Coffee & TV has created the motion design for the new Tetris film, using a “blocky”, pixel art style and retro gaming cues to help support the film’s aesthetic and narrative.
Based on the story of American video game salesman Henk Rogers and his discovery of the game in 1988, Tetris is directed by Jon S. Baird and created by Marv for Apple TV+.
Having previously worked with Marv, Coffee & TV was invited onto the project at the post-production phase to create graphics and motion for the film.
“They commissioned a whole bunch of different functional graphic and animation assets from us”, says Coffee & TV senior motion designer Danny Boyle. “They wanted to have these little vignettes, whether just titles or scene establishers or maps”, which would support the storytelling and help build the “period” 1980s feel of the film, he explains.
Given the nostalgia around Tetris and its appeal to “nerdy design people”, like themselves, Boyle says that “everyone got really excited”, about the project. But despite loving the aesthetic and having nostalgia “for all those 90s games”, Boyle says he had not worked in an 8-Bit style before.
Following an initial period of testing design ideas, the team soon found a challenge in achieving the pixelated lo-fi aesthetic within the technology of 4K cinema.
He says that the team started by “making the graphics at 4K and then using an effect to pixelize it”. However, they soon decided the result was not good enough, as “you’re relying on the computer to choose where those pixels are”, he says.
Needing control of “every single pixel”, Coffee & TV decided to make the designs at scale instead. Following some R&D “to figure out that scale”, Boyle says, the studio found it worked at around 1:10, making the artwork 400 pixels wide.
The team then created the artwork on “tiny canvases” using Adobe Photoshop as well as software such as Aseprite, which “is built for making retro, 8-bit pixel art computer games” and has an “old school interface”, and an app called Pixaki, Boyle says.
“It was a lovely project to work on, in terms of not being stuck in front of these massive powerful machines and huge screens – it was quite liberating in a way”, he adds.
A further problem was found in retaining the aesthetic when transferring the artwork into Adobe After Effects, for which the team found a “really simple solution”.
“It’s just turning a little checkbox off in After Effects”, Boyle says. “It sounds ridiculous, but essentially, you’re fighting against all this technology, which is trying to make everything beautiful. It’s trying to make lines really smooth and gradients beautiful and stuff – and we wanted the complete opposite”.
The team also used a similar method for the hand animations but needed to ensure the motion felt pixelated too. “You want it to move in that blocky way, so even though it’s blown up to 4K, you don’t want it to slide at 4000 pixels, you want it to slide so each pixel moves at 10 pixels at a time”, he says.
In terms of colouring, “ we didn’t want to restrict ourselves to a really authentic colour palette”, he explains. “Sometimes we needed a little more flexibility to set the scene, for instance anything that was in Russia was a little bit red, London was Blue and Tokyo was green”, he adds.
To inform the graphics, Boyle notes that there was a “whole swathe of visual references”, from Tetris’ 35-year existence.
Some references were made to the original game, “which was basically just brackets – stuff you would find on a keyboard”, he says.
Reflecting on the project, Boyle says that working in a pixelated style “really requires you to make decisions. How do you tell a story? How do you draw a character? How do you draw a background with such little information?”.
“You can get carried away with all the plugins, amazing tools and special effect simulations”, he says, “but it was really pleasurable to work against those boundaries”.
Images and video copyright of Marv and Apple TV+