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'Detective Pikachu’ Cinematographer Explains Why His Movie Looks Better Than ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’

Detective Pikachu was trending on social media yesterday, and not because a new trailer came out. Instead, it was because of the endless comparisons sparked by the new Sonic the Hedgehog movie footage.

The first trailer for Paramount Pictures’ Sonic the Hedgehog offered some interesting looks at Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) and the full-CG Sonic (all set to Coolio’s "Gangsta’s Paradise," no less). But people couldn’t stop pointing out the stark visual differences between the films, including John Mathieson, the director of photography for Detective Pikachu.

“Funny enough, I was offered [Sonic the Hedgehog] and after watching the trailer, I thought, I’m so glad we don’t look like that,” Mathieson told Newsweek.

Mathieson, a two-time Academy Award nominated cinematographer, feels the difference between boils down to film versus digital. Detective Pikachu is shot on traditional film, not digitally. Mathieson feels this decision makes the Pokémon film stand out.

“If all we’re talking about is how these two films look, our film is better than Sonic the Hedgehog and I’m sorry, I don’t care who I upset by saying that, but I think it looks better.” Mathieson said. “There’s no reason why you can’t shoot a film like [Detective Pikachu] or Sonic the Hedgehog on film. If you had, [Sonic the Hedgehog] would look more realistic. I look at Sonic the Hedgehog and I just go ‘yeah whatever.’”

detective pikachu vs sonic the hedgehog movie pokemon After the first trailer for 'Sonic the Hedgehog' was released, fans couldn't help compare it to 'Detective Pikachu' Warner Bros/Paramount

Mathieson pointed to the contrast in colors between the mediums as a defining factor in what makes one look better than the other. He said digital cameras don’t capture colors as well, especially with blues and cyan, and reds get “too noisy.” Traditional film cameras can be much kinder, once you understand the exposures.

“Film hasn’t been made better by digital. People are lazier, they don’t try as hard, don't try things out,” Mathieson said. “I find it very difficult to use, especially these huge Marvel superhero films because [director of photographers] all look the same. It all goes in the computer and gets washed up. You don’t see the individuality of the photographer, and that’s a shame. It’s difficult to bring a look to a film that’s made by lots of people that’s gone through a big computer. That’s what they are, computers with lens attached to them.”

That’s not to say movies filmed on digital cameras can’t be done well. Mathieson points to Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) as a great cinematographer who prefers to shoot on digital. Still, Mathieson feels there’s something about how movies used to be shot that makes them stand out compared to modern releases.

Despite the pervasive move to digital, Mathieson is optimistic. He said he sees a lot of young filmmakers, influenced by the works of Sofia Coppola, Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg, still embracing traditional film.  

He acknowledged that young cinematographers often find themselves under a lot of pressure and scrutiny, and look to the known variable of shooting on digital as a potentially safer career move.

“When you load your film into a camera, no one knows what the hell is going on until the next day,” Mathieson said. “That’s great if you can surprise or shock them, but if they don’t like it or you screw it up you’re done. There’s a lot of pressure not to do it.”

Detective Pikachu is set to premiere in theaters May 10.

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