Pokémon: Detective Pikachu Visual Effects

Detective Pikachu is recent feature film based on the popular Nintendo game, Pokemon. MPC, Framestore & ILM worked on Visual Effects for the movie.

Progression sketch art of Pikachu Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Framestore worked on the internet-breaking Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, leading on 24 unique Pokémon, each with their own unique personalities, powers and characteristics.

Framestore’s art, animation, VFX and IA teams worked across a wide range of scenes, characters and environments, with key sequences including Pikachu’s face-off with fire-breathing Charizard; the Gengar vs Blastoise showdown and a daring escape from a horde of angry Aipom.

One of Framestore’s biggest challenges was the sheer range of unique CG characters, all of whom required individual rigging, CFX, groom and animation. “We were effectively working on a zoo’s worth of creatures for which there’s very little references in nature,” says VFX Supervisor Jonathan Fawkner. “From odd skin wobbles to wet-look scales and that much-debated fur there was a lot going on.”

The film also required a fine balance when it came to moving much-loved characters from 2D into 3D, carefully weighing The Pokémon Company’s instantly-recognisable IP and distinctive silhouettes with director Rob Letterman’s clear-cut creative vision. Whether it was devising Charizard’s armour-like scales, coiffuring Jigglypuff’s dashing forelock or cheekily tweaking the laws of physics to allow some characters to realistically get about, the film saw Framestore pulling out all the stops to bring this distinctive menagerie to life. “Given the devoted fan base that it was always going to be important to respect the established look and behaviour of the characters,” says Montreal Animation Supervisor Philip Morris. “Right off the bat we knew that there would be a real challenge to recreate these very graphic 2D characters that move in very specific ways in a 3D environment, producing something new and exciting while still meeting the fans’ expectations.”

Working on the film brought a legion of Pokémon addicts out of the woodwork, while other members of the team required an intensive crash course in Poké lore. “We researched every character thoroughly, from background story trivia from the anime, to battle moves across various gaming platforms,” explains London Animation Supervisor Dale Newton. “Our job was certainly not to ‘reinvent’ these characters, but to give them new form in a real world.”

Other Framestore characters included the adorable Pancham and Squirtle, the migraine-ridden Psyduck, the vaporous Gengar and the anxiously flopping Magikarp, while hero character Pikachu was shared with a fellow VFX company. “Bringing Pikachu to life required a lot of thought and work,” says Fawkner. “We had to bend some of normal rigging rules to allow for certain trademark Pikachu poses, and animating his face required a balance in terms of conveying humour while also keeping him rooted in the animal kingdom.” Director Rob Letterman was adamant that the characters should be as realistic as possible, and Framestore looked to bush babies, red pandas and raccoons for Pika-inspiration.

“Finding a Pikachu performance was a blend of several sources,” says Newton. “Firstly we looked closely at his design and anime staging, being as aware as possible of the design rules of what makes his 2D representation so charming and adorable – and channelled this into our staging and posing. We needed to ensure that he retained his distinctive features – his large and round eyes and w-shaped muzzle – all the while remaining expressive. We also sought as much reference from the animal kingdom as we could get for his larger physical actions.”

For Framestore’s Montreal team, it was Snubbull who threw up some interesting challenges. “Snubbull reminds you of a bulldog right away, but he couldn’t look too much like his real-life counterpart,” says Montreal VFX Supervisor Carlos Monzon. “Also, he didn’t move much, so the character and the emotion came from those layers of excess fat and skin when he frowns or squints. This meant our animators and our CFX team had to rely on incremental movements to convey feeling, character and comedy rather than distinctive motions or grand gestures.” The flipside to this subtle challenge were the crafty simian Aipom. “The Aipom were fun to work on, because we had to figure out a way to turn these really cute characters into ones that were angrier and more threatening,” says Monzon. “We needed to work out a quick recipe for how this transformation took place, and how the changes manifested.” The Aipoms presented a scientific challenge as well as a creative one, as Morris explains: “The Aipoms had extreme ‘cartoon like’ proportions and features,” he says.

Framestore’s role extended to detailed environment and lighting work, helping to conjure the ‘bubblegum noir’ feel of neon-lit Ryme City. It was underground, however, where lighting posed the biggest challenges. “The face-off between Pikachu and Charizard was probably the most challenging lighting set-up I’ve ever had to work with,” says Fawkner. The scene was shot at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden with a full complement of extras (all of whom would be accompanied by their own Pokémon by the time Framestore had worked its magic). “The battle is part-way between wrestling match and a rave,” says Fawkner. “It involved a programmable rock ‘n’ roll lighting rig, along with video screens, lasers and smoke. We ended up rebuilding the entire set and rig in CG, to ensure a note-perfect match.” The sequence involved roughly 200 shots, and recreating hundreds of animated lights. “It was like recreating an entire concert arena,” says Lighting Supervisor Nestor Prado. “We created a setup that could adapt to every shot and that was relatively straightforward to synchronize with the plates filmed. The number of Pokémon in this sequence was also really high: we had a large number of hero characters and an even bigger number of background characters – as many as 40 in some instances.”