In Lovecraftian lore, horrors exist that the mind simply cannot comprehend. While the facade of our world usually keeps us safe from it all, on occasion, supernatural beings pierce through the veil. These Old Gods are creatures humankind was never meant to bear witness to; a reminder of our insignificance in a universe we don’t have the capacity to fully understand.

Those who gaze upon the Old Gods are left broken. They are driven insane as they struggle to reconcile their understanding of how the world should be with the eldritch truths suddenly thrust upon them. In 2018, at a secluded location in England, I felt this same madness creeping into my own mind. I stood before otherworldly creatures that were deeply familiar to me, and yet also entirely alien. I locked eyes with them and my psyche began to fracture; my reality began to distort.

Just then a nice Japanese man handed me a Pokemon goodie bag and thanked me for coming to the set of the Detective Pikachu movie. I politely smiled and nodded while still transfixed on a small furry Pikachu standing a few feet away. I wasn’t ready to see that. As I wrestled with the ramifications of it, a guy with his arm up a Charizard’s neck appeared and began aggressively waving its head around while making faint roaring sounds. Behind him was a shirtless dude jumping up and down shouting “attack.”

I don’t think I’ve been the same since.

For as long as I remember, Pokemon has been a part of my life. I’ve captured hundreds of them, battled dozens of Gym Leaders, and been crowned a Champion numerous times. But my immersion into the Pokemon universe has always been abstracted through the screens of video game handhelds and TVs. On that day, however, I stood at the center of it. More specifically, I was standing in an underground battle arena where some sort of Pokemon fight club was being held. Large WWE-esque displays teased the match-up, while teenagers dressed like trainers from the games–vibrant-colored shorts, baseball caps, backpacks and all–ambled around. Real-world representations of in-game monsters were also scattered around the location. It was weird, but once I managed to reclaim some sense of my grip on reality, it was also exciting.

Detective Pikachu is The Pokemon Company and Legendary Pictures’ first stab at a live-action movie based on the incredibly popular Nintendo franchise. Although much of what audiences will see on screen will be CGI, those involved in its production have leaned heavily on the real world to both inspire the movie and execute on the vision for it, which is why there are so many Pokemon model stand-ins hanging around.

Over the course of the day, I got to immerse myself in a small slice of Detective Pikachu’s world and speak with people key to bringing it to life. Whether the movie lives up to the high bar fans expect it to reach remains to be seen, but I can at the very least say that there was an overwhelming excitement about the whole thing–an enthusiasm for the production and an awareness of how much Pokemon means to millions around the world.

To Be A Master

“We’re all very passionate about Pokemon at Legendary, and I think we’ve been talking about it for five years now, so it’s been in our minds for a long time,” said Ali Mendes, co-producer on the flick. “Detective Pikachu was this new idea from The Pokemon Company, and we were really excited about it because we felt this was a way to celebrate everything inside of Pokemon’s legacy: 20 years of battling and these characters that people have fallen in love with, to sort of celebrate that but also do something a little unexpected, a little bit new, and kind of add a genre twist to it.

“The biggest thing was of course seeing Pikachu in live action, figuring out how these characters are going to come into our world–‘What does a live Pokemon, a realistic, 3D Pokemon look like?’ That was a really exciting challenge for us.”

CGI versions of originally 2D animated characters in live-action movies have become prevalent with films like Alvin and the Chipmunks, Smurfs, and Garfield. And while these films were certainly considerations when Legendary began making Detective Pikachu, Mendes said its goal was to deliver something closer to Fantastic Beasts, a spin-off from the Harry Potter universe. In many ways, the Pokemon and Harry Potter universes are quite similar, both having massive worlds rich with history and character, but also driven by memorable stories. Successfully representing both of these aspects, according to Mendes, is the key to doing justice to Pokemon in the movie.

“These creatures are as photo-real as they can possibly be. We’re working with the best visual effects team in the world. We thought about Fantastic Beasts a lot just in terms of the quality of that animation and how life-like [the creatures] were. But it was interesting; we worked very closely with The Pokemon Company. They’ve been wonderful collaborators through this, and we’ve really let them guide us, because they know their brand better than we ever will, and we want to make sure that we’re giving fans exactly what they want, and they know that better than anyone.

“But when it comes to making a feature film, you really want to be led by story; you need to care about your characters, and you need to care about your story, and Detective Pikachu at its heart had this great story that we felt like, ‘OK, this is a way to connect beyond just what the brand is.’ This is a father-son story. There’s something inside of these characters that we feel is really going to resonate and connect with a large audience, so it was actually the creativity of it that really drove us and made us feel like this could be something really special.”

Following the release of the first two trailers for Detective Pikachu, the internet has buzzed with discussion about how the Pokemon are depicted. Twitter has exploded with GIFs of Mr. Mime getting involved in an imaginary traffic collision, clips of a bartending Ludicolo screaming abruptly, and pictures of Lickitung’s unfurled tongue that are, quite frankly, unnerving. While Legendary has stuck close to the source material when it comes to the design of Pokemon–guided by the The Pokemon Company to ensure they remain faithful–it has had more freedom in depicting the world the movie is set within.

