Brian Ward Dives Headfirst into Mobius and "Sonic the Hedgehog"
Last time we heard from Brian Ward, Toon Zone was talking to him via e-mail. This time, in honor of the DVD release of the SatAM series of Sonic the Hedgehog, I drove out myself to Los Angeles and took a look at Shout! Factory in person. Meeting Brian Ward face-to-face, we grabbed a couple of strawberry smoothies from a nearby food spot and sat down to conduct a new interview, half of which follows-up on some of the things he told us back with Captain N, and half of which gets into the nitty-gritty of this fan-awaited cartoon.
TOON ZONE NEWS: So, why this? Why Sonic the Hedgehog? Was this something that you pursued, or was it offered to you?
BRIAN WARD: Well, we acquired the DiC catalogue a couple of years ago, and started with things we thought would be surefire hits – Inspector Gadget, Heathcliff and the Cadillac Cats, Legend of Zelda, Super Mario – and Sonic wasn’t actually part of our catalogue. For whatever reason, Sega owned the rights and, from my understanding, they were a little wary about giving those out. So, we went ahead and worked on all these other shows, and when Super Mario hit, it hit huge. We thought, to be honest, that Inspector Gadget was going to be our bread’n’butter for DiC, but Mario just keeps going. So, it became this question of, “Well, what else can we do? Where can we go that will take us down the same road as Mario?” And my first instinct was, “Let’s go back to DiC and see what we can do about getting Sonic,” since this was a character created for the sole purpose of beating Mario at his own game. So, we did; we went back to DiC, and DiC seemed very interested in pursuing the Sonic rights, and we got them.
We were presented with two different options. We could go the Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog route, or we could go the SatAM route. I was not familiar with either one. I didn’t watch the show as a kid. I think, because I wasn’t a Sega fan, I didn’t have a vested interest in Sonic, so I really didn’t know a whole lot about it. I watched a couple of episodes of both, and had a clear-cut winner. [laughs] I wasn’t much a fan of the Looney Tunes slapstick, and while I appreciated it, I was much more interested in the dark story and character development of SatAM. And when I went online, I found that while the AoSTH fans seemed to be more plentiful, the SatAM fans were more vocal. So I urged the company to go with that one first, and we did.
TZN: You mentioned Sega’s reluctance regarding the rights, which makes sense as they’d redefined the character and his world with the Adventure games in 1999. As a third-party rights carrier, did Sega provide roadblocks? Were they helpful?
BW: To be perfectly honest, Sega didn’t provide a single roadblock. I was prepared [for that], because in working with other licensors, they are naturally very protective of their properties. In the case of Sega, they were probably the best licensors I’ve ever worked with. They didn’t provide me personally with any problems whatsoever. Maybe that’s because of a number of reasons. It could be that, by this point, I had gotten into the SatAM world enough to know what they would and wouldn’t like to see, so when it came down to designing menus or packaging or whatever, I went in saying, “This is perfectly representative of the show.” The menus are perfectly representative of the show, so there’s nothing that they could say about that. Sega was a gem, and I’m looking forward to working more hand-in-hand with them on AoSTH now, because there hasn’t been a single thing that I’ve sent their way that they’ve told me “no.”
TZN: That’s interesting to hear, given the grief they gave DiC back when the show was actually running. Particularly the episode where Sonic cries ["Ultra Sonic", 1st season]. I guess there was no comment about that in the slightest?
BW: Not at all.
TZN: Wow. Congratulations to Sega for becoming more flexible. So, what are the marketing expectations in regards to a set like this? Is it just for the older, “nostalgia” audience? Is there a hope to bring in a new audience?
BW: Honestly, I think we’re doing both at the same time by going after one of those audiences, and that is the “nostalgia” audience. I think that the thing that we learned after our release with The Electric Company boxsets (and SCTV, and Super Mario) was that young parents, who are in their late 20s and grew up with the shows, were buying them for their children. So it’s not just the fans buying them for themselves. They literally want to expose their children to the things they grew up with. So that’s helping out tremendously, because we are going straight for [the fans]. If you look at my bonus material, it’s not necessarily for six and seven-year-olds. It’s for the people who grew up with Sonic and can now appreciate what it took to make the show. But on the same note, I want those menus to pop off the screen, and I want what bonus material there is to do the same thing. And I certainly want the packaging to be something an eight or nine-year-old can appreciate. [That's] why when we asked for fan art for the packaging, when you take a look at the fan art, you’re gonna see things that range from three-year-olds to people in their thirties, because a three-year-old is just as good an artist as a thirty-year-old in many cases, and it’s really all about your love of Sonic.
