Making Pokémon Movie Magic

18 March 2019

Making Pokémon Movie Magic

Get some clues about how POKÉMON Detective Pikachu is bringing Pokémon to life—straight from the set.

Are you ready to experience an unbelievable new take on the world of Pokémon? The detailed 3-D depictions of Pokémon in the upcoming feature film POKÉMON Detective Pikachu will have you imagining what it would be like to see and feel a Pokémon right beside you. With an incredible cast of talent led by Ryan Reynolds and a crew including some of the most talented visual effects artists in the world, the film will take fans on one of the most shocking Pokémon adventures yet.

We talked to the cast and crew of this highly anticipated movie to learn more about how Pokémon is being elevated to the big screen. Grab your detective hat and magnifying glass, and come with us as we investigate the set of POKÉMON Detective Pikachu.

Why Detective Pikachu?

The announcement of a live-action Pokémon movie came as a great surprise to fans, and perhaps even more surprising was the choice to base the movie on the Detective Pikachu video game instead of one of the franchise’s other stories. Ali Mendes, one of the producers of POKÉMON Detective Pikachu, helped us understand why this tale provides such a great entry point.

“When it comes to making a feature film, you really want to be led by story,” Mendes said. “Detective Pikachu at its heart had this great story that we felt is a way to connect beyond what the brand is. This is a father-son story—there’s something inside of these characters that we feel like is really going to resonate and connect with a large audience.”

Not only does it feature a heartwarming story—the movie is also about all the things that make Pokémon great.

“We felt like this was a way to celebrate everything inside of Pokémon’s legacy—20 years of battling and these characters that people have fallen in love with—but to also do something a little bit unexpected, a little bit new, and kind of add a genre twist to it,” she said.

It was Detective Pikachu and its unique story that led Legendary Pictures and The Pokémon Company to agree this was the time to try out a live-action film.

“It’s so funny, because everybody assumes that Pokémon GO happened, and then we wanted the rights to a Pokémon movie,” Mendes said, “and truthfully, we’ve been in talks and trying to work with Pokémon for over five years now.”

The Primary Suspects

The son of this father-son story is Tim Goodman, played by Justice Smith. Tim, who works as an insurance agent in another town, heads to Ryme City to take care of affairs following the disappearance of his estranged father, Harry—and it’s there he meets a one-of-a-kind Pikachu. Tim quickly realizes that he—and only he—can hear the film’s eponymous Detective Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) speaking human words.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Tim soon receives even more shocking news: Pikachu reveals that he was Harry Goodman’s partner, and that if he’s alive, Harry must be, too. Tim agrees to team up with Pikachu in an attempt to find and reconcile with his father. The two make an unlikely pair. Tim is cynical and aloof thanks to some rough experiences from his childhood—namely, the loss of his mother and the departure of his father—while the energetic Pikachu is boisterous and talkative. Tim initially finds himself frustrated with his new partner, and the evolution of their relationship is a key element of the film.

Early on during their search for clues about Harry’s disappearance, the two encounter Lucy Stevens (played by Kathryn Newton), an aspiring reporter working as an intern at Ryme City’s biggest news network. Lucy’s own investigation leads her to believe something is off about the disappearance of Tim’s father, and she joins Tim and Pikachu’s search, in part to further her own career. Lucy is passionate, ambitious, and a bit of a goofball—all traits that paint her as a foil to the more reserved Tim. She brings with her a partner Pokémon of her own, the lovable but perpetually confused Psyduck, and the pair round out the film’s cast of protagonists.

Show Me the Pokémon

Pokémon fans are sure to enjoy seeing familiar Pokémon reimagined in full 3-D on the big screen. Ali Mendes spoke to us at length about the creative process of adapting such beloved companions: “What does a live, realistic, 3-D Pokémon look like? That was a really exciting challenge for us,” she said.

Visual effects artists rendered more than 60 different Pokémon into this unique style.

“From the beginning, our idea is this has to be the highest-quality animation possible,” Mendes explained. “These creatures really need to feel like they’re standing next to you in the real world, and that’s going to be the success of this movie.”

