Some characters are a challenge to design for live-action films because the fandom tends to be a passionate lot. Take for example Sonic the Hedgehog. The character design for a live-action movie received a hailstorm of complaints that director Jeff Fowler ordered a redesign. A complete redesign doesn’t bode well for a movie that’s supposed to be released in 6 months.
Another animated film is making a lot of noise online and it’s one that’s just as beloved as Sega’s iconic gaming character: Pokémon’s Detective Pikachu. Pokémon is a Japanese series about creatures with special powers that trainers catch and train for battle. The original series followed the adventure of aspiring Pokémon trainer Ash and his adorable, lightning-powered Pokémon, Pikachu.
Detective Pikachu’s first live-action film caught almost everyone by surprise. Not a lot of people knew that a Pokémon movie was in the works to begin with; much more a film that depicts the iconic Pokémon character as a super sleuth, not as the cute and cuddly battle Pokémon we all grew up watching in the 90s.
Detective Pokémon remains true to its origin but with a slight twist: Pikachu is chasing clues and solving cases with the help of a friend. The story is based on the Nintendo 3DS game of the same name:
“The story begins when ace private eye Harry Goodman goes mysteriously missing; prompting his 21-year-old son Tim to find out what happened. Aiding in the investigation is Harry’s former Pokémon partner, Detective Pikachu: a hilariously wisecracking, adorable super-sleuth who is a puzzlement even to himself.
Finding that they are uniquely equipped to communicate with one another, Tim and Pikachu join forces on a thrilling adventure to unravel the tangled mystery. Chasing clues together through the neon-lit streets of Ryme City—a sprawling, modern metropolis where humans and Pokémon live side by side in a hyper-realistic live-action world—they encounter a diverse cast of Pokémon characters and uncover a shocking plot that could destroy this peaceful co-existence and threaten the whole Pokémon universe.”
It’s a hard sell and no one knows for sure if the Detective Pikachu would do well in the box office after fans’ outrage over Sonic the Hedgehog character design. But so far, the film is exceeding expectations, nabbing an impressive $170 million and giving Marvel’s highly-anticipated movie, Avengers: Endgame, a run for its money.
From Cartoons to Live Action: Designing Pokémon Characters
Part of the reason why the film was such a fan favorite is the accurate yet realistic character design. Director Rob Letterman knew that getting the CGI adaptation right is key to attracting long-time fans and avoiding the whole Sonic the Hedgehog fiasco.
“There’s no right or wrong to how you make one of these movies,” Letterman says. “If we were off by an inch on Pikachu, [actor] Justice Smith’s performance would go right out the window. We studied a lot of animals and how they behave and how they interact to ensure we got it right. Bulldogs, in particular, for Bulbasaur and how they act in packs or how they get you to pay attention. There’s an extraordinary amount of craft that went into making the movie on the animation side as we tried to bring everything to life.”
It’s hard to recreate Pokémon creatures for a live-action movie without ending up with ridiculous results because the proportions and features of the characters do not translate well in real life. Most times, their eyes are too big for their heads, their limbs are too short for their bodies, the ratio of their head compared to their torso would mean that many of the creatures would fall all over or not move at all.
Clearly, it would take a keen eye for design to bring these amazing creatures to life, something that visual effects supervisor Erik Nordby did with aplomb.
Nordby, whose portfolio includes The Butterfly Effect and Passengers, did a thoughtful reworking of every character in the first ever Pokémon live-action movie. When asked how Nordby and his team nailed the CGI, he admitted that the body ratios were a challenge to get around:
“It sounds comical but that was hugely important to us. We needed to trust that a Pokémon could eat, that it could find shelter, that it could communicate with other beings. Whatever we created needed to feel alive in some way. And those body ratios were a massive challenge to wrap our heads around.”
One of the many challenges that Nordby and his team had to overcome was the silhouette of the creatures, which does not look good in real life. Pikachu, for instance, has the silhouette of “a sack of potatoes” and it took time for animators to create a believable skeleton to support his body and develop a realistic silhouette.
