The Good, the Bad and the Duckly: VFX giants MPC reveal how your favourite - and not so-favourite - Pokémon made the jump from 2D to 3D in the new Detective Pikachu movie. Warning: This article is spoilerific.
On the surface, Pokémon Detective Pikachu may seem like a family film centered around everyone's favourite yellow pocket monster, but anyone who's seen the Hollywood adaptation of the Nintendo best-seller since its release this month will know things aren't that simple.
Firstly is how the film is Hollywood's first attempt at Pokémon: The Movie, meaning Pikachu (or Detective Pikachu, as voiced by Ryan Reynolds) is more of a guide to the big colourful world of pocket monsters who populate the film's main setting of Ryme City.
It's also fair to say that most cinema-goers were surprised by the live-action film's at times darkly bizarre nature. The rather dour opening reveals an intense interpretation of Pokémon arch foe Mewtwo that isn't for the kiddies, while one of the most celebrated scenes centres around a figure called Mr. Mime, a creature more nightmare-fuel than Christmas wish list filler. That's not mentioning Psyduck's big ol' eyes, too.
Behind the creation of all these things fright and beauty-ful was the Moving Picture Company (MPC), a global leader in VFX who you may know from films like Blade Runner 2049 (in particular that amazing Rachael scene).
MPC's VFX supervisor on Detective Pikachu was Pete Dionne, who revealed to us in a phone interview the amazing character design secrets in turning some of Pokémon's strangest and most beloved from 2D to three-dimensional life.
The Man Behind Mr. Mime
"The character design of Mr. Mime from the anime (above) is very simplistic compared to the other Pokémon we worked with," Pete tells us.
"He’s got a humanoid form but with super 'cartoony' proportions and face. Honestly he’s creepy, and us imagining him into life as a human would have fueled nightmares without a doubt.
"Early on we decided that the only way to pull off this character was to try and not make him look like an organic, breathing creature but go in the opposite connection, making him look as synthetic as possible.
"Instead of trying to make Mr. Mime's arms and face look like flesh with anatomically-correct muscle structure, we built and shaded him as if he’s just a huge blob of silicone. The lights then shine on him and make his whole head and arms glow from that synthetic, latex-like material.
"His skin looks very recognizable as being real-world materials but it’s clearly not organic. The same thing with his red shoulder pads. We looked at those from the cartoon and decided to make them red rubber kick-balls with that same kind of textured surface. And for his torso we based the whole thing upon foam.
"It's like when you have a Nerf football and you squeeze it and it just has those little micro-wrinkles in there and you can see every pore tightened up loosen as you let go of it," Pete explains.
"We built that same thing into his body so that it explicitly felt like foam. He wasn't a living, breathing human, so we were really able to have a lot of fun because of the forms, especially his facial performance. We could really push it without it looking creepy, as if it was a real human falling into the 'uncanny valley.' And because he had so many of these recognizable photo-realistic shading features on him plus lighting features, he also never really felt too cartoony, despite him having the most cartoonish performance in the whole film."
The performance of Mr. Mime himself was based on New Zealand physical comic Trygve Wakenshaw, who you can see below 'fighting' a toddler in front of a live audience.
"Trygve is just absolutely hilarious. (Director) Rob Letterman brought him in after seeing a video online, and he did about three hours of workshopping the interrogation scene with him, which we recorded with multiple cameras.
"We got absolute gold, and a large portion of that performance in the final film was inspired by Trigve’s original performance in the workshop."
Mew Framed Detective Rabbit/Panda?
Pete revealed in our interview how the world of zoology was a big influence on the final character designs seen in the movie.
"The thing with Pokémon is they’re very simplistic 2D designs. They're really adorable with their big heads, small bodies and big eyes and all the things that in character design you can turn to to make an appealing character.
"But in real life if you saw an animal with these same kind of features and proportions, it would look grotesque and unnatural.
"A term we threw around a lot at MPC was 'How would this Pokémon survive the night?' Could this animal make it through the night in the woods on its own? Would it be able to run away fast enough from whatever predators might pursue it? So we decided to follow the logic of nature's design.
"For Pikachu, he spends so much of his time upright in the film and cartoons, with a range of motion that a human performer would have. But very quickly he turns into looking like a guy in a Pikachu suit. So I imagined him as an upright quadruped, like a rabbit.
"When you think of a rabbit up on its hind legs they really swing a lot of momentum into their steps. They’re not very well balanced.
"The moment that Pikachu would go down on all fours, that’s when we’d allow him to embrace the natural quadruped look. We referenced a lot of red pandas for those movements.
Pete also revealed that the first facial rig for Pikachu was based on a feline muscle structure. So there you have it - Pikachu is a realistic-looking combination of rabbit, panda and pussycat. But what about that human element of Mr. Ryan Reynolds?
Anime meets Actor
"We decided to test the rig out by seeing how it would translate with an actor’s voice coming out of him and an actor’s performance so that we could continue our development of Pikachu," Pete tells us.
