Earlier this month, production company Gravity Dog launched a Kickstarter campaign to make a documentary exploring the real world locations from the immensely popular Pokémon video games series. Travelling across the Kanto region in Japan by bicycle over the course of 40 days, the team hopes to find the inspiration for the games, as well as discover secrets about Japan's rural landscapes.
It's an ambitious documentary, and one that is clearly a passion project for all involved. The project's fundraising page has been carefully put together, with a pitch video that leaves a rather good impression. The team has also been at pains to emphasize that the film shouldn't fall foul of copyright issues - it'll aim to utilise fair use, avoiding copyrighted imagery in the final result while it will be distributed and shown for free, with Kickstarter funding being broken down to highlight how the money will be used. It's a tricky line to walk, however, and is perhaps reflected by a slow start - at the time of publication - in the fundraising.
It's an interesting project, in any case, and we took the opportunity to learn more by chatting with producer/ writer / director Stephen Aymond.
First of all, congratulations on the launch of your Kickstarter campaign for ‘Cycle across Kanto’.
Thank you. The campaign video you’ll find on our Kickstarter page was a labor of love to make. After three months of planning, we’re excited to finally have it public. We need everyone’s help to bring this adventure to everyone’s screens.
How did the team come together? And when did the project start and gather momentum?
I was a fan of Javed Sterritt (our editor) from ‘Good Blood’ since he released his first video essay ‘DEAR SEGA’. (It’s a brilliant piece with nearly half a million views, if you haven’t seen it yet.) I approached him this September (2017) through a Twitter DM with the very basic idea of making a video tour of the real-life locations that inspired the Pokémon games, and he fell in love with the idea on the spot when I phrased it as “a cinematic glimpse into the real-life world of Pokémon.” Javed, of course, had some notes that helped bring the idea from 50% to 100 by adding in the human element – making the documentary about the journey in addition to learning about the land’s cultures and people.
To make a film, you need a team tailored specifically for it. I needed filmmakers who were 1) able to clear 40 days in their schedules, 2) willing to train for endurance biking, and 3) grew up with the original Pokémon games. That last point was important, because passion makes a project shine. I knew of only two people who fit the bill, film school pals Nick Solorzano (our director of photography) and Ahmad Evans (field audio and grip) of Gravity Dog Productions. Nick introduced me to Mai Gozu of Maiography (cinematographer and translator) who would later become one of the biggest assets to the team. I later hired friend and current-day Pokémon narrator Mike Pollock (with permission from The Pokémon Company) to reprise his role for the documentary, as well as Jonny Higgins, a wicked talented composer and friend of Javed’s.
Together, we spent the next three months creating the most ambitious crowdfunding video campaign that we could conceive.
What is the team’s experience in Japan?
Mai is a Japanese native and spent roughly half her life in Japan. Other than her, I visited for nine days back in 2011. You’d think a week over five years ago wouldn’t be enough experience to return for a 40-day biking excavation, but Japan is remarkably easy to navigate and nearly every person you come across is very helpful. Mai and I are very excited to return, as we miss it daily.
Are any of the team experiencing the area for the first time?
Nick and Ahmad will be visiting for the first time. Nick was planning to visit Japan eventually and often travels for work, so this project will be both new and unfamiliar for him. They’re both very excited to see what Japan has to offer if we reach our budget on Kickstarter.
Miyamoto-san has shared anecdotes about childhood experiences influencing games such as Zelda and Star Fox – What do you think makes the Pokémon series so popular and special?
I love that developers find inspiration from the world around them and recreate it one way or another in their work. It just hit me that our crew intends to relive their experience, but in reverse.
The Pokémon games have every reason to be popular. They are as complicated or as simple as anyone wants to make them, so anyone can pick it up and become enthralled. I experienced this first hand. As a kid, I would just grind and grind until my Pokémon were strong enough to defeat anything instead of worry about strategy. As an adult, I think carefully about my team’s assembly and move sets. And with such a vast array of monsters to choose from, playstyle allows each person to experience the game very differently. We can share our different experiences with each other. We can trade the monsters we tamed. The worlds are quirky, and the music is fun. Pokémon is magical.
You get to experience Kanto by bicycle. How important was this aspect of the project?
Cycling across the Kanto region is one of the most important aspects of this film. Driving from location to location wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining and it certainly wouldn’t feel like an adventure. People would rather witness a story unfold as we undertake a great physical challenge. We want to stick as close to the source material as we can by walking and biking everywhere (however, we’ll be picking up our bikes in Pallet Town. No waiting until Vermillion City to find some bike vouchers).
When did you and the team first start to form the idea of the documentary?