And from what we were able to see, the 3-D Pokémon designs are a big jump forward in texture and realism—the furry Pikachu and feathery Psyduck maintain their usual charm while seeming more like creatures you might find outside your own window.

“If we’re going to do this movie, we want these creatures to feel real … these creatures are as photorealistic as they can possibly be,” Mendes said. “We’re working with the best visual effects team in the world.”

The film’s depiction of Charizard left an especially big impression on us. Textured skin, sharp teeth, and an incredible wingspan come together to create a more menacing likeness than we’ve ever seen—and this particular Charizard has fierce intensity in its eyes. But despite its intimidating, realistic appearance, it’s still distinctly Charizard.

Charizard may look like a dragon, but it’s not your standard storybook dragon—it’s a dragon-like Pokémon, “and that is a specific look,” Mendes explained. Creating a realistic-looking Charizard involved balancing the endearing aspects of the Pokémon with its more powerful, ferocious side.

“It’s been a real challenge, and I think our visual effects team has really risen to that, and people are going to be very excited about what they see,” she said.

Visual Effects Producer Greg Baxter expanded on the intricate process of adapting each Pokémon for the big screen: “It’s supposed to feel like all these creatures that you’ve seen mostly in very bright colors and in anime style are sitting in the room with you,” he said. “[From one Pokémon to the next], they have different textures—some are furry, and some are kind of leathery or snakey. For every creature, we took real-world animals and drew from that. We put all these pieces together to form what that Pokémon would look like. Even though they’re a creature that doesn’t exist in our world, all of the elements of what makes them up in this movie are taken from animals that do.”

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Perhaps no one we talked to was more excited about the reimagined Pokémon than Justice Smith, whose eyes lit up as he remembered the first time he saw the Pokémon brought to life.

“It was so cool!” he said with a laugh. “I got to see essentially how they were going to look, before my callback [audition], and it made me like, ‘I have to get this job now,’ because it was my childhood dream come true. It was Pokémon, but they were animalistic. It was exactly how I pictured them as a kid, with fur, and texture, and scales, and moving how actual animals move. It was insane—I can’t even explain it, how happy I was to see it.”

Imagining Ryme City

Much of POKÉMON Detective Pikachu takes place in the bustling Ryme City. Like the film’s more realistic take on the Pokémon themselves, Ryme City bears close resemblance to some of the biggest cities in our own real-life world.

The city is a mash-up of the aesthetics of Tokyo with the backdrop of London, where much of the filming took place. Ryme City’s darker backdrops fit the film’s neo-noir theme, and as Production Designer Nigel Phelps explained, it was equally important for highlighting the colorful cast.

“[Pokémon] are all sorts of shapes and sizes and very colorful,” Phelps said. “One of the things I was trying to do to help is to make color palettes [of the sets] quite neutral—grays and blacks and whites—to offset the creatures’ colors.”

The cutting-edge Ryme City incorporates Pokémon into its culture quite differently than most places in the Pokémon world. Instead of spending time inside Poké Balls, the Pokémon roam around freely, and traditional Pokémon battles are prohibited by law.

Ali Mendes shed more light on the harmonious way Pokémon and humans interact in Ryme City: “The relationship between humans and Pokémon in Ryme City is a little different than what we’re used to, in that they live more in partnership,” she said. “You might see a Pokémon working with a construction guy in the background. You might see a Machamp directing traffic. They’re not too personified—they’re still Pokémon—but they are integrated into the world in a different way, a more natural way.”

Prepare for a Battle

Pokémon battles aren’t a major focus of POKÉMON Detective Pikachu, but fans hoping to see photo-realistic Pokémon engage in lifelike battle are in for a treat. In fact, an elaborate one-on-one Pokémon battle was being shot when we visited the set.

In Tim’s hometown, just like in other parts of the Pokémon world, there are official battles with rules and regulations, and the Pokémon choose to team up with humans for battling and training. In Ryme City, things are very different. Pokémon battles are prohibited…but that doesn’t stop people from holding them in a surreptitious underground arena. When Tim and Pikachu find themselves in the arena, Pikachu decides to jump into battle—but the structure of the match won’t be quite what fans are used to.

