Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Inconvenient Truth of the Sonic Redesign

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As most of you know, I work in the Crunchyroll newsroom. Sometimes news is ready and waiting for coverage, requiring all hands on deck to handle. Other times there's nothing, sending us after sales posts for My Hero Academia finger puppets. But I never complain about lack of news these days. See, last time I did, the Sonic the Hedgehog trailer dropped five seconds later. It was like watching the tediously slow curl of a finger of the monkey's paw.

You all remember that trailer. I wouldn't shut up about it. How Sonic looked like a cursed salaryman, with his man-teeth and man-hands and long long legs. Never mind that the little dialogue we got was kind of hinky. It was just weird and horrifying.

The uproar was so great that Detective Pikachu director Rob Letterman could only manage what amounted to "Wow, I'd hate for this to be my movie." In the end, Jeff Fowler walked his cryptid back, teased a February 14 release date... and yesterday we got a look at a much less nightmare fuel Sanic.

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Naturally, there are some quibbles because 

His arms should be bare instead of having blue fur, for instance. Or, he should have his one weird conjoined eye instead of two separate eyes with a blip of white fur in between them. Yes, those would all make his design more accurate to what it is now in the games, but dear God. If those are our only complaints about movie Sonic's look, we are blessed.

Overall, there's been a sigh of relief around the internet, along with big ups to fanartist-turned-official Sonic arter Tyson Hesse (who was brought in to lead the redesign process). Whatever other issues the movie may have, at least Sonic's first official big-screen starrer doesn't look like bad taxidermy. It's fortunate that the extra time was taken to make this happen. But it's also really, really important to note that none of this needed to happen. Like, ever.

I was talking with an animator friend about Sonic's first design right when it came out, and we came to essentially the same conclusion: he was designed by committee. Make the eyes realer. Make the mouth more human. He's an alien (in this timeline), it's okay for him to look weird. No, we can't just put literal gloves on him, that would be too weird. The end result was the monstrosity we first saw... which, in the face of Hesse's redesign, seems less and less real as the hours pass. It's sort of hard to believe that was ever an option someone committed to film.

The problem here is the assumption that no one at all in the process saw fit to say something or fix something. Because, like. I find that hard to believe. I find that impossible to believe. How could you, a CG artist who likely grew up playing these games, get handed this character model, and not take a lot of issue:

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The problem is, many people not in the industry assume that all it takes is one person to stand up valiantly and say, "Boss, this is shit. I know how to make it not be shit."And the boss will be aghast as the rest of the employees stand up and applaud, and then "God Bless America" will play and a little old lady will appear out of nowhere and give everyone a hug.

I don't need to have connections to the studio (and I don't have connections to the studio) to know that at least one animator will have voiced concerned. And they will have been ignored at best.

Also, no, I don't buy into the "they designed a shitty one first so we'd take to the real one no matter what" theory, because that would involve keeping a lot of people quiet... and we've already had leaks at least twice on this bad boy. If there were covert ops going down, that would have been leaked faster than concept art of Sonic chilling on a car.

Both of these assumptions — that no one involved knew better, or that there was a secret "correct design" in the wings — pull a comfy duvet over a truth fans aiming for the industry don't really want to hear: being a hardcore fan in an industry job doesn't mean you're going to get listened to.

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Any of us in this sort of situation has that aspiration to some degree: when we get in that studio, we will fix everything. If we're given a stupid job, we will push back and fix it. Sometimes? That might work for some. Hell, I'm sure mountains have been moved by a couple of people. But the fact of the matter is, a hot mess of an unfaithfully-produced adaptation is rarely a conspiracy or a matter of no one caring.

Think of actors you love turning in bad performances. At the end of the day, the director and editor pick the takes. The perfect take could still be lying on the cutting room floor. You've probably seen Blu-ray extras and wondered why a perfect, fully explanatory scene got snipped when it could have turned the whole picture around. It wasn't because no one involved thought fit to. It's because the person in charge didn't.

Believing no one cared or that this was a plan all along glosses over the fear that our knowledge and love of something won't matter when we get to where we want to go. And to be clear, I'm not saying it doesn't matter. If you are ever in a position to bring art and inspiration to something, shoot your shot. Attempting it takes your chances up from zero, and you can at least say you tried.

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I have written articles about shows and stories I love with all my heart... but I was not allowed to write them the way I wanted to. (For what it's worth, it was a one-off gig, so you don't need to worry that I might be talking about a current employer.) I watched a concept I was proud of, that I thought would bring understanding of my favorite things on earth to a wider audience, get picked clean of all by the most marketable and plasticine of adjectives. I received a list of adjectives I was permitted to use, none of which benefited me in any way.

I wrote the damn articles. I wrote within the ridiculous confines I'd been given. Because unfortunately, the people I was answering to were the license holders for the very thing I was so excited to write about. I did what I could, but I could have done more. The articles I ended up with were serviceable. I got paid for them, and I hated them. My knowledge and fandom had not benefited me in any way; I was still beholden to someone above me.

So, no. It wasn't a conspiracy. And it wasn't a room full of fools with no one speaking up. Neither is logical. It was a thing that happens. And this just happened to be that once in a blue moon when it was corrected.

Does that mean your love and fandom will never serve you in a professional career? That you will always get steamrolled even when interfacing with what you love? Doubtful. As I said, there will be times when you can do good. But only if you're prepared for the times when it's not up to you.

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