Satire, Subversion, and Sonic the Hedgehog

When Sonic the Hedgehog 2 sped into theaters in April, its $71 million box office debut meant that it broke the record for the best-ever opening weekend for a video game adaptation. If the average theater ticket is, as recent research suggests, $9.57, that means that roughly 7.4 million people lined up to see the Sega mascot in the sequel to his 2020 original.

Sonic gets ready to battle in sonic the hedgehog 2.

There’s no getting around how impressive those figures are. But Jehtt (his screen name, not his actual one), a 24-year-old YouTuber from California, may have one-upped Hollywood, even with all its infinite resources.

While Sonic 2 had a production budget in the region of $100 million (and a considerable chunk of that again for marketing costs), Jehtt’s not-so-big-budget series of hilarious, totally unauthorized shorts starring Sega’s blue hedgehog have proven to be enormous hits on the internet. By repurposing in-game Sonic cutscenes and cleverly overdubbing amusing new lines, Jehtt has created a collection of minute-long bootleg masterpieces that wryly comment on quirky aspects of online culture.

“I don’t know if that’s what I would have said in my head, but ‘the ridiculousness of internet culture’ is actually a pretty good baseline to think about a lot of what my content is parodying,” Jehtt told Digital Trends.

The winning formula

In one typical video, Sonic and Tails lambast echidna-buddy Knuckles for buying an NFT from a person who sounds suspiciously like the villainous Dr. Eggman. (“I bought an NFT of the Master Emerald to prove I own it.” “You knucklehead! That NFT isn’t the Master Emerald. It’s just a hyperlink to a JPEG of the Master Emerald.”) That got 2.2 million views.

In another, Sonic and edgy rival Shadow bicker over the correct way to pronounce GIF — with a G or a J sound. (“Name one word that starts with a ‘G’ pronounced like ‘J.’” “Gentrification.” “Shoot, should have thought of that. I was just in San Francisco.”) This one scored a cool 6 million views.

Jehtt – who asked that his real name not appear in this article – started posting videos on YouTube as a teenager. However, it wasn’t until the COVID lockdown that he stumbled upon his winning formula. At around that time, a member of the online Sonic community named SPEEPSHighway posted a mod called the Sonic Adventure Meme Maker. It gave users the ability to create their own cutscenes for the 1998 Sega Dreamcast game Sonic Adventure. Not only could they enter their own text to appear in the game’s subtitles, but they could also exhibit “ultimate control” over other elements of the cutscenes, such as camera position and player animations. Jehtt was off to the races.

This year alone, his Sonic videos have racked up 67.4 million views in all. On his best day, April 23, 2022, some 3.4 million people watched one of his shorts. His biggest hit to date, titled “Bro, are you flirting with my sister?” has amassed 14 million views. The TL;DR version? People really, really like his stuff.

“I [initially] tried to conceptualize it by imagining, like, a football stadium full of people,” he said. “Then I realized that is woefully inadequate to imagine what a million people looks like. So I imagined the population of the city I live in. Then I realized I really can’t visualize the entire population of the city that I live in. I really have no way of even conceptualizing numbers like a million in a way that my human brain can fully understand. I try not to hurt myself by thinking about it too much.”

Nothing new under the sun

Unofficial fan-made creations have long been a part of geek culture. Often, these expressions of fan enthusiasm are totally earnest. Just as often, they’re subversive, a trend that dates back at least as far as the Tijuana bibles of the early 20th century, which placed popular figures into titillating situations.

There is, therefore, nothing especially new about what Jehtt is doing conceptually. But it’s the scale that he – and others like him – operate on that makes this interesting. By latching onto the magical YouTube algorithm, and making use of the right keywords, they’re able to create content that’s seen by literally millions of people — and which taps into an established shared cultural understanding about these properties.

“With well-known characters, there’s already a standard set for them,” said Wes, 22, who posts videos – oftentimes riffing on the popular Metal Gear video game franchise — under the name Funnywes. “We’ve known these characters for our whole lives. It’s fun to take what people already know and remix it. I love it when an otherwise serious subject matter gets sillier content made for it … I see it as a bit of a launchpad; a good amount of creatives started off just making stuff based on the stuff they liked.”

