When it comes time to animate your character there’s likely a sort of standard animation set you think about. Those animations that are normally required for the gameplay to function properly. Let’s look at a platformer, for example. For pretty much any character, be they player or enemy, you’ll need an idle, a horizontal movement, a vertical movement, and some sort of action. For a humanoid player character these most commonly come in the forms of standing, walking/running, jumping/falling, and likely an attack. And there may be a few others you think of, such as crouching and crawling and climbing and pushing. The original Mega Man’s a good example of this simple setup:
One invaluable program in my repertoire is a strange little painting tool from the land of holographic pop idols and gameshows that hit guys in the balls: Japan. Unlike American comics, which take their time inking with heavy, shapely lines and large pools of black and color panels to make pictures readable, Japanese manga is generally done in black&white and is hundreds of panels long, and since no color will be applied requires a very fine attention to creating thin, perfectly readable line art quickly. Drawing these lines is an incredibly difficult and arduous process – one that aspiring artists go to school to master and then do for years tracing over a manga artist’s sketches before ever dreaming of drawing something of their own. Sound like fun? Nope. In comes Easy Paint Tool SAI, an awesome line art tool from tiny developer Systemax, who apparently still exist, but you could be fooled by their website. It may not compare to the professional hand-drawn techniques used by manga artists and their tireless teams of assistants, but thanks to a few ingenious tools, it can provide editable, pixel perfect line art quite quickly and much more easily than other vector-based art programs.
Okay! So last time we talked about how to select which features in a subject need to be emphasized in order for it to read well in the miniature, and saw that these attributes had to be overemphasized in order to make this happen. Now let’s get into the dirty of it, and make the damn things!
Beginning the Sprite: Painting
One of the common methods for beginning spriters is to start with an outline and then go from there, much as we do with a basic drawing. This is because these days a lot more of us grow up doodling with pencil and paper in classrooms and in sketchbooks much more than we paint.
For larger sprites, this is a perfectly fine method. You can see this quick pixeled outline of the larger Keep is reading fine, and we could go on from here filling in, shading, highlighting, and anti-aliasing. But when it comes to the smaller, actual sprite on the right, it’s clear that we’re going to have a massively tough time doing this. The hair and face are still mostly present, but pretty much everything else is just a mess, and we can’t tell what’s outlining what, or where color should go, or… well really anything. So it’s unlikely you’d want to even attempt to start from here when working in the miniature.
Welcome back! Last time we looked at the problems in trying to draw small sprites. So this time let’s dive right in and start looking at how to solve ‘em!
The first important step, I found, in doing especially tiny sprites, and what I’d been unsuccessful in doing the first time around, is deciding what it is that really needs to be emphasized in the art. When you have a lot of pixels to work with, it’s easy to add as much detail as you want. But when you have a severely limited space, you must decide which details you can live without, and which you need to exaggerate in order to keep the overall look, and more importantly, the overall feel of the sprite.
A tutorial from A Jolly Corpse’s website last year finally gets a proper home:
The most challenging part of creating small sprites for retro games, and what makes it an extremely difficult skill to master (I’m still working on it constantly…), is that you have a very limited area in which to work, and are forced to convey details within a tiiiiny space. It necessitates looking at things in a whole new way, and deciding what it is really that you need to communicate in a particular work. It requires extreme patience, and a sharp eye for “pixel pushing”. Pain in the ass? Well.. sure. But small sprites are still used just about everywhere, so it’s an excellent thing to practice, and one that’ll help in all your art, big and small.