Hi player two!
This six second intro was made from scratch using nothing but Photoshop, Premiere Pro, and my laptop. You can check it out with sound here (SFX: stock owl and waterfall, everything else custom made by me using bfxr!). This how-to will assume at least a very basic knowledge of the software, but feel free to comment any questions below either way.
So, let’s have a look at how this started when it was just a little brain nugget:
Now, since I’m fairly certain anyone with Photoshop can turn what’s in their head into something that looks a bit like this, I hope I’ve instilled you with confidence for the rest of this tutorial.
The first step of anything is to draft it. In this case I was very much inspired by retro videogame startup screens, so I knew the aspect ratio I was looking for, and modelled this using a throwaway layer of a screenshot from Mario. I wanted 8-bit sounds, pixel art, and the fading arcade-style “push to start”. However, as the target was YouTube, I made sure to work in a ratio supported by the platform: in this case, 1280×720 pixels (standard HD). If you’re making something similar, I recommend you start with a blank document of this size (or full HD at 1980×1020, or higher if you prefer. As pixel art scales up and down quite well, this isn’t as crucial as live-action aspect ratios).
Some among you may notice that the structure of the animation was very much inspired by a certain Nintendo game…
As you can see from my video, some of the low-resolution artefacts shown at the top (colour fringing and other chromatic aberration) occurred when compressing the file into a gif, so I’m afraid I can’t yet do a tutorial on how to create those errors organically (apart from turning your finished product into a gif!).
You might notice that the finished product looks remarkably similar to the draft – that’s because I created new layers on top of the base draft until the original image was totally hidden by the finished product. I filled it in, in detail, bit-by-bit.
As you can see, I also drafted some details before I got into creating them as pixel art.
So, how did I do the pixel art, the most time-consuming and fun part of it all? First off, you need to optimise Photoshop for pixel art. Set your brush to pencil and one pixel (it may also be wise to do the same for your eraser), and I recommend you go to the >View menu and >Show the pixel grid too.
Most importantly, though, you need to set your image resampling under Image>Image size to “nearest neighbour (hard edges)”, or learn the hard way that your crisp and beautiful pixel art will end up all blurry when you blow it up and Photoshop tries to smooth it out.
Now, you’re ready to create pixel art!
But if you do it by placing individual pixels on a 1280×720 pixel canvas, you’ll be there for (even more) hours. The solution is to work in a smaller canvas of the same ratio and scaling it up to size for that great, nostalgic, blocky look. I mainly worked on the mountain texture in 64×36 and scaled it up to 320×180 to duplicate into my draft document (this is where “nearest neighbour” comes in handy).
But how does one pixel? The top tips I’ve gleaned from some of the tutorials I’ve read (1, 2) have been to start with a lighter base than you think you need – my mountains, although quite dark overall, are actually largely comprised of quite a light purple. The darker shading gives you all the darkness you need, while the lighter purple maintains the contrast – this is vital to good-looking pixel art.
And for any colour changes, you’ll probably want to utilise “dithering” instead of selecting an intermediate shade in your colour picker.
And from here on out, you just need to be patient in drawing and scaling your pixel art the way you envision it. You’re obviously free to take inspiration from your favourite games or artists, but I wanted to create all of my textures from scratch as far as possible.
When you’ve placed all your assets, you just need to tweak it to your tastes. I used regular-sized brushes for some shading, and because the overall colour temperature was a bit too cold and I wanted it to look more like a summer evening (my favourite season!), I tweaked the curves too. The waterfall was simply a translucent blue layer over a scaled-down rock texture, and I imported the sprite I originally drew for the game I created for this video way back when, which I’ve grown quite attached to.
Now I had the finished screen, I was ready to animate it.
Since I knew I wanted a pan-down effect, the easiest solution was to extend my canvas upwards to give the ‘camera’ a starting point for the animation using Image>Canvas size. I then coloured this area and hand-placed the stars and moon.
I then created the separate layers for the waterfall animation – in the finished product, you can clearly see that I just moved these textures around and saved each frame separately to import into Premiere. As I’d decided to animate the text as a title in Premiere, it wasn’t included in the images I saved to import into the video.
Now that I’d done all the hard work, I essentially just needed to position the layers in the right place at the right time to create the animation effect. First of all, I needed to position the extended canvas with the moon so that it was visible at the start using the Y position under Effect Controls>fX>Transformation>Position. Enable keyframes by clicking the stopwatch and create one keyframe at the start. Then play or scrub through your “footage” until you reach a point in time where you want the final product to be fully visible, create a new keyframe here, and change the Y position until you can see everything you want to see.
Voila! You now have a smooth pan down from the top to your focal points. This can also work for panning sideways, of course, or zooming in or out – just extend your photoshop canvas in the right direction and play with the X axis position or the scale respectively!
I created the waterfall animation manually (without using keyframes) just by timing the different frames to appear and disappear at different times in a sequence, like so.
Finally, I animated the text by creating a new title and using keyframes again, this time with the opacity, to create a fade-in, fade-out effect as seen in so many arcades!
Now, as many creators already know, sound is as important as the visual, but that’s another post entirely. It was also a lot easier, and this tutorial is about pixel art and animation, not waterfall sound effects.
Hopefully all this looked a lot more impressive than it actually was, and hopefully it now looks a lot easier than it initially seemed! Please do feel free to get in touch below if you have any questions, or come and chat to me on YouTube where I’m at my most active (you can see the intro in action here).
Most importantly, if any of this has inspired or helped you in any way, please let me know – I’d love to see what you’ve made, and I hope you’ll invite me to join your game as your player two!