Knowing that the Pokémon franchise has a global following, he was aware that the Pikachu design is going to be nit-picked, particularly the fur. “Whenever anyone brought it up, we would just ask, ‘Well, how could he not be furry? If he’s not furry, then what is he?’”
Machamp’s design was another hurdle for the VFX team because the 4-armed Pokemon wears a tight Speedo and a wrestling belt in the original animated series, design elements that were difficult to integrate into real-life characters. When Machamp’s design was completed and presented to The Pokémon Company, (the firm that approves all the character designs for the movie) the higher-ups were not impressed.
“They came back and said, ‘We think it’s good but it appears as though he’s wearing clothes and Pokémon can’t wear clothes,’” Nordby says. “So then we said, ‘Well, what is he, then? Because he’s obviously wearing speedos and he’s wearing a wrestling belt.’ And they said, ‘No that’s his skin.’ So then we said, ‘Well if that’s his skin, why is it shiny?’”
During the early design process, the VFX team considered making 3D models of the 2D characters but the results weren’t as realistic. The special effects team also utilized hyper-realistic drawings illustrated by RJ Palmer. The Pokémon Company was not particularly impressed with the results, saying that the illustrations went too far from the original designs.
There was a lot of going back and forth between the VFX team and the Pokémon Company until a compromise has been reached. Nordby’s team and the Pokémon Company agreed that the cartoon versions’ eyes – large and oval – should look and work like an actual eyeball in an eye socket in the movie adaptation. In addition, Director Rob Letterman shot the movie using real locations rather than digitally created environments to add realism to every scene.
Mr. Mime, which is one of the movie’s runaway hit, was the most challenging to design. The movements of the anthropomorphic mime artist Pokémon were workshopped by comic mime Trygve Wakenshaw but the results were bizarre and creepy.
“When we got to the texturing part of Mr. Mime, it was like, ‘What the hell is this thing?’” laughs Nordby. If the team pulls the design back, the result was stiff and humorless. But if they go too far with the design, the result is overly cartoony and creepy, which could give children nightmares. Norby admitted that it was hard to eliminate the creepy appearance of the mime character. Of all the characters in the movie, Mr. Mime had the most number of discarded designs. In the end, the VFX team took inspiration from children’s toys.
Although getting the Pokémon Company to agree on the character design involved long discussions, Nordby and Letterman made sure that the adaptations would stay faithful to the original designs.
“It might not make sense, but rules like this exist for a reason. They’re what’s allowed this crazy brand to become a global phenomenon,” Nordby said.
CGI Characters Looked So Real, They’re Cuddly
All the hard work paid off, critics loved the movie, especially the visual elements of the film. The Washington Post’s Kristen Page-Kirby highlighted the impeccably-designed Pokemon characters in a review: “The film’s Pokémon — all of whom are CGI — look so real you’ll want to reach out and cuddle them, especially Pikachu. That verisimilitude makes Detective Pikachu feel like more than a kids’ movie, extending its appeal to nostalgic adults who may remember the Pokémon-card-filled binders of their own childhoods.”
Michael Rechtshaffen of The Hollywood Reporter praised the special effects team, particularly the set-piece: “Credit production designer Nigel Phelps and visual effects outfits Moving Picture Company and Framestore for taking it into FX overdrive, most notably a ground-breaking (literally) set-piece shot in Scotland, involving computer-controlled hydraulic rams covered with soil and foliage.”
Detective Pikachu had its flaws, but special effects and character designs are the movie’s greatest strengths. The characters are silly, the plot is not the most provocative, but the movie is turning out to be a smash hit, impressing long-time fans and making new ones along the way! The film is the first ever videogame adaptation to score a positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Detective Pikachu is still in theaters. It stars Ryan Reynolds as Pikachu, Justice Smith, Ken Watanabe, Kathryn Newton, and Bill Nighy. The movie was directed by Rob Letterman.