Like the video game it’s loosely based on, Detective Pikachu takes place in Ryme City, where protagonist Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), a former Pokemon trainer and son of detective Harry Goodman, investigates the disappearance of his father. Joining him is an amnesiac Pikachu voiced by Ryan Reynolds. Tim happens to be the only human who can speak to the Pikachu, who is also caught up in the mystery of Harry Goodman’s disappearance, as well as strange goings-on with other Pokemon in the metropolis.

It’s in Ryme City that the meeting of the real and surreal is at its most striking. Nigel Phelps, production designer on Detective Pikachu, also called Fantastic Beasts to mind when discussing taking the familiar and giving it a strange, otherworldly twist.

“It’s all very focused on being believable, that’s a very important characteristic to the film,” he explained. “So for the most part, we’ll be shooting in and around London … the streets and the exterior stuff is in and around the city of London and Shoreditch. It has to be familiar to everybody. So some amalgam of Vancouver, in terms of the landscape, Manhattan, in terms of the scale of the architecture. So really, if you mash Manhattan with London and Tokyo, that’s kind of the world that we are setting this in.

“We’ve kind of shied away from [using landmarks and architecture from the games]. There are little clues with the street names, and stuff like that, there’s references to the Pokemon universe, without being specific to it. So we’ve shied away from the animation [because] the cartoons and stuff felt much too cartoon-y and unreal, and it was important to everyone making the film that this was a realistic universe.”

Naturally, taking strange creatures and attempting to put them in realistic environments throws up numerous challenges, and this is something that has shaped the construction of sets that Pokemon appear in. Take the aforementioned screaming Ludicolo, for example, who is four feet wide, but still needs to fit behind a bar.

“Everything has to get moved down,” Phelps said. “You know, you have to be familiar with, obviously, with the creatures in the scene, because they’re not all six foot tall, eighteen inches wide, they’re all sorts of shapes and sizes.

“We stopped including Pokemon into the [set production visuals] very early on because [they] became distracting. [We were] drawing this great-looking sets, and everyone’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, but, no, this Pokemon’s ears are too big,’ and no one’s looking at the environments. It became all about what the Pokemon are doing … That became what the illustrations were all about, and not the scenery. We’d still be doing [sets] now otherwise. So that’s gonna be a post-production layer.”

I Choose You

The responsibility of bringing Pokemon to life in a realistic way and integrating them into Ryme City fell upon VFX producer Greg Baxter and his team. And the challenges in doing so were apparent from the very outset, as Baxter found that, although there was an abundance of Pokemon material to look to for inspiration, the stylistic difference of Detective Pikachu meant they couldn’t entirely rely on other Pokemon projects..

“The Pokemon world that has existed before, whether it’s in the games or the traditional anime, has been a very different style of performance,” Baxter said. “And so, even just getting a first image of what it might be has been a long process. To get so many cooks, if you will, to try to weigh in on what it would look like and then performing as a three-dimensional character, walking and flying, and there’s so many of them so the movements are just vast.

“And then, coming out here onto a film set or out into the city and trying to figure out how to film all of that movement when it doesn’t actually exist in front of a camera and when it’s so different–I mean, you’ve got, one-foot- to 20-foot-tall Pokemon and some fly and some slither, some are fast, some are slow, and shot to shot, you may have 12 of those. And you have to accommodate for all of them.

“We’ve done movies before where you have one or two ways to film that, ways to get space for the Pokemon or light for the Pokemon or for the character. [But] in this one, when you have so many in one shot, you have to make sure that the camera is not just capturing the faces in front of them, but also all of the creatures that will be added after the fact. It’s been a circus, but it’s a lot of fun.”

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According to Baxter, the decision to render Pokemon as realistically as possible suited the vision director Rob Letterman had for the movie, which, like every other aspect of production, reinforced the theme of having the fantastical amidst the familiar.

“Rob Letterman’s vision for the movie is to ground it in reality, even though Ryme City is kind of a made-up city. It’s supposed to feel present-day and feel like all these creatures that you’ve seen mostly in very bright colors and anime style are sitting in the room with you. And so Pokemon to Pokemon, they have different textures–some are furry, some are kind of leathery or snakey or whatever. But for every creature, we took real-world animals and drew from that. You take the skin of a snake, the eyes of a different kind of character, we put all these pieces together to form what that Pokemon would look like.

“We would send that back and forth to The Pokemon Company, so that they would understand where we’re going with it and it wouldn’t be a big shock when it landed. But really, that’s how all of them have come together. Each one, 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 drawn from animals that do exist in our world.”

My first exposure to Detective Pikachu’s vision of Pokemon in the real word wasn’t being eased into it through brief glimpses of concept art, or even the short trailers that first debuted long after my visit to set. Instead I was thrown into the midst of it all, shown pieces of a bigger picture, and left to let my imagination try and figure out how it all fits together. Having watched the trailers, the sight of realistic Pokemon is no less strange today. However, being able to take a step back and get a wider view of the world in which they exist certainly makes it less jarring. Like many other fans, I have been charmed by the Pokemon featured in the trailer and warmed to the idea of a live-action movie. If the rest of the film is able to sustain the sense of wonder those trailers inspire, this could be an entirely new Pokemon universe to get obsessed with.

Lickitung is still too weird for me, though.

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