Summer Movies: 'Pixels'
Issue: July 1, 2015

Summer Movies: 'Pixels'

In Columbia Pictures’ new comedy Pixels, directed by Chris Columbus (his first major feature in five years), aliens misinterpret US video feeds of 1980s classic arcade games as the Earth’s declaration of war. In response, they attack the planet, in the 3D forms of iconic game characters, such as Pac-Man, Centipede, Galaga, Q*bert, Donkey Kong, Tetris, and Frogger. The President (played by Kevin James) calls on his old school chums and game masters (led by Adam Sandler) to head off the attack. Game on!

Shot on location in Ontario, Canada, with Arri Alexas, Pixels required some heavy-duty CG work for characters, environments and support elements. Visual effects supervisor Matthew Butler looked to several VFX studios to help conceptualize and complete the work, including LA’s Imageworks ( and Digital Domain ( 

According to Imageworks VFX supervisor Daniel Kramer — who oversaw around 245 VFX shots, with somewhere between 20 to 30 CG characters (Q*bert, Frogger, Galaga spaceships, etc.) — Columbus was specific in his direction that he didn’t want the characters “to look plastic, like building blocks, or like Legos. That was a big mandate,” he says. “He wanted them to look like nothing we’ve ever seen before.” Based on a short called Pixels, Kramer says it included “very simple renderings of some cubed characters and that’s sort of where we started. For the big screen, we added a lot more detail, such as light emission into our characters to hopefully give them a bit more detail and scale. Our characters actually emit light. If you think of it like a CRT with video games, it’s a lit screen that [the characters] appear on. So we wanted to bring that emissive light quality to our characters in the real world.”

Imageworks partnered closely with other studios, including Digital Domain and VFX supervisor Marten Larsson, who completed CG work on the film’s Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Centipede characters and scenes. Mixing Houdini, Maya and Nuke, in all, Digital Domain completed more than 360 shots. Kramer agrees that the characters themselves probably presented the biggest VFX challenge.

“The characters were definitely the trickiest — they had to really look like the game because they’re the iconic characters, right?” says Larsson. “At the same time, you want to have a balance so that they look real enough that they are actually in the environment so they’re believable. Take Pac-Man, for example, from a design perspective. He’s a sphere. If you make him out of boxes you’re actually looking at a flat surface. So the first thing we ran into was he looked like a sphere but he was reflecting like a mirror — giant reflections running across him that didn’t really show the shape of the character. The other thing was, all of them were emitting light. So we had to figure out how to make them emit light without completely flattening them out?

“The other thing we ran into right off the bat, if you make Donkey Kong look like Donkey Kong, well, we’ve really only seen what he looks like from the front. So if you nailed him from the front and he looks perfect, he still might look a little weird if you look at him three quarters. That was a bit of back and forth design-wise.’”

Larsson, along with Kramer, was involved with the film in the early stages, working closely with Butler and helping out with tests “trying to figure out what these very low-pixel, flat, 2D characters would look like in 3D.”

Kramer says that an additional challenge was that many of their sequences took place during daylight hours. “We had a more difficult time conveying to the audience that these were light-emissive characters because the amount of light that they are actually emitting is overpowered by the sun, so we had to figure out how to play that light energy in ways that would show up and would read in a broad daylight. If we were to light up our characters where every single cube on the character is emitting light it just looks flat and shapeless and it’s very difficult to make that character feel like it’s living within the environment.

“We ended up lighting only selective cubes. A cube would be bright right next to a dark cube and it would emit light onto that cube and it would turn off and another cube would turn on by sort of dancing and moving the light around and lighting selective cubes and allowing most of the cubes to catch the natural light of the environment.” 

A large part of the work completed by Imageworks, using a combination of Arnold, Maya and Houdini, was in the “DC Chaos” scene, the final attack on Washington, DC, involving all of the characters together in one scene.

“We developed pipelines to destroy the city, which was fun because the destruction was different than you might see in other [disaster] films,” says Kramer. “Everything we would do would pixelate or, what we would say, would voxelate the environment. It’s a term I use a lot because these characters are built out of these cubes, or voxels, which are basically 3D pixels, and to attack something, they basically turn it into voxels. So, for example, when Galaga will drop a bomb on a building, some of it will be destroyed in a practical manner but great big sections of it will just kind of cubify into voxels and those cubes will then just fall apart and collapse. We have another shot where Tetris comes down and sort of locks into a building and once a line is complete, it destroys that section of the building and it collapses on itself. We had to develop a whole language for what that looked like.”