Pokémon come in all shapes and sizes. Some are cute little sheep, some are giant bugs. Some are gods. Some are ghosts. Some are...your keys? They can get weird. Weird enough that one of the VFX teams behind the movie found themselves asking questions they thought they’d never have to ask themselves.
Outside of a few notable additions, Detective Pikachu mostly sticks to the first generation of Pokémon – the 151 creatures that made up the roster you could catch in the original games in the series, Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue. Although Pokémon have gotten even stranger in the years since those games (there’s now over eight hundred of them), that didn’t mean that FX studio MPC avoided contending with some very important, really bizarre stars in Detective Pikachu – namely Mr. Mime and Mewtwo.
Tim and Mr. Mime engage in some stagecraft.
“Mr. Mime was one where, when we were designing him, it was a bit ambiguous in terms of, ‘What is Mr. Mime?’ And what material do we think he’s surfaced in, anatomically? What is he? And so, when we were developing him, a lot of our initial biases were ‘Well, he’s the Pokémon who’s humanoid with cartoony proportions...’,” VFX supervisor Pete Dionne told Gizmodo. “But then as we were developing him, it became clear about two steps into it that it was going to turn into the creepiest, most kind of odd-looking human/Pokémon hybrid. We landed in Uncanny Valley. So, we kind of changed gears on that one and tried to figure out, instead of – where we looked for all the other characters, to nature, to try and bring realism to the characters – that was one character where we did the complete opposite.”
While most of the animalistic Pokémon in Detective Pikachu took inspiration from real-world creatures, Mr. Mime had to take inspiration from real-world materials in order to avoid becoming a total nightmare.
“Our biggest design challenge with Mr. Mime is, ‘How do we not make him look human?’ And how do we make him look real without looking humanoid?’ So, that’s where we had a little bit of fun with it,” Dionne explained. “His shoulders, for example, big red balls – so, what’s the realest big red balls you can think of? We sourced those rubber kickballs that we’re all familiar with, and the texture on top of those. And the same things for his blue horns and white torso, he’s squishing around, and there’s no getting around these proportions, so we embraced it and treat them as foam, but like, a Nerf football you leave outside for the winter and all the paint crackles up on it.”
A particular challenge with Mr. Mime was his third texture: his skin. Actual skin was out of the question for the team, according to Dionne. “In his face, we tried to make it as unfleshy as possible,” Dionne said of the unspeakable horror that is Mr. Mime flesh. “When we were doing special effects make-up and trying to do prosthetic effects [with the Pokémon], instead of flesh it looked like silicone or latex – so we said, ‘Let’s embrace that, don’t try to cover it up. Just make him a thick wad of silicone and latex and all this’ in the scanning, shading, and the light interplay. [He] was one character that answered some questions we didn’t realize existed.”
Mewtwo strikes back!
Another ended up being the film’s quasi-antagonist, the legendary psychic Pokémon Mewtwo. “Mewtwo was tricky,” Dionne continued, “mostly because of the narrative requirements of the film. We needed to see him and read him as this intimidating villain. And any time we tried to build him up in the spirit of the original anime, where he’s very juvenile, he just didn’t have that kind of menacing presence that we required for portions of the film. But at the same time, whenever we started adding more recognisable musculature to him, or more aging and wrinkling – more maturity – to him, it just really quickly stopped looking like Mewtwo.”
Striking a balance between Mewtwo’s smooth youthfulness in its anime and game design took Dionne and the team to some strange places. “What we ended up doing was finding the right compromise on his overall form of still trying to be muscular, but also a juvenile bodybuilder,” Dionne explained. “So instead of a 30-year-old, a really ripped 14-year-old. That body – how do we translate that into Mewtwo?”
For the actual texture of Mewtwo’s body however, the animal kingdom provided better comparison than humans did. “We started looking at hairless kittens, where they have that very thin, almost translucent flesh that still has lots of wrinkling and clumping on it, but it’s just supple and soft and youthful,” Dionne told us. “As we were detailing and sourcing Mewtwo, we had a lot of development in terms of trying to do the juvenile version of the references we were looking for.”
While getting over the hurdles of trying to make the unreal real, MPC ended up overdesigning the roster of Pokémon it had for Detective Pikachu, in case the Pokémon Company rejected some of their designs. “We kind of overbuilt a lot of these, and we ended up with around 60 Pokémon in the film,” Dionne revealed. “We certainly designed more to account for [situations where] if there’s Pokémon we can’t find common ground, from a design point of view – where we can’t bring into the real world and still maintain the kind of core design principles of that specific character – that we could just kind of cut bait and move onto the next one. There were Pokémon left on the chopping block.”
Alakazam’s official artwork in the Pokémon games.
One poor Pokémon in particular that got left behind? The Psychic Pokémon Alakazam – and it’s for a reason almost as creepy to contemplate as either human Mr. Mime or ripped teenage Mewtwo. “The one thing we just couldn’t get past on that one was he has his – he’s wearing his traditional gi or, whatever his outfit is called,” Dionne said. “And the Pokémon Company interpreted that as not being cloth, but his skin. There was no way we could get around that one.”
Some things are perhaps better left unseen.