Friday, 3 June 2011

Sonic CD intro movie

This is my favourite animated rendition of Sonic the Hedgehog ever.


It basically represents everything that Sonic should always have been about, but has never quite achieved in 3D: enjoyment of space. It's essentially a minute-and-a-half of Sonic just running through nicely rendered, but plain environments, and yet somehow it's more entertaining than three different American Saturday morning cartoons and a three-season anime. The fantastically executed animation and appealing model are part of it, but I think more fundamentally it's because of the sheer joy taken in moving the character around an environment.

I've been meaning to write this post for ages, but I kept just getting lost taking screenshots of the video, because it's so overwhelmingly rich and there's so much for me to say about it. It's hard for me to think of a way to structure a post about it, so I think it best to start off slow: let's look just at the first shot in really hardcore detail.

We start off looking just at a background.

It's not quite static: the clouds move slowly to the right. The clouds themselves are tweened, but the shadows are hand animated in a nice wobbly way that implies uneven ground (I feel like I've seen the same thing done in Ghibli movies). Overall the feel is serene.

Suddenly, a cloud of dust streaks in from the right.
It reaches the middle in the space of 15 frames (at 30fps). However, it's another 23 frames before we see a small dot emerge.
This is a great way of implying perspective through timing: when moving perpendicular to our view, movement appears rapid, but parallel, it seems much slower. Distance inscreases the effect. It's a simple principle, but within the first 4 seconds, before we've even indentified the character, the animation has already been used to evoke a sense of space and distance, more than the static background itself is able.

Sonic emerges from the dustcloud...

...and in the space of another 21 frames, runs straight underneath the camera, and actually leaves the frame.
We're 5 seconds in, and we've had the character visible on-screen for exactly 21 frames: less than a second. This is an ongoing theme for this video: it's not afraid to actually omit the character. It may seem nonsensical, but it's used boldly, to give more emphasis to the environment, and in this case to further imply speed. He's running so fast he's outstripped the camera movement.

This shadow as he zips past is nice. It looks like windswept grass, of course, but also a bit like a flame.

The camera catches up to Sonic, tracking him in a really extreme top-down view.
His run-cycle is 6 frames. That's even quicker than the Compaq bird, about as fast as you can realistically get away with without doing very extreme blurs and streaks (but more on that later). The speed of the animation and the intensity of the camera angle constrast really strongly with our starting point. Sonic's size in frame in quite large, too, compared with how small (or invisible) he was a moment ago.

Sonic accelerates, and leaves the frame again.

These little stars that fan out behind him are worth a mention, since they're actually a little recurring motif throughout the whole animation, generally very subtely when Sonic hits a speed boost. They're fitting though because little stars are actually a bit of a motif for all the early Sonic games. They're on the logo for the Sonic 1 title screen.
Sparkly ones appear in the title screen for Sonic 2. They've always surrounded Sonic whenever he's invincible. And they've acted as portals to Special Stages. They imply a bit of magic, and Sonic CD is quite a magical game (though that's another essay). They're quite distinct from the chunky, cartoony stars used in the Mario games.

Anyway, as Sonic runs underneath the camera, it attempts to follow him. This leads to a really wacky move as we see his trail of footprints upside down, and then the camera slowly rights itself.
The camera move itself is really cool, a really intense way to punctuate the sequence. It sort of evokes a roller-coaster, which anybody who's played a Sonic game will know is fitting. The footprints look awesome as well. Since they're close together and scrolling very quickly, they have this rapid visual rythm to them, as if we can hear Sonic's feet hitting the ground.
Sonic appears in frame again here, but very small and only briefly. What we really see is the massive dust cloud that forms in a gourgeous back-and-forth pattern as he boosts away again.
And even this gets left behind, so the last part of the shot is, again, pure landscape, though still moving rapidly.

This is all one continuous cut, and lasts about 11 seconds. We've already had very strong contrasts in timing and framing, extremely cool use of the camera, and some very nice animation. All of these have been used to emphasis a sense of space, and speed. The rest of the opening is a tour-de-force of these techniques, and tons of other little flashes of brilliance.

