Meet the Detective Pikachu artist who got the job thanks to Pokemon fanart

Realistic Pokemon artist RJ Palmer on making Detective Pikachu and why Sonic's gloves bother him.

Detective Pikachu has charmed his way through the box office to a record opening weekend for a video game tie-in, and we can't get enough of his cute features. Seeing the world of Pokemon brought to life on the big screen is a dream come true for many fans, but none more than RJ Palmer, a concept artist involved in the early beginnings of production.

RJ got his big break when his fantastic drawings merged two of his great loves together: Pokemon in the style of Monster Hunter. These realistic Pokemon fanart pieces caught the attention of the internet and the production team at Legendary Pictures, who gave him a week to drop everything and come make one of Nintendo's biggest franchises a reality. We spoke to RJ about the movie-making process, best Pokemon, why that Sonic trailer is horrifying and how it feels to get your dream job off the back of fanart.

RJ Palmer Detective PIkachu concept artist
© RJ Palmer

How were you scouted and contacted to help work on Detective Pikachu?
Obviously, my realistic Pokemon series made the rounds on the internet, I'm that guy, so there were a bunch of articles about it showing off my works, and the production designer for Detective Pikachu was trying to learn more about Pokemon and he found one of the articles about me.

He called me up and said, "Do you want to come to work on Monday?" This was a Tuesday, mind you, and I was in San Francisco and had to be at work in LA the next week, so boy it was a pretty speedy move down there. I had to load up everything, throw it in the car, and get down there so I could be in work on Monday.

What were your thoughts and emotions when you were brought on to the Detective Pikachu team?
Honestly, I thought it was a fuckin' prank. I kept being worried that I'd make this big move and get down to LA and they would just be like "ha ha, gotcha!" No, it was unbelievably exciting. I got an email from Nigel Phelps, the production designer, and he said, "Hey I work for Legendary Pictures, I'd be interested in talking to you for something."

Before we had the phone call I just thought it was maybe Godzilla 2, and then he told me on the phone no, this is Pokemon. I was like, "Holy shit, this is way better, this is so exciting!" Obviously it's a dream come true, and it didn't really sink in until I got there and was actually drawing Pokemon in Hollywood.

RJ Palmer Detective Pikachu concept artist
© RJ Palmer

Can you elaborate on your role and how you helped advise the Detective Pikachu team?
I was hired as a concept artist slash junior illustrator, was maybe my official title. I don't exactly recall because this was my first movie job ever. They brought me in and of all the artists in the department, I had the most familiarity with Pokemon as a brand and a property so everybody would ask questions like, what's this pokemon, what's that pokemon? I did a lot of being people's primers into Pokemon as a whole, and then getting to draw Pokemon all day like a dream job.

So you were kind of like the Pokemon professor?
I was! Not in any sort of official capacity, I don't want to get in trouble or anything. But within the art department, which was very small – I think it was eight or nine people – I was sort of "The Guy" that people had Pokemon questions run by.

How much of your input into the designs made it into the final Detective Pikachu product?
The art department was small, but when they moved onto the actual effects houses, their teams were huge. I didn't have any hand in that. There was a huge talented crew of people and I was just one small cog in that, but I like to look at the final designs – none of which are my exact designs – but I feel like I can see some of the DNA on some of the stuff that I was working on, that made it into the final piece.

They definitely feel similar to some of your art, with an emphasis on realism
There was a funny point at one point where one of the other artists was drawing Charizard in the background of an environment and it didn't have the tail fire, and I was like "You might want to put that on there." They were just like, "Oh, you mean it's on there all the time?" So it was just that sort of basic unfamiliarity with the property that I just tried to smooth over and help lead people to gain an appreciation for the source material.

What sort of considerations go into turning flat 2D designs into fully realistic 3D characters?
Generally, as far as my design philosophy goes, when you are adapting something into a new more realistic art style, or a new design, there's two main things that make it read as what it is: the shapes, and the colors. Think of Pikachu, the shape is very iconic, but also so is the yellow with red cheeks.