"We had a list of eight or so actors that would be in the running, went onto YouTube, downloaded clips from their previous movies and did motion studies for each of them using our work-in-progress model
"Ryan Reynolds really stood out from the group. He’s such a dry performer and when he telegraphs his performance into Pikachu we don’t need big gestural animated moves. With Ryan's delivery he’ll let a line in and it’ll be that little glance or smirk he gives and it’s just very contained physically, but to great effect emotionally from a performance point of view.
"He was the one that just inherently felt the least cartoony. But the one challenge we ended up having was when we animated our face to match Ryan’s, he no longer felt like Pikachu. He felt like a human face, with weird eye and nose placement and structure.
"So what we did was capture Ryan Reynolds doing a fast facial expression workout where we stick a head cam on him and have him run through about 80 different isolated expressions, as well as combination expressions. Then we did the same with the original 2D anime Pikachu, grabbing as many expressions as we could.
"Once we had that it became clear was that Pikachu has about six or seven different core expressions that look like Pikachu.
"When his mouth is wide open you have that kind of teardrop shape; when he’s sad or serious his mouth is an upside-down C, and when he’s excited or happy or mischievous it’s a W-shape.
"His eyes always need to stay as big discs. And he conveys his emotions by having his upper brow tuck into the silhouette at different angles of the brow, so he either looks scary or excited or happy etc.
"We'd found this playground to work with to keep it looking like Pikachu, and all of our shapes were built up as Ryan Reynold’s face, then the Pikachu equivalent, whilst also working within the constraints of an animalistic facial structure. The animator’s reference of Ryan performing would be version one of Pikachu’s performance and then we would embellish on top of that."
A purple Bruce Lee?
The hardest Pokémon to keep cute or kawaii was arch-nemesis Mewtwo.
"We needed to build him in a way that he was serious, commanding, powerful," Pete says on the phone from Vancouver. "Physically, we wanted him to look threatening while staying within the bounds of what the Pokémon Company deemed as 'adorable.'
A tall order, but Pete broke down what it took to get Mewtwo to the big screen without offending the character's proprietors back in Japan.
"In earlier versions we tried to embrace the human anatomy of Mewtwo, because unlike Mr. Mime we needed him to be a convincing performer.
"We were referencing Bruce Lee a lot, who like Mewtwo was very lean while still having a very solid and strong physique. As Mewtwo doesn’t have a lot of detailing on his body, and his form is pretty smooth and simplistic, what we ended up with was a purple Bruce Lee, with a big long, purple tail and giant legs. There’s really nothing adorable about that."
We bet - but a simple solution ended up saving the day.
"We eventually started looking for pictures of teenage boys who were very muscular. You still feel this muscular physique, but it’s less masculine. It’s more juvenile, a little softer.
"We started modifying his physique in that way, making him thinner and more wiry, but still with an underlying muscle structure. We started looking for that smooth skin as he has in the show, looking at baby pigs, hairless kittens, very soft flesh with cute little micro-wrinkles."
"It was also interesting that when you'd have Mewtwo in a more neutral pose under flat lighting, he's pretty appealing looking. That gave us the latitude to pose him in a menacing way, especially once Howard Clifford's spirit enters Mewtwo, and we’re really able to take on some of those personality traits.
"It really allowed us to push the more menacing aspect of him, but stay anchored with the base appeal that we designed into him which the Pokemon Company signed off."
Speaking of purple nemeses, I ask Pete about one surprise sequence near the film's end where - spoiler - a human character is revealed to have the eyes of a shape-shifting Ditto, revealing her true nature beneath the disguise.
If you thought Mr. Mime was weird, expect to be more than a little creeped out by the sight of an adult woman in noir garb staring at the screen with big black dots for eyes. It bears more than a little resemblance to a climactic scene in live action/animation classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in which bad guy Judge Doom turns out to be a 'toon posing as a human, big cartoon eyes popping out of the very real face of Christopher Lloyd. While Pete says the comparison is coincidental, we've embedded the sick little scene further on down for your amusement.
"In the cartoon, no matter its form, the Ditto always retains those beady little eyes," he says. "But as soon as you apply those to a human performer it got really dark and creepy, like something straight out of a horror movie.
"We tried all these different anatomical solutions - scaling her eyes down, stick in an exterior eye or black contacts - but it was always creepy. It was Rob Letterman who suggested that it wouldn't be so hard if we just stuck a black dot on the actor's face.
"We went for removing all anatomy in her eye cavity, leaving behind soft, featureless skin. Then we built a little half sphere of black marble that we popped on top of the flesh that ended up looking both extremely simplistic but also being the key to having something that remained adorable while serving its point narrative-wise as the big reveal."
Pete may call it adorable, but I was still left a little disturbed in the cinema. Same for when I saw the Judge Doom death scene above from Roger Rabbit, a film which Detective Pikachu follows in its masterful blending of the human world with imaginary characters as though it were a natural fit.
All of this success comes down to Pete and team at MPC's wonderful character design work, bringing everyone's favourite - and not so-favourite - Pokémon to life in 3D form. Call it a case of the Good, the Bad and the Duckly.
Coming soon to Digital Arts: more on the world-building itself of Detective Pikachu. The film meanwhile is now out in cinemas worldwide.