Growing up during the 80s and 90s, video games were definitely a huge source of entertainment for most kids back then. Super Mario, Contra, Pac-Man, Game boy, and Tetris were some of the most popular games.

But, do you know what these games had in common besides being super fun and exciting? 

Well, it was Pixel art- the root of computer graphics and digital art as we know them today. 

Wondering why the name? Well, because every art made on a computer back then was the result of pixel-by-pixel artwork, created using old hardware with ‘n' number of limitations. However, as computers evolved, not just the number of those constraints became negligible, but the ability to render images also got more advanced.

Now the question is: why learn pixel art when we can easily create any digital art form? 

Of course, Pixel art is no longer a necessary approach; however, going back to the roots and creating something within the boundaries of old technology will definitely help you as an artist. Besides, the kick you will get recreating those retro designs is bound to take you on a whole different level of nostalgia.

Ready to create your own 8-bit video game art? Let's get started!

What is Pixel Art?

Pixel art is a unique and interesting form of digital art that enables the artist to create a broad range of assets for a game. Pixel art is very different from most other art styles where the art is drawn with brush and stroke. Instead, pixel art is created by placing down blocks square by square and has a minimal color palette. 

Pixel art can be dated back to the oldest arcade games, like Pac-Man. It was pixel art that made those games unique, and it worked pretty well for those games.

Pixel art was originally used in video games because of the limitations of technology during that time. Before there were pixel art animation software like After Effects, one had to program each pixel to create their 8-bit designs. However, all you need today is a few effects layered over your assets to make your footage look like it came directly out of a Gameboy.

How to create Pixel Art in After Effects?

Now, let's walk you step-by-step on how to make pixel art animation in After Effects to create your own 8-bit look. 

Step 1: Posterize Effect

  • For the first step, import the assets or create a shape you would like to turn into pixel art. For this, I chose a gold coin because this makes me remember the Super Mario game. You can go for a motion graphic or a title sequence, whatever suits your project. 
  • Next, you need to create an adjustment layer over your timeline and add on the Posterize Effect. This will limit the number of color tones that your object has. 
  • For instance, if you have a gradient in your graphics, you will be able to see diagonal lines of different colors unique to those 16-bit color video games. You can stay between a level of 5 to 15:5 for a more retro look or 15 for more of a modern look. For personal taste, I chose 12.

Step 2: CC Block Load

  • Now to get the whole “pixelated” and “detailed” look,  we will use the CC Block Load effect for perfectly square pixels. 
  • Add the CC Block Load effect to the adjustment layer, and set the Completion setting to 0. 
  • Now, set the Scans value to 3 and uncheck the Start Cleared option, and your motion graphic will now get that retro pixelated look. 

Step 3: Tint

  • If you're looking for monochrome like the Nintendo game, use the Tint effect to change the color palette. 
  • Set the Map White to any color of your choice. You can go for a moss green color to get the “Gameboy” look. I have set the tint to 95%. 
  • This will change the color of your composition to the selected color palette, making you nostalgic about the tiny tinted screens you might have seen while playing video games in your childhood.

Step 4: Grid

  • Pixel is usually in a block shape. However, we can't draw blocks one by one, so we will have to add some dimension to the CC Block Load effect. 
  • You won't achieve that retro look without a border on each pixel. So, drop the Grid effect onto the adjustment layer, and set the blending mode to Normal to add a border.
  • Now, select a dark shade for your color, and change the border dimension to 2. 
  • If you want to narrow down your grid size to the pixel dimensions, you can set the Anchor position to (0,0) and the Corner size to (8,8). And, your grid will now be in perfect union with every individual pixel.

Step 5: Posterize Time

  • Most 8-bit video games can not be displayed in 24 frames per second. Therefore, you need to adjust your graphic's frame rate.
  • Add the Posterize Time effect to your adjustment layer, and switch down the frame rate to around 8 fps. 
  • The motion in your composition will now seem a bit more blocky, which is what we are aiming for here.

Step 6: Animate

  • First, create a 3d shape and then extrude the shape to give a 3d depth to the coin. 
  • Now, create a null object and add it to the 3d layer.
  • Now, rotate the null object in the y-axis and add the keyframe on the first frame.
  • Then at 2 seconds, rotate it to 360 degrees, and add an easy ease keyframe. 
  • At last, add the expression to rotation value loopOut().
  • Congratulations, your pixel art animation is ready! 

Final Say

I hope now you understand what it takes to design and animate characters in pixel art. Now, you can experiment to create your version of pixel art or get your hands dirty to create pixel art character animation and use those graphics in a retro video game! So, what are you waiting for? Let the gamer in you take charge and relive the childhood memories!

If you feel coming up with an animation character design and all of this is too tedious for you to do, get in touch with us now, and we will create amazing graphics for you. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Pixel art animation is often created using specialized software that caters to the unique requirements of pixel-based artwork. Some popular programs for pixel art animation include Aseprite, GraphicsGale, and Pyxel Edit. These tools provide features tailored for pixel-level control, making it easier to create smooth and detailed animations while maintaining the retro, pixelated aesthetic.

Animating pixel art can be challenging due to the limited resolution and pixel-level detail involved. However, it's not necessarily harder than other forms of animation; it simply requires a different set of skills and attention to detail. Artists need to focus on creating fluid movements and conveying emotions with limited pixel counts. With practice and the right tools, animating pixel art can become a rewarding and enjoyable process.

To animate pixel art efficiently, consider these tips:

  • Plan your animation in advance with a clear understanding of the desired movement and timing.
  • Use onion skinning or ghosting features in pixel art software to see previous frames as you work on the current one.
  • Create reusable character or object templates to save time on repetitive elements.
  • Keep the number of frames to a minimum while maintaining the illusion of motion.
  • Focus on the key poses and movements that convey the animation's story or message.
  • Use reference images or videos to understand real-world motion and apply it to your pixel art.

The choice of frames per second (FPS) for pixel art animation can vary depending on the desired style and intended platform. For classic retro-style pixel art, 12 FPS or even lower can create a nostalgic and authentic feel. However, if you want smoother motion and a more modern look, you can opt for 24 FPS or higher. Ultimately, the best FPS for pixel art animation depends on your creative vision and the specific requirements of your project.