How 'Pixels' Brought 2D Video Games to a 3D Motion Picture

PixelsQbert_Kitchen - H 2015
Courtesy of Sony Pictures

PixelsQbert_Kitchen - H 2015

In Sony’s Pixels, directed by Chris Columbus and opening this weekend, aliens attack the Earth with '80s video games as models for their assaults — meaning the human saviors must fight off the likes of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Centipede and Space Invaders.

Bringing classic video game characters to a 3D live-action motion picture proved challenging — as well as fun — for the VFX team. Led by overall VFX supervisor Matthew Butler, the work was shared primarily by Digital Domain and Sony Picture Imageworks, and parts were also tackled at an additional nine facilities. Here, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Imageworks’ VFX supervisor Dan Kramer.

Did you play these video games in the ‘80s?

Kramer: I did; I’m the perfect age for this. When I was a kid I spent many hours in the arcade playing most of the games that were featured in the movie. I had a lot of fond memories of those characters, like lots of people do. I was exciting when we got the project. ... A lot of that had to do with the Pixels short by Patrick Jean, which inspired the movie. I though it was charming and paid homage to the video games in a really clever way.

What did it take to bring 2D video game characters into a 3D live action world?

Kramer: 2D video games are sprite sheets, which are little images that you flip between to make it look like you’re animating, and these are put on a CRT screen. So we tried to find out what the analogous of that would be in 3D. A pixel is a dot of light on a screen, and the equivalent in 3D is called a voxel (volume pixel). We use them a lot in CG … but we've never used them to render something directly to represent a character — at least not that I’m aware of. We ended up modeling simple characters, and we put them through an effects pipeline to "voxelate" them. Basically there was a 3D grid in space and wherever that character moved, we’d, like, up those voxels. So as the characters moves around, the voxels turned on and off.

There’s a sequence during which Frogger jumps between live action cars. How did that come together?

Kramer: We had to coordinate with the stunt coordinator, drivers. They set up a scene so the cars were all moving at the same speed and there was a nice gap between the cars that Frogger could jump in between. We had to choreograph this scene and imagine how Frogger would make his way across the street. We did similar things with Tetris; we built a 3D building and had giant Tetris blocks coming down and destroying sections of it. Anything that would tell the story of the video game was fun to do. That’s something that [Jean’s] short did really well.

Among the characters that Imageworks handled were Frogger, Qbert and the Space Invaders. Which was the most challenging?

Kramer: Qbert. He’s the only character that needed to emote significantly. Most of the characters are in attack mode all the time without a range of emotion. Qbert becomes a sidekick to our [lead] characters. When we first started making him, Chris (Columbus) said ‘he doesn’t look soft or inviting. It looks like it hurts to be Qbert.’ I think he was talking about all the angular edges. We spent a lot of time working on him, and part of that was figuring out the lighting to take the edge off and make him feel softer.

We also found [original sprit sheets and artwork] of Qbert on the Internet. That gave us a lot of extra detail to draw from on how build his eyes — and how big they were — and  how to build his form. Chris really just wanted him to be cute. [Original] artwork was available for almost all the characters that we did.

Below is a series of photos show how the above image of Qbert came together. This included the live action shot of the kitchen, the character's reflected light, the smooth CG model of Qbert, and the steps toward "voxilating" the character.