How turning off the rasterize button helped make the ‘Tetris’ retro pixel art scenes possible

Go behind the scenes of the 8-Bit inspired graphics in the film with Coffee & TV.

Jon S. Baird’s Tetris takes a fun look back at the Cold War-era development of the famous pixel block game, features a number of 8-Bit inspired shots, from scene and character establishers, to transitions and graphic flairs.

Production company MARV tasked Coffee & TV to design and execute these 8-Bit pixel scenes. The creative studio had many design challenges to solve, not least of which was ensuring their ‘pixel art’ creations preserved a Tetris blocky feel, while also having enough fidelity to exist on a 4K frame.

Here, Coffee & TV animation director Danny Boyle explains the workflow the studio came up with to implement these 8-Bit graphics, which partly included adopting some pixel art apps, and literally turning off a rasterize button inside After Effects.

b&a: How did Coffee & TV get involved in Tetris?

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Danny Boyle: We were brought in by Barrie Hemsley at MARV to create an array of titles and graphics to add to the retro feel of the film and to inject a sense of fun. It’s the dream brief, in many ways. It was low-key technical–8-Bit–but the look of what they wanted was, ‘Thirty to 40 year-old looking graphics, in a modern VFX pipeline for a feature film.’

Ultimately we made titles and graphics sequences, and that involved maps, scene establishers and character establishers, and transitions to help enhance certain plot points in the movie.

b&a: Because it was that 8-Bit look, what sort of research did you and your team do to get into that look and feel?

Danny Boyle: VFX supervisors Jody Johnson and Marty Waters had already done some in-house research, early tests and look exploration, which we absorbed and expanded upon. We created a detailed digital portfolio and populated it with our categorised research, which consisted of visuals and animation tests. Tetris when it first started, was more like an ASCII code thing, with just square brackets. We then had decades worth of graphic material for this one simple game to review. You’ve got that visual stuff, colors, design and animation, but also because it’s a game, you’ve got all the media that it was played on, all the technology it was played on, which also defines the look of it, from those really early PCs to Game Boys, arcades and full 4K screens now.

There’s also a massive pixel art scene that we looked to. That’s a whole subgenre of art that’s still going. There’s actually pixel art specific tools–design tools–which we used to find our way. Dithering was a whole bit of research that we did. Dithering is using a dot pattern to create texture, so you can use two colors to create gradients, for instance, and it gives you a lot more fidelity, while using a stripped down palette.

We settled on a fake pixel ratio which matched the fidelity of those late ’80s, early ’90s computers. But it also had to match the ratio of a wide screen cinematic film. It was roughly the right amount of pixels that would allow us to have enough fidelity for full screen external scene establishers. We could have buildings and backgrounds and mountains and clouds and everything, but it would also work for texts or characters.

b&a: How did you deal with the pixel size challenge, given this was appearing on full-scale scenes in the cinema and in basically a 4K film frame?

Danny Boyle: Yes, well, we have all this technology–it makes things look beautiful and at a billion pixels wide–but we really wanted something that wasn’t that; we wanted the opposite of that but still had that fidelity. You want the crispness of a 4K render, but each artwork pixel is actually maybe 10 pixels. And you need it to be a perfect square because if it’s all fuzzy, or spherical, or you have any aliasing on it, then it’s broken. The illusion’s broken.

Tetris is of course made of blocks, and I wanted to retain that. So pixels are pixels, but they’re also blocks and that was an interesting kind of duality to the design. Whether it’s intentional or not, I’ll take it. We actually leaned into that, because we could have gone really CRT monitory and put loads of effects on it to craft a phosphorous bulb look to it, but mostly we put a little bit of primer on there just to make it feel a little bit retro.

The process of figuring out how the hell we’d do it was, we started off with a 4K piece of art and then tried to make it 8-bit. But that doesn’t give you enough control because the computer is interpreting where that pixel should be. We want 100% control over that. So, we basically made it a 10th of the size. The actual canvas that me and all our artists were working on was 410 pixels wide for a modern VFX pipeline.

The key to figuring out that eureka moment was a little tick box, a little checkbox in After Effects, which I’ve never touched in 15 years of my career because you never would, which unrasterizes everything. So, we had a comp in After Effects. We’d bring our artwork in, and we’d have a tiny little 400 pixel wide comp, which we’d scale up to have it nice and big on our monitors. But we’d then uncheck that box and bring it into a 4K comp, and it would just perfectly blow the whole thing up because you’re basically turning the engine off that usually says, ‘We’re going to make it all beautiful and smooth.’

b&a: You mentioned After Effects being obviously a key part of your arsenal, but what else was involved in your workflow?

Danny Boyle: After Effects was our main workhorse, but we used Nuke as a key piece of compositing software too, and it really helped to fit this unconventional way of working into a modern VFX pipeline. We also did some early tests with Cinema 4D, which ultimately led to how we approached the title sequence. Generally the approach involved rendering elements at scale, or we’d work on these tiny canvases, and then blow it up in After Effects.

Then we used a bunch of tools that the pixel art community uses. One of those was Aseprite, which is for building sprites or little character animations that would, say, go into an old Mario game. Even the interface is so beautifully retro, it’s great. It immediately puts you in the mindset. It’s very basic and I think deliberately so.

There’s also an app I used for the iPad called Pixaki. It allowed me to step away from my desk and work wherever I wanted to draw. I absolutely loved it. You save that out and bring it into the compositing software and away you go! Also, the render time was so great! Just working with something that is that small, you could just work really fast.

Tetris, now available to watch on Apple TV+, was produced by MARV and AI Film.

Images copyright 2023 Marv and Apple TV+.

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