Since joining Pixeljoint in early 2007 Stickman has built himself a great pixelart gallery with some of the most entertaining and outstanding animations to be found in the entire gallery.
Stickman began experimenting with animation in Secondary School using an ION camera (1 frame per second) and by the time he finished College, (BTEC-General Art and Design) he solely focused in animation and film-making using amiga dpaint, scratch film, cardboard cut outs, stop motion and various styles of 2D images using cine cameras.
While attending the Mid-Glamorgan School of Art and Design in Wales where he studied for 3 years under some great teachers training as a traditional animator (2D). Hesitant about computers in general and given that the school used 3D studio AutoCad which isn't geared to animation. Stickman experimented mixing medias by building sets using polystyrene, paper and cardboard, which were then painted and airbrushed. He then cut out hand-drawn animation frames and placed them in the sets and would take a picture, one frame at a time (stop-motion technique). While fun, this was far too expensive and time consuming so he moved to using RealSoft 3D on the Amiga, and built CGI backgrounds and layered them with scanned 2D frames.
Currently living in the UK, Stickman works as a freelance animator and creates animations for games, advertising commercials and other projects.
jal - Thanks for talking to us! Let me begin by saying that your first PJ submission (stickman avatar) stood out to me. I remember thinking that you had talent right away. The next few pieces, while not mind blowing (to me) certainly showed artistry in layout, concept and design choices. Then you submitted What Meatloaf wouldn't do for Love and it certainly made you stand out from the crowd as the comments on that piece clearly show. A deceptively and even primitive looking piece as far as 'pixelart' is concerned but the animation really stood out and truly remains one of your best pieces. A piece like that had it not been animated would simply be an OK piece so I wonder what makes a concept/piece need animation. What is the process or method that determines when a piece will be animated?
SM - I always know from the very beginning if a piece will have animation or not because of the time involved in making sure the movements are readable and understood by the viewers. With What Meatloaf wouldn't do for Love this was no different, apart from not having fleshed out the character design. I knew that it was going to be a clown on a unicycle with a custard pie on his head and although I wasn't too sure what he was going to look like, I did have a rough vision. So I worked on that vision while making up and refining the design as I went along animating each body part separately.
I've never approached pixelart animations using that method again as it was messy and ended up taking far longer than it should have. I also didn't know how to properly dither then and struggled making it work with the background along with trying to make all the colours fit. The big lesson I learned from this piece was the importance (in pixelart) of designing and pixelling a character before tackling any animation. It makes the process of working with movement much easier to break down.
jal - What applications do you use to create pixel art and animations?
SM - For creating animations and pixelart, I use PaintShop Pro 8 and a Wacom tablet on a T60p Thinkpad laptop. When creating an animation the first thing I do is go into the frame rate tab (100th per second) and put it on 6. This will help create a smooth animation, but will need a lot more frame drawings. I learned this when working on What Meatloaf wouldn't do for Love, that piece was set to 10, which is why it doesn't feel as smooth as it should. Depending on the piece, animations can be tackled in different ways. For example, What Meatloaf wouldn't do for Love was tackled with each body part animated separately and then layered over each other:
Footy Juggler was the same, but because of the size and design, different parts of the body moved at different speeds in order to give an illusion that the all the body parts of the character are moving. Here is the piece slowed down:
Tennis Vs Pong, however, is a straight 2D approach with a mixture of key-frames and straight ahead animations which is what I'm used to. I'm not really an animator who blocks out their animation from beginning to end, but work on a section at a time. With Tennis Vs Pong, I animated the forehand first and then the backhand:
Anti 2D Fighter, was more or less about adding and removing pixels. The white pixels show which directions the pixels are moving. The legs for instance - the back of each leg has pixels moving down when moving forward, with the front parts of each leg, moving up when moving forward:
jal - Is there anything specific or unique that you've learned about animating pixelart versus traditional or 3D animation? Do pixelart limitations even affect an animation?
SM - Most definitely! Pixelart animations require a lot of trickery depending on the size of the animations, as you may not have that much space to play with. For instance, Terry and his Motor sprites are 16 x 16 and with only 4 colours. On frames where there may not be any more space to move a pixel horizontally or vertically, you may have to use colour changes just to give the illusion that things are still moving (even though pixels may still be in the same place), especially in running or in fast frame rates:
This doesn't need to be done with traditional or CGI as you're not limited to grid like movements and can place your in-betweens where you want without restrictions. Pixelart animations need strict timings like any other animations but are applied differently due to the constraints. This ends up in a lot of fine tuning (pretty much impossible for me on Weekly Challenge deadlines) and a lot of 'umming and arring'.
jal - You tend to use very low colour palettes, even in your non-animated pixelarts. What are your thoughts and opinions on palettes/colors and the entire subject of color choices in pixelart, animated or not?