The idea was born about a year ago, but it first began as something quite different, not even as a documentary. My best friend Miwa and I would often talk about walking across the connected United States, from Key West in Florida all the way to Cape Flattery in Washington State. The trip would have taken us about six months, and, having never done something so ambitious, we looked at smaller goals, like walking across Japan, her home country. At some point, I came across an article that talked about how Pokémon X and Y were based on North France. Naturally, I wanted to see if the earlier titles did the same, and surely enough they did!
From Japan and NYC to France and Hawaii, every main series Pokémon game takes inspiration from locations here on Earth. There’s an entire page on Bulbapedia that goes into great detail about the similarities between every town, mountain, forest, and so on. It’s impressive. I had to see these places for myself and share them with everyone. To “travel across the land searching far and wide.” However, Miwa was soon unable to join on anything involving a lot of physical activity due to abrupt health concerns. The idea left. Then it would come back. Then it would leave again. And after a long while, I decided to revisit again it in September by approaching Javed Sterrit, and the rest unfolded from there.
Are there any filmmakers that have influenced or inspired you?
There certainly have been filmmakers that inspired us. For me, off the top of my head, Edgar Wright, Jamie Hewlett, and Wes Anderson. For this project, however, we decided it’d be best to not take inspiration from our film heroes, but to instead emulate the first season of the Pokémon anime: Lots of straight-on and profile shots, foreground and background foliage, birds-eye angle to emulate the games, very saturated colors, etc. It wasn’t an easy task; we shot everything in our home state of Florida. Vegetation here isn’t very green, and it was about to get less green as Winter approached. We had to quickly scout out three cities all far from each other (Orlando, Daytona, and Jacksonville) to get exactly what we needed.
Pokémon has always been immensely popular in Japan, but last year’s Pokémon GO has taken it to another level (if that was possible)!
For a while, I was considering making it a goal to catch as many of the original 151 as I could in Pokémon Go while in the Kanto region, but due to copyright reasons we’ve decided to cut all visual references of Pokémon in the final cut of the documentary. Nintendo are basically the Disney of video games, so we are doing everything in our power to tread lightly on their intellectual properties by keeping ALL REFERENCES to a “verbal-only” rule, to ensure everything falls under Fair Use. …Sorry, I’ve gone off topic. Uh, Pokémon GO is great! I intend to catch my Asia-exclusive Farfetch’d while there.
What is the balance like between finding the references in the games and being able to discover the hidden landscapes of Japan?
There is a little interpretation involved when comparing the two worlds. Pallet Town for instance is just a couple of houses and a lab next to the ocean. That’s not exactly a lot to go on except for its geographical location being similar to Shimoda City. However, places like Mt Silver being indicative of Mt Fuji, Pewter City and Midori City sharing rocky slopes and fossil museums, Lavender Town and Narita City sharing the fame of their massive grave sites, those are more obvious when comparing and contrasting. But we won’t stop there. We’ll display what other specialities each town has to offer so long as it fits the theme of the area. But this unexplored concept will be left in the dark if the project isn’t funded. We’re hoping to garner a lot of $10 donations since it’s an amount that won’t break the bank for anyone.
What is your favourite Pokémon game?
It’s been very hard to pin down a favorite. The games have become more complex with each iteration to keep things fresh, but I’d have to say that X and Y had so many features that I was beginning to feel overwhelmed. And triple battles in Black and White were definitely… a thing. Sun and Moon were a breath of fresh air by simplifying things again. But in all honesty, I see myself returning to the original games more often than the others. Red/Blue and Gold/Silver are simply too charming to put down.
Quick story – we filmed 7 and 8-year-olds in our campaign video and, man, they were hard to keep still. When we tasked them with playing Pokémon Blue and Pokémon Snap, they started complaining about how there wasn’t anything to do and that it was boring and so on. Five minutes later, they were hooked and back to having a great weekend. They didn’t want to put it down!
There’s something about the originals. They’re magical.
What are your hopes for the upcoming Switch Pokémon game?
Game mechanics-wise, who knows. But, our Pokémon games are moving on up to 900p and 1080p. With a resolution like that, everything sort of has to scale up with it. Expectations will be higher both visually and audibly. Will the budget significantly rise in order to meet that demand? One thing’s for sure, the team working on the Pokémon games will be working with fewer hardware restrictions, so I hope that they utilize the new specs, and I hope that they’re ready for what it means to make an HD Pokémon game. A lower-poly avatar with a few facial expressions might not cut it, you know? If you asked me, I’m imagining something similar to Ni No Kuni, in terms of how to visually represent the world. That would sell me in a heartbeat.
We'd like the thank Stephen Aymond for his time; you can check out the Kickstarter page at the link below.