VFX SHIFT INTO HIGH GEAR TO KEEP UP WITH HIGH-SPEED SONIC THE HEDGEHOG 2 1

VFX SHIFT INTO HIGH GEAR TO KEEP UP WITH HIGH-SPEED SONIC THE HEDGEHOG 2

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By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Sega of America, Inc.

Jim Carrey reprises his role as the main antagonist, Dr. Ivo Robotnik.

Jim Carrey reprises his role as the main antagonist, Dr. Ivo Robotnik.

MPC served as the main vendor with 1,200 to 1,400 shots involving character animation.

MPC served as the main vendor with 1,200 to 1,400 shots involving character animation.

MPC served as the main vendor with 1,200 to 1,400 shots involving character animation.

Successfully adapting video games has been a rare feat in Hollywood – and even more so to warrant a sequel – but filmmaker Jeff Fowler and Visual Effects Supervisor Ged Wright have come together once again to produce Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for Paramount Pictures and Sega Sammy Group. In the sequel, Dr. Ivo Robotnik (Jim Carrey) escapes from the Mushroom Planet and partners with an alien echidna called Knuckles (Idris Elba) to find a mystical emerald that has the power to destroy civilizations and defeat his hedgehog nemesis Sonic (Ben Schwartz) and the two-tailed fox Tails (Colleen O’Shaughnessey).

“After finishing shooting, we did a version of the film through Blender rendered in Eevee with motion blur, depth of field, proper tracks, and integrated the characters into the live-action photography. An in-house team of 10 to 14 people produced well over 12,000 versions of shots [within a period of 12 to 14 weeks] that went into editorial and allowed the creative team to come up with a cut of the movie that didn’t throw MPC off track. This was critical in allowing the film to get completed by the absolute skin of our teeth.”

—Ged Wright, Visual Effects Supervisor

For Tails, Visual Effects Supervisor Ged Wright wanted to make sure that his tails were present and creating nice shapes.

For Tails, Visual Effects Supervisor Ged Wright wanted to make sure that his tails were present and creating nice shapes.

“The thing that has drawn me back to this was Jeff Fowler, [producer] Toby Ascher, [executive producer] Nan Morales and all of the of the other people involved who made turning up to work feel like you’re making a movie with your friends rather than going into battle every day,” states Wright. “The first one made the storytelling side of things more straightforward [this time around] and created a certain number of parameters that you’re working within.”

“We ended up with 1,200 or 1,400 character animation shots, so those little furry dudes are in most of the movie. Certain things were reusable [from the first movie], like the look and quality of the fur. These characters have vast eyes, so a significant amount of work was spent improving the shading, look and feel of them as they communicate a great deal, and that worked paid off in this film.”

—Ged Wright, Visual Effects Supervisor

The sequel was unable to outrun the pandemic. “We were making an animated film on a live-action schedule, which means rather than having three or four years we’re doing it in half of the time,” notes Wright. “Then all movie productions stopped. All of the big companies shrunk their staff, but [when all of the productions simultaneously started up again] then everyone wanted to hire back their same staff within the same six- to eight-week period. You had a huge amount of content, however, not enough people trained on how to do it. There is a massive skills shortage in the visual effects industry right now.”

Knuckles rarely opened his hand because it looked like he was wearing oven mitts.

Knuckles rarely opened his hand because it looked like he was wearing oven mitts.

Knuckles rarely opened his hand because it looked like he was wearing oven mitts.

Knuckles rarely opened his hand because it looked like he was wearing oven mitts.

Critical in being able to release Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on time was the emphasis placed on previs and postvis.  “After finishing shooting,” comments Wright, “we did a version of the film through Blender rendered in Eevee with motion blur, depth of field, proper tracks, and integrated the characters into the live-action photography. An in-house team of 10 to 14 people produced well over 12,000 versions of shots [within a period of 12 to 14 weeks] that went into editorial and allowed the creative team to come up with a cut of the movie that didn’t throw MPC off track. This was critical in allowing the film to get completed by the absolute skin of our teeth.”

DNEG got the opportunity to explore the Mushroom Planet that was hinted at the end of the original movie.

DNEG got the opportunity to explore the Mushroom Planet that was hinted at the end of the original movie.

DNEG got the opportunity to explore the Mushroom Planet that was hinted at the end of the original movie.

There were over 1,900 visual effects shots by MPC, DNEG, Marza Planet Animation and an in-house team while Fish Flight Entertainment assisted with the previs and postvis. “We ended up with 1,200 or 1,400 character animation shots, so those little furry dudes are in most of the movie,” laughs Wright. “Certain things were reusable [from the first movie], like the look and quality of the fur. These characters have vast eyes, so a significant amount of work was spent improving the shading, look and feel of them as they communicate a great deal, and that worked paid off in this film.”

“The focus was on making sure that the things that were in and around the humans had the most amount of real production budget spent on them. We wanted the production designer involved in designing the whole film because otherwise we would have had big chunks of the film where those decisions were being made by the wrong people. There is no other way to put it!”

—Ged Wright, Visual Effects Supervisor

A massive amount of blue electrical energy is generated by Dr. Ivo Robotnik (Jim Carrey) on the Mushroom Planet.

A massive amount of blue electrical energy is generated by Dr. Ivo Robotnik (Jim Carrey) on the Mushroom Planet.

