Let’s Interview: Spriter and Pixel Artist SmithyGCN!

Here at Gaming Reinvented, we’ve interviewed all kinds of people in the gaming world. There have been fan game and ROM hack developers, like Kaze Emanuar and Judge Spear. There have been music remixers and YouTube celebrities like the Lonely Goomba, Slopes Game Room and BlueJackG.

And well, on occasion we’ve even interviewed website developers and writers, like the nice folks at Source Gaming.

But one type of interviewee we haven’t talked to yet, is a graphics artist.

Until now. Because this time on the Gaming Reinvented interview block, we’ve got long time spriter SmithyGCN telling us about his experiences drawing video game sprites and pixel art for fan games and other works! You may know him from the Spriter’s Resource where he’s drawn stuff like this:

Smithy GCN Sprite Sample 1

Or MFGG where he’s posted similar work:

Smithy GCN Sprite Sample 2

Either way though, he’s here to tell us just what it’s like being a spriter and graphics artist, as well as give some tips for anyone interested in learning how to get good at pixel art.

So let the interview begin!

Starting with the usual personal background question. Who are you really? Who is the individual behind the SmithyGCN pseudonym?

My name is JohnMichael Earnest Woodard. I am an artist who is extremely interested in cartoon animation and video game pixel art. I am also a decent chef and a Christian. I’m the oldest of ten children in my family.

How did you first get interested in video games? Was Super Mario RPG one of your first gaming experiences, or did you come across it a fair bit after you got into the hobby?

I was introduced to them at a very young age. Indeed, I used to watch my Dad play things like Ironsword and Legacy of the Wizard. I would go on to beat at least Legacy of the Wizard many years later… still working on Ironsword, though. I didn’t play Super Mario RPG until nearly the end of my stay in Wisconsin which would have put me at about 12 years old.

What about your spriting background? What encouraged you to start creating video game sprites and pixel art anyway?

Believe it or not, the advertisements surrounding home computers. I saw how they displayed the Paint programs they had and it reminded me of video game art. When I finally got my own computer, I made up fake and poorly made screenshots of games surrounding my brother’s characters. My first pixel art was of a giant slug like creature from a Dungeons & Dragon’s bestiary. The screenshots have been lost to the annals of time.

Were there any games that inspired you there? Because while a few (like the ghost house graphics you posted on TSR about a decade ago) look Super Mario RPG inspired, others like your recent platformer sprites seem to take a lot of inspiration from 8 bit Castlevania titles.

Smithy GCN Ghost House Sprite

Smithy GCN Kamek Sprites

My biggest inspirations early on were of Final Fantasy games from the NES and SNES eras. Especially Final Fantasy III/VI. When I made that Ghost House, I was trying to go for a more realistic setting to go with my then current project Ganbare Nintendo Densetsu no.009. I wanted the backgrounds to contrast heavily with the characters.

As time went on and GND fell by the wayside, I went to fond remembrance of the NES era and, more specifically, the cartoon of Captain N. I wanted to create something similar that would work with the same premise of GND. So, 2 Souls’ Tale was started. I at first kept the sprite animations simple like that of the NES games, but it wasn’t long before I fell in love with cartoon animation of the western hemisphere and began to apply the principles to my pixel art with great success. However, it wasn’t to last as when my then-girlfriend had left me (she was helping with the story writing, etc), my interest in 2 Souls’ Tale began to diminish over time. That was until I decided to make the two main characters after some of my church friends. Still, I put the game on hiatus while I pursued other artistic endeavours.

Okay, so let’s talk about 2 Souls Tale for a minute. What was the general idea behind that game?

The general idea was that I loved NES and SNES era games, but there were a lot of great later games too. My motivation was to make a game that was a love letter to gaming new and old, but in a style that would draw and challenge different classes of gamers. I chose the Metroidvania style of gameplay with my own twists on it to make it accessible to many. That and I loved the gba, ps1, and ds Castlevanias.

What about Nintendo Densetsu? Seemed like a very unique project, given the usage of Nintendo characters with realistic looking art styles.

This was done while I was still using an unrefined manga style for my art, so it’s name had to be Japanese as well. It was my attempt to create an ultimate crossover with a serious storyline. I did this while not realizing how storytelling worked, so it seems rather immature now that I look back on it. The gameplay was similar to the Tales of series of games because I had just gotten into those. The game now lives on as a sprite project called GND Remix without the game, but sprites people can use for their own projects.

Either way, it seems you haven’t ever really released a fan game yet. Why is this? Do you simply feel a need to move on after a certain point? Or is there something in game development you’re having a bit of trouble with?

Fan games are a long project and my ambitious plans were thwarted by the amount of content I needed to make, so it was daunting to say the least. I really never got any help. I’d get pats on the back every once in a while, but interest and help waned over time leaving me with no alternative, but to pull the plug. I’m also getting older (I’m 31 currently), so projects like GND and 2ST are too taxing without help. Lastly, Nintendo has gone on a witch hunt of sorts with fan game makers. I understand since it’s their IPs and they have a right to do whatever with them, but it makes me a little sad that I can’t make them full fledged games any more. No, I’m not bitter about it.

Have you ever considered working with someone on a game? Like being the graphics designer for a game someone else is doing the programming for?

I have and have worked with a professional company in the past as it is, but the idea of working on a game with someone makes me worry I’ll have less time working on other projects I have in mind.