TZN: That leads me to my next question: fan support. In Toon Zone’s previous interview with you, you mentioned that you went to online to talk to the Captain N fans. In this case, you went to the SatAM fans. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
BW: The Sonic SatAM fans are probably the best people I’ve ever met online. I’ve said it to many people, and will continue to say it as long as it lasts: while some fans I’ve approached for various projects seemed to be appreciative that the set I’m producing is even coming out to begin with, that doesn’t limit their expectations. While they understand that there are limitations – or pretend to understand – they get very upset when those expectations aren’t met. In the case of the SatAM fans, I really think they could pick up this boxset tomorrow, with it having no bonus material or special things, and they would be happy. I’ve never gotten the impression that they would ever not be. So, I would literally go on to that website (satamsonic.com), without any questions or needing any information, [but] just to see what they were saying, and to even converse with them. They had questions for me, or they just wanted to know what the process of the DVD was. In some cases, they wanted to know what it is I did to get into the DVD production. It became a pleasure like no other to literally spend a lot of time on that website.
TZN: So, about those bonus features – among the most notable features on the set are the interviews with Jaleel White and Ben Hurst. How did these come about? Did you get to direct or conduct these interviews yourself?
BW: The first thing I did when I went on to the website was find out from the fans, “If you could have your dream featurette, who would be interviewed?” The two biggest responses were Ben Hurst and Jaleel White. What a lot of fans want to come right out and say is that Ben is solely responsible for SatAM. Truth is, Ben didn’t come on until the second season. Len Janson is actually the man responsible for the tone and the story arcs and the lines for SatAM. It got to a point where I started to look for Len, and I started to look for a few other writers and producers and cast members, and fortunately it got to a point where it was too difficult for me to put together this dream project. But I did go back to that list and I found the two that people wanted from the most.
I approached Ben and Jaleel, and they were more than happy to do it. I’m glad they were, because while Ben wasn’t there from the start, he truly shaped the second season of that show, and the man is just a wealth of stories. Unfortunately, I couldn’t put them all on the set, but I am trying to figure out a way to provide fans with the things they didn’t get to see, whether it’s on our website or not. Jaleel…you won’t find a nicer guy. The guy literally strolled into the interview. Just really cool about everything; he knew the fans, loved the fans. [He] hadn’t really thought about Sonic in a while, but it didn’t take him any time at all to come right back to it. So, those two interviews – which, yes, I got to conduct myself – were the really some of the highlights in my career with Shout! Factory.
TZN: Interesting how Ben was so instrumental in the second season, as the first season is almost like a set of auditions, with almost every episode written by a different writer, while the second season is almost entirely Ben Hurst and Pat Allee. Was that the sort of thing you ended up discussing with Ben?
BW: It is. He mentions the fact that, when they went on to do a second season, he and Pat and Len sat down and watched all thirteen episodes of the first season, and they looked to see what worked, what didn’t work, what could be built upon. He brings up that someone thought of the idea of, “What would it be like if we took a 13-episode series and wrote it as if it were going to be a feature-length film?” So that’s why the second season has that story arc that goes from beginning to end that all focuses on the Big Bad at the end, that being the Doomsday Project. It’s really interesting, because when I look back at other cartoons of the time period, they’re all very episodic. They all end within 22 minutes, and it’s not something that you would have thought of often – to go with such a long arc. And there are stand-alone episodes, but it was really pretty ingenious of them. I think, because they had that focus on what they wanted and they mapped it out from the beginning, it really wouldn’t have worked any other way. I think it worked out brilliantly.
TZN: One of the most common themes amongst the bonus materials are printed materials: concept art and scripts and the like. You mentioned on satamsonic.com that you had combed through the DiC archives looking for material. Tell us about what that entails.
BW: Depending on the project, I will often go over DiC’s offices in Burbank. You won’t find a more colorful office than that place. Everything up on the walls from old Inspector Gadget to new Trollz; you go in and it’s like walking into Disneyland. They would often sit as many as thirty to forty boxes, twenty years old, in front of my contact’s office over there. (I’d really feel sorry for her if I couldn’t get there immediately.) I’d literally spend an entire day going through every single box. Sometimes two to three days going through every single box, where I will open up a box [and] look through it. If it’s a box of storyboards and I know what I’m looking for, like the storyboards from the pilot episode, I’ll find those and set the rest of the box aside. If it’s a box of production material like scripts or a writer’s bible or something like that, I will look through the entire thing. I want to know everything that happened over the course of the production of a show, because anything could make a good story later.
Often, there will be boxes full of initial concept art, and then there’ll be boxes full of episode-specific concept art. A lot of people don’t realize that, just like in a live-action TV series, every single prop has to be designed, and it’s not just the artist who’s drawing them at the time. There will literally be a piece of concept art that will have [the word] FINAL stamped on it sitting in those boxes, and I will go through every single piece of drawn concept work. And in the case of Sonic, although I have included background concept art on other sets, I was blown away by the quality of the stuff used in Sonic. These guys looked like they were designing a feature film. It wasn’t a general pastel palette; these guys were going dark, and there was lots of shadow and lots of texture used in the series, and it looked absolutely beautiful. I’ll take all that concept art, and I will scan it in, and crop it down a little to get rid of any of the fat. With Sonic, I didn’t want to touch it with any camera moves, so I’ll let you look at it as it is. There might be some zoom ins and outs, but I want those people to be able to see what I saw when I was at those offices.
