Nintendo and Game Freak’s Pokémon franchise is beloved around the world, and has been going strong for over two decades – no wonder we want to see the little critters become a reality. While we’re unlikely to have our very own Pikachu perched on our shoulders – Pokémon Go doesn’t quite scratch that itch – one artist has been doing the next best thing, and imagining what many of these pocket monsters would look like if they really were in real life.
Some look incredibly cool, while some actually have us a little bit frightened, but we can’t deny the artistic brilliance behind these creations. To find out more about the process and how he brings these Pokémon to life, we chatted to London-based artist Josh Dunlop about his work, while he’s shown us his latest creation: bringing legendaries Mew and Mewtwo to life.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your background. What do you do outside of drawing and creating art?
Hey, I'm Josh Dunlop and I'm a freelance concept artist living in London. Funnily enough, I wasn't always an artist, I originally studied acting, writing and directing at university in Kingston. For a few years after graduating, I worked in film and television, both in front and behind the camera. I also did a bit of directing here and there, but art has always a big hobby of mine and I always planned to go back to it professionally.
Though I really loved working as an actor, after a few years I felt I needed a change and started to focus my time on improving as an artist. Eventually, I went and did my Masters in Concept Art for Game and Animation at Teesside University. It gave me a solid year to improve my work and learn a lot about the industry. For the first time, I have a booth at MCM London Comic Con in the Artist’s Alley (July 28-30) and I can't wait to meet fans face-to-face! Please come and say hello!
How long have you been drawing?
I've been drawing since I was a little kid. I've always been a big fan of dinosaurs, sci-fi and fantasy – I think I love sci-fi and fantasy so much because it’s a pure expression of imagination and story. I used to spend hours on the living room floor scribbling away with Jurassic Park on in the background, surrounded by half-finished sketches and ideas. Art has always been a comfort to me, as I can delve into a world of imagination and get lost for ages.
I used to upload my work onto art-sharing social site DeviantArt, and you can still see my page and go back through my gallery and see how much I've improved over the years. I still remember the day I found out about being a concept artist as a kid, and I was like 'People get paid to do this!?', and I knew I wanted to do that one day.
Your realistic Pokémon images are a bit of a departure from other artwork you’ve created; what made you want to make these?
I was inspired after seeing the wonderful designs in the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The designs and the 3D work were beautiful – you should check out some of the concept art too, it's stunning. So it really pushed me to work in 3D, and I decided to buckle down and learn some new programs. It wasn't easy but I eventually got the hang of it and once I did, it was very rewarding. I still have a lot to learn though, but thankfully I have some very talented friends who are always happy to help me when I need it.
I wanted a subject to practice my new skills on and realistic Pokémon seemed like a great challenge. I had no idea how much it would blow up after that. I feel blessed that so many people around the world like my work.
Tell us how you got into reimagining Pokémon.
I've always loved Pokémon, ever since I got my first Game Boy game, Pokémon Red. Like many, I got sucked into it as a child and dove head first into collecting the trading cards, games, and films. I eventually grew up and moved away from all that, but I've always held a soft spot for Pokémon in my heart: it was a huge part of my childhood and I have to admit, I still play the games on occasion (I still need to get my hands on Sun and Moon, though).
I always thought that Pokémon had such a vast and rich world, that it really had the potential to grow with its fans and deliver heavier, darker and more diverse storylines. Imagining these monsters as realistic animals has always inspired me, so it seemed like the perfect subject to tackle.
What was the first one that made you really think you’re onto a series that really resonates with fans?
Well, I originally made Bulbasaur and planned to upload that, but some of my friends told me to do the first three starter Pokémon and to release them as a trio. I thought it was a fun idea, so I made them all and released them online. It was the next day a friend called me and said 'Have you seen Imgur, you're pictures have hit almost 400,000 views!', and then it just went crazy viral. I've now been covered by some of the world's most renowned websites, some videos hitting views in the millions and of course, the resounding message I've got back is 'do more!' So I decided to make it a series. I remember my Instagram back when I had 8 followers and now I'm coming up to 50K! It's mind blowing but incredibly heart-warming that so many people like my work. Plus, my fans are awesome and incredibly encouraging!
What inspires you?
I'm inspired by everything. Film, television, concept art, comics, books, music or even just going for a run in a park. I try to draw inspiration wherever I can: I try and make notes on my phone or take a photo if anything stands out.
Tell us about your process for creating the Pokémon; where do you start? What do you use to create the artwork?
I start by thinking about what animals best represent the Pokemon I'm redesigning. I create a mood board of lots of images and designs I like to pull inspiration from. Then I do some rough sketches using different elements from all the images until I find a design I like. Recently I've actually been 'sketching' in 3D and doing some rough models until I find something I like.
Then I start a sculpt in Zbrush, a 3D modeling program, and create a basic shape. Then I go in and start working on the details until I'm happy, eventually adding textures using alphas, which are texture brushes created from photos, to get realistic scales, fur, and so on. I then Polypaint the model, which lets me paint directly onto the polygonal model, but sometimes I use texture images to print photo textures onto the model for added realism.
Next, I then transport the model into Keyshot, a digital rendering program, using Keyshot Bridge, which allows me to send the model into Keyshot very quickly with a push of a button. I used to have to unwrap all of the parts and reassemble it in Keyshot, which was tedious. There I would then edit the model's texture, so you can make things semi-transparent, so it reacts to the light like real skin would for example. Another example would be that I can put a glass texture on the eyes and get natural reflections from the scene.
I then pose the model that shows it off best, and fix the camera so I can always go back to it. I tend to make a few of these so I have some variety to choose from. I then edit the light of the scene using HDRi's, a 3D environment of sorts, which create wonderful naturalistic lighting. Occasionally I'll edit these slightly to add in some rim lights. After that, I then render out the main pass (the full coloured image), a clown mask (a colour segmented image which allows you to accurately select areas in Photoshop), a depth pass (which allows you to make certain areas of your model stand out more), a gloss pass (gets sharp highlights), a matte gloss pass (for ambient lighting), a rim light pass (turning the lights off and having one light to create a rim light) and an Ambient Occlusion pass (a good way to get clean shadows). Each one takes a while to render out, so this section is not a whole load of fun!
Once I’ve rendered all of the passes, I’ll blend them together in Photoshop. Then I build a background for the Pokémon to sit in, using a mixture of photo bashing and digital painting. I try to create a focus shift to create depth, so things in the foreground are dark and blurred (closest to the camera), the midground is crisp (the Pokémon) and the backdrop is slightly blurred to create another aspect of depth. Then it’s all about colour grading, adding other details until I'm happy with the final image, and then I add my logo at the end. Phew!
What’s your dream?
My dream is to work with some of the world's best film and game studios, along with their incredibly talented artists and designers. It would be amazing to work on a live action Pokémon film! Eventually, I'd love to set up my own studio, working on games and films, but that's a long way off yet. For now, I'm just open to see what life throws at me!
What’s your favourite Pokémon? Which would you bring to life?
I have a soft spot for Mewtwo, Lapras, Ninetails and shiny Charizard. I'm old school, but if I had to choose just one, and bring it to life, it would be Raichu.