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Pixel Art's Fight for Legitimacy
by Survey of Interactive Media

A discussion of pixel art's graphical barrage on contemporary media.

Simon Cottee, in his documentary Pixel, discusses the pixel art movement with visual eloquence and style.  On a final, poetic note, he says that through pixels, “we can nostalgically remember our digital heritage and see that they are quite literally part of a much bigger picture.”  While no doubt true, I feel this sentiment undercuts an earlier argument that pixel art can be canonized with some of the previous abstract art movements.  That concluding point of view suggests that pixels are not the end product, but rather a starting off point.  I think Cottee would also agree that within the pixel art movement, pixels are not just the smallest point of a larger picture.  They are the picture.  I have found a series of clips that seem to suggest that pixels have to fight, quite violently, in order to be recognized as a serious visual style. 

In season six of Futurama, the episode “Anthology of Interest II” is a mishmash of conventional Futurama cartoon graphics and iconic, pixilated video game graphics.  Within the episode, the “Nintendians,” led by Donkey Kong, attack earth for their quarters.  The interesting part of this episode occurs when Fry is destroying the spaceships in Space Invaders fashion.  As Fry is winning, a blast from the Space Invaders hits his tank and strikes “Colin Pacman.”  The blast is very pixilated and when it hits Pacman, his body is destroyed in a pixilated manner.  Pixel fragments burst from his body, and his damaged half becomes pixilated.  This graphic change, brought on by aggressive “8bit” behavior, is subtle in Futurama, but is followed to its logical extremes in the subsequent clips. 

While in Futurama the pixilated, video game monsters are the aggressors, in the short film 8bits it is the 3d graphics that attempt to wipe out the 2d pixels.  Tinio, the antagonist, is a bulbous 3d character bent on destroying all 2d graphics forever.  John, the man in his underwear, attempts to save the last line of 2d code (if I may call her a line of 2d code).  In order for John to win this battle, the 2d code has to “downgrade” the graphics into two dimensions.  Through this, John uses various, nostalgic video game methods to dispose of his enemies.  Even after being bested, Tinio says that he’ll be back.  “You can’t fight against evolution anyway.”  That is exactly what the pixels are doing.  Evolution has changed the art style in videogames by adding more pixels, more dimensions and more capabilities.  The old “8bit” pixels have to fight to stay alive in this three dimensional landscape.  One was to do this is to pixilate everything around them. 

This is perhaps best visualized in the final clip, Pixel.  In this short film, a wave of pixels burst from a TV and pixilate New York.  The first attack is by Space Invaders.  This sequence is similar to the scene in Futurama.  The Space Invaders blasts turn taxi cabs into pixilated blocks just as they turn Pacman into pixels in the cartoon.  It is interesting to see the similar choices in video game representation as well.  Both clips feature a heavy dosage of Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, and Pacman, the heavy weights of the “8bit” era.  These pixels don’t stop with New York though.  The film takes the concept to its bitter end.  The entire world is remolded, culminating in one gigantic pixel. 

I agree with Cottee when he says that, “nostalgia seems to be the initial driving force for many of these [pixel] artists.”  What drew me to these clips however, were not just their retro graphics, but the almost militant representation of the graphics.  These clips show a war being fought that exceeds any sort of sense of nostalgia.  Whether it be cartoon, CGI, or film, “8bit” graphics are fighting for survival.  Even more interesting is the method in which they attack.  Each clip overwhelms the visual style and transforms it into a pixilated universe.  Is it possible to digitally progress without destroying pixel art?  Will pixel art ever be integrated seamlessly into new digital realms?  I think so.  But for right now, pixel art is still trying to establish its turf. 

-Spencer Boyle

Pixel - A Pixel Art Documentary by Simon Cottee (2010) A documentary on pixel art
Futurama - Raiders of the Last Arcade by Matt Groening, David X. Cohen (2002) Fry must save the world from video game characters.
8bits by Valere Amirault, Jean Delaunay, Sarah Laufer, Benjamin Mattern (2010) 3d graphics attempt to eradicate 2d graphics
Pixel by Patrick Jean (2010) Pixels attack New York City