When you go into DiC, you don’t go in with an idea of what you want to put on the set, because you could end up being narrow-minded, or you could end up being disappointed. Really, the boxes are going to speak to you, and when I saw everything I saw there, I knew what this boxset had the potential to be. I think it has become the closest thing to a genuine collector’s boxset that I’ve produced at Shout! yet.
TZN: So now that you’ve seen quite a bit of SatAM, what would be – from your own outsider opinion – your favorite episode and your least favorite episode?
I don’t mean to sound like a typical fan, but I do have to admit that my least favorite episodes are probably the double episodes [the half-and-half comic episodes focusing on Antoine in the second season]. Not because I dislike Antoine, or Dulcy, but they did step away from the story that I was so interested in. So when you’re sitting there watching “Ghost Busted” or “Fed Up With Antoine”, you’re kind of like…
TZN: Or “Ro-Becca”.
BW: Or “Ro-Becca”! [laughs] If you’re gonna give Rotor an episode…it just seemed like one of those things where I really wanted to get back to the big threat, and I kinda felt a little cheated. I was ecstatic to find out that those episodes were ordered, rather than planned by Ben and Pat and Len. It was a mandate that came down from up on high that those episodes had to be written in, and as a result, there were actually a couple of storylines that didn’t make it into the second season that Ben wanted to include into the third, because they had to make room for these two episodes that were stand-alones. I think that some of the fans got a little cheated, and I think that a lot of the problems that certain fans – that aren’t necessarily SatAM fans – have with the show could have been completely blown away had Ben been allowed to bring in these storylines, because he specifically mentions the ascendance of Tails. You know, a lot of people have problems with the fact that Tails is just kind of the sidekick that doesn’t do much. Well, he was gonna do a lot, and there was a lot of potential for that character to evolve into the character that they all love. Sadly, it just didn’t make it in.
As far as a favorite episode goes…..God…..
TZN: Harder question, isn’t it?
BW: It’s a much harder question. I don’t know if I necessarily have a favorite episode so much as favorite moments. Oh, I guess I’ll have to say that the “Blast to the Past” two-parter is probably a favorite. I enjoy stories that show you the evolution, and when you come into the series and you’re already in this dark future-is-bleak world, I enjoy the fact that they decided to go back in time and show us what it was prior to, because it gives you context. It lets you know that this world genuinely was better before Robotnik, and now that Robotnik’s there, you want it to go back to the way that it was. So I think the “Blast to the Past” episodes are probably my favorites.
TZN: To conclude – does Shout! Factory have to pursue properties? Do they get offered to the company? Or is it both? And on that note, is there anything you’d really love to get?
BW: We do both – we pursue and we’re offered. We try to pursue and entertain offers that make sense. We don’t want to just put out what studios don’t. So we’re very picky about the stuff that we do and don’t release. And now that we’ve kinda figured out where the buyers are, and their age groups and what they enjoy, we’re definitely aiming for a lot more of that sort of product. Not to say that we’re not aiming for a broad audience as well, but we are narrowing in on that generation of buyers. I think [that's] for the best, because there’s a lot of shows like SatAM that have been around for more than ten years that people have just been waiting to see. Now is as good a time, if not better, to give them what they want.
Are there things that I would like to see out? Uh…yeah. There are things that I have pitched to the powers that be at Shout! for three years. That’s not to say that they have turned it down; it’s to say that there are some titles that are impossible to get your hands on. Unfortunately, when we became popular with Freaks and Geeks, the studios suddenly realized that there was money to be made in television-on-DVD, where they’d never really thought about it before. It had always been a huge thing in Europe, and in those PAL countries. You could watch all of Friends on DVD long before you could buy them here. It’s because, for a lot of people [in Europe], that’s how they were seeing American television series. So they never really thought it was a marketable thing here, and then we blew up with Freaks and Geeks, and they said, “Well, we wonder what else we have in our libraries that we could start releasing.” For better or for worse, they started keeping those things. There are definitely some titles that I would love to see on DVD. I don’t know if I can say any of them, because I don’t want the studios to go, “Let’s do it and not let them have it!” But yeah, there are definitely titles [that I want].
Once again, Toon Zone news would like to thank Brian and Shout! Factory for their hospitality and generosity. The DVD boxset of Sonic the Hedgehog hits the streets on Tuesday, March 27th, sporting a front cover drawn by Archie artist Ken Penders and art all throughout the rest of the set as submitted by fans.
Images in this interview were taken from the satamsonic.com fan site.