After hopping on the back of the nearest Pidgeotto, I flew across the pond to Shepperton Studios, located just outside of London, where Nerdist and other assembled media outlets spent the day learning everything humanly possible on the set of Detective Pikachu. Here’s all the pocket monster goodness we gleaned from our time in Ryme City.
There are approximately 60 Pokémon featured in the movie
Choosing a favorite Pokémon can be a grueling task. With more than 800 options, it’s a bit like reading the menu at the Cheesecake Factory: what feels like an exercise in futility that will ultimately flood your body with endorphins when all’s said and done. When it comes to Detective Pikachu, though, they had to carefully curate a list of Pokémon they wanted to feature on the big screen because each new character they added required thorough modeling, rendering, detailing, and animation, all of which cost a whole lot of money. So chances are that your favorite Pokémon, especially if it’s a deeper cut, might not have made it into the final product. Ultimately, according to visual effects producer Greg Baxter, the film will feature 60 living, breathing, fully realized Pokémon.
“There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of Pokémon in the Pokémon universe. Movies I’ve done before, we’ve had dozens of CG characters, and that’s been a lot,” Baxter explained. “And this one … this moment we’re budgeted to do 60, which even that, honestly, is a massive undertaking, because each one of those has its own muscle structure and all the things we build to make something move.”
So why 60? Well, it’s a mostly a matter of budget, but also part of their plan not to totally overload the world of Detective Pikachu just for the sake of filling up audience members’ Pokédexes.
“And how we arrived at that number … It keeps changing, by the way, every time we shoot a scene, we think, ‘Oh, maybe we should put an Octillery over there,’ and then that’s not something we’re budgeted for, so then we’re racing to build this Octillery character,” Baxter said. “The idea, I think, is that [if] we have about 60 of them in the film, [it] should give us enough for primary characters and also background characters. But other than the top, maybe, ten that we know have specific scenes, the other ones are changing a bit as we film the movie, as we kind of find what our world is going to be and what Pokémon would fit nicely into the scenes.”
They had to film every scene two or three times
It pains me to write this because the trailers have looked shockingly realistic, but Pokémon don’t exist in real life. While they could likely utilize highly detailed puppets to achieve the aesthetic they’re after in Detective Pikachu, CGI has proved far more effective in bringing the more than 60 types of Pokémon featured in this movie to life. That also means for the actors that each scene needs to be shot multiple times in order to create the raw materials from which the final product will be crafted. It’s an intricate, highly technical ballet of juggling eyelines, utilizing one’s imagination, and being perfectly comfortable looking ridiculous for a while, knowing that it will look like a million bucks once it finally hits the big screen.
“For every take we have, there’s like two takes for Pikachu and Psyduck,” explained Kathryn Newton, who plays the wannabe investigative journalist Lucy. “Because they have to do one take. It’s called a reference pass with the puppets, and then they remove the puppets. So we have eyelines and then they know where the Pokémon will be, and everything. And then they take them out, and Justice [Smith] and I act with nothing for a while, and then they put them back in and we do it all over again.”
While they do use puppets as well for certain shots, nothing beats the human touch, which is why for reference passes, Newton is occasionally joined by a costumed partner playing her best bud Psyduck.
“Well, Psyduck only says ‘Psyduck’ and I have someone named Lauren who actually wears a Psyduck costume,” Newton told us. “So she’s really, really short and small. She only comes in on a reference pass, like we’ll do the first take with me, and then leaves. I think our AD will say ‘Psyduck’ sometimes if he has to say ‘Psyduck.'”
Filming with Ryan Reynolds was a challenge
How can you make a movie that is so dependent on having back-and-forth patter with a costar who isn’t even there? It’s simple: you fly him out to film the movie with you for a week and then try your damnedest to remember everything he did.
“We basically went through the whole film with Ryan [Reynolds] on a soundstage, with Ryan in a motion-capture helmet,” Justice Smith, who stars as Detective Pikachu’s unwitting partner Tim Goodman, explained to us as we crowded into a tent on the side of the stage. “And, so I got to see how he improvised, what he was gonna do, what he was gonna say, how he was gonna act. And then we have a reader who reads Ryan’s lines, but I essentially have to remember what Ryan did on … that day. And then do my side of it, when we’re shooting. And things change around, and they’re gonna fix some stuff in post with Ryan, but for the most part it comes down to memory. We also recorded the tape so I can listen to them back, and remember what he did. But it’s just the whole team trying to work together, and they have been. It’s a really difficult beast.”
