How 'Detective Pikachu' Made a Pokémon World Look and Feel as Real as Possible

Detective Pikachu will bring the colorful and powerful pocket monsters from the popular video game franchise to the big screen for the first time in live-action.

As you can imagine, making a movie based on a world filled with fire-breathing dragons and yellow mice who can shoot lightning bolts has its challenges, especially for a video game film, a genre that has not often been well-received in the past.

"There was no reference point apart from the games," John Mathieson, Director of Photography for Detective Pikachu told Newsweek . "We tried to tip our hats towards that, but when you watch it comes out of that world of games AND it feels like a real story. You really believe. The work that comes into making all of the Pokémon, especially Pikachu—the way he's animated, the way his eyes move, the way he shows affection—it jumps off the screen."

detective pikachu tim goodman pokemon movie
Warner Bros.

Mathieson, a two-time Academy Award nominee, who previously worked on epic period pieces like Gladiator and Mary Queen of Scots, worked alongside director Rob Letterman to bring the Pokémon to life and give the movie a distinct, sophisticated feel.

Instead of a hyper, kid-friendly film, Detective Pikachu was shot with noir sensibilities in mind.

"In terms of lighting and shooting it, we try to make it more noir because it's DETECTIVE Pikachu. He's a gumshoe," Mathieson said. "You have to tip your hat to a lot of the noir type pictures."

Capturing that "noir" feel was essential, and building sets and filming on location helped Detective Pikachu achieve that aim. When moviegoers are transported to Ryme City, it feels like a real city because it was constructed and filmed in one—no green screen added. The team used the buildings on location just as they are, which gave them more of a 1940s look. The production team designed the interiors with that in mind, using venetian blinds, panelled doors and large desk lamps to get the tone and feel of a hardboiled detective movie.

"It's a bit like Roger Rabbit . The usual superhero Marvel stuff, you get a couple of characters and you get a green screen and people on wires," Mathieson said. "This film we actually built sets, real sets with real things outside and no green screen. Real cafes, apartments and streets."

Shooting live sets helps make the CG Pokémon integrate more seamlessly with the world around them when they are added in post-production. Puppeteers—and even Mathieson's own dog—are used as stand-ins for Pokémon in certain shots. Hula Hoops were placed on the ground during crowd shots to mark where Pokémon would stand before the team started filming.

"You have to rehearse the moves with the puppeteers who are standing in, and when you got it down you shoot it without them, and then you can add the Pokémon in afterward," Mathieson said. "It makes the film more exciting, It's not just a shot of me and a shot of you."

While making Ryme City feel like a place you can visit, it's still a Pokémon movie. Mathieson explained that some of the more over-the-top visual elements of Detective Pikachu were influenced by the Blade Runner movies.

"Rob and I saw the new Blade Runner and the palette, there was a lot of orange. Then we thought we should shoot it more like Ridley's Blade Runner, because a lot of it was influenced by Japan," Mathieson said. "The stores and neons. There's a lot of colors. We had a sort of idea to make Ryme City somewhat like Tokyo, but more like San Francisco because it's by the sea. There's a touch of London, because that's where we shot it. So we had to create a city where all these different places had a look and identification."

Detective Pikachu releases in theaters May 10.