In April 2019, Paramount Pictures released a trailer for its “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie. Within days, social media exploded with criticism over the hedgehog’s appearance, with some of the most passionate responses posted to Twitter.
“Good morning to absolutely everyone and everything other than live action Sonic the Hedgehog’s creepy human teeth xx,” said user @Charalanahzard.
A few days later, Jeff Fowler, the film’s director, tweeted that there would be changes to Sonic’s character design, using the hashtag #gottafixfast. In the weeks that followed, Paramount Pictures took two steps toward making a redesign of Sonic happen.
The studio pushed the movie’s release to Feb. 14, 2020, instead of its original date in November 2019.
They also hired Sega Games animation director Tyson Hesse, who would go on to lead a team of animators and other artists to redesign the furry blue hedgehog.
The animators’ hard work seems to have paid off—“Sonic the Hedgehog” is now the highest-earning video game movie ever in the United States, making about $57 million in its opening weekend.
“After my whole life growing up liking Sonic, to work on something officially is a feeling I can’t describe,” said Hesse, who spoke at the University of South Carolina Thursday night. He was the first speaker in a series hosted by Greenville’s Studio South and UofSC professors Jeff Williams and Sabrina Habib.
The day after Paramount called Hesse and asked him to lead Sonic’s redesign, he brought a sketch of a new Sonic to a meeting with the film’s director and producers. They made edits and gave Hesse an hour to adjust his design. After he made the corrections, they sent him to London to begin the redesign process, which involved hiring more team members. Hesse prefers to hire talented new artists who are trying to break into the industry.
“If you’d told me five years ago that I’d be hiring the people I’m hiring I’d say no, there’s no way,” said Hesse, who was working at Sega Games as the company’s animation director for short-form Sonic animations. “Giving them the opportunity to have their name attached to a Sonic project is really rewarding.”
However, if the Charlotte native hadn’t moved to Los Angeles five years ago, he might not have had the opportunity to work on the hedgehog franchise.
Hesse had worked in comics for seven years on the East Coast. Although he was getting jobs and making good comic rates, he realized he might need a location change to get more opportunities.
“Looking at the future ahead, it looked like a life that would keep me alive, but maybe not allow me to pursue the things I wanted to pursue,” Hesse said.
He dreams of making his own comics and telling his original stories, which was what led him to work with Sega in the first place.
At a San Diego Comic Con, Hesse walked up to Sega’s booth and asked if they wanted four Sonic the Hedgehog comic strips he had made in 2009. The employee who took Hesse’s comics turned out to be Sega’s social media manager.
“As a goof, I was like, ‘hey dude, you want this stupid comic I made?’” Hesse said. “He ended up liking it a lot, and later he said they kept it around the office and laughed at it all the time.”
When Sega was looking to start an in-house animation department, employees remembered Hesse’s comic that he gave them at Comic Con. At that point, Hesse’s relationship with Sega officially began.
“The handshake factor cannot be understated,” Hesse said. “That’s how Los Angeles works—you can’t throw a rock without hitting someone working on something, and that’s how you keep employed.”
Hesse used those connections and friendships when searching for new talent to create a friendlier hedgehog. Hesse and his team set a goal of making Sonic look more like the original, well-known character, which they hoped would persuade audiences that the movie was worth seeing.
“It’s basically the same movie; it’s just with a character that people can recognize and love a little bit more,” Hesse said. “I’m glad that they wanted to take that approach to the character because it got people to go see it and hopefully enjoy it.”