The shadow flashing across the mountains is incredibly cool. Technically it makes no sense, but it does so many clever things. It turns what should be a very small movement on-screen (see the size of the dust cloud) into a very big one. It lets us see the character without quite seeing him, as if he's just slightly too fast to catch sight of. It also sort of evokes the long, horizontal shadows caused by evening lighting.

The camera's static while that happens, but moves down and left, following the dust cloud as it travels the same direction, and allowing our eyes to catch up to it.
A big plume is kicked up as Sonic turns a corner, which is not just sensible but also a good way to make it clearer. The little playful little juke right afterwards is immensely pleasing. After that he slows for just a couple of frames before zooming off in a straight line.
It's just a nice, tiny little timing to help segment and organise the scene. It separates "two mountains" from...
..."two rainbows". Fuckin' splashes as rainbows, man. Who thinks up stuff like that? Awesome. Only in the 90s. There's some more little sparkly stars there, as well. The camera stays still here for about a second to provide more spacing and contrast. Something I only noticed when going through frame by frame was the very subtle way the dissipating dust cloud is animated.
From the point where Sonic leaves the frame it's aniamted on ones for 6 frames, on twos for 16 frames (8 drawings), and then on threes for 24 frames (6 drawings). Animating on threes is technically a no-no, and anime often does it simply because it's cheap. However, sometimes it has the very pleasant effect of making things feel slower and more sedate. Animating on ones causes a very frenetic, nervous feel. On twos looks normal. On threes is calming. If you want a serene scene with trees gently blowing in the wind, animating it on threes might help the effect. Here it provides another, very subtle and gradual, contrast in timing. Also, note that little bit of red that peels off the top of the second rainbow. It's delicious.

Next we get our first proper mid-shot. I guess the middle of the first scene counts, but that was all a big crazy camera move.
The shrunken thumbnails don't really show it, but there's a little flurry of leaves that subconsciously telegraphs Sonic's arrival. It's sort of like punctuation. There's a couple other devices like that which I'll point out as they crop up.
Sonic zooms into the shot extremely quickly and a bit chaotically (note the stars). I guess this is as good a time as any to point out his running animation. It's based on the animation used when he hits top speed in Sonic CD.
It's sometimes referred to as the "rubber-band" run. It's nonsensical but stylish. Using it in fanart is the official way to show you're a proper tryhard old-skool Sonic fan (or, when used in official materials, it shows that you're pandering to proper tryhard old-skool Sonic fans). He had a version of it in Brawl. Here's a page featuring it from the Archie Sonic comic, drawn by Tracey Yardley.
There's a little added twist to it here, as in some frames it's replaced by this cool-as-hell erratic zig-zaggy lightning-bolt shape.
You can see it in a couple of the earlier frames from this shot, too. In this case it has a three-frame cycle: twisted rubber-band (as in the first Sonic CD screenshot), un-twisted rubber-band (second Sonic CD screenshot), zig-zaggy. Nice. The 8-frame loop of him going round the tree messes that up a bit though.
Isn't this a great composition, by the way? The perspective makes it really yummy.
More stars!
We whip across from this static and very distinctly organised shot to...
...a very rapidly moving, chaotic shot. CONTRASTS, man! CONTRASTS!

Another very clearly organised shot.
Sonic whips in very close to the camera for exactly one frame here. It's really striking. It's also the first time we've got really up close. We start to see more of him like that from here on, though.

This dust that suddenly pops up after he's gone past is another one of those little punctuation marks I mentioned earlier. The rocks falling off the right cliff edge in the earlier set of screens also follow the camera down in a pleasing fashion. Just a little extra guide to help our eyes go in the right direction.

Not much to say about this bit, except that, once again, there's a contrast in timing: Sonic holds the top pose for a bit before curling up and shooting down quickly.

