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Animation Level Up

Coming from Bristol, UK, he started making games in his early teens with Blitz Basic and loved to do a weekly game jam called Wednesday Workshop. His passion for games led him to study computing, as well as art and music, so he had the tools to make games himself. When he was 14 he sold his first game “Space Fighter” to a friend at school for £2.50 on a floppy disk. Limited release of one.

After studying Computer Science at York, he spent a year on a failed mobile game project and then 6 weeks on another called Werewolf Tycoon, which was far more successful. It was after that when he started to pick up pixel art work and has primarily been doing that ever since.

He hopes to ultimately get back to working on his own games.

Your first memory of Pixel Art?

I think my uncle had a copy of Fury of The Furris for DOS which we ended up with at some point. I must have been about 5 and never got very far through it, but I loved to try. Compared to the other games we had this was visually stunning, and inspired me to sketch out my own platform game level designs at school.

When and how did you end up making Pixel Art professionally?

I think it was shortly after my first Ludum Dare in 2014 I was approached to do some assets for a game prototype. I was able to share these on Twitter, which let others know I was available for hire. I also picked up some work from clients who had seen Werewolf Tycoon. Especially when I was able to share the work I found myself getting more requests, and eventually realised it was a viable career which could be flexible enough to allow me to continue to make my own games on the side.

How would you describe your Pixel Art style?

While I vary my style a bit by project, I very much have a preference for clean and efficient pixel art. I like bold clusters and a lot of implied detail, seldom dithering except to suggest specific textures. Usually I don’t use outlines, but depending on the backgrounds a sprite needs to work against I might opt to emphasise some occlusion shadows to help fulfil the same function. When it comes to lighting, I have a fondness for trying to create believable 3D forms, and in animations like to pay careful attention to cast shadows, which I think often get missed.

Images courtesy of Joe Williamson.

What software/s do you use?

I primarily use PyxelEdit, and at present a fairly customised version with some unique features for my workflow. I occasionally dip into Photoshop or Aseprite for specific tasks. Daniel Kvarfordt, PyxelEdit’s developer, kindly gave me access to the source a few years ago when I was working on doing over a hundred characters each with 300 frames of animation for an official Star Trek game, on the basis that I would be able to contribute new features. I added the ability to offset tile instances so that characters could be constructed out of reusable modules, probably saving months of tedium. Being able to make tweaks as needed has been invaluable to me, and I’m hoping to get my latest batch of new features into an official PyxelEdit release when I’m less busy.

"For character actions I’ll often start by physically acting it out and noting how my body moves."

Your animations are amazing! Can you give some insight into the creative process behind them—from conception through to the final version?

If it’s something I’ve animated many times before, such as a side-on run cycle, I might just go straight into it, drawing from past experience. If I’m looking to try something a bit different I’ll typically begin by thinking how I might animate it, often writing a list of things I would intuitively do in that animation to convey the nature of the subject. After that, I gather some references and try to identify things which I had not included in my prior list. I think this is a good way of identifying those details which I might otherwise have missed. I can afford to spend a bit more time thinking about those elements because I know that the other stuff was intuitive to me, anyway. For character actions I’ll often start by physically acting it out and noting how my body moves, sometimes taking a video for more complex and unusual movements.

Next I’ll typically sketch something super rough, just to figure out the overall timing and identify potential keyframes. While rendering, I’ll constantly be thinking about where I can get away with reusing parts I’ve already drawn, occasionally whole frames, or sometimes components which I might transform or adjust, aided by the tile instance offsetting feature in PyxelEdit.

Which of your creations was the biggest challenge and can you tell us why?

I just finished it this week. It's a mech boss for the upcoming cyberpunk JRPG, Jack Move, and is easily the most complex single sprite I’ve attempted. It’s relatively large and detailed, but is also humanoid and has many smooth 3D movements where the z-order of components needs to change. Every part is rendered in many angles, and to top it off, it has four damage phases where many of these components need to be designed and rendered again at every one of those angles!

This was a project where I made great use of being able to customise PyxelEdit, adding several new features specifically to make this character viable, and also optimising some others. Even so, PyxelEdit’s method of presenting a document as a whole spritesheet presented significant issues. The document was over 4096x4352 and almost 50 layers, with about 3GB of uncompressed bitmapdata in memory which took several minutes just to save.

One feature I added to PyxelEdit was to have the layer of the pixel under your cursor highlighted, and if you space+right-click it selects the layer of the pixel under your cursor. I think without this the layer management would have broken me.