No matter the lighting conditions and position of the camera, Sonic, Knuckles and Tails always had to be recognizable. “If you photograph one of us at sunset, we look different, which is something we have come to expect,” says Wright. “But with iconic, stylized characters there is often an expectation for them to look consistent throughout the film, which is not a photographic reality. It was easy at first but got harder towards the end.” The original 2D character designs had to be adapted to work in 3D. “Sonic’s mouth had to be off to one side and generally on the camera’s side,” adds Wright. “For Knuckles, you rarely want to open his hand because it looks like he’s wearing oven mitts. You want to keep him on character and make sure that he feels strong and intimidating. For Tails, you want to make sure that his tails are present as part of his character and creating nice shapes. They can easily look as if they were dragged along the floor. Nobody wanted that.”

A ring portal opens with adversaries searching for Dr. Ivo Robotnik (Jim Carrey).

A ring portal opens with adversaries searching for Dr. Ivo Robotnik (Jim Carrey).

A ring portal opens with adversaries searching for Dr. Ivo Robotnik (Jim Carrey).

Driving the character animation was the voice cast. “A lot of the time, if the voice performance changes, then it feels like the actual physical performance needs to change, not just the lip sync,” notes Wright. “We were as diligent as possible to make sure that the voice performance was turned over as early as possible so that the animators could be sitting there working with it. We also did a similar thing with filming the actors while they were performing. We didn’t end up going through the process of doing any facial motion capture this time around because the characters are so wildly different and the amount of effort that goes into capturing that data felt like it was a diminishing return doing that.” Less was considered more with the lip sync. “They don’t have lips so it can feel like a latex mask moving around if you’re not careful,” observes Wright. “You want to be hitting the core shapes; however, focusing on properly enunciating each syllable is not the best outcome.” The process of getting the live-action and CG characters to interact did not greatly change. “We had the usual hit list of interactive items, like little sandbags that people can pick up,” says Wright. “We slightly moved things along from the first film, as far as on-set reference, which was more helpful. The most challenging interaction bits are when the characters are hugging them. Picking them up was more successful, because with the little bodies it’s easier to figure out what that interaction is going to be. To nail those interactive shots, you need to be doing a 3D representation of the human characters. We weren’t able to do that this time around because we simply ran out of time.”

Various Rube Goldberg traps were constructed out of mushrooms by Dr. Ivo Robotnik (Jim Carrey).

Various Rube Goldberg traps were constructed out of mushrooms by Dr. Ivo Robotnik (Jim Carrey).

An emphasis was placed on getting practical elements. “For the snowboard chase we did a week-long shoot up in the Canadian Rockies that gave us a tremendous amount of material to inform that,” states Wright. “When they discover the Big Owl cavern, that was all CG because there are no human characters. The focus was on making sure that the things that were in and around the humans had the most amount of real production budget spent on them. We wanted the production designer involved in designing the whole film because otherwise we would have had big chunks of the film where those decisions were being made by the wrong people. There is no other way to put it!” Minimal greenscreen was utilized. “At the end of the film when they’re in the riverbed, rather than surround everything in greenscreen we chose a location that had a similar texture and feel,” adds Wright.  “That’s a better approach rather than having to change absolutely everything.” Virtual production was part of the toolset. “We had the LED volume and used that to get the lighting in a better place on the set pieces and characters,” says Wright.  “One example is when Robotnik is in the ‘mech head’ and has all of the electricity around him, he was actually in a LED volume. It was better to do the roto and extract him off something that was giving him all sorts of interesting lighting cues on his face and eyes rather than trying to light the actor and have a clean key to pull.”

“We had the LED volume and used that to get the lighting in a better place on the set pieces and characters. One example is when Robotnik is in the ‘mech head’ and has all of the electricity around him, he was actually in a LED volume. It was better to do the roto and extract him off something that was giving him all sorts of interesting lighting cues on his face and eyes rather than trying to light the actor and have a clean key to pull.”

—Ged Wright, Visual Effects Supervisor

Most of the interior of the giant mech robot was dark until the emerald electricity comes on and lights it up.

Most of the interior of the giant mech robot was dark until the emerald electricity comes on and lights it up.

Most of the interior of the giant mech robot was dark until the emerald electricity comes on and lights it up.

Knuckles and Tails can move at high speed like Sonic. “One of the core differences this time around is we had other characters in that heightened reality,” observes Wright. “As soon as you have two characters that are moving at the same speed, you almost don’t know that everything is in a heightened reality. There were a different set of parameters there. We had a couple of instances where we wanted to demonstrate that effect upon the rest of the world. One of them is when they’re fighting in the backyard and Robotnik spills his popcorn as they go into this heightened speed. We shot Jim on a super high-speed camera to get that. Most of the time it was two CG characters that are in that world, so you’ve got a lot more flexibility to alter and add things to be able to heighten those moments.” The speed trails were tricky. “They’re quite a graphic stylized element and self-illuminated, so it’s hard to get a sense of depth,” explains Wright. “You end up having to design them specifically for the shots to get the right look.” Driving everything was the sheer volume of the performance and character animation. “There is no shortcut for that. It takes time both for the animation team and the wonderful animation director that we had, Eric Guaglione, to come on and find that language,” Wright says, adding that the tonal variety of the narrative was an asset. “What I enjoyed about making this film was the possibility to lean into storytelling and the intimacy between characters while also having these big action beats. Often on movies you get to do one or the other. It’s unusual to be able to do both.”



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