And it was freakin’ sweet.
The trailers for Pokemon: Detective Pikachu feature a fiery battle between Charizard and Pikachu, although it doesn’t go down like anyone would have expected. Charizard busts out of the gate, rage in its eyes, ready to Flamethrower little Detective Pikachu into smoldering oblivion. This Pikachu, however, isn’t like other Pokemon. He’s not only a detective, but he has the mysterious gift to speak with one human in particular, protagonist Tim Goodman. As we see in the trailer, this Pikachu was made for solving cases (and drinking coffee), not battling. In fact, he doesn’t even know how to use his moves, leading to a comedic beat about performance anxiety courtesy of Ryan Reynolds, the voice behind our fuzzy yellow private eye.
This scene is a big moment in the movie, and it’s the one I saw director Rob Letterman shooting when I visited the set of the movie just outside London last year with a small group of press. As a kid who grew up on a hearty diet of Pokemon Red and packs of Pokemon cards who never missed an episode of the anime after school, it’ll come as no surprise to hear that watching the filming of a live-action Pokemon battle was pretty cool, to put it mildly.
Want to refresh your memory on the trailers? Check ’em out below:
Throughout our day on set, we talked to the director, actors, producers, set designers, and visual effects producers. They told us all about how after years of The Pokemon Company wanting to make a live-action movie, Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment are finally making it happen in the most unexpected way… with Detective Pikachu. Here are all of the coolest behind-the-scenes details we learned during our visit.
Creating “Live-Action” Pokemon
Before we got to watch them film the big battle, we were shown the production design room where the walls were covered in concept art showing what each Pokemon would look like in the movie. You’ve all seen the trailer, but at the time, we had no idea how these “live-action” Pokemon were going to look. That’s where I got my first glimpse of live-action Charizard. It had rough, scaly skin like a Game of Thrones dragon and real fire on its tail. In a word, it was awesome.
We spoke with Greg Baxter, the film’s visual effects producer, who said the folks at TPC were very particular about how the Pokemon look because they wanted each one to be instantly recognizable. They gave detailed notes to make sure every Pokemon had just the right appearance, from their height and weight down to the shape of their eyes and the length of their claws. They even gave feedback to make sure each Pokemon stood and moved in the proper way.
“Rob Letterman’s vision for the movie is to kind of 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,” Baxter explained. “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 different kind of character, we kind of put all these pieces together to form what that Pokemon 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 drawn from animals that do exist in our world.”
How Many Pokemon Will Be in Detective Pikachu?
Baxter told us that about 60 Pokemon will be included in the movie. But as we’ve seen from the trailer, dozens more are referenced on posters, street signs, and such throughout the movie. Ryme City, the metropolis that acts as a main setting of the movie, is a treasure trove of Pokemon Easter eggs. So even if your favorite isn’t among those chosen for the movie, keep an eye out because you still might catch a nod to them somewhere in the background.
They Had a Rude Awakening About Pokemon Physiology
When choosing which Pokemon to use for the film, Baxter was surprised to learn some disturbing facts. For example, his team designed a lifelike version of Sawk, a humanoid fighting Pokemon that looks like it’s wearing a gi, complete with a black belt tied around its waist.
Only, Baxter told us that when they showed it to TPC, they got some unexpected news.
“We found out that the outfit is actually it’s skin,” he recalled with a laugh.
And that goes for other outfit-wearing Pokemon like Machamp and Mr. Mime. Those are flesh clothes. Enjoy that knowledge!
Are live-action Pokemon cool or creepy? We have the uncomfortable debate in the video below.
Why Did It Take This Long to Get a Live-Action Pokemon Movie?
The Pokemon anime has been around since 1997, but we’re only just now getting a live-action movie. The reason for that is simple: technology is finally at a place where digitally rendering live-action Pokemon will look good. Producer Ali Mendes said they didn’t want to take the same approach as The Smurfs or Alvin and the Chipmunks where they’re essentially little cartoon characters running around in a live-action world. They were inspired by the creatures of the Fantastic Beasts movies, which are of such high quality they look a natural part of the environment, and they wanted the same thing for Pokemon.