This next part's really delicious, though.
Sonic rolls along (I really like this way of drawing him in a ball, by the way), and whenever he bounces off a rock...
...he pops out of his ball form for just a few frames in order to kick off them.
It's a really lovely visual accent, and the sort of magic that I feel traditional animation is inherently suited to producing.
Sure, you could rig a 3D character for this sort of thing, but why spend hours doing that when you can just fucking draw it! It's spontaneous.
And doesn't he look appealing in these frames? This part reminds me of the fact that every one of these frames was produced by an actual human being, not a computer. Even if you're an apathetic, underpaid member of the Korean animation slave trade you're still a person, not a computer. Even the shoddiest of hand-drawn in-betweens has more personality than goddamn digital motion blur.
This shot is, again, in very nice perspective. Sonic moves closer to the camera, and gets really close before a sudden cut.
This bushy way of drawing Sonic's spines from behind reminds me of Sonic the Comic. This shot is a bit plain, but if you look closely there's a trail behind him that distorts the background slightly.

The closeups have been getting more frequent, and this is the first time we get really close to Sonic's face for any length of time. There's been sort of a gradual transition, starting off with seeing him barely at all, often just as a dust cloud cutting through the landscape, but over time we've moved in closer until we're literally under his nose. It's not an obvious choice to make for an intro movie (you'd expect to start with a good look at the character), but it fits with what I said before about enjoyment of space. It also gives the feel that the camera's been chasing Sonic, and has only just now been able to really catch up to him.

This next part is all one elaborate hand-animated camera move. No background plates or tweening here. Just good old-fashioned elbow grease and skill. (he also traces a nice line down through my screenshots, awesome)
And there's still room for more of those lovely big-small contrasts.
Shift to a front-on view again, with strong animated perspective and very striking use of the rocks as they pass through the camera.
And Sonic finally stops moving for a moment.

This is a good juncture to comment on how well-timed the animation is to the music. So much so that I'm inclined to believe they were produced concurrently in a back-and-forth process, rather than just storyboarding to a set track (this is a fantastic way to work, by the way, if you can do it). From the wooshing sound effect and right-to-left panning snare rush at the beginning as Sonic first enters the frame, to the way that each line of the first verse is timed to a moment in the animation ("TEN TEN" for the two mountains, "NINE NINE" for the two rainbows). This whole rapid tracking shot is accompanied by a distinct part of the track, where soft synth pads come in under the vocals. It's a clear build up to something.

 Moar contrasts, as we pull out quickly, only for Sonic to dash in suddenly towards the camera, and the music reaches a climax...
 ...something a little interesting happens. Right as we have another panning snare-rush, Sonic's animation stops, and he fades out slowly. It's a weird thing to do but it just sort of works. To me it implies he's hitting WARP SPEED.

Doesn't matter though because the next bit is sweet as hell.
Sonic's done the whole skipping/running across water thing in various different games, but it's never been as cool as this. The way his legs suddenly do the rubber-band/zig-zag thing right as he hits it is really ingenious. Combined with the timing it really gives the feeling that he's pushing himself out of the water by running against it really fast. Rather than trivialising the action by having him skim across weightlessly, the effort is emphasised, and that makes it seem so much more powerful.

And look how gourgeous the splashes are! The lack of black outlines makes the water feel really fresh and clear, and even the reflection is animated properly. And even though it's fairly complex animation, it's not like Disney's hyper-detailed realistic water. It's stylised and simplified, but still feels genuinely wet, just through simple techniques and skilled movement.

 Have I talked enough about contrasts in framing yet? Also, that shadow is a really neat way to give some volume to a top-down view like that.
Sonic just keeps zipping towards and away from the camera!

This shot really teases us. We don't even get a dust cloud, all we see is some rustling in the trees before a tiny dot races over the hill and suddenly he's in our face again.

The legs are on a different cycle from before, too. Now it's four-frames: two-looped rubber-band, zig-sag, two-looped rubber-band, three-looped rubber-band (third to last screenshot shows what I mean). They really go all over the place but it looks neeeat.

The song continues to build towards the chorus, and we get more and more of the character moving into and out of the shot.

Did you spot the flash frames of Sonic drilling through the rock first time through? My mate Andy didn't. But even if you don't, they're suitably emphatic for the climax of the song (and the cheesy lyrics even fit!)

The view is once again pulled out here but the movement of the tiny Sonic zipping around this mountain is really slick and satisfying. The bit where he leaps off the little outcrop on the right onto the main body is especially bejujular.

Can you tell I'm running out of synonyms for "good"?

