For countless generations, many people have had their childhoods are defined by the fictional characters they interact with. Whether it’s rolling down the river in Mickey’s steamboat, traveling the world with Flat Stanley, or hopping through obstacles with Super Mario, these characters defined the childhood of many individuals. Of these wide arrays of children’s fictional characters, one of the most polarizing has been one speedy blue hedgehog named Sonic.
Bursting onto the scene in 1991 with Sega Genesis classic “Sonic The Hedgehog”, the series instantly became a gigantic hit, with Sonic himself rivaling the popularity of Mr. Video Game himself, Mario. Sonic’s momentum continued throughout the ’90s and early 2000s, including hits such as Sonic 3 and Knuckles and Sonic Adventure. Unfortunately for the blue blur, things went off the rails, fast.
After early success in the 3D space with Sonic Adventure 1 and 2, Sonic began to slip. Games such as Sonic Heroes and Shadow the Hedgehog got mixed reviews from fans and critics alike, while others such as 2006’s “Sonic The Hedgehog” were maligned by nearly all video game fans and is often considered one of the worst video games of all time. Since this rough patch, the “dark age of Sonic” as many call it, the quality of Sonic games has been extremely up and down, some being great while others being awful, making him a running joke for many in the video game community.
Despite being more of a punchline than game series at many points, Sonic still has a large and very passionate fanbase with not only children but also many adults who grew up playing his games. The shaky quality of the games aside, Sonic games still come out nearly every year, along with having popular cartoons and toys all over the world. Due to this worldwide fame, it only seemed inevitable that some sort of movie would be made and on June 10th, 2014, it was finally announced that Sony would help produce a movie, though that later became Paramount after financing issues caused Sony to have to sell the movie’s rights.
Video game movies have always been a bit of a disaster. They often have nothing to do with the source material and are made by people who care more about profit margins than the games themselves. With the combined infamy of both video game movies and Sonic himself already have, along with the original studio having to sell off the movie’s rights, many fans were worried that this would be yet another addition to the laughingstock that has become the Sonic series over the years. On April 30th, 2019 we were treated to the first trailer for this movie and suffice to say, fans’ fears were justified.
Looking more like a mutated porcupine than a cartoon hedgehog, disappointed would be an understatement when describing the fan bases reaction. In less than a day the YouTube video of the trailer had 254k dislikes, comments were being made all over social media either maligning the trailer or making fun of it, and it looked like the movie was going to be a complete flop. Yet again, Sonic was a total joke for all of the public to insult.
The director Jeff Fowler tweeted this a couple of days after the reveal, though many fans didn’t pay it much mind. What fans did pay attention to was this tweet a few weeks later. The movie was going to be delayed a sizable chunk to specifically focus on fixing Sonic’s design. The quick delay pleased many, though some grew concerns that the animators now may be put through very bad crunch time to finish the movie, though as Fowler’s hashtag showed, they seemed to be taking that into account.
The new trailer was later released on November 12th with the exact opposite reaction to the first one. Fans were thrilled to see Sonic look like Sonic and even those not interested were impressed by the turnaround. The movie’s writing looked sharper, they clearly had a much better grasp of the theme’s the movie needed, and suddenly this movie went from a near-guaranteed disaster to one that would be anticipated by many.
The movie then released on it’s new date, February 14th, 2020, and was a blazing success. As of this writing, it just became the highest-grossing video game movie of all time at over $150 million. Critics gave it above average ratings while fans were extremely pleased, many considering it probably the best video game movie of all time, though that’s not saying too much. Everything seemed to be going great for Sonic now, with his movie being a great turnaround story. Sadly though, things behind the scenes weren’t as pretty.
On December 12th, 2019, it was reported that the studio that helped make the VFX for the redesign, Moving Picture Company, closed its Vancouver studio, with it claiming that external market pressure along with more attractive opportunities was the reason, though there’s debate on what the actual reason is. In a Reddit thread about the closure, a former employee said they had to work 17+ hour days as well as workweeks at time, with other commenters agreeing. On the contrary, animator Max Schnider claimed that there was no exploration or crunch. It’s hard to find what the real truth is, though the fact that those individuals lost their jobs after working so hard on fixing this movie is a total shame, no matter the hours
One of the main reasons people are not willing to believe that VFX artists and animators alike were not crunched was due to the prominence and reliance on crunch in the entertainment industry in general. Video games may have it the worst out of them all, as this crunch has been prominent for nearly 15 years at this point, with it still being commonplace today to extreme levels with hits such as Epic Games Fortnite and Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption. An Epic Games employee described the environment of work to the site Polygon, stating that he and many others were working 70 hours a week, with some even going as high as 100.
That type of work schedule is completely inhuman and despicable, but sadly very limited research will show you how common it is across nearly all creative fields. These people are forced to dedicate basically their entire lives to these projects, sacrificing time with loved ones as well as major determinants to physical and mental health, oftentimes just to be thrown aside when they’re no longer useful. They often get in this field out of a love or passion for something such as video games or movies. Many who help create the new Sonic for the movie were probably big Sonic fans themselves and finally did what has been their dreams and all they get for it is to be fired.
The question is though, with this info out in the public, why is this still done and accepted? Well, one of the main reasons for video games is the lack of a union. A union is one of the few ways for a worker to fight back against an unreasonable employer. Union’s aren’t a catch-all solution though, as even though films and T.V. have them, they still often deal with crunch. Beyond companies maximizing profits, another major reason for the extreme crunch in this industry is the level of disconnect between the executives and producers of these products and how much time and effort it takes to create things.
