As a child of the 90s, there are several things I can’t deny. I watched SM:TV Live on Saturday mornings. Frequently forgot to feed a Tamagachi. Begged to stay up a little longer just to watch shows like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, and the latest episode of Stargate: SG1. And the subject of today, I loved Pokémon. Granted, I was a bigger fan of Digimon, but I still loved Pokémon, alongside many of my classmates, and almost every other 90s kid. I remember being more than a little jealous of my Game Boy wielding classmates, rushing home to catch the new episodes, and occasionally being gifted a pack of the cards. The often celebrated and sought after, Basic Set 1 card deck.
Cue early 2000. The announcement of Pokémon hitting theatres. My 6-year-old mind went insane. Cinema trips were rare due to the expense, but this was something I so desperately wanted to see. No internet to hunt for plot points and images, no money to buy, or knowledge of, film magazines to get the latest scoop. All I had were the trailers on tv, and the rumours and mutters on the playground. I remember begging my mother to take me. Promising to be good. And then, May 2nd, 2000, my mother told me to get my coat. We were going to the movies. 6:30 in the evening, screen 2, of my local, now none existent, Warner Village Cinema.
That joy and excitement of seeing a much-anticipated film, is one that’s stuck with me. And my childish excitement for, what even I’ll admit is, a cheesy film, is something I still foolishly look back on and smile. I was getting to see one of my favourite series on the big screen. And given how long it did take for films to come to VHS, and the price of them. This was the only time I would be able to see it, for maybe over a year.
When it did finally hit VHS, I was graciously brought a copy of my very own. Along with just a few other tapes, such as The Fox and the Hound, Independence Day, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and The Matrix. This yellow brick, that mesmerised me so, was watched, and loved. Repeatedly.
(Yes, the first run of Pokemon: The First Movie VHS tapes were yellow.)
Looking back at that film now, almost 17 years after that first viewing. I can see the beginning of my film education. I can see the little strands of curiosity that the film sparked. The childhood questions I had, and the journey it took me on.
Stereo, Mono and Audio Mixing:
Something about the film constantly bothered me as a kid. The sound. The films main villain, Mewtwo, was a genetically created Pokémon, able to use psychic abilities, and was able to speak English directly to the main characters. In the cinema, it’s amazing. His voice reverberates around you. To a 6-year-old, it’s intimidating. Yet, re-watching this, on a child’s mono TV, at a low volume, I had to try and remember what Mewtwo was saying. The only line I could ever clearly hear from him was, “Fool. Trying to stop our battle”. For years, I thought this was a fault with my copy of the film, or maybe even my TV.
With the passage of time, and how technology advances, I learnt my tape and TV was fine, and that it had everything to do with film production, audio mixing, and mono vs stereo sound. With the audio mixed as stereo, this allowed for tracks to be played as if coming from multiple directions. Mewtwo’s audio is set to play through the back speakers of a full set up, as if surrounding the viewing. Impressive in surround sound, but hard to hear on a mono set. The DVD commentary by the producers, spoke briefly about the effect they wanted to create, and how they used the audio mixing to impose Mewtwo’s immense power to the viewer.
Cell Painted Animation:
There’s a moment when multiple trainers are attempting to get through a storm, using their various skills and Pokémon to get to New Island as quickly as they can. One trainer, one that does make it through the storm, is seen riding a Gyarados, a large blue water dragon, through the storm easily. The problem being is that the lower lip of Gyarados is miss-coloured the entire time, but the next time we see it, it’s completely normal. This is something that really bothered me, as it was incredibly obvious, and I didn’t get why it wasn’t fixed. I know this bothered others, as it was one of the few things I did talk about with others when the film came up.
Answer. Cell painted animation. Classic animation is painted on cells, one frame at a time, and done in layers. While this mistake is obvious, the number of frames it took up, and the fact that it would probably be on one of the first colour layer. Meaning the entire frame, for all those effected would need to be repainted. Something that is not cheap. It was easier and cheaper to leave a few seconds of miss-coloured Pokémon, than to redo the entire section of the film.
CGI and Traditional Animation:
There was something very strange about the castle, doors and stadium lights. As a kid, I could never figure out why they seemed so different to the rest of the film. Even when the characters were stood right in front of them, they looked off. Turns out, it’s because they ARE different. While the rest of the film is traditional cell painted animation, little touches like the castle (in certain shots), the doors when moving, and the stadium lights, are all CGI models imposed over the film. Interestingly, during the film’s original run in Japan, these were all done with cell animation like the rest of the film. But when the film got the go ahead to be released in America, and the rest of the world, they were able to go back and improve parts of the animation, for a little more polish.
And yet that Gyarados still has a miss-coloured jaw….
During the three on three battle in the middle of the film. Ash’s Charzard goes up against a clone Charzard (trying to explain scenes sometimes gets surreal when you realise how crazy some of this sounds to people unfamiliar with the film). As the two dragons are crashing back to the ground, the camera holds on a shot of Ash, Misty, Brock, and the other ‘good’ characters. On the VHS tape, there is an odd editing jump, where the camera cuts from one side of Ash while Brock speaks, only to jump to the other side of him when Misty speaks. As a kid, this was a little jarring. I used to wonder why they weren’t both on screen at the same time. Why did they have to jump from either side, when they could have just had all three characters on screen? Why do I remember seeing this cut a different way?
Well, I had. The original cinema cut of the film had all three characters on screen, taking full advantage of the widescreen format. Emphasis on widescreen format. While not talking about this film, Bordwell and Thompson’s book, Film Art: An Introduction talks at length about framing, and screen resolution. To put it simply. VHS and televisions at the time, had a different frame size, closer to a square than the rectangle we are more familiar with now. Had the VHS release kept the scene the same, then both Brock and Misty would have been out of frame, and the voices would have seemed like they were coming out of nowhere. Thankfully, newer releases, such as the current Blu-Ray, return it to the original aspect ratio.
VHS Tapes can wear:
Film can wear. The more film is used, the more the image can fade, and become crackled and fuzzy. As a kid, it’s hard to understand why is it that your film looks different the hundred and fiftieth time, then on first viewing. Sadly, despite my love of my childhood VHS tapes, watching them so often taught me why the then upcoming DVD format was a good move. DVDs can scratch. They can break. But they are also fairly easy to copy. Later Blu-Ray’s are even harder to scratch. But the footage on those discs will never fade.
There are plenty of moral lessons the film taught me, and ones I can still recite from memory. Take Meowth’s realisation that “we do have a lot in common, huh? The same Earth, the same air, the same sky. Maybe if we focus on the same, instead of always on what’s different, well, who knows”. But it’s those curiosities it sparked in me then, that still bring me back to it every few years.
The first three Pokemon films are available on Blu-ray here: Pokemon Movie 1-3 Collection [Blu-ray]