How 'Detective Pikachu' Got Its Pokémon to Look So Damn Cute
There was one question on all of our minds when the Detective Pikachu movie was announced: What in the world would all the little Pokémon look like? The creatures, which were first introduced to the world in 1995, have been seen as little pixelated sprites and flat drawings on trading cards, anime TV series and movies, and manga, but never before have we seen what a "real-world" version of them would look like -- unless you've been plagued by that horrifying "realistic" fanart of Dragonite or (cringe) Jigglypuff. Detective Pikachu does the impossible: It translates 2D cartoon creatures into living, breathing, fluffy animals that move and interact seamlessly with their human co-stars.
How did the filmmakers create designs for the characters that hewed so closely to what they look like in cartoon form? Well, it certainly wasn't easy. Over the course of a year, director Rob Letterman and his team flew back and forth to Tokyo to meet with The Pokémon Company. "We wanted it to be authentic," Letterman told Thrillist. "It's a love letter to Pokémon fans, first and foremost. To get that right, we really had to get it right with the original creators of Pokémon. The original designers of the characters gave notes directly on all the concept art."
Cute was the "design mantra," Letterman said, and "kawaii," the Japanese culture of cuteness, was the word of the day. These creatures had to not only look real, but look huggable, like the people watching could reach out and stroke their fur or scaly skin. The planning meetings for all of that were "truly insane," Letterman said. "We had to find a language beyond English or Japanese to communicate what the Pokémon photoreal textures would be. Our concept designers had teams basically create these texture sheets. We built a library of reference sheets per Pokémon, so it had the original drawing in the middle and then photographic references of all the things from the real world, the natural world, that could make up the surface details." If a reference set had fur sourced from the wrong animal, one of the original creators back in Japan would need to correct and adjust.
Before that process began, Letterman and his team needed to decide which Pokémon to include in the movie; there are over 800 of them. "The Detective Pikachu game [on which this movie is based] had a certain set baked in, like the Aipom," he said. "And then there were fan favorites. We wanted to make sure we got the first generation in because the movie's not just for kids, it's for the millennial generation. It's for people who grew up on Pokémon." The movie has a great mix of the more recognizable ones, like Charizard and Bulbasaur and Squirtle (who work as tiny firefighters!!!), and a few from the later generations, like the frog-like Greninja and the dubstep-spitting Loudred. Psyduck, a first-gen staple, is Letterman's favorite: "I also get stressed out and confused and my head explodes constantly. I'm a neurotic person, and Psyduck seems like the right Pokémon partner for me."
The clownish Mr. Mime, who acts out his words by, well, miming, was part of Letterman's original pitch for the tone he wanted to evoke. "So weird," he said, laughing. "I took a frame of Se7en and replaced Kevin Spacey with Mr. Mime and put Pikachu on the desk with Brad Pitt with his head in his hands, just to pitch it quickly to the Pokémon guys. That was the beginning of that crazy interrogation scene." He almost cut the scene, which he thought at one point was "truly weird." "Fortunately, sense was talked into me and we kept going and it's kind of a standout scene."
Pikachu, of course, is the star. "A lot of energy and care was put into making that character come to life," Letterman said. Pikachu's forehead wrinkles up when he frowns, he drums his stubby little fingers on a table, his rabbit-like mouth creates human speech effortlessly. "Some people get obsessed with his nose, which moves. There's a lot of animal kingdom studies that are going in there, but also all that was figured out so Ryan [Reynolds]'s facial capture thing could drive those muscles underneath."
Reynolds provides Pikachu's voice, and, funny enough, never puts on any kind of cutesy affect, instead opting to sound like just… a human man. To the movie's credit, it never feels too silly or overwrought: "That was the conceit of the game, which is why it made a lot of sense as an adaptation for a movie. Having this big gruff personality and voice coming out of this small adorable yellow furball was just such a great character idea."
Blade Runner, which has long been a touchstone for visually exciting, noir-influenced cinema, was one of Detective Pikachu's biggest influences: "We talked about Blade Runner a lot. Blade Runner is always in the background, the Japanese cultural influence -- and we're also doing a mashup of East-meets-West. There's a lot of connecting points."
Though a lot of the world of rainy, neon-lit Ryme City is digitally augmented, and the creatures that inhabit it are entirely computer-generated creations, Letterman decided he needed to shoot Detective Pikachu on 35mm film instead of digitally to get the look that he wanted. "I still think it's the best capture medium," he explained. "I'm always chasing the look of film." Cinematographer John Mathieson, who's worked, notably, with Ridley Scott in the past, suggested that if Letterman wanted the look of film so badly, why not do it that way?
"We really had to beg the studio to get permission to do it. There's so much fear associated with shooting on film now, I don't know why. It wasn't purely pretentious… I mean, it's a little bit pretentious. But, I needed to figure out a way to bring inherently cartoon silhouettes into the real world. It's a misnomer on a visual effects side that shooting digital is better for digital. It's exactly the opposite. You want to bring these visual effects creatures into the organic look and feel of film and the imperfections of film."