SM - Colours are still something that I really need to work on, along with anti-aliasing (AA). For example, with the palette challenges, I feel that I can make colours work together on a reasonable level, but when it comes to choosing them - that's an entirely different matter. However, one of the things that I love about pixelart are palette restrictions and in the case of animation, sometimes it is the palette that can dictate how something will be animated. The smoke effects in Terry, is a dithering based animation due to the colour restriction:
Dithering is great for effects such as sword swipes, whooshes or anything depicting speed. When dithering on surface areas like a character or any other object, it's just a case of making sure that you dedicate borders or areas of the character or object to a certain dither pattern. Similar in what you would do if you were cell shading, where you would dedicate certain areas to a particular colour or tone. After this has been established, you can then go in and fine tune the dithering by either increasing or decreasing the intensity of the dither pattern to give more sense of form and lighting if the animation needs it.
When trying to control colours in a particular sequence, it's important to make sure that there is a consistency otherwise it can give undesired effects. Big Footed Migration has an undesired fur effect, especially on the darker parts because I didn't (was way to exhausted) control how those pixels animated from one frame to the next. This gives the colours a flashing effect making it appear jittery and busy in places. To avoid that happening again, I would have animated one of the darker fur strands individually as it's only 20 frames of animation, then copy it and use it as a guide as all the fur points in a similar direction. I also would have changed the colour on certain frames to accentuate distance.
jal - You seem to like and often use the Amstrad CPC palette, CPC Pixel Mix, Katamari CPC 464, Jokes that make you say "Hmmmm...". Method, madness or laziness?
SM - The Amstrad CPC 464 was my first home computer so I have a lot of love for the old machine and I've still got the machine with 3 or 4 games in working order. If you look at the graphics on Renegade, Gryzor/Contra or Operation Wolf; you really cant miss how vibrant the colours are on those games. Working in mode 0 resolution (160 x 200 16 colours) brings out a lot of challenges due to some of the colours being so similar in value on the CPC palette. I'm actually working on a remake of an old CPC game and what I'm finding is the tricky task of making the sprites readable on the background because of how similar some of the colours are. In this case, I'm using fewer colours on the background parts where the sprites may cross over, but choosing the correct ones when the 27 available are all bright with some being similar in values has been a real challenge.
With Do not feed and CPC Pixel Mix I really enjoy mixing wide and single pixels and plan to do more of this using the CPC palette. You can get some really interesting effects using this method and it makes room for experimenting with different effects along with the challenge of producing a fusion that works and with out making the different modes look incompatible with each other. The CPC palette really does have some beautiful colours to work with.
jal - You don't really have a set identifiable style, any thoughts on this?
SM - I brought up the question of style at the Pixelation forum a while ago. I was looking through my gallery and I felt that there wasn't anything that was consistent and I believe that was because I was (and still am) learning different techniques or trying out new methods to improve myself. Pieces like Return From Lambeth Palace and Sexy Beast aren't really my sort of thing, but I felt I needed to learn how to tackle dither patterns and learn how to illustrate hair. They took a lot of research as I'm a slow pixel pusher, looking at dithering tutorials, hair tutorials etc. It's great, because I feel that I can now apply those skills in a pixel in my own way.
jal - When creating animations what is the determining factor?
SM - When creating animations, the determining factor for me is performance. Although I find it fun and challenging on a technical level to try and produce smooth movement in pixelart, 3D CGI or traditional - what I learned from my teachers and various commissions is how or what the character or piece is going to do in order to grab the audience. Visual timing, performance and getting the message across is very subjective as some people may enjoy 'cartoony' elements in a given character, while another may find it too exaggerated and not too their liking or style. Also, the viewer may focus on different things that the animator may not have taken into account or the animator wasn't aware that the viewer was focusing their attention in that given moment. With all these variables, animations are always hit and miss, but even if the viewer doesn't like it, it's important for them to at least understand what the message or performance was supposed to be.
jal - Why does a piece require animating?