When you then go into a sort of realistic mouse direction, the shapes are no longer the same but if the colors are the same, if you keep the bright yellow and the red cheeks, it'll still read to people as hey this is Pikachu. And the same the other way, if you have much more realistic fur texturing but then keep the shapes the same, which is sort of what ended up happening on Detective Pikachu, then it's still very clear that this is Pikachu.

So I try to do that in all my personal, realistic Pokemon stuff as well, I tend to favor changing the shape but keeping the colors pretty similar because I feel like you can have more creative fun when you mess around with the shapes and then keep the colors so people understand that it's still what it's supposed to be.

Were there any designs that you were proud of that didn’t make it into the film? Can we see pictures?
Yeah, my favorite is Tyrantrum, the big red T-rex. Red's my favorite color, T-rex is my favorite thing, and dragon is my favorite type. So it's the perfect storm of Pokemon for me, right? At one point there was talk of having Tyrantrum in the movie, and obviously that didn't happen and it never made it in, so I got to paint at least one instance of Tyrantrum that was fun for me.

I have concept art for it, but I can't release it until a week from Friday because I was told I can start putting out concept art 2 weeks from when the movie comes out. I don't want to have it misconstrued that this is some big scoop that Tyrantrum isn't in the movie, we talked about basically every single Pokemon, everything was on the table at one point, except for Pikachu who absolutely has to be there.

RJ Palmer Detective Pikachu concept artist
© RJ Palmer

Were there any Pokemon designs that presented a significant challenge, or that went through multiple revisions in order to perfect?
Honestly the most challenging one, that had the most work put into it, was Pikachu. I think everybody has their idea for what Pikachu should look like and everybody took their own cracks at it.

It's the star of the movie, so everybody has to agree once they finally have a look, they have to agree that this is the best one. And I think the design they ended up with looks great, if you're gonna do the more cartoon shapes of Pikachu I think what they did is the best they could possibly do. The fur rendering is just amazing, especially when it gets a little dirty and wet, it looks so good.

What starter from Pokemon Sword and Shield do you think is best in terms of design? Are you Team Sobble, Team Scorbunny, or Team Grookey?
I think Sobble is the most appealing to me, but I also favor reptilian things over mammal generally. And since Sobble is pretty clearly based on a chameleon, and I hope they keep going in that sort of chameleon or at least lizard direction, that's definitely mine. It all depends on what those final evolutions look like, right? But right now I'm interested in Sobble.

RJ Palmer Detective Pikachu concept artist
© RJ Palmer

If you were drafted by Game Freak to create a brand new Pokemon, what would it look like?
The problem is, I would probably just design another fuckin' dragon. They already have a T-rex, which is great, and everything that I wanted. And they already have several crocodile pokemon, so I don't know. Maybe a Gryffon? That might be cool.

Based on the success of Detective Pikachu, it’s possible we could get another live-action Pokemon film in the future. What aspect of Pokemon do you think would work best whether it’s based on a game, animated movie, or show?
I don't know if you've seen Pokemon The Origin? Which was that anime they made a few years back around the time of X and Y, it was a four-part OVA where they retold important events from the original Red and Blue games.

I think that would work fairly well as a movie, just like the story of Red. That would be more interesting to me, because I really like the Pokemon battles which for obvious reasons were not as heavily featured in Detective Pikachu, just because of the way the lore was. But I would be into a movie which is more about actually training and battling. I think that would be really cool. 

RJ Palmer Detective Pikachu concept artist
Venusaur in the style of Monster Hunter. 
© RJ Palmer

What other video games would you be interested in helping create realistic designs for?
Monster Hunter is already fairly realistic, but I'd love to work on Monster Hunter. Just, my two favorite video game properties are Monster Hunter and Pokemon and since I've already got to work on a Pokemon thing officially, and I haven't been able to work on Monster Hunter that's the last thing on my career goal bucket list. 

