Detective Pikachu spoilers ahead!
The very first live-action Pokémon movie is now out after years in development, and from the moment the first trailer debuted, people were surprised to see how charming Detective Pikachu looked. But other than Pikachu talking and sounding not like Danny Devito--as some fans wanted--but like Ryan Reynolds, what really made an impression in that first trailer was arguably the new look of the Pokémon.
The world of Pokémon is filled with a variety of different creatures, each with a unique design. From the scaly and terrifying Charizard, to whatever nightmare Mr. Mime came from, the biggest surprise in Detective Pikachu may have been that Pikachu looks undeniably furry. It's not that Pikachu and the other furry Pokemon look bad--but up until this point, they've always been portrayed looking, uh, smoother.
Naturally, we jumped at the opportunity to talk about Pokémon fur, whether Pokémon like Machamp wear clothes, and just what the hell Mr. Mime is with Detective Pikachu visual effects supervisor Erik Nordby.
"We didn't really have another choice," Nordby told us regarding furry Pikachu. "The Pokémon Company didn't want it to have fur, and they wanted something that felt more like a horse, with very fine and short hair. But look at it. There is no real-world equivalent of a Pikachu. It just looks unnatural and a bit disturbing, since that type of yellow skin doesn't really exist anywhere. So we built the texture and showed the company what Pikachu could look like with fur, and eventually they grew to love it."
Having to communicate with a media conglomerate like The Pokémon Company, and across two languages, wasn't an easy task. Nordby told us that they had a slew of rules for what Pokémon could and couldn't look like, but one mandate was key: "They were very conservative when it came to changing the original designs, and 'kawaii,' or cute, was the word of the day," Nordby said. Indeed, Pokémon fans know that in both the anime and the games, even the scariest or strangest Pokémon still make you want to hug them (with a few exceptions, like the one that's just a garbage bag, or the ones you actually want to eat, like the ice cream cone Pokemon Vanilluxe).
This mandate of cuteness became the hardest and most important part of the design process. For Nordby and his team, the really challenging part was sticking to that while also making sure the Pokémon looked like living creatures. "We definitely wanted them to look realistic and like they could survive in our world," Nordby said. "The ratios and proportions of cartoon Pokémon bodies are biologically wrong, so we wanted to make sure the Pokémon looked like they could eat, find shelter, communicate, and that their bodies could fit actual organs and hold the weight of their bodies. We figured out their whole anatomy, with muscle systems, bone structure, the size of the eyeballs, you name it."
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What really helped the Detective Pikachu team create the new designs was to just stick to the original, at least their general shape. "The most helpful thing for us was being able to look at the original sketches from Satoshi Tajiri and Ken Sugimori," Nordby explained. "We used the basic silhouette of each Pokémon, and basically stayed within that frame while still changing the texture, size of eyeballs, and other things."
Nordby and his team also looked at real animals in order to have a reference from which to build the Pokémon designs. "We traveled to zoos all over and built an entire catalogue of animals we could reference." He said. As fans know, a fair amount of Pokémon have direct counterparts in our world, so the Detective Pikachu team used this to their advantage for Pokémon like Pancham, which is basically just a panda with a bigger head. For others, though, the task was harder.
"Pikachu was difficult, especially because of how important it is for fans," Nordby told us. "We started with various rodents like rabbits and wombats. We did a lot of different tests with different animals for both looks and also movement. In the end we took some basic things from actual animals but built the rest from scratch; otherwise, you lose what makes Pikachu special."
According to Nordby, another big rule of The Pokémon Company was regarding clothing, mostly that Pokémon do not wear clothes (other than a detective hat, apparently). The visual effects supervisor recalls showing the company their initial design for Machamp, a fighting-type Pokémon seen in the movie directing traffic, who normally wears a wrestling belt and a speedo--except it is actually neither of those.
"They told us it looked like Machamp was wearing clothes, and they absolutely can't wear any clothes," Nordby said. "Then we asked about what that was, since it looks like Machamp is obviously wearing speedos and a wrestling belt. And they answered that it was actually just part of its skin. We replied, 'well, if it's just skin, why is it shiny?'" Nordby argued that while the rules may seem arbitrary, there's a reason why this brand has become such a success.
Then there was the issue with Mr. Mime, a character that has absolutely no counterpart in the real world, and to add to the difficulty, isn't one that looks inherently cuddly.
Just as director Rob Letterman almost cut the Mr. Mime interrogation scene out of the movie, designing Mr. Mime was one of the hardest parts of the project for Nordby and his team. "We asked The Pokémon Company, 'What is this thing?' and they said they didn't know, and even tried to talk us into cutting him, because they didn't think it could work onscreen," Nordby said. Unlike Pikachu or Jigglypuff, Mr. Mime looks more like a pretty disturbing humanoid creature dressed as a mime--only it isn't.
"They told us again that Pokémon don't wear clothes. Everything about Mr. Mime is its skin, so the horns is just its hair that bends that way," Nordby told us. "We got a real mime named Trygve [Wakenshaw], who was consulted for the movements. For the design we ended up having to look not at animals, but at toys. Rubber balls, inflatable fair gloves, just every kind of common kids toys we used for the textures--every surface feels like a toy, so it counteracts some of the creepiness."
Whether they succeeded in making Mr. Mime not creepy is a question for another time, but it is fair to say they actually managed to make the world of Pokémon feel real, which is an undeniable achievement.