Meanwhile, Solid JJ – real-name Jon, also 22 – creates slideshow theater videos that mimic the simple DIY memes of yesteryear: Simple text subtitles against still images taken from shows like the campy Super Friends. Like Jehtt, Solid JJ’s videos frequently poke fun at internet culture – such as a Norm Macdonald-reminiscent sketch in which Batman makes his case for being crowned leader of the Justice League.

The video’s title, “Batman DESTROYS the Justice League with FACTS and LOGIC,” mocks a particular brand of “culture war” video online (now virtually a meme in its own right). Said video currently sits pretty with a whopping 7 million views.

“I feel like the choice to use pre-existing characters rather than using my own is partially due to the limitations my videos give me,” said Solid JJ. “In an ironic way, being able to produce these without the need of animating or filming gives me a lot of freedom with what I do, but with that comes the limitations of resources. However, I also feel like using preexisting characters can have advantages I otherwise wouldn’t have, like taking a viewer’s expectations for a character and flipping it. It isn’t mind-blowing, but when you click on a video with The Flintstones on the thumbnail, you’re not expecting Barney to rant about the atomic bomb and the sin of man.”

Here come the prosumers

As fans-turned-creators for their favorite properties, these creators are an example of what the futurist Alvin Toffler would term “prosumers,” meaning producers who are also consumers. For whatever reason (possibly a combination of frustrated creatives and more passionate, obsessive fans), the world of fandom has always had a steady supply of pioneering prosumers.

In 1975, a Star Trek fan named Kandy Fong created a slideshow of Star Trek images set to music. In doing so, she’s credited as creating the fan “mash-up,” crafting a piece of new media by divorcing images from their original context and weaving them together into something new. The slideshow, which was soundtracked by a fan-made folk song (called a “filk”) titled “What Do You Do with a Drunken Vulcan?” was screened at Star Trek conventions. Fong had taken her passive love of Star Trek and made it active. She had become a prosumer.

What’s notable about the near-half century that’s elapsed since is how much easier advances in digital technology have made it to be a fandom prosumer. Barriers to entry have not simply been lowered; they’ve been smashed through at high speed.

In some ways, this trajectory mirrors another similar, slightly more normal one in geek culture: The mainstreaming of superheroes. Where once you had to dig through long boxes in a moth-eaten strip mall comic shop, today’s fans can get their fill of Batman, Captain America and the rest through a visit to their local multiplex – or simply a subscription to Disney+ — where even obscure C-listers (Moon Knight, anyone?) have their own live action adaptations.

Thanks to the World Wide Web, these pioneering filmmakers didn’t need a traditional distributor either.

While it’s all ancient history to the likes of Jehtt, who was born in 1998, a large part of the original excitement around “machinima” (the word used to describe films made using game engines) was that it opened the door to no-budget fans wanting to make movies. To use a Silicon Valley cliché, it democratized the process.

In the 1990s, when the first machinima films started to pop up online, video-editing software wasn’t standard issue on every PC, and precisely zero of us carried a near-broadcast quality camera in our pockets. Machinima offered a way of creating movies for nothing more than the cost of a decently fast PC. Lacking even the need for a physical camera, would-be auteurs were able to create scenes using an already constructed game engine – with the characters they love thrown in for good measure.

Thanks to the World Wide Web, these pioneering filmmakers didn’t need a traditional distributor either. That meant no gatekeeping in order to have a completed work seen by large audiences.

Here in 2022, breakthroughs like this no longer seem remarkable: They’re mainstream. It’s taken for granted that anyone can create or edit a professional-looking film with a device they carry around in their pocket. Just as, in an age of Twitch streamers, it’s no longer remarkable to be able to record a video game for the viewing pleasure of others.

How is this legal?