SM - There's so much to learn about movement and there are many performances, character traits or special effects that I have still yet to experiment with. So if an opportunity arises that I can work on an idea or animate a movement that I haven't been able to put time into before, then it's a wise choice for me to put in that effort and find out ways in tackling that subject. With Anti 2D Fighter I wanted to see if I could produce a 3D polygon model effect. It doesn't really do much but it showed me how adding and deleting 1 pixel on each frame can produce a relatively smooth 3D look. Tennis Vs Pong was done because I like the Tennis and had never animated anything with that sort of movement before and it posed interesting timings to deal with. Although I come from a traditional 2D background, my pro jobs are primarily 3D, so having a chance to express movement in 2D is fun for me.
jal - Do your animations begin on paper, or all in the computer?
SM - I have a 2D Amiga Linetester and a traditional lightbox, pegbar and paper punch system. I haven't touched those in years. The camera broke and I have yet to fix/replace it (thanks for reminding me), but sometimes I sketch out keyframes in a pad, or draw the movements that I want to incorporate into piece. I then work out all the movement and animation frames on the computer (PSP 8). It definitely starts on paper first whether it is drawn or written.
jal - What advice, tip or words of wisdom can you share with those who struggle with pixelart animations?
SM - Planning plays a big role in creating animations of any sort. One of the things that help is breaking down the animation into parts or components. It's tempting to simply slice a character and slide or shift the parts around, but it's better to redraw unique positions as required. Thinking about the animation in pieces or sections and working on each part of the animation independently can help you see the animation better and avoid confusion. When animating Footy Juggler, breaking it down into parts and working on the body and legs first and making sure it worked on its own. Then I worked on the head, the arms I left for last (closest to viewer). It's also good to use a frame rate that isn't going to make the animation look choppy as this will force you to study the movement more intricately and further help the understanding of what you want to achieve.
Another thing is not to rush it and to be realistic. It's tempting to cut corners on such a long and sometimes anal process - pixeling static pictures is hard enough. I'm not the fastest pixel pusher so I end up doing ridiculously long sessions trying to get work done. Animation has me up to the early hours of the morning in-between sorting out my normal everyday chores and activities.
jal - I'm always curious about handles. Why Stickman?
SM - Stickmen is something that anyone can draw and it's very difficult to draw one badly! I have used stick drawings many times when I've travelled abroad and have language problems, with a translation book in one hand and a sketch book in another, it provides a very flexible way to communicate. It's also one of the things I used to draw as child when animating flickbooks as it provided a quick and easy way to see movement. When I joined Pixeljoint, I was living in India and my flatmates didn't speak any English and even though I had a Hindi translation book, they did not read or write Hindi as they were from Karnataka where Kannada is the primary language. However with lots of mime and stick drawings on top of learning the language as much as I could and just generally getting to know each others habits, moods and vibe, provided communication between us.
Stickmen were also useful in Peru. Many people wanted to practice their English on me, although I needed to practice my awful Spanish. I think they are used to American accents and my British accent was confusing them quite a bit! Even some of the Americans there didn't understand me. Maybe I just talk funny!
jal - All British folk speak funny :p When looking at others' pixelart what makes a piece stand out? Whose pixelart do you admire?
SM - The first thing that makes a piece stands out for me in pixelart is the idea or concept. I really enjoy viewing inventive pictures that makes me think 'how did they come out with that idea' or 'what a great concept'. The other thing that stands out to me is the choosing of colours and anti aliasing(AA) as they are the areas that I could do with working on in my own abilities. There are many great pictures on this site and so many artists that I admire and have been influenced by, whether it be their techniques or the construction of an image or a method that would have never crossed my mind.
jal - Is there a hidden gem in the gallery?
SM - So many! ...but there was something that I really liked about this picture by maloART. I hope he doesn't feel offended, but even though the actual drawing is rough around the edges with some dodgy lineart, along with parts of the scene clashing style wise without any consistency, I still enjoy viewing this image as it has an interesting feel about it.
jal - What makes a piece of pixelart good?
SM - Pixelart is a very subjective matter along with what makes 'pixelart' pixelart. I have absolutely no idea!
jal - Do you ever pixel in your dreams?
SM - Heh heh! I may have once or twice after slogging away on a pixel through the night into the early morning. I see colours in my head. It's probably similar to people who play too much Tetris and end up looking out of a train window trying to slot the houses together.
jal - LOL, ...again, Thanks for sharing the knowledge... I have a sudden urge to go animate something.
SM - Good! http://www.pixeljoint.com/pixelart/28505.htm ...you've got 5 hours :)