In this exclusive A Sound Effect interview, sound designer John Marquis tells the story on how the 8-bit retro sounds of the original games and cartoons were a massive inspiration for the sound of the film. He also gives you the details on how the sound team created updated sounds for Mewtwo, Pikachu, the massive Torterra, Ditto, Charizard, and much more:
Interview by Jennifer Walden, images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. Please note: Contains spoilers
The official trailer for Pokémon Detective Pikachu
Warner Bros. Pictures’ Pokémon Detective Pikachu — in theaters now — delivers Pokémon like audiences have never seen before, as photo-realistic characters instead of cartoons. The VFX team on the film included the Moving Picture Company, which is the same VFX company that handled The Jungle Book (2017) and the upcoming The Lion King remake slated for July.
The photo-realistic Pokémon required a new direction for sound, one that was more realistic yet still paid homage to the established Pokémon sounds deeply ingrained in the franchise IP. Sound Designer John Marquis at E² Sound talks about taking inspiration from the 8-bit 80’s-synth style sound effects used in the games and cartoon series and transforming those into more realistic versions for Pokémon Detective Pikachu. He shares specifics on how the sound team created updated sounds for Mewtwo, Pikachu, the massive Torterra, Ditto, Charizard, and more!
How did you prepare for Pokémon Detective Pikachu?
John Marquis (JM): It was a massive learning curve. Thankfully I have two kids and my oldest (who is nearly 10 years old) has awakened to the Pokémon phenomenon over the past year. So, he’s had plenty of answers for me and helped me to get through this.
There is an established sonic signature for the Pokémon characters but the ironic thing is that The Pokémon Company wouldn’t license their sounds to us so we didn’t get to use any of their original material. Luckily, the sounds for the characters aren’t terribly complex. We took inspiration from those and dressed them up for the film, always conscious of the fans who are madly in love with these creatures. We were supersensitive to not break anything but at the same time we needed to bring the Pokémon characters into a more realistic realm, just as they did with the visuals. These are photo-realistic versions of the Poké characters and so we had to help them feel a bit more real and visceral and more detailed than they were in the cartoon version.
Let’s look at some of the major Pokémon characters featured in this film. How did you create the sound for Mewtwo?
JM: Mewtwo is a genetically modified hybrid character. We tried to keep him organic yet have some synthetic-type flavor. I built a library of pulses and hits from a Roland 808 drum machine. I started pitching and doing some basic time stretching with those. Over the course of processing and reprocessing, some artifacts started to manifest. I time stretched these elements and worked with the resulting artifacts in a way that produced these really neat, undulating tonal types of frequencies. Once I got a basic pulse sound, I flipped that over into MetaSynth — this old software that I can’t stop using. I think I’ve been using the software for over 20 years now and still there are things that I can do in MetaSynth that I can’t do in anything else. It has a really great granular mode.
Once I got a basic pulse sound, I flipped that over into MetaSynth — this old software that I can’t stop using. I think I’ve been using the software for over 20 years now and still there are things that I can do in MetaSynth that I can’t do in anything else
So I put the basic pulses into MetaSynth and started experimenting. I ended up with some cool, elastic, rubbery sounding synthetic tones that I cut up and appropriated into the blasts, steady energy drones, and other elements that I needed for Mewtwo. For example, when Mewtwo is flying there is an energy sound. And when he’s healing Pikachu there is an energy ray.
When Mewtwo does his mind-meld (of converging the people of Ryme City with their Pokémon companions) and then, at the end of the film, transforming everything back to the way it was, there I took inspiration from the Pokémon evolution process. There’s a scene in Howard Clifford’s (Billy Nighy) office when an Eevee evolves into a Flareon, and for that evolution we wanted to stay true to the sound of the cartoon. It’s this digitized 8-bit magical fairy dust sound with a resonant filter sweep. It’s a very 80s synthesizer sound effect. But, we dressed it up and made it a lot more interesting. So I riffed off of that sound to create the sound for when Mewtwo transforms everything back to normal, uncoupling the Pokémon from the people and reversing the destruction of the city.
JM: There are two versions of Mewtwo — normal Mewtwo and Howard-controlled Mewtwo.
