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May 28
2019

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

VFX Helps Pokémon Go Live in Hollywood

By TREVOR HOGG

Pokémon stuffies and puppets were utilized on set for eyelines, composition and lighting references. (Images copyright © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures) 

A consortium of Nintendo, Game Freak and Creatures Inc. established The Pokémon Company in 1998 to manage a global media franchise of pocket monsters that has spawned video games, trading cards, an animé television series, toys, books, music, merchandise, an augmented reality mobile game, and most recently a live-action feature directed by filmmaker Rob Letterman (Goosebumps) called Pokémon Detective Pikachu. Despite the effort to shoot on film and to get as much in-camera, the visual effects supervised by Erik Nordby (Passengers) were essential in enabling humans to interact with the various Pokémon characters brought to life by MPC, Framestore, Image Engine and Rodeo FX.

“Framestore and MPC art departments worked for about a year designing the Pokémon characters,” states Framestore Creative Director of Film Jonathan Fawkner. “The fight between making them look real or more like their original cartoon design was always a tussle. Stage two was about fleshing those ideas out with some movement studies. Stage three was producing pre-render turntables for fully-rendered CG assets. Each one of those stages needed to be signed off by The Pokémon Company in order to get characters approved.”

Jonathan Fawkner, Creative Director of Film, Framestore

Pete Dionne, VFX Supervisor, MPC

Footage was captured on film and in practical locations with London doubling as Ryme City.

“Framestore and MPC art departments worked for about a year designing the Pokémon characters. The fight between making them look real or more like their original cartoon design was always a tussle.”

—Jonathan Fawkner, Creative Director of Film, Framestore

Director Rob Letterman and lead actor Justice Smith discuss a scene while on set.

MPC VFX Supervisor Pete Dionne partnered with colleague Bryan Litson to conceptualize, create and execute 40 out of the 60 Pokémon characters made for the movie. “Pre-production was a busy time trying to push through this necessary volume of character design,” recalls Dionne. “Especially for MPC’s art department, which worked on the character concept development, and Character Asset Supervisor Dan Zelcs and his team, who then had to build them all!

MPC and Framestore created their own models of Detective Pikachu to suit the story needs of their scenes. 

“Pre-production was a busy time trying to push through this necessary volume of character design. Especially for MPC’s art department, which worked on the character concept development, and Character Asset Supervisor Dan Zelcs and his team, who then had to build them all!”

—Pete Dionne, VFX Supervisor, MPC

Cubone was one of the 60 Pokémon characters created for the movie

“We began the project with a tremendous amount of respect towards the original source material for the Pokémon designs, but also for the challenges that we faced in transforming them into living, breathing creatures in a photorealistic world,” remarks Dionne. “These adorable Pokémon characters all had the potential to turn grotesque quickly with the slightest design misstep, so we dedicated a lot of time, budget, and energy to get it right. For all of the successful Pokémon that you see on screen, we also have a few abominations buried deep in the cellar which will never see the light of day!”

The playing cards and animé television series were referenced when designing Psyduck.

“These adorable Pokémon characters all had the potential to turn grotesque quickly with the slightest design misstep, so we dedicated a lot of time, budget, and energy to get it right. For all of the successful Pokémon that you see on screen, we also have a few abominations buried deep in the cellar which will never see the light of day!”

—Pete Dionne, VFX Supervisor, MPC

Charizard and Omar Chaparro as Sebastian. 

A matrix was created for the hero characters based on their proximity to the camera and the level of articulation required. “If it was from A to C of resolution, they were going to have high-resolution textures and a lot of development in their shading,” notes Fawkner. “But maybe they didn’t have big story points, which meant that there wouldn’t be a lot of character development in the animation. But there were other characters like Pikachu where we had to work on him outside of shot context for a long time and look at the various activities that we thought made sense. Something as simple as having him sit at the bar. MPC led on that, but our Pikachu had a different service to the story than theirs did.”

Justice Smith as Tim Goodman, Detective Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds), and Ken Watanabe as Lieutenant Hide Yoshida.

Lieutenant Hide Yoshida (Ken Watanabe) and Snubbull.

Three important goals were kept in mind when dealing with Pikachu, voiced by Ryan Reynolds. “Our first goal was to create a character whose physical qualities felt like it could be a living, breathing animal while staying as true to the original 2D designs as possible,” remarks Dionne. “Our second goal was to create a physically plausible facial muscle system that could achieve a nuanced and varied emotional performance required from a leading character, but without ever feeling cartoonish. Our third goal was to develop a style of animation that gave us a wide range of physical and dramatic performance, but embracing the physical limitations of an upright, quadruped animal. Having these parameters established early on for Pikachu really brought a lot of focus to our year-long design process.”

Framestore utilized a fiber-hair system called Fibre first developed for Christopher Robin

Ludicolo

Bulbasaur

The lighting integration of the Pokémon characters into the live-action photography was difficult to achieve. “In order to inform the compositors and the crew about how well the lighting was done, I insisted that the whole scene being rendered in relative low quality as full CG sets,” states Fawkner. “We had all of the lights and fog setup similar to the plate. It was on that basis that I was able to judge the lighting setup properly and inevitably our characters sat into that world incredibly well.”

Lickitung

Aipom

Charizard

The project was educational experience. “When we got involved, I knew that at Framestore there would be people who knew more about Pokémon than me, my core team, Rob, Eric, and the rest of the gang on the production side. We would often come up with an idea, and I would run it past the millennials who knew all about it. They would say, ‘That would be cool. I would love to see that.’ We then said to Rob, ‘It’s okay because such and such thinks it would be cool to see, and it wouldn’t be too much a stretch.’ We were definitely running it by younger experts.”

There are over 1,000 shots of Detective Pikachu in the action comedy. 

Psyduck and Kathryn Kewton as Lucy Stevens.

Greninja

“Our first goal was to create a character whose physical qualities felt like it could be a living, breathing animal while staying as true to the original 2D designs as possible. Our second goal was to create a physically plausible facial muscle system that could achieve a nuanced and varied emotional performance required from a leading character, but without ever feeling cartoonish. Our third goal was to develop a style of animation that gave us a wide range of physical and dramatic performance, but embracing the physical limitations of an upright, quadruped animal. Having these parameters established early on for Pikachu really brought a lot of focus to our year-long design process.”

—Pete Dionne, VFX Supervisor, MPC

Tim Goodman (Justin Smith), Detective Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) and Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Kewton) encounter a mountain-sized Torterra. 

Jigglypuff

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