A laptop displaying a video created by youtuber "jehtt"

For creators like the ones mentioned in this article, barely in grade school when YouTube made its debut, these are all technical battles that were waged before they even entertained thoughts of creating their own content. These technologies – not to mention the meme-heavy remix culture of the internet – are the background noise against which they grew up. Heck, they even have the potential to tip over into careers. Maybe.

“If I were to quit my job right now, and just do YouTube full time, I would be pretty comfortable; I’ll say it that way,” Jehtt noted. “I would not be at all struggling with the amount of money I’m making currently on YouTube. However, YouTube is a fickle beast. I don’t know how long the algorithm will continue to like my content and recommend it to millions of people. So even though I could quit my job, I don’t want to because I don’t know how stable this is in the long-term.”

This uncertainty reflects one of the big question marks around this whole area: Just how legal is this? After all, we live in an age in which intellectual property (IP) is viewed as almost uniquely valuable. Very few movie stars or directors can today “open” a movie on their name alone. But Marvel can. Or Star Wars. Or Batman. Or Pixar. Or Sonic. Or Lego. In this climate, making money from a well-known property you don’t own seems to be tempting fate in a way that’s akin to selling knockoff Mickey Mouse ears outside the gates at Disney World.

Or perhaps it’s more complex than that. To win a copyright infringement lawsuit, the rights holder has to establish only their ownership of the copyright, that copyright’s validity, and that the accused violator has infringed on that copyright – even if that’s creating derivative works, rather than copying an original. But there is also the case of transformative fair use, in which an original is changed to create a new meaning or message.

“I’m almost afraid to talk about copyright because I might be jinxing myself here, but I have not faced any serious copyright issues at all,” said Solid JJ. “Every once in a while I’ll have a video claimed for music, which means the copyright owner will make any dollar I made off the video … [For the most part, though] I find my videos fairly transformative of the source material. But I also try to stay away from things that are more recent.”

Money does admittedly tip things in the favor of the copyright holder. However, even in this case, there are plenty of reasons why the work of these creators (and others like them) should be encouraged, not squashed. There is, after all, something of a symbiotic relationship between fan creators and rights owners. Things don’t always cut one way. For starters, creators keep properties in the public eye. Sure, Sonic the Hedgehog is big news right now, but will he be five years from now? It’s members of the Sonic community who helped keep these characters buoyant when mainstream interest was at its lowest ebb. This, as it turns out, matters quite a bit.

When Fong created her unauthorized Star Trek fan video, she was able to get show creator Gene Rodenberry’s retroactive permission to do so. Why? Because Rodenberry was then trying to persuade Paramount Studios that there was sufficient interest in Star Trek to make it worth continuing as, initially, a series of movies. A massive outpouring of fan support for a mash-up video, the equivalent of “going viral” for its day, was proof positive that there was.

Going mainstreammeme

A split image showing the original animation style vs the final animation style for the 2020 sonic the hedgehog movie.

A more recent example of this kind of homespun feedback could be seen in the reaction to the original trailer for the first Sonic the Hedgehog movie. Featuring a character bearing little resemblance to the popular Sega mascot, clips of the trailer were circulated as memes pointing out the unfortunate art direction. The studio (incidentally Paramount again) pulled the movie back into postproduction and revised the design of Sonic to reflect fan opinion. The resultant movie was a smash hit.

“Luckily for me, Sega is really kind towards Sonic fan works,” Jehtt said. “They’ve never issued any copyright claims against me, nor have I heard of them doing that to other fan creators. In fact, the game Sonic Mania was made with heavy involvement from people who originally created Sonic fan games.”

Ultimately, memes may have gone mainstream (see The Joker’s meme-inspiredWe live in a society” speech from Zack Snyder’s Justice League), but fan creations like the ones described here exist in a sort of gray area.

They’re subversive. They’re provocative. They’re punk rock. And they’re made by huge fans of their respective properties, who (say it quietly) would probably be making them for free if monetization wasn’t available.

Oh, and they’re also very, very funny. For this viewer, at least, that’s enough of a reason for them to exist.

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