When Howard embodies Mewtwo, he speaks through it. But Mewtwo uses telepathy to communicate and so the vocal cords have never been used. When Howard-controlled Mewtwo speaks out loud it’s presumably for the first time. I used the Ircam Trax plug-in to create that voice. It’s this super-powerful pitch manipulator specifically designed for vocals. You can set up the input signal as a Man, Young Boy, Girl, Woman, Young Woman, etc., and then choose how the output should be (Man, Woman, Girl, Boy, and so on). Then you can adjust those independently to make it sound more scratchy or breathy, younger or older, and you can flatten the dynamics. My final result was this scratchy, breathy layer that I put under Howard’s clean voice. Then under that I also have a super deep, resonant, pitched down Howard voice to add a sense of power. The processing wasn’t too intrusive but it made a clear statement that Howard-controlled Mewtwo’s voice was different from Howard’s voice.
Mewtwo’s communication was an exercise in minimal processing and lots of editorial manipulation. So every time they decided to go with a different voice actor, or have Mewtwo say something different, it involved a lot of editing
For Mewtwo’s psychic communication, supervising sound editor Erik Aadahl came up with a recipe for that which involved the voice talent saying the same lines while whispering, and talking clearly, and then he did some reversed reverb leading into the whispery lines that would break into the normal dialogue. The lines were also recorded by a male and female so he’d cross the male and female takes back and forth. The theory is that Mewtwo is an androgynous non-binary type being. It was fantasy-based and mystical and ethereal. So Mewtwo’s communication was an exercise in minimal processing and lots of editorial manipulation. So every time they decided to go with a different voice actor, or have Mewtwo say something different, it involved a lot of editing. It was intense.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu – Behind the Scenes Featurette
How about Ditto — the squishy pink Pokémon that can turn into other Pokémon or people. What went into Ditto’s sound?
JM: I worked on another movie for director Rob Letterman years ago called Goosebumps and in that film was a giant blob creature. So a sound that I developed for that creature I was able to re-appropriate for Ditto, plus add in some new elements. I have this water toy that almost looks like a softball but it’s really porous. It has a bunch of open cells in it so that it absorbs water and when you squeeze it, it makes this puckery, squirty, yucky sound that is super interesting. It was perfect when it was pitched down to round the top edges off so that it’s not so bright. I coupled that with some recordings I had done of wet rags being dropped, which make this bizarre plopping sound. I pitched those down too, to give them more character. I manipulated those two ingredients together and tailored them to the transformation that Ditto was doing, which was slightly different every time.
How did you create Pikachu’s electric sounds?
JM: That was another signature sound that we had to reproduce because it was an established sound that was near and dear to the fans. Again, we orbited around this 8-bit sparkly, synthy sound effect core that we dressed up with more realistic electrical sounds. We recorded this Van de Graaff, which is an electrostatic generator that can produce very high voltage DC electricity — 25,000 volts — at low current levels. We were able to capture a bunch of pops, squeals, arcs, and zaps from that. Layered on top of that, I added in some snapping twigs and chicken bones to add a dry crack/pop like electricity does. So, at its core, Pikachu’s electric sound was an 80s synthesized element dressed up with realistic electrical sounds.
What about Psyduck’s sonic boom? What went into that sound?
JM: The signature element for that is a duck call. As soon as Psyduck blows up there’s this long duck call sound. We wanted to clear the way so that it sounded like a huge element but it’s also a funny thing. The whole thing with Psyduck is that he does this build up where he’s saying “Psyduck! Psyduck! Psyduck!” more and more frantically and then he screams and erupts into this giant sonic boom duck call. We pitched it down and subbed it to kingdom come. It was huge. Then after that we go to complete silence as everything settles because the next scene afterwards is the Torterra’s ripping up the earth. It was nice to have a beat of silence before all hell breaks loose.
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Looking at that Torterra scene with the mountains breaking apart, what were some of your challenges there?
JM: One of the biggest challenges was that the VFX were constantly changing and we didn’t get the final version of the scenes until after the print master was complete. We had to go in after the film was print mastered to update the sound and address sync changes and new material that wasn’t there when they print mastered the movie.
