Nero could be one this year's breakthrough acts. The London duo of Dan Stephens and Joe Ray produced some outstanding dubstep remixes for acts such as The Streets last year, and their single Me And You has proved a chart hit. It brings an 80's synth-rock spin to dubstep in a similar vein to what Pendulum did to drum n' bass to create their sound, also bringing to mind French dance acts like Daft Punk and Justice.
To promote Me And You, label MTA Records -- which is owned by another producer of radio-friendly drum n bass Chase N Status -- commissioned a video that also taps into the recently popular Tron: Legacy movie (which featured a soundtrack by Daft Punk), but with a late 80s/early 90s spin based around the 16-bit graphics of arcade games such as Double Dragon. The promo features a teen in an arcade who follows some mysterious figures -- Dan, Joe and singer Alana Watson -- to discover a hidden arcade game featuring the act's duo as the protagonists in a sideway-scrolling beat-em-up.
The video was created using Photoshop, Premiere and After Effects by James May (aka Smudgethis), with Flash used to create the game engine. We sat down with James to find out more.
DA: What's your background?
JM: "I graduated from the University of Central Arts in Epsom, Surrey in 2007 with a degree in graphic design. My first job was at a digital advertising company in central London, but I quickly got bored of creating 30k banners and animated gifs -- so I moved to a motion graphics studio specialising in DVD and Blu-Ray menu design. [Here] I really began to get to grips with After Effects and Cinema 4D.
"A year and a half later I took the plunge into freelance and have been very fortunate to work with some great people on some great projects."
DA: How did you come to work on the project?
JM: "I worked on the music video for Innocence, the single released by Nero before Me And You. This was just a low-budget viral, which came to me through a friend of Joe and Dan. It was more of an editing job than a creative piece of motion graphics -- but it seemed to do fairly well on the YouTube rankings and the guys from the label wanted me involved in the next video."
DA: What was the brief?
JM: "I was sent a written storyboard describing the general concept of a guy guiding the Nero DJs through a series of 16-bit arcade games. My brief was to create the graphics and CG elements and composite them into the footage supplied by the production company."
DA: How did you turn the Nero duo into 16-bit characters?
JM: "I started off with some pencil sketches of Joe and Dan (below, top left) just to get a rough idea of how they might appear in a video game format. These were then scanned in, brought into Photoshop and illustrated pixel by pixel.
"The first 'draft' was a fairly embarrassing four-frame walking animation (below, top right) that in retrospect should never have seen the light of day -- and was quickly shelved for a more detailed interpretation of the two DJs (below, middle)."
DA: Take us through how the Flash game was created.
JM: "The Flash game was created by a developer who I was working very closely with to ensure everything moved and reacted as closely as possible to the arcade games we were trying to emulate. I supplied PSDs of the individual character frames and background scenes, as well as small test animations as a guide.
"The Flash game itself had no real damage engine or timer, and all of the in-game overlays -- including the damage bar, timer, and character portrait -- were added afterwards in After Effects."
DA: How did you finish the game in AE?
JM: "The Flash game was captured using screen recording software, edited in Premiere and then brought into After Effects for post-production bits and pieces. It was a fairly obvious software choice as I had Photoshop elements (such as energy bars and timers) to animate, as well as wanting to grade the footage.
"Once the edit of the video game footage had been approved, I began to add these extra elements and animate them to coincide with what was happening within the game."
DA: How was the game composited into the footage?
JM: There are a number of shots within the music video where the computer game footage is shown on the customised Nero arcade machine. Fortunately the camera movements on these sections were fairly basic and so the camera tracking could be done in After Effects as opposed to bringing 3D software into the equation.
"Some basic rotoscoping was required for some of the shots, but for the majority it was simply a case of using masked solids and blending modes to create shadows and reflections to add realism to the scene."
DA: What was the biggest creative challenge and how did you overcome this?
JM: "The biggest creative challenge was the 16-bit character design; getting them to look just right. I went through a number of iterations with varying skin tone, body size, hair styles and outfits. The tweaks to which were minor but anyone who has ever worked with pixel art before will know just how long you can spend playing around with just a handful of pixels to get the shading perfect.
"I was very fortunate to find a number of websites with sprite sheets from existing 80s arcade games and I was able to use elements from these as a basis for the shading and structure of the characters individual frames of animation. If it hadn't been for those, I think I would still be locked away in my studio now, eyes bleeding pixels, terrified at the thought of one of the band getting a haircut or putting on weight and not looking the same."