Mark Lockwood, ex Creative Director at the Virgin Airship & Balloon Company tells us about the creation and tour of the popular Sonic the Hedgehog special shape from the 1990s. Enjoy!
Anyone old enough may recall the many frustrated hours spent playing Space Invaders and Asteroids in the game arcades that sprung up seemingly everywhere during the 1980s. Game tables appeared in pubs and clubs with graphics that were infinitely more engaging than playing Pong on your Atari unit at home and these games started to become mobile as well with the introduction of the Nintendo Gameboy and SEGA Game Gear 8 bit blocky graphic handheld consoles, allowing us to while away even more time on the move or the toilet. Gaming had entered the public consciousness and was feeding the addiction of increasing numbers of g-nerds, led by a pair of slightly dumpy, brightly coloured, Italian American plumbers with dodgy taches and dungarees and, surprisingly, a bright blue spikey smiley thing with white striped red trainers and the ability to run faster than your fingers could control him. Enter the world of Sonic the Hedgehog!
Whoosh! Let’s power up to the 1990s and the ‘Game Wars’ being fought between Nintendo, SEGA and new kid on the block, Sony. Mario and his sibling were riding Joshi-shod all over the competition at the time however our trusty blue dude was making some good headway and with the launch of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (imaginative naming there from our friends in Japan) across the EU, SEGA Europe were looking at ways to bring their figurehead a prickly nose ahead of the dodgy plumbers.
Enter an intriguing person by the name of Chris Joseph, an advertising guru and suit with a difference as his designer shoulder padded jacket contained one real arm and one solid silver prosthetic hook, courtesy of an accident with a 50 ton crane in his youth. His agency was called, for obvious reasons, Hook Advertising and we had already had a very fortuitous relationship with them for the launch of the Rabbit Telecommunications brand. (Thereby hangs a further fluffy tale.) Chris had been commissioned by SEGA Europe to launch the Sonic 2 game and his immediate request was “Can we build a Sonic balloon?” He had already been to Cameron Balloons and the initial design work had already started so we were asked to step in and oversee the development and delivery as well as start to build the campaign strategy and branding around it.
Once again, I found myself hurtling up and down the M5 between Telford and Bristol for production meetings with Steve Wallace and Phil Dunnington. Questions arose as to the exact expression of the mouth, how the eyes would be, how the hands and arms would need to feed from the main body, how would the parachute be affected by having the main central spine on his back as a pressurised inflatable that extended over the parachute itself, were the ears too cat-like and just how the hell the spines on his back would work and where would they need to put Velcro rip panels. All in a days (months) work when building a freeform shape.
In the meantime, sourcing the vehicle and trailer needed to be finalised. We found the Indespension trailers to be good workhorses for commercial ballooning as they were sturdy enough to carry up to 3 tons of shape envelope, peripheral equipment and spare gas cylinders, were aerodynamic to a degree so reducing drag, easy to access with a relatively low bed height and, most of all, with plenty of flat panel space for branding. The double axle configuration made them stable towing companions but with nearly 3 tons on board they needed to be behind a vehicle that could handle the rough and tumble of both highway and oft boggy launch site. Unfortunately, we only had an Isuzu Trooper available at the time and, venerable off roaders they may have been filled with neat little Japanese push button do-dahs, they were not really built for the kind of torture we put them through and clutches were an often required service item. In truth, the Land Rover Discovery was really the only vehicle suited to the hammering we gave our retrieves, it was just a shame the back seats were designed by some evil torturer and decided to exact his revenge on future generations of adults by making them sit for more than 10 minutes in the back of a Defender! In later years I worked with Chris Cook, who was head of specialist vehicles at Land Rover and someone you would describe as a true ‘boffin’, and even he had to admit that the seat design might have been by a certain Dr. Mengele.
I digress. Vehicle sourced. Branding done. Cool crew uniforms done including limited edition baseball style branded jackets (which became like diamond encrusted currency on the road!) and selection of a pilot and crew. The man for the job: Nick Langley. In those days, Mr. Langley bore a striking resemblance to none other than our aforementioned Italian American plumber! Much to the chagrin of the client, who actually rang me to say that he was over the moon with everything, but why oh why did I give him a pilot who looked like Super Mario! I left out the expletives!
His debut was at the Icicle Balloon Meet, held that year for the first time at Savernake Forest rather than the traditional site at Marsh Benham as David Liddyard had unfortunately lost the use of the field. It was one of those beautiful, clear, crisp frosty mornings with a slight mist early on that lifted to reveal a stunning winter wonderland of hoar frosted landscape interspersed with the delightful drone of fans and susurration of burners, frozen crew and spectators huddled around to warm hands and faces when the pilots decided to fire up the burners. The first inflation of a new shape is always a voyage of discovery and the team from Cameron’s who delivered the envelope that morning were on hand to walk us through the complex ins and outs of extensions, hands, feet and spines. It was a slow process, helped by zero wind and test pilot for the day, Malcolm Dear, gently coaxing hot air into him as we crawled amongst seeming acres of blue fabric hunting down Velcro rip panels and sealing them up as we went. Eventually there he stood in full spiney splendour, cute grin and Chruchillian V sign Sonic 2 fingers akimbo….well almost. The first thing we learned was that it was required to open the velco rip panels in his feet and use the inflation fan to pump up his snazzy pumps. There were a few issues with internal vents that needed factory time as the two was only one and he had a few snags with an elbow and a vacant stare into the wild Sonic Blue yonder. The first flight went incredibly well and Malcolm greased him into a field on a slight upslope, leaving behind two perfect toe drags in the frosted grass. He was, and is, a truly fun special shape to fly.