Pikachu’s opponent is Charizard, resulting in a showdown between two of Pokémon’s most iconic characters. Charizard’s burning tail and explosive attacks are sure to create quite a dazzling display, and its Trainer is equally extravagant and eccentric. The outrageous DJ is clad in an oversize hoodie with furry trim, wears huge rings and glasses, and leaves his shirt open, revealing a massive Charizard tattoo on his chest.

Building a World with Pokémon

Some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it details in the underground arena are sure to remind fans of some of their own battles from the Pokémon video games. Like many real-life stadiums, the arena set features a large video screen, and we see it flashing some familiar phrases that are sure to stand out to veteran fans, including “But it failed!”

Greg Baxter described an even subtler reference to classic video game battles: “We’re trying to use cameras that have a bit of a throwback to some of the games,” he said. “[It’s] not really what you’d normally expect from a film camera—kind of quick movements flying through the scene, to try to get some of that look in [and] give fans what they’re expecting from those battles in this particular moment.”

This approach of adding references and taking inspiration from other Pokémon projects—without mimicking them directly—is a major part of the aesthetics of POKÉMON Detective Pikachu. Costume Designer Suzie Harman extensively researched the Pokémon animation when designing costumes for the film, getting a sense of key looks to inspire her work, as well as an idea of how the characters wear their clothes and the types of silhouettes they project. She took special care to keep the costumes subtle enough to appear realistic.

“We kept away from it being ‘someone dresses to match their Pokémon’—it had to feel more real,” Harman said. “… Lucy’s got her Psyduck, and she complements it. She won’t wear yellow, because Psyduck is yellow, so she’ll wear pale pinks and pale blues to match her Psyduck—but not to contrast too much from it.”

Setting the Stage

The imaginative sets in POKÉMON Detective Pikachu are full of clever ways to highlight different Pokémon and objects.

“There are certain scenes written almost around the Pokémon that would be in the scene,” Baxter explained. “There’s a café where we spend a lot of our time, and in that café, the Pokémon that serves coffee is this Ludicolo. And it’s kind of funny because it’s an odd shape and doesn’t quite fit in the door very well, and it’s hard for it to hold a tray. So we’ve written certain [Pokémon] in because it helped the scene.”

Longtime fans will be particularly excited by one set Newton described. The set shows off Evolution stones and is kind of like an exhibit of the history of Pokémon, she said.

“So to have a big rock with this shiny moon in the middle or a lightning bolt—it’s really cool; they look ancient,” Newton said. “I think fans are going to be like, ‘Look at that!’ People are who are actually fans will notice these details in the film.”

The Final Clues

While we were on the set of POKÉMON Detective Pikachu, it was fun to learn just how many of the cast and crew members are fans of Pokémon. For example, Justice Smith has a soft spot for the Big Jaw Pokémon—perfect for someone who has so many lines in the film.

“My sister and I had all of the original [Pokémon TCG cards], and I used to watch the show [Pokémon the Series] all the time, and we used to play the card game,” he said. “My favorite Pokémon was Totodile. I had a little Totodile figurine I would carry with me everywhere that I went, so when I got this job, it was like a childhood dream come true.”

His costar Kathryn Newton was similarly inspired by her early memories of Pokémon.

“I was into the show,” she explained. “I’m an artist, and it actually got me into drawing the Pokémon characters, which led to me drawing anime characters. And now I’m a fashion illustrator and really into fashion, so it’s kind of interesting that Pokémon really led the way for that for me.”

Listening to Newton makes it easy to imagine POKÉMON Detective Pikachu inspiring a lot of fans, too.

“To really see [Pokémon] come to life and have something right next to you where you could touch it, have a Lickitung actually lick your face… If you had a Pokémon, this is what they would look like, and this is what they would feel like,” she said. “Tim and Lucy are like a vessel for the viewers. If I was Tim, this was what my life would be like; if I was Lucy, this is what my life would be like. It’s cool to live that dream a little bit.”

You’ll have to watch for yourself to see all the lifelike Pokémon of Ryme City and to see how Detective Pikachu’s investigation unfolds with the help of Tim and Lucy—so make sure to mark the movie’s May 10, 2019, launch on your calendar. And keep checking back to for more information on the first live-action Pokémon feature film!

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