While it may have been more difficult beast to tame than many of the Pokémon that populate Ryme City, Smith’s hard work does not go unnoticed by his colleagues.
“[Justice] has this thing called an earwig, so he’s hearing Ryan’s lines as Pikachu, and me,” added co-star Kathryn Newton. “I don’t think any of you have ever had to wear one of those, but they are so annoying. They are the most annoying things because you hear this fuzz, and it’s like having a radio in your ear. The funny thing as an actor is I learned my scenes with everyone’s lines. I learned Pikachu’s lines and Tim’s lines, and then the first scene I had was with the three of them and then I realized, ‘Oh, my gosh, I don’t understand Pikachu. I don’t hear Pikachu. Only Tim can hear Pikachu.’ So the first scene that we did, I was like, ‘Wait a minute, now the beats are all different, it’s so strange.’ So during the scene that Justice hears Ryan in one ear, and has to act at nothing, and then continue the scene with me, and I’m just like, ‘What is he talking to?’ So it actually works out pretty well, but it’s still really difficult for him. He’s so impressive.”
Detective Pikachu was shot on film
Yes, you read that right. In spite of the fact that the movie is jam-packed with hyperrealistic CGI Pokémon, Detective Pikachu was shot on film at the insistence of director Rob Letterman in order to get the grainy, noir feel they wanted for this hard-boiled mystery while still delivering the larger-than-life Pokémon action fans are craving.
“There’s like 800-plus Pokémon in the universe. We’re using upwards of 60 individual, fully CGI Pokémon characters of all shapes and sizes, all different colors, all different behaviors, and they all have to be represented in here,” Letterman explained to us as we watched them film a massive battle scene between Charizard and Pikachu at the Roundhouse, the warehouse-rave set featured heavily in the recent trailer.
“So you’re in a set, this is our big Pokémon battle set piece. Pokémon are battling in the arena, but people in the audience also have their Pokémon with them,” he continued. “We have to leave space for that, we have to create eye lines for all of that, we have to interact with that. In this case … Charizard’s tail is on fire all the time, so we have to have a light that represents the fire tail, and whenever he blows flame we have to have another light that lights the crowd. It’s insane. And on top of that, I added insult to injury for the entire crew—I wanted to shoot on film. So I made it extra, extra complicated. But it looks amazing.”
When it comes to on-screen pairings, there’s just something magical about seeing two people have to spend quality time with one another who get along like oil and water. That’s the relationship between Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) and Detective Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) in a nutshell. They both have a vested interest in finding out the truth behind what happened to Harry Goodman, Tim’s missing father and Detective Pikachu’s missing partner, but they are polar opposites personality-wise.
“Tim is a very cynical guy, who kind of masks a lot of his emotions through wit and irony and being dry,” Justice Smith told us in between takes. “So when he’s matched up with this very exuberant, boisterous character, it kind of frustrates him. He’s constantly annoyed, and … yeah. But it’s fun to watch, though.”
While Tim chafes against his past and has a strained relationship with his father, his quest for the truth brings him closer to both Detective Pikachu and his missing pops.
“I think Tim slowly steps into those shoes as he’s trying to find his father, as he’s trying to solve this mystery,” Smith continued. “He gets closer to who his dad was. But I think he rejects that, because he’s estranged from him, he rejects being like his father. But it’s almost inevitable.”
While Tim Goodman is hot on the trail of his Schrödinger’s Dad, his worldview is largely shaped by his complicated emotions tied to his mother’s untimely demise, which affects everything from his relationship with his dad to his opinions on Pokémon.
“Tim starts the movie having a particular aversion towards Pokémon because of the relationship he’s had with his father,” Smith revealed. “His mother passed away on the day that he was supposed to get his first Pokémon, so he associates Pokémon with that memory. … As a kid, he loved Pokémon, and then kind of stepped away from that. But as he’s going along this journey, he’s kind of remembering how much Pokémon brought joy to his life, and how happy they made him, and how much he really cared about them, and he really cared about learning about them. So he’s slowly falling back into that. He’s stepping into his father’s shoes, and he’s stepping back into this younger self, this younger, passionate self.”