From Jack Move, image courtesy of Joe Williamson

What Pixel Art projects are you most proud of and why?

I’m most proud of a treehouse rollercoaster diorama that I started for a pixel dailies, and have still yet to finish by completing its animation. It encapsulates a lot of my style preferences, presenting strong forms and lighting efficiently at a very low resolution, and it’s a style I’m keen to make use of more in some future game projects. Also it has a rollercoaster in it.

What would you highlight from your experience streaming on Twitch? Do you think more pixel artists should start doing it?

I originally streamed the entirety of the development of Werewolf Tycoon back in 2014, but had to have significant gaps in my Twitch presence due to working on NDA projects. My original aim was to gain visibility and to find a fanbase for my own or clients’ games, although some other benefits have turned out to be far more significant.

For a start, when I’m streaming I feel accountable to my viewers to be productive. I know some streamers are a lot more chatty and relaxed on their streams, in which case it might be the opposite, but for me it really helps me keep focussed on the work. It also encourages me to verbalise any problems I’m facing, which is extremely useful in working out solutions, and often viewers may be able to offer viable solutions, or at least say something which inspires a new line of thought. It’s great to have the social interaction whereas otherwise working alone at home could feel very isolated. Last but not least, the support and encouragement I get from viewers is invaluable, helping to turn moments of frustration and struggle into a shared adventure, and motivating me to keep on improving.

Yes I recommend it.

Images courtesy of Joe Williamson.
"In my opinion a cohesive style is the most important feature of a game’s aesthetic."

How do you feel about the Pixel Art industry and where do you see it in the future?

Pixel art is very accessible. Due to its heavily quantised nature, it’s relatively easy to reproduce some styles of pixel art of a reasonable quality by imitation if it stays close to the source material, and the software required is typically much more affordable than for other digital art. This makes it appealing to beginners and also indie developers who want to add their own art on a small budget, and is also why I started out doing pixel art, myself. I think this is a great thing for games.

Unfortunately, I think this accessibility also contributed to the misconception that pixel art is “easy”, and a lot of not-so-good pixel art makes its way into commercial games when it has been considered to be the easy and cheap option. Often this goes hand in hand with mixing up a variety of pixel art styles from a variety of sources, leading to a lack of cohesion, and in my opinion a cohesive style is the most important feature of a game’s aesthetic. This in turn informs peoples’ expectations about what pixel art is and can be.

On the other hand, when games feature great pixel art they tend to stand out and get the recognition they deserve, and with better tools and resources for learning pixel art I think we can expect to see more and more beautiful pixel art in games, and in many creative and less traditional forms, too, such as using pixel art billboards with perspective or as textures on low poly models. When done well I love this stuff.

From Jack Move, image courtesy of Joe Williamson.

Can you tell us the artist/s that you admire the most? (from any discipline)

Ryan Woodward ‘s animations always blow my mind. He uses exaggerated smears in such a natural and satisfying way and every frame is a masterpiece oozing with appeal.

What advice would you give to other artists who are starting in the world of Pixel Art?

The unique considerations of pixel art in comparison to art more generally are pretty tiny. For pixel art, you will have to learn about how the pixel grid can create unintended patterns and how to mitigate them, understand how to balance simplifying, removing or emphasizing details, and implying a higher resolution image by antialiasing or subpixel animation. For professional artists transitioning into the world of pixel art, pixel grid banding (the creation of unintended lines) is the most easily common issue, but unfortunately it also seems to be the most misunderstood on the whole and there are few good resources which explore it. The good news is that most other art skills translate easily to pixel art, and generally when I have worked with other digital artists they have been able to adapt to pixel art pretty smoothly.

For those who are starting their art journey with pixel art, my advice is to not just study pixel art. Study art. Draw on paper. Tend toward using photo references instead of other pixel art (although identifying what you like about other artists’ pixel art styles is also very important). As I said, the unique considerations of pixel art are relatively tiny.

Question made by Batfeula: Are there any technical restrictions that you self-impose even though they only make your life harder?

Yes. For some strange reason I choose to do pixel art! Really though, I don't impose any extra restrictions such as trying to reproduce graphics for old hardware. I don't even tend to lock myself into a particular palette, and am happy to continue making additions as needed, as long as the palette is efficient. If, on the other hand, you have any techniques or tools that will make my life easier then I will happily self-impose those!


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