Similar to the Sonic movie, Cats was critically panned from day one, with many being unsettled by the photo-realistic cats as well the movie clearly looking like a cash grab with the number of celebrity actors taking up most of the roles. Unlike the Sonic movie though, Cats didn’t get a bounce back, rather it absolutely tanked in the box office and instead of delaying the movie to fix the VFX, they rushed an unfinished cut to theaters.
Common complaints heard from former Cats animators claim that much of the problem with the movie was the unrealistic demands and poor leadership from the director and producers. They’d often describe what they didn’t like and say fix it, not giving any idea of what they actually want and also not understanding the amount of time and effort that goes into making these special effects.
To get a more direct understanding and example of these types of mindsets in the workplace, I performed a couple of interviews with those with experience in this kind of issue.
When talking with Production Artist Eamonn Keenan, he shared similar sentiments to the Cats animators “At my job, there’s so much artwork that needs to get finished, I’m constantly in the situation where a job gets assigned to me that’s already past due. We worked 10 hours shifts/50 hour weeks for 2 years and never got ahead of the amount due.” Two whole years and the company can’t catch up to where they should be, but rather than softening the dates and making it easier to reach these missed due dates, they make them work extremely long hours and shifts constantly while still being behind on work. Luckily for Eamonn, his hours seem light in comparison to some of the other previously mentioned work hours. He also feels he’s been good at being assertive and not letting them take advantage of him, though that can be much more difficult for some than others.
In another interview with Global Supply Planner Susan Kane, she was more in-depth due to her many years of experience and described why she feels companies are like this “Often these people don’t understand that things like coding, design, and other careers such as those are not as easy as it looks. You see the final product and you think ‘oh you just did that and that and you’re done’ but there’s so much that goes into those things and they’re very specific”
When I asked why these individuals are forced to work such excruciating hours, she paused a second and then said “Well, I know for some if they aren’t as efficient as the company wants them to be they’ll be fired, though I know others have trouble saying no in some cases. For example, I work with a lot of coders from all over the world who are very good at their job and code some stunning products. When people see this work through and see what crazy things they can do, they start running through big, long lists with all the different complex things they want to be coded and how they want it done as soon as possible, some unreasonable time span like two weeks. Many of the coders often agree though because it’s difficult for many to flat out deny a request, especially when the person making the request has no concept of how hard it is. So part of it is people taking advantage of these individuals while others just simply can’t grasp the time and effort needed”
As shown with these quotes, much of the abuse stems from the culture and mindset surrounding the industry, especially in America right now. Obviously 100-hour work weeks are simply abuse of their employees, though there’s definitely some who don’t show malicious, ill intent, but have gotten so used to and ingrained this culture of maximum efficiency that they don’t see how crazy their demands are. This concept of maximum efficiency works for some fields, though definitely not many of the creative ones. These projects take far too long and are far too detailed to have these unreasonable schedules.
While this has been a trend in the industry for many years and hasn’t slowed down much, there’s some hope it may get better. With a much bigger public eye and reports of things like studios closing and employees stating the terrible conditions they work, there’s a much greater public understanding of how mistreated many creatives are. With this public understanding, along with directors and producers themselves acknowledging these issues and trying to fix them, you would hope action will be done, though it seems we will have to wait and see what the future holds for the creative industry.
Gilbert, Ben. “Grueling, 100-Hour Work Weeks and ‘Crunch Culture’ Are Pushing the Video Game Industry to a Breaking Point. Here’s What’s Going on.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 9 May 2019, www.businessinsider.com/video-game-development-problems-crunch-culture-ea-rockstar-epic-explained-2019-5#now-talk-in-the-game-industry-is-turning-to-unionization-5.
James, Jessica. “Cats VFX Team Explains What Went Wrong With The Movie.” We Got This Covered, 30 Dec. 2019, wegotthiscovered.com/movies/cats-vfx-team-explains-wrong-movie/.
Kim, Matt. “Sonic the Hedgehog Movie Delayed Until 2020 So VFX Artists Don’t Have to Crunch for the Redesign.” USgamer.net, USG, 24 May 2019, www.usgamer.net/articles/sonic-the-hedgehog-movie-delayed-2020-vfx-artists-dont-have-to-crunch.
Moore, Ewan. “The Internet Has Not Been Kind To The Sonic Movie Trailer.” Unilad, 1 May 2019, http://www.unilad.co.uk/gaming/the-internet-has-not-been-kind-to-the-sonic-movie-trailer/.
Robinson, Posted byAndy. “Sonic Movie Redesign ‘Done without Crunch’, Claims Animator.” VGC, 28 Nov. 2019, www.videogameschronicle.com/news/sonic-movie-redesign-done-without-crunch-claims-animator/.
“Sonic the Hedgehog (2020).” Rotten Tomatoes, www.rottentomatoes.com/m/sonic_the_hedgehog_2020.
Webb, Katherine. “Wow, Sonic The Hedgehog Movie Just Set A Major Box Office Record.” CINEMABLEND, CINEMABLEND, 14 Mar. 2020, www.cinemablend.com/news/2492600/wow-sonic-the-hedgehog-movie-just-set-a-major-box-office-record.
Wood, Chandler. “Sonic Movie Redesign VFX Studio Shuts Down, Worked ‘Extreme Hours’.” PlayStation LifeStyle, 12 Dec. 2019, www.playstationlifestyle.net/2019/12/12/sonic-movie-redesign-vfx-studio-shuts-down-after-crunch-to-push-new-design-through/.