I Choose You, Detective Pikachu!
When Detective Pikachu was first announced, it raised an awful lot of eyebrows from fans expecting an adaptation of the mega-popular anime series that followed the exploits of Ash Ketchum, Misty, and Brock rather than the much lesser-known game on which the movie is actually based. But The Pokémon Company never had any intentions of making their first foray into the world of live-action Pokémon something we had seen before, and it wasn’t because they were worried what fans might think. Rather, it was the family story at the core of Detective Pikachu that proved a tantalizing prospect.
“What really excited us about it was, Pokémon‘s been around for 20-plus years,” explained producer Ali Mendes. “They do an animated movie every year, the anime’s been around for a while, everyone knows the battles, and that’s a hugely exciting part of this universe. And we can do that inside of this, and you guys are here today, and you see that we’re doing something that is very much about that part of the brand. 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, ‘Okay, 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 like is really going to resonate and connect with a large audience, so it was actually the creativ[ity] of it that really drove us and made us feel like this could be something really special.”
Psyduck might steal the show
The movie might be called Detective Pikachu, but the real star of the movie might be everyone’s favorite stressed out, easily confused psychic duck-platypus-esque creature Psyduck. The ever-present partner-in-crime of wannabe investigate journalist Lucy (Kathryn Newton), Psyduck is a short, squat delight who spends most of his time riding in style in a specially designed backpack.
“It’s a BabyBjörn, but we’ve turned [it] into a backpack BabyBjörn,” Newton said of how she’ll transport her fine feathered friend. “It’s a Psyduck Björn.”
It’s not that Psyduck is incapable of walking; rather, he just isn’t as dexterous as someone like Detective Pikachu.
“It’s because the physicality of what we do in the film, like running and all this action, he genuinely would not have made it,” Newton explained. “Like, he couldn’t have done it, he wouldn’t have been able to run that fast and he would’ve been left behind, and we can’t have that! We gotta have Psyduck. So I had to carry him on my back.”
Being Psyduck’s partner-in-crime is quite the workout, too. Newton revealed that she carries a “giant blue tape ball” on her back, which weighs between 20 and 30 pounds.
“I think Psyduck weighs like 70 pounds, something like that, and so my thing I’m carrying is about 30,” she explained. “Just so that way when I’m walking and stuff, I’m not rundown and I can get into to the action, but at least I look like I have something heavy on my back.”
The movie is inspired by ’90s Japanese streetwear
If you were big into anime and Japanese street culture during the late ’90s and early 2000s, chances are you’re familiar with FRUiTS, a magazine focused primarily on the streetwear and fashions of Tokyo’s Harajuku district. For many Westerners, the magazine, created by photographer Shoichi Aoki, became synonymous with Japanese fashion and proved very influential in the fashion world. Now FRUiTS‘ influence has come full circle in the form of the colorful costumes worn by the youth of Ryme City and those who attend underground Pokémon fights at the Roundhouse, which is basically a straight-up fight club.
“Some punk meets goth meets Tokyo street fashion,” costume designer Suzie Harmon said of the Roundhouse denizens’ aesthetic. “It’s Tokyo meets New York meets London … it’s very urban, it’s cool, it’s fun, but it’s not overly cartoony. If you look at the Japanese street scene, there’s a whole brand called FRUiTS. It was big in the ’90s, and in the millennium, whatever those ten years are called. And so we’re trying to bring in that, as well, definitely.”
In addition to FRUiTS, Harmon and her team drew inspiration from the long-running Pokémon anime to create a brightly colored but believable world.
“[We] did a lot of research on the anime to get a sense of what the key looks were,” Harmon said. “Especially for the lead actors, just to give it a grounded but that slight cartoony feel about it. Just to give it the silhouette and how the guys tend to wear their clothes in the anime, and the women, with those lovely little skirts, and the hair. So yeah, definitely to get a sense of [the] anime, rather than the games.”
Detective Pikachu hits theaters on May 10. Stay tuned for even more inside scoops from our time on the film’s set!
Images: Warner Bros/Legendary
Editor’s note: Nerdist is a subsidiary of Legendary Digital Networks.