How Ryan Reynolds was transformed into a furry yellow Pokémon

Facial capture and the actor’s awesome asymmetrical expressions helped the VFX team find the character.

When Mark Ruffalo’s face is captured for the Hulk, or Josh Brolin takes on Thanos wearing tracking dots, there’s often a close correlation between what is captured and what you see in the final CG character. But was that the same for Ryan Reynold’s depiction of Detective Pikachu in the recent Pokémon film?

The answer is, surprisingly, yes (well, partially, at least). The actor was certainly captured with the aid of head-mounted cameras to give the visual effects teams guidance on his facial performance. Ultimately the final animation  remained in the realm of Pikachu’s cartoony origins – and was done as keyframe animation by several studios – but several aspects of Reynold’s appearance and acting made it into the character, as MPC visual effects supervisor Peter Dionne, who worked under overall VFX supe Erik Nordby (also from MPC) on the film, tells befores & afters.

Pete Dionne (visual effects supervisor, MPC): Early on, we started designing and building Pikachu before Ryan Reynolds was cast. There was a time we had Pikachu developed far enough that we had the spirit of him in rendered motion tests. And we got a list of all of the actors that were being considered, and then we went and took just little clips off of YouTube of each one. I think there were maybe about eight different actors, and so took clips off YouTube to get their voice and their performance, and we matched it to our Pikachu that was in development.

And boy did it really run the range and really changed the personality. The thing that really resonated with Ryan’s performance – he was such a natural fit – was that he just doesn’t really have a big animated overly gestural expression set. He’s very dry, he’s very sarcastic. It’s all about nuance with Ryan, that little look he gives, or that little raise of the corner of the lip. What was so good about that was he was one of the few actors who didn’t turn Pikachu into a big gestural cartoon performance. We were still able to really capture the nuance of his performance and keep it constrained.

Justice Smith as Tim Goodman with Pikachu. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

So casting Ryan was a huge step in having this restrained performance in Pikachu, but still have something that evoked emotion and expression. There was no way that we could actually animate directly to Ryan’s face though, we found, because the thing that became apparent was, as soon as we started animating it like a human face, it no longer looked like Pikachu anymore.

What I mean is, Pikachu – the classic 2D Pikachu – only has about six or seven expressions, and they’re just so iconic and so recognizable. Like the upside down ‘V’ for when he’s sad, for his mouth. And the ‘W’ for his mouth when he’s happy, and the big perfect circular disc eyes, where, as he’s emoting and expressing, his top brow cuts into that disc, and his lower cheeks really don’t engage in his facial expressions at all. All these kinds of things that are animalistic, but definitely not humanistic, we just had to respect and embrace.

Official ‘Detective Pikachu’ b-roll clip of Ryan Reynolds donning a head-cam.

The process was, we stuck a head-cam onto Ryan. We did a full FACS facial expression workout with him. And then we took that, we did the same facial FACS workout, trying to constrain ourselves to these key seven natural Pikachu facial shapes, or variants of them.

Then we just started cross referencing the expressions between 2D Pikachu and Ryan. And we came up with a new library of facial expressions. We could have Ryan perform with a head mounted camera captured, and then translate how his face is emoting into how Pikachu’s face would emote, so we still are able to see how to animate between one expression to the next.

A final shot featuring Pikachu by MPC. Other VFX vendors on the film responsible for delivering CG Pokemon shots included Framestore and Image Engine. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

One thing we found was that Ryan, when he’s expressing, has very asymmetrical expressions. So that was a nice touch that we were able to work into Pikachu as well, even though he had these fixed facial expressions, was being able to work a lot of asymmetry into them. We could do that, and that brought in some complexity, without going too far off-model.

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