Building Ryme City
If Ryme City looks familiar, that’s on purpose. Production designer Nigel Phelps said they pulled together elements of several major cities to make it look familiar without it being recognizable as anywhere specific. He said it’s like Vancouver in terms of landscape, and in terms of of the scale of the architecture it’s like Manhattan mashed with London and Tokyo.
In the world of Pokemon, Pokemon are traditionally kept in their Poke Balls, but that’s not the case in Ryme City. Pokemon are free to walk out and about. After watching the trailers, the surface reason for that is obvious: we get the thrill of seeing them all over the place. But there’s also a more meaningful reason in that Pokemon there are treated less like pets and more as equals to humans.
According to Phelps, Ryme City was built with special attention to accommodate Pokemon. For example, the Hi-Hat Cafe is a restaurant where Detective Pikachu gets his coffee fix. The barista is a Ludicolo, but because that Pokemon is quite wide, they had to make sure the cafe had extra space for it to walk around, especially behind the counter.
Why Is Detective Pikachu Battling Charizard in the First Place?
Warning: the next section contains mild plot spoilers!
In the trailer, Pikachu seems confident as he enters the battlefield, saying, “Well obviously I’ve dealt with this putz before, so I’ll just do it again.” That’s because a clue leads Tim and Pikachu to an underground Pokemon fight club called the Roundhouse. Pokemon battling isn’t quite illegal, but it’s heavily frowned upon because of Ryme City’s progressive views on Pokemon. Roundhouse is run by a Pokemon pop star named Sebastian, who tells them that Tim’s father Harry had come there with Pikachu before he disappeared. Turns out Pikachu had beaten Charizard in a battle — you can even see the scar Pikachu gave Charizard on its face and burns on Sebastian’s coat where he got caught by a lightning bolt. But before Sebastian will give them anymore information on Harry, he says that Pikachu will have to beat Charizard in a rematch. Only, as Pikachu learns the hard way, he’s not exactly built for battling, which leads to, well, you’ve seen the trailer.
Sure, the battle looks exciting and dangerous in the trailer, but what I saw on set was a obviously little different. There were people in green-screen suits holding up a big Charizard head and tail and running it across the arena towards Pikachu, which was represented by a little plastic model that another person made scurry away. All the while, Ryan Reynolds’ pre-recorded lines were playing over a loudspeaker. That’s the magic of making movies, folks.
Yet even though I wasn’t seeing the final product, it was clear they were doing an excellent job capturing the vibe of a “real” Pokemon battle. It was just like I’d always imagined since seeing one in the first episode of the anime. There was a crowd gathered dressed in fashions inspired by the world of Pokemon, and some were wearing markers to indicate where their Pokemon would be digitally added later. They were chanting and cheering as the Pokemon squared off. Big screens displayed phrases from the games like “It’s super effective!”
When they took a break from filming we got to walk into the arena and, let me tell you, stepping onto an actual Pokemon battlefield with all the little details just right, like the painted lines and damage from previous battles marring the surface, was nothing short of magical.
The Mysterious Lab
And if all that wasn’t enough, we made one more stop on our tour of the set. The destroyed laboratory. Now, they were very strict about not giving away any plot details, so they didn’t tell us what the purpose of this set was. But just like I got a nerdy tingle walking onto the battlefield, among the rubble and broken science pod I could sense that this was the place where Mewtwo was created… before it destroyed everything and busted out of there.
I’d have to wait a year to have that suspicion confirmed in the second trailer, but did you see that reveal? It was totally worth the wait.
That’s all the coolest stuff I saw on my visit to the set of Pokemon: Detective Pikachu. If you want more, check out our video on what the producer said about the possibility of Detective Pikachu kicking off a Pokemon Cinematic Universe.
Joshua is Senior Editor of IGN Comics. If Pokemon, Green Lantern, or Game of Thrones are frequently used words in your vocabulary, you’ll want to follow him on Twitter @JoshuaYehl and IGN.