There was a lot of handshakes and passing back and forth between score-driven moments and sound effects-driven ones. We had to maintain the energy, the sense of power and danger
One good thing about that scene was how it was shot, with a variety of different perspectives that showed the scope. You’d have a close-up POV shot of the characters running and then the shot would cut to a master shot that showed the full scale of these things. That allowed us to do a lot of plays on sound traveling over distance, to give it more contrast and keep it from being a wall of sound like it easily could have been — nevermind the fact that we also had to weave music in and out of the effects and dialogue as well. There was a lot of handshakes and passing back and forth between score-driven moments and sound effects-driven ones. We had to maintain the energy, the sense of power and danger.
What were some of your sonic elements for the Torterra scene? Did you record rolling boulders and falling trees?
JM: One of the sound effects editors on Pokémon Detective Pikachu was Chris Diebold, who is an avid mountaineer/mountain climber. He has a plethora of really great rock and boulder recordings — things that are natural and things that he has designed to be hyper-realistic. We utilized a lot of realism from those recordings and added some elements that were more subjective and abstract, like breaking Styrofoam and ice breaking to add a crystallized sound to the rocks breaking and cracking around the characters.
The good thing about that scene was that we had a bunch of different elements to play with, from the rock and boulders to the trees and debris. We have the undulating groans of the Torterra vocalizing as they reveal themselves. We had some great recordings of glass breaking, pitched down by an insane amount so they almost sound like molten earth cracking apart. We tried to keep the sound there varied while also making sure it wasn’t painful (i.e., not too bright and sharp).
For the genetically altered Pokémon, were they’re different criteria for creating their sounds versus the normal Pokémon?
JM: Rob [Letterman] wanted the genetically altered Pokémon to sound rabid, like they’re crazed and driven by primal instinct. The direction was they can’t sound cute. They have to sound like they’ve lost their minds. There were some scenes that lent themselves more easily to that, for example, the end of the film when the R gas is released during the parade and the Pokémon are all transformed. There was also the scene when Charizard inhales the R gas before the fight sequence with Pikachu at the Roundhouse Arena. The Aipom monkey-like Pokémon were easy to manipulate too.
But some Pokémon were more challenging to convey that change, like the Greninja.
The Aipoms for the most part were manipulated recordings of an upset little dog and Capuchin monkeys
Many of the Pokémon character recordings were human-based, so we had a couple different voice talents come in to do some of the vocalizing. For the human-based Pokémon sounds, the voice actors did performances that sounded a bit more crazed. Some of the Pokémon were more animalistic. The Aipoms for the most part were manipulated recordings of an upset little dog and Capuchin monkeys.
We provided the picture department with a whole bunch of sounds, pre-visual effect, and hoped that we were somewhere in the ballpark so that when visual effects came in we wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel to get these noises to feel natural and believable.
Do you feel like the sounds you sent the VFX team had an influence on how these Pokémon looked while on the R gas?
JM: It was definitely a back and forth. Some things sound good when we don’t have visuals for them but then if the timing doesn’t work out visually the VFX team and the director will make it look good and then we have to follow suit. They’ll kick it back to us with new sync and we adjust accordingly. It goes back and forth. There wasn’t too many surprises, although the way the VFX are rendered there is a certain amount of randomness to the process. They aren’t exactly sure how the algorithm will render the scene. The algorithms allow for an insane amount of realism in the final renders but it’s not something that can always be predicted. So the director will say a scene is kind of how it’s supposed to be but he won’t know until they kick the final shot out. We have to wait and see how the computer will render it. It’s not something that’s completely out of left field but there is some randomness in the way the debris falls or the wind moves the leaves. Those are generated algorithmically and so there is a degree of randomness that is a result of that. That’s how some of these VFX shots get a bit wonky and we have to adjust to them at the end.
How did you create the sound of Ryme City, where people and Pokémon co-exist?
JM: The city is like Manhattan on steroids. Rob didn’t want to focus in primarily on the Pokémon everywhere. He just wanted to make sure there was a homogenous balance of human element and Pokémon element. So it’s like Tokyo at rush hour with a sprinkling in of Pokémon sounds.