I've already gotten to work on Alien and Termin-no, not Terminator yet, but I'm not that great at drawing robots, but I got to work on Pokemon and Alien stuff so that's pretty good for me. Like have you seen the screenshots from the new Monster Hunter movie? That one directed by [tries to suppress laughter] Paul W S Anderson? It feels like they sort of missed the mark. And based on my experience working in Hollywood, it seems to be the case that most people that are working on a property have never interacted with it before.

I was talking to a guy who worked on the Michael Bay Ninja Turtles movie, the one where they have weird lips, and he was telling me that nobody had seen or read Ninja Turtles and they had no familiarity at all, which is why it ends up like that. And I think that was one of the really cool things about Detective Pikachu, not only was I putting out small fires in the arc burner, but The Pokemon Company themselves were really involved. Everything we did The Pokemon Company wanted to see and they wanted to have their notes on, which was great. And I wish Sega had more of a hand like that in the Sonic Movie, coming out.

RJ Palmer Detective Pikachu concept artist
© Paramount Pictures

If you were asked to fix Sonic’s design in the upcoming film, what would you change?
I'm sorry for any of the artists that worked on that, but it looks like it came from a place where the person had never had any familiarity with Sonic or just actively disliked Sonic and said "I'm gonna show you, fans!" It's just so fundamentally wrong for the character. That character, he's got like a quirky boastful personality, but really what that character is, is his design.

Sonic without his design is not really an interesting character. So if you get the design wrong then you've sort of got everything wrong on a fundamental level. I don't mind, the blue fur is a fine color, but if you give him shoes – he's allowed to wear actual shoes – then why isn't he allowed to wear gloves? That's so weird, what a weird choice to just omit the gloves entirely.

Do you think he would look better with a closer interpretation?
Oh definitely, but I think people are making a bit of a big deal about the teeth in the trailer. They're not great but they're definitely not the worst part of the design. His eyes are real rough, his hands, he's got like little gross pop hands? on his hands? I don't know. It's not for me.

What do you think the process is going to be like for re-doing the design, is that going to be a crunch at this point?
Honestly it could go either way. It depends how much Sonic is in the movie, and how long they've been working on the effects, because they didn't even get us a poster until December last year, and they only put out the first trailer now even though it comes out in November. I have a suspicion that a lot of the biggest production and effects houses have been tied up with the Marvel movies, so the effects on Sonic maybe only really started a few months ago. So all the shots in the trailer with him are the only shots they have done, that would be my guess. Lots of times these effects on movies aren't finished until a couple weeks before release.

There's a fan theory too that they were testing the response to this design and they have another one waiting to go...
That's my conspiracy theory as well, I thought about that when they first showed off the poster. I thought, "This has to be a joke, right? This is all going to be a joke and then they'll say, "Surprise this is the actual good design!" It's looking less likely that that was the case. I'm sure they did dozens of designs to reach that weird conclusion, they probably have other designs they can pull in and start work on.

Charizard concept art.
© RJ Palmer

Finally, what’s some advice you have for aspiring artists?
Keep trying, I guess? The way I think about it is whatever you're really into, if you draw that people can tell that's what you're into. There's sort of this weird fakey quality when someone is clearly not into the thing they're working on. Just draw what you are passionate about and usually there's going to be someone out there who's like, "Hey, this is really cool, I'm also passionate about this!" And then you'll get work from it.

Obviously there's extreme examples where if you go really far off into obscure niche directions you might not get much of a following, but yeah just draw what inspires you and you'll eventually make it. It's all about making sure you challenge yourself as well, push yourself to do better in every piece if you can, and people will notice and they'll give you money!

Additional reporting and interview conducted by Morgan Shaver.

Editor-in-Chief

Chris is the captain of the good ship AllGamers, which would explain everything you're seeing here. Get in touch to talk about work or the $6 million Echo Slam by emailing chris.higgins@allgamers.com or finding him on Twitter. 

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