as stand-ins or stuffies?
Matt Jacobs: They had a couple of plastic stuffies that they brought in for the characters. They had furballs; they had chrome ball / gray spheres. The stuffies were the appropriate height and scale, and then some of the other interactives were some little rudimentary things like just a stick with a blue ball on it in the proper eye line level that gives the actors something they can play off of. I’m thinking of one shot where Tom reaches into the water, pulling Sonic out back into the boat after Sonic fell overboard sleeping. They had a weighted ball that they could pull out of the water, which gave just enough weight.
b&a: The other thing that I particularly noticed was a very dedicated approach to selling the speed of say Sonic and of Knuckles. I’m curious what read on screen best when this effect was being developed and ultimately completed?
Matt Jacobs: With that stuff, generally, you shoot something on set, and you hope you’ve got an approximation of the speed or play it on the conservative side, knowing that you’ve got some tools in the post to work with. That was generally the case here as well. A lot of those re-speeds always start with the editorial department. They take the work, take the plates, start cutting that in, and see how far somebody’s traveling in a shot and how well that’s going to hook up to the other shots.
Then there’s some back and forth between what the editorial comes up with and how animation’s approaching a shot. There were many sped-up shots where Sonic is zipping around; there’s also a fair amount of slow-motion type work.
At one point, Sonic is snowboarding down a mountain, and he jumps up and into the air; he’s met by basically the entire armada of drones and buzz bombs and their laser beams and their rockets and their bullets. And he does this little ballet dance –a nod to The Matrix–and he jumps through the lasers and does a little tippy toe-off of one of the drones and sends that into a laser. That was a slow-motion moment, just to sell Sonic’s super-speed.
b&a: What did you call it during post where you would add action lines and lightning and blur from behind the characters?
Matt Jacobs: Just the ‘Sonic streak.’ It was a combination of a blue line zipping behind him, and sometimes there would be lightning incorporated into it, and some extra lighting that would be cast onto his back so that there was some connection between this big blue streak that was coming off.
b&a: There’s a scene where Knuckles arrives at Sonic’s house and they have the fight around there in the rooms and then outside. How did you orchestrate that sequence?
Matt Jacobs: A couple things that stand out about that scene inside the house is that there’s a lot of quick cuts in there. Sometimes those quick cut shots can actually be as difficult as maybe a longer shot because, how do you tell that little bit of the story? And in those 12 frames, those eight frames, the characters are blasting across the room.
b&a: You mentioned re-times, and I know that for VFX that can be tricky not only for comp but also with, say, Houdini sims.
Matt Jacobs: It can be a challenge. What happens is, you get the timings from editorial, then that need to go through a layout and camera department, and then that needs to go into animation, and that must find its way into so many different departments to solve the FX work or the compositing, and if those things get out of sync, the whole thing unravels pretty quickly, and you’re back to square one. Or if they decide to change it, you’re back through all the departments.
We have a very robust system for what is a giant pipeline and how things move through the pipeline, at MPC. Sometimes the pipeline’s only as smart as what you put into it, so it can create havoc down the road if something’s missing. Also, the editor and the director are more acutely aware of what’s in their cut than anybody because they sit there and work on that stuff all day with sound and ADR, so they know what’s in their movie. So, if you show up with a shot that’s not re-timed right or the wrong length, they’re going to know about it. So you have to be on your toes with these things.