This right here is just some super awesome animation. Really pushing the stylised legs. It's almost a shame it's so brief, stills barely do it justice. I like how after looping so quickly around the rock Sonic does just one extra spin in mid-air. Whenever animating something rotating, it's always a good idea to add just one more spin.

These red sparks are an excellent detail to emphasise how much the chain is straining against the weight of an entire planet (and itself, probably).

Most extreme camera move yet? I like the streaky background as the camera pans around, too.

As Sonic goes into a spin here he flashes out of the compact ball for the odd frame or two and we see his face. Nice little detail!

More stars! It's not always apparent, but they seem to always between circular and triangular arrangements on alternate frames. I don't know why, but it's always fun to discover whatever little systems the animator came up with for what he was doing.

As Sonic rolls down the hill, he does a little hop partway. This adds a point of interest to the action and stops it being all one smooth motion. It also reminds me of a peculiarity in the Game Gear version of Sonic 1 where if you rolled down a hill fast enough, Sonic would do a hop right at the bottom.

The last shot is the icing on the cake. There's three seperate backgrounds, but on continuous sequence of animation.

There's a little splash on the surface of the water...
...and then a barely visible dot shoots up...

Spot the pixel.
It quickly turns into Sonic.

And as his face fills the screen, there's a hidden cut (well, it's actually a cross-fade of about 6 frames, which is a pity because I don't think they needed it!)

Then, as he enters the cloud cover...

...and emerges from it, we get a full sense of scale.

And finally disappears for the last time.

All throughout, while there's constantly rich and interesting animation, there's a strong emphasis on bringing the character into and out of the frame (both in terms of depth and literally being inside or outside our view). The idea is that all the space that exists is free for him to exist in. Unlike the side-scrolling 2D games, he's not limited to a flat plane at a constant distance from the camera: he can literally go anywhere and travel in any direction, whether it's ten miles from us, right up close, in the center of our view, or off the screen.

This is also used structurally, to an extent.

A graph of Sonic's distance from the camera.
For the first 15 seconds he remains at a distance, and any closeups before around 25 seconds are either very brief, or from an obscured viewpoint. As the song builds in tension there are lots of relatively small changes in depth, but after it really kicks in the changes are less frequent, but much more extreme. Note that it's only after the first third that we have any lines going all the way from top-to-bottom or vice-versa. And any part where there isn't an extreme change in framing instead has a distinct action that needs to be seen clearly (skipping across the water, drilling through the rock). There's probably more information to be gleaned from this graph, inaccurate as it is.

This is, to me, what Sonic as a character should be about. All attempts to have him engage with other characters have been, to me, mediocre at best. No extraneous friends, no talking, no drama, just action and space and FUN. My god, doesn't it look like Sonic's having a good time flipping around rocks and rolling over hills and running on water and shit? Why can't any of the 3D games be that satisfying? CAN they be that satisfying? Of course, you couldn't ever make a cartoon or comic series out of Sonic running around, but maybe that's a sign that the whole idea is flawed. Sonic's a videogame character. If it weren't for the constant troubles his games have been having for the past decade, maybe more people would accept that and we'd have less fanart of Sonic pregnant with Shadow's child (I did actually find this on Deviantart but I can't bear to actually post it).

This masterpiece, according to the credits, was directed by Yukio Kaizawa, and the lead animator was Hisashi Eguchi.

Here's a little animation I did sort of inspired by this.

I drew from a few different sources: the way he distorts when he revs up is from Sonic Advance; the little white streak that spins around is from Sonic Spinball; the dust cloud is partially ripped from Sonic 2. I don't feel I quite got the model down right (I was sort of aiming for an in-between of many things), but I still think it looks nice.


Anonymous said...

I don't really have much to say beyond the fact that this gigantic and seemingly needless analysis just made me appreciate what animation has done and can do a lot more.

Sonic!BeCoolAgain said...

This is spectacular. I regularly come back to this clip/song combo as being the most inspiring thing I think I ever saw as a kid. I practiced the one armed lookout pose on bollards until I was about 12.... Anyway being told the animation is awesome just kicks the whole thing into another stratospheric gear of awesome!