When I was working at Abbey Road Studios, I was incredibly lucky enough to do a little bit of work on Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. To celebrate I decided to make a picture in my favourite art style: isometric pixel art.
My own pixel art style of is a bit different to other people’s. Many “hardcore” pixel artists work with very limited palettes (often just 8, 16 or 32 colours in total), evoking an amazing 16bit console late 80’s/early 90’s video game feel. Myself, I’m not that fussed so I use whatever colours I like, although most of the colours are sourced directly from the film stills.
Once I had finished the picture, I got several requests asking how I made it, so I’ve bashed together this page showing how the elements in the picture were composed together. I find the actual construction and composition of complex things quite fascinating, so I hope you will too.
I had to pick a scene from the Lord of the Ring films. Isometric pixel pictures often show a large area containing many small but detailed individual characters. However during the most of the trilogy only a few characters are ever on screen at once. The only time there are lots of people is during an battle. One of the most epic battles is the pivotal moment in The Two Towers film when thousands of Uruk-Hai attack Helm’s Deep. This seemed like a perfect choice.
I started by watching the film looking for some decent still frames that would help me understand the scene.
After watching it, I was able to work out the general geography and layout of all the various elements. I then had to consider the picture composition; the isometric view means we are going to have the view point either from behind the defenders in the fortress looking at the Uruk-Hai army (figure 1) or looking toward the fortress from the view point of the Uruk-Hai (figure 2).
At this point, it’s down to the artist’s personal preference as to which would make for the most interesting picture.
The first idea’s major element is the immense army standing in front of the fortress and its few defenders, which is pretty interesting and bleak picture. However, the majority of the Uruk-Hai army are just queuing to get to the front line to attack, so there won’t be much going on in the picture. The Uruk-Hai that do make it to the front line will likely be obscured by the wall. And finally, all of our heroes, Aragon, Legolas, Gimli, etc, have their backs to us.
The second picture has less of the army, but all of the film’s heroes (Aragon, Gimli and Legolas) are visible. Also the wall’s weakpoint, the drainage grate is visible, which allows us to set the time frame for the scene to moments before the wall is destroyed.
I decided to go with the second layout as it meant I could drawing the heroes from the front. Next, the fun bit – the drawing.
I start off with a blank document and immediately colour it blue, which will form the main background, and help set the tone for the other colours in the picture. I then draw a rough humanoid shape which will be my template for every other character and everything else.
And then place him into my scene.
This is an isometric drawing, so let’s get some isometric lines in there. These are lines which are two pixels horizontally for every 1 pixel vertically. First scene element we’ll need is the most critical piece; the wall.
In order to draw the wall, we need to have a look at the film stills, and see how the wall is built. We also need to work out where the light is coming from. Turns out it’s mostly moonlight, with a few torches casting a bit of yellow, but generally it’s all blue. Let’s draw the wall with the ramparts in. The tops of the wall are lighter than the sides.
Now we have a wall, let’s make a ladder to climb it. This is just a couple of isometric lines going two pixels vertically for every one horizontally.
How’s anyone supposed to climb that? It needs rungs fool!
The ladders the Uruk-Hai in the film use seem more like cobbled together pieces of wood and nails than anything elegant, so ours don’t need to look that nice either. The main problem with the ladder is that it doesn’t look like it is touching the wall. What we need is the moonlight’s shadow.
With that simple change it now looks connected. The shadow is simply a black pixel drawing of a simple ladder set at 36% opacity. Now, we need someone to climb the ladder. We need some Uruk-Hai.
Using our basic humanoid shape, I created an Uruk-Hai with a spear and a shadow.
He’s lonely. He needs some friends.
There we go, now we have some basic Uruk-Hai soldiers, including one with a flaming torch, another with Saruman’s White Hand flag, and even a lazy one lying on his back. Let’s put them in the scene and do a little bit of cloning work.
Now we have an Uruk-Hai army, but no defenders! In fact, there’s not even any room for the defenders! That wall needs a load of work! Let’s build them a place behind the ramparts for the defenders to stand.
The wall also needs the drainage hole where the bomb is placed, and a stream leading down the hill. The drainage hole is simply a layer above the wall.
The wall looks too clean. Was Helm’s Deep built yesterday? Let’s add some detail and age it.
Okay, the wall is done, and we have a drainage hole. However, it still looks like a peaceful protest. It needs some action!
The Uruk-Hai army is currently a bit dull. Let’s add some unique elements to it them more interesting. In the film the Uruk-Hai army has two notable members; a crazy Uruk-Hai with a burning torch who runs at the drainage hole bomb, and there’s a Uruk-Hai leader who stands on a rock giving, presumably, motivational advice to his fellow Uruk-Hai.
The Uruk-Hai have made a few more ladders for the assault, and unfortunately one Uruk-Hai has climbed the ladder and been shot by an arrow.
Let’s make and clone some more climbing Uruk-Hai.
And more attackers! Note that you only have to draw a few, and then clone them onto multiple ladders.
Let’s add a couple of Uruk-Hai who have made it to the top of their ladders and a couple of Elvish defenders.
Here we see that one Uruk-Hai has a hit an defender in the back! The scene is starting to get quite interesting.
That’s a pretty large army. The Uruk-Hai are going to win at this rate. We need a few more nameless defenders to help hold them off, whilst we wait for the heroes to arrive. We’ll also add the grill in the drainage hole to stop anyone trying to run through it.
The gunpowder bomb is now in the drainage gate. We even have a couple of plants next to it.
Time for our heroes to make an appearance. Gimli is in combat, counting his kills, whilst Aragon shouts to Legolas to kill the Orc carrying the burning torch.
Let’s add a bit more of a body count. The movie shows the wall being very busy as well as a few dead Uruk-Hai and Elves. Gimli has also managed to behead an Uruk-Hai.
I think we are nearly there with the scene. Let’s add some arrows from the main keep off screen from the Keep to finish it off. The composition is pretty much done. However, it’s not very easy to look at. At the moment the viewer’s eye jumps around the image trying to make out what’s going on. We need to highlight particular elements and tell the story to the viewer. We need to light the scene.
Good lighting will really help improve the dramatic impact of the scene. The area behind the wall isn’t very interesting, there’s no-one there nor is there any light sources, so let’s fade it out. It helps balance the colours in the picture and also makes the battle on the wall stand out.
Now let’s try and bring out the torches of the Uruk-Hai Army, including the main torch carrying Uruk-Hai.
In the movie, the crazy fuse-lighting Uruk-Hai’s torch is sparking like mad and leaving a trail. Let’s add that trail to help lead the viewers eye to the charging Uruk-Hai. We’ll also bring out the other torches further and actually make them cast some light on nearby Uruk-Hai. We also add in the missing shadows of the Uruk-Hai on the ladders onto the wall below. We are nearly there.
We’ll subtly harmonize the colours together, making the scene slightly more blue and slightly darker, further higlighting the characters on the wall.
Finally, we’ll add a bit of smoke and haze to give the scene a colder look.
And this is the completed picture. I’ve simply cropped it, and scaled it up. I’m a fan of the chunky look of Pixel Art so I don’t mind seeing the larger pixels.
If you made it this far, firstly, wow, and secondly, thank very much for reading!