The Evolution of 8-Bit Art | Off Book | PBS Digital Studios


When we talk about 8-bit today we are probably
thinking about a specific kind of style. 8-bit was born from video games that came out in the late seventies or early eighties up to the mid- nineties. The basis of true 8-bit is the
same process that’s used to create music for video games. I think 8-bit and music makes for super fun
building blocks of whatever you want to express. The cool thing about 8-bit is that it exists in that world and bringing it back gives a whole new
perspective on it. From nineteen seventy seven to the launch of SNES in nineteen
ninety-one, 8-bit is a throwback to a time when computers and video games had a distinct style. You’re probably thinking of early nintendo culture but there was another 8-bit which was tied to the early home
computers which was more of a DIY culture. And so the idea of 8-bit culture today
really is a combination of the graphical and visual style from the
console games with this idea of the DIY culture as it came from the 8-bit home computer games. I think 8-bit really has three functions. One is that it’s easy to make so if you
want to do a pixelated character, like almost everybody can do a character that’s
passable as 8-bit graphics. The second thing is that if you do 8-bit
you’re sort of belonging to a specific group, that you’re rejecting something like big budget productions. The third thing then, it also makes
the creative process more like a game because you are creating these kind of artificial
constraints in what you’re doing as a creative person. Like the pixels being
very large, mutations in terms of memory from a programming perspective,
limitations in terms of sound. And so 8-bit is just the alternative option, right. That there always is a more kind of low key or a lo-fi way of creating the same thing. The interest in 8-bit now is not only in the
technical limitations but also there’s a nostalgic factor. A lot of people grew up with it and it kind of reminds them of the time when they would come home from school and start playing video games. For someone in my shoes it’s definitely a
combination of both nostalgia but it’s also about finding an artistic
value in it that isn’t nostalgic. The Doctor Horrible project came about making the soundtrack in an 8-bit format and they got a good deal of attention and some of the cast members actually were talking about it on Twitter so I said okay maybe I’m onto something. So I decided just to create an animation to go along with it. A lot of people talked about it and it definitely helped the exposure. College Humor contacted me about doing Jersey Shore. Other ones I’ve done for College Humor were Man vs Wild, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Battle Star Galactica, Doctor Who, Saved by the Bell, and a Mad Men one. Theres just such a broad age range of people that both watch these shows and have any kind of an interest in old video games. It is becoming it’s own respected art form and
some people use it just for fun, other people use it to create works of art. I love being able to communicate in a really simple way. And to me, pixel art is like the simplest way to communicate. You can throw up four colors and it can mean
something. It is able to whittle down complexity to its simplest form and I lay
every dot perfectly. The visuals and the music are always connected
because we’re using the same tools. Usually it’s just done on the console like
a game would. I was really excited about making music
with gear that sounded like my childhood. It’s just frequencies moving at different rates. So there’s a triangle which is nice
and bass-y. It just moves in a way that rumbles a speaker. There’s a square
wave which is kind of harsh but it has a wider range than the triangle. And the pulse wave is the tweeter. And
then there’s noise which is awesome because you can make hi-hats and cymbals and explosions with that sort of stuff. It’s kind of debatable like if it should stay true to
itself and become its own style or, like me, I think that in
order for me to grow as a musician it needs to go beyond just sounding like video game music. And i think, you know, like these things
are just going to become instruments just like Casio keyboards are part of music. I think a Gameboy will just be another
tool that people can use. Experimentation will just keep going and just become part
of music in general. Most of my nostalgia for 8-bit music is not the 8-bit music of the eighties. Any nostalgia that I have for 8-bit music, is the 8-bit music I was making in high school with my friends. I didn’t really grow up with these sounds but I know where they’re from. When we make music, we aren’t trying to make technical demos of like what the Nintendo can do so much. I began
approaching this in the middle ground of programming and music. It’s funny to like take these cutesy, rough
sounds and put them like in a venue where people are like crowd surfing. It’s definitely an instrument. There are people that use like the ZX Spectrum, Amiga, NES, Gameboy, Atari ST, and I think every one of those except for the Gameboy predates my life. I think I prefer composing on a Gameboy or on a computer and I prefer performing with a guitar. Now the only time I play guitar is on stage. Today, why would a child pick up a guitar and not a computer
because on a computer you can have a guitar and any other sound that you can possibly imagine. That said, there’s a lot that like you miss with current technologies. Even like the
difference between like using a laptop versus a drum machine. They all present different things. I think what’s important is to get that they’re on the same playing field. We’re all just trying to like communicate. Music is a language, programming is language. It’s forcing a lot of the artists to almost become better and stronger because I’m going to really push what I’m doing to the next level. I think there’s something really attractive
about taking a digital image and making it analog. I had all these great
video game ideas that i thought we’re just funny but also had a real social
commentary going on. One of the first ones that I got really serious was JFK: the game. Once I put it through this 8-bit filter,
there’s a whole new medium that gives it a whole new meaning. When I started getting these ideas it kind of started snowballing into all these other things. And 9/11 is one of the most
important things that have happened and changed our culture so i wanted to put
that through the filter just to see what happened. The problem
is that people associate video games with something cute and
almost light-hearted and people automatically just assume that you’re making fun of something and
that’s not necessarily the case. That juxtaposition is exactly what gave the
piece its strength and its power. I saw the opportunity once I was making the video games to
really push forward in a new genre and I discovered that I have a real love for minimalism. I love stripping everything down and
coming to the basis of the art and having just color fields, straight lines,
hard edges, and making things that are very pleasing to the eyes. You have people that might not be into art who say
“oh I like that ’cause it reminds me of the video games I used to play.” There’s definitely a nostalgia to it. We live in a digital world now and this is
kind of a byproduct of that. I think 8-bit will probably always be
around as a kind of option. It’s a very unique style born from limitation and it’s stood
the test of time. Maybe in like twenty five years, the Atari twenty six
hundred and all that will be so far away from our memory that it’ll sound like the future. And it definitely makes you approach writing music very differently. There’s a lot of like backwards thinking that’s really refreshing. I think 8-bit is constantly growing and just like videogames it’ll get better and better.

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