Photos from Icicle Balloon Meet 1993 thanks to Ballooning Pictures UK
After a few mods back at the Cameron’s factory including moving the eyes down so that his vacant stare was a little more focused on the spectators than the orbit of Venus, a tweak to his smile, a few internal vents opened to give him two fingers vertical instead of just one and he was road ready. A closer look at him today and the original position of the eyes can still be seen as a shadow where the glue used to be. Next stop, a photo session at the only available outing at that time of year, the legendary Château-d'Oex meet. Nick Langley got his first chance to get up close and personal with big blue together with highly experienced shape crew Mark David and Steve Benniman. Majestic against a snow covered mountain backdrop, Sonic was every bit the superstar game hero with some truly memorable flights up and down the Swiss valley. Sadly, not so nice for yours truly and crew who were struck down with one of the worst cases of food poisoning I have ever experienced. Everyone from the Flying Pictures Unipart Team to Peter Mason and the Financial Times crew were brought to their knees for a number of days and I was due to drive to Dresden for a live TV show with Mittel Deutsche Rundfunk, which had to be cancelled as I was driven back to the UK in a blizzard, with frequent toilet stops, at ludicrous speed to recover. Who says this ballooning game is easy!
Sonic flying high at Château-d'Oex in Switzerland with many others, photos thanks to Ballooning Pictures UK
Sonic hit the road. Every balloon festival across Europe that summer was Sonic crazy and kids went mad for our big blue hero. However, there was the more serious job of putting out the branding and advertising message behind the character. Williams Formula 1 team had signed a multi-million pound deal with SEGA for that year, which meant we needed to support that sponsorship as much as possible within the limitations and restrictions placed upon us by the draconian Formula 1 machine. His first appearance was at the Circuit de Catalunya in Spain and Messrs. Bernie Ecclestone and Paddy McNally reluctantly agreed to us tethering him in what they felt was the furthest flung corner of the track where he would not be visible or cause any trouble. Thankfully this was the first year F1 were using in-car live camera feeds during qualifying and Damon Hill came rocketing around the circuit with live commentary to a point where our boy was physically almost hanging over the track. His radio feedback to the pits including a ‘Wow! Look at that awesome Sonic balloon!’ was picked up by F1 management and we were given the order to ‘Get that (expletive) balloon out of there now!” Karma does have a way of paying back as later that year SEGA title sponsored the entire European Grand Prix held at Donnington Park and we were allowed (reluctantly I might add) to tether in a more prominent spot. As we also were operating the SEGA branded Virgin Lightship that was orbiting overhead and providing aerial live footage, the cameramen gave us a disproportionately large number of hero shots on global networks. Cheers Bernie!
Sonic went on to star at many balloon events around the world including Albuquerque in the capable hands of pilot Kevin Meehan and a memorable tour of the Chateau of the Loire in France, where he is known as ‘Sonic L’Herisson’, ending at the first meet in the city of Tours. Balloon Meister(ess) for the event was the amazing Stella Roux-DeVillias who announced at briefing on the first day that the local airport had given us a 500ft ceiling above ground level due to incoming traffic. As the winds were due to carry us directly over the city centre and UK rules dictate a minimum 1500ft over built up areas, pilot Malcolm Dear cheekily asked what would be the minimum height allowed? Stellas response remains with me to this day: “Er, pleeze try to stay aburve ze cheemnees!” This was every pilots dream opportunity and I distinctly remember driving along the main boulevard with the baskets at the same height as the lamp posts! Truly memorable.
Sonic attended Bristol 1993-1996 alongside other favourites such as Rupert and Radio 1 DJ, photos thanks to Ballooning Pictures UK
After I left Virgin I am not sure where the Sonic story goes except that he ended up in Ireland in the hands of Malcolm White who has lovingly taken great care of him and has now re-coated the fabric, which I believe is still an experimental process and although it extends the flying life of a balloon, is not yet certified for use by the authorities. I am sure there are countless stories and memories from thousands of fans out there, but these are not for me to write. Hopefully this missive will reach some of them and they can respond with their own moments with big blue.
His legacy lives on!
Click here to watch a video from the Llangollen Balloon Festival on YouTube.
Thanks so much to Mark for writing this very interesting blog post and we hope you've enjoyed reading it. Comment on Facebook or tweet us @mjballooning if you remember seeing Sonic and please do share your photos with us!
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