How Pokémon were transformed into lifelike creatures for ‘Detective Pikachu’

  • Pokémon fans are getting excited for the upcoming movie, “Detective Pikachu,” and they can thank RJ Palmer for bringing the animated characters to life.
  • Years ago, Palmer designed a series of realistic-looking Pokémon on DeviantArt, which were popular with fans of the series.
  • The film’s production designer discovered Palmer’s work online and asked him if he wanted to work on the film. Watch the video above to see how he transformed the creatures you’ll see on screen in 2019.

Narrator: The Pokémon in “Detective Pikachu” have a new look, and they have never seemed more real or terrifying. That’s in large part thanks to this guy.

RJ Palmer: I’m RJ Palmer, I’m a concept artist at Ubisoft, I draw creatures and monsters, and I worked on “Detective Pikachu.”

Narrator: He started drawing when he was just three years old. He continued to hone his craft at the San Francisco Academy of Art. Then in 2012, his drawings for an amateur fan art project gained so much attention on the internet, it ultimately landed him a job on the new Pokémon film.

RJ: So I started drawing a shark dinosaur, and that turned into the Pokémon Garchomp, and people really, really responded to it, so I kept drawing more.

Narrator: RJ used real animals as inspiration.

RJ: The natural world is so inspiring, and I think pulling from that, as much as possible, is really cool.

Narrator: For example, Mewtwo was a combination of several creatures.

RJ: Kangaroo, and a little bit of rhino, and hairless cat, and some barn owl.

Narrator: For Charizard, he focused on different lizards.

RJ: So I looked at a lot of monitor lizards and brought qualities of crocodilians in there that I liked, as well.

Narrator: Surprisingly enough, RJ’s main tools for designing his realistic Pokémon were simply a Wacom tablet and Photoshop.

RJ: And I’ve got a second monitor up, so I can have all my references.

Narrator: Ultimately, it was the amount of time and effort RJ poured into the project that made his Pokémon come to life. RJ researched every animal he used for inspiration, and in the end, each Pokémon he created took 30 or more hours to complete.

RJ: The one that took the longest to make is Tyrantrum. Tyrantrum is my favourite Pokémon.

Narrator: He posted them on the popular fan art community site, DeviantArt, and his work won over fans on the internet. It also got the attention of the production designer of “Detective Pikachu.”

RJ: He gives me a call, and he’s like, “Would you like to work on the Pokémon movie?” And I’m in shock, it was amazing. I’ve always been really into Pokémon as just a franchise, because I think it’s really fun and creative.

Narrator: He moved to LA and worked on the film for seven months, doing concept art for characters and the environments. He helped come up with the initial designs for the Pokémon.

RJ: And then it gets given to all sorts of crazy effects houses.

Narrator: While his Pokémon on DeviantArt are more realistic, the ones he designed for the film had to be a bit more traditional.

RJ: So working on the movie, they had to get more in line with the cartoon aesthetic, I think. You do a design, and the people have opinions, and then you do another design, and they also still have opinions, and so it’s a constant back and forth, trying to make one person happy, which is going to make somebody else unhappy, and you have to try and find a middle ground that’s going to work for people.

Narrator: Pikachu, as the star of the film and franchise, took a while to nail down and get right.

Pikachu: Pika pika!

Woman: Yeah, pika pika pika, he’s adorable!

RJ: Pikachu’s one of the most well known cartoon characters ever, right?

Narrator: Despite speaking English and being a bit more furry than the cartoon, the Pikachu in the film is different from his realistic design.

RJ: I based him on rodents and lagomorphs. Lagomorphs are like rabbits, just like small, woodland critters.

Narrator: But it was Mr. Mime that really grabbed the internet’s attention. Since his debut in the trailer, he’s become a meme.

RJ: Mr. Mime was always going to be weird, right? ‘Cause what do you make that thing? When I did my realistic version of it, I made it a frog, because it can be so many weird things. I think a detail that I didn’t know they were going to go for, but the little shoulder pauldrons actually look like kickballs. I thought that was a pretty fun idea. And the Jigglypuff I like. In the Pokédex entry, they talk about it having a balloon-like skin texture, which would probably be pretty creepy in real life.

Narrator: So they made it more furry with a curly wisp of hair. In the end though, it’s the fans who have the final say.

RJ: Everybody has their own idea of what Pokémon is, and I’ve certainly encountered that working on my own stuff. I’ve had some very divisive takes on certain Pokémon. So I knew that was going to be a problem going into the movie, and so far, at least, the response to the trailer, at least from the circles that I’ve seen, seem pretty positive.