We had to create a bunch of different voices for Pokémon that we don’t necessarily spend a lot of time with in the rest of the film but every Pokémon type has a distinct sound and all those sounds had to be approved through so many layers at The Pokémon Company. The director approved a sound but then he would have to send it up the chain to the top of the Poké Corp., to make sure it was something that they wanted. So that was a long process and if they didn’t approve something then we had to re-record and re-print everything. At the end of the day, I ended up being a bunch of Pokémon throughout the movie because it was a whole process to re-cast talent to do the voices. It was a real challenge. So I got the approval to just start using my own voice for a number of them. I worked with Rob and got him to sign off on things and then we’d cross our fingers and hope that the Poké Corp. loved it too.
For some of the Pokémon, it was imperative that they always say their name. But then other Pokémon could sound like animals. There were very set standards and protocol for specific Pokémon, for what they could and couldn’t do. Since these characters have a global reach, if a character is saying its name then it has to be revoiced in different languages. It gets really complicated really quickly. So the Poké Corp. had a set standard for which Pokémon say their name and which make animalistic sounds.
Charizard was one of the Pokémon that didn’t say its name. How did you come up with it sounds? What were the challenges you had in designing the battle between Charizard and Pikachu?
JM: That was primarily a vocal supplemented with a recording of a dog that had had its vocal cords cut. The sound of the dog is this rasping, wheezing, tortured sound — but in reality the dog was happy! So we paired that with a voice talent performance. Rob is really particular about the Pokémon emoting and not just being canned sounds out of a library or even custom recorded sounds. Each Pokémon had to live and breathe, sound unique and new and emote, which is what a voice actor would do.
Rob is really particular about the Pokémon emoting and not just being canned sounds out of a library or even custom recorded sounds. Each Pokémon had to live and breathe, sound unique and new and emote, which is what a voice actor would do
When Charizard becomes more primal, after the R gas, we veer away from humanistic and go straight animal for the fight sequence.
The arena was challenging because it was already a busy environment with an arena DJ playing his music at top volume and the MC is screaming into his microphone and the crowd is screaming for their favorite Pokémon. Then you have the Pokémon themselves battling it out. It was a train wreck waiting to happen. But one good thing was we had four or five temp dubs and this was one of the first scenes we had so we were able to beat it into a shape that wouldn’t be an endurance piece to get through. We punched the music in the beginning and then settle back into the effects driving it a bit more once the battle between Charizard and Pikachu starts.
There are these Pokémon that look like speakers, called Loudred. Conceptually, those are what the music is coming out of. It took a bit of manipulating and isolating certain instruments and placing them in the room to localize them for us to really feel like this music is coming from those Pokémon. Usually, the music is coming from outside of the scene. And for a scene like that, it’s not point-source for the most part. Re-recording mixer Jon Taylor did a bit of manipulation of individual elements to hopefully sell that concept without losing the power and energy of that club track.
How did you create the sound of the holographic display that’s first introduced in Howard’s office?
JM: That was one of the VFX that kept coming back with different iterations. It was smoky and then lasery, and then pixilated. The director kept saying that it was going to be like a series of tiles unfolding.
So the sound was made from these magnets clicking together and they were connecting through a metal plate that would resonate when the magnets snapped together on it. So I edited a slew of those together, rapid-fire, one after another and then did some pitch and time undulating to give it a little movement coupled with some Waves Doppler plug-in processing.
It’s a great Dolby Atmos moment because it starts in the middle and then folds out to encapsulate you.
In terms of sound, what are you most proud of on Pokémon Detective Pikachu?
JM: After the Torterra sequence, Pikachu gets knocked out and is really hurt. The team is standing on a shoreline and a Bulbasaur walks up. We had gone around and around trying to land on the sound for the Bulbasaur. We tried frogs, puppies, guinea pigs… and nothing was landing. The director felt it wasn’t cute enough. It didn’t emote enough. So eventually I decided to get my kids involved. I trust them so much. I play things for them and they share their ideas. I showed my daughter a picture of the Bulbasaur and asked what she thought it would sound like. She started making these cute little squeaks and grunts (she was four years old at the time). And I thought, “Oh my god, that’s the Bulbasaur.” So I recorded her, edited in her voice and played it for Rob. He said, “Yes! That’s it. That’s the sound.” So we kept our fingers crossed that the Poké Corp. would approve it. They did! And now my daughter is a Bulbasaur.
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