How about getting into professional game development? I suspect a fair few indie devs would be happy to have someone like you working on sprites for their games.

I’m sure they would, but, as I have said before, my main passion is cartoon animation, I don’t want to make less time for myself to do any of the things I want to do with even more work driving me nuts. Maybe sometime in the future, I’ll consider making a game, but it won’t be for a while yet.

Still, you seem to have found another project outside of game development recently, namely an animated interview review show. How did you get the idea for one of those?

I used to watch internet review shows religiously (there are a few I still do), but I noticed that most if not all of them resorted to cussing and vulgarity. I wanted to make one where I could be funny and yet still be family friendly. And I had a character I had been kicking around for years named Jonah. This doesn’t mean that just because it’s family friendly that there won’t be serious topics and that I’d talk down to my audience. I want to find a perfect balance of clever writing and family first ethics.

What about the animated aspect? Because I have to say, it’s quite unique to see a show like this with fully animated characters instead of live action or simple speaking over images.

I’ve always wanted to try to get an animated show/film off the ground and, since no one’s been doing it, I thought I’d give it a shot. I know it will make updates sporadic and long between them, but I hope that the audience will bear with me and understand the work that will go into these episodes.

And how exactly did the original characters come about? What inspired Jonah Adams and Norman Inkwell?

Jonah

Norman Inkwell

Jonah was a character I always wanted to be like when I was really into the furry fandom in my teens.

Jonah is still a rabbit because I still find cartoon animals to be fun and inventive. I had him in the same storyline as my old G Commander stories (more on those later) with all the same characters along with the inclusion of Jonathon Welder (my persona) and Gabby (Jonah’s love interest) and Jonah just so happened to be an animator and a perfectionist. So much so, that whenever he animated something, if it wasn’t perfect, he’d throw it away out of frustration. He is a Messianic Jewish rabbit from the country of Israel moved stateside to find better work opportunities. He’s a bit down on himself, though.

Norman Inkwell was created by my friend E-Man to act as an anti-thesis or prankster character to Jonah. Jonah would be all serious and Norman would say something to fluster Jonah. His name came about when we thought of Norman being an inkwell and the artist (one of the best I’ve seen) Norman Rockwell. Norman would sometimes steal Jonah’s ideas without him knowing and become a success over it while Jonah would lose his temper and chase after him. It’s really weird stuff that we’d hope to get you smiling about soon…. hopefully soon.

Considering your animated series is likely going to be posted on YouTube, have you prepared for that yet? Like set up a channel, got some branding together, etc?

Not at the moment. Seeing that my reviews have faith slant to them, I don’t know if I’ll be able to monetize my work.

How will you promote it? The world of internet review shows is a crowded one nowadays, so you have to really nail the whole social media side of things in order to catch on any more…

Lord willing, I’ll start a kick starter with rewards and an animated segment for people to see so that they don’t think that I’m ripping them off (of course, I’ll also need voice actors) to post on Facebook, YouTube, etc.

Other than the show and your sprite projects, what else do you have planned? Anything else in the pipeline in the foreseeable future?

I’m writing a script to an animated movie I’m going to do, Lord willing. There are also other movies I have planned, but we’ll see how things go.

A few questions about spriting in general now. As someone with a bit of experience, what types of mistakes do you often see beginners making when getting into creating sprites or pixel art?

Usually? Pillow-shading and jagged lines. I can tell someone needs help when they try doing it that way.

Are there any resources you’d recommend for someone interested in learning how to draw sprites?

Not any books. I don’t know of any, HOWEVER, look at spriting tutorials. Try imitating styles that strike your fancy. You learn by DOING. The more you do it, the better at it you’ll become.

How about up and coming artists you think have been doing some really good work in recent months? Are there any?

I haven’t been keeping up with the world of spriters lately. I’ve become something of a spriting hermit these days.

And on a less positive note, have there ever been any people ripping off your work or trying to claim it as their own?

Once a long time ago. This one guy took a Mr. Molecule sprite I made for GND and made it the center of his own project on the same message board.

Continuing on from that point, are there any sprites or pixel work you’ve drawn that you’re not too proud of? Perhaps because you think it doesn’t live up to what you’re capable of, or doesn’t portray the depicted character very well?

Oh, plenty of those. I’d have to go with any time I did a female character in sprite form when I was a teenager. Raging hormones, you know?

What about the opposite? What are your favourite examples of your own work?

Thunderbird, Carock, and The Creature to name a few. I don’t strike gold every time, but, when I do, it’s satisfying.

Thunderbird Sprite

Carock Sprite

The Creature Sprite

Finally, for those wanting to get started with video game sprites and pixel art, what advice would you give them to become a better artist?

Drawing and understanding of anatomy and how things move goes a long way. You’ll notice how tips for spriting also has similar tips drawing and animation. Also, try not to come off as someone not wanting to improve by disregarding constructive criticism. It’s different from regular criticism in that it helps you get better at your craft instead of just telling you that it sucks.

Thanks for the advice there Smithy! Yeah, studying anatomy and how things move certainly helps if you want to become an animator (or artist in general), and learning to take constructive criticism is arguably a creative’s most important skill.

Seriously. Look at terrible artists, and with maybe one or two exceptions, they’re all people who are unbearable to work with. A great artist notices their flaws and works to overcome them. A bad one lashes out at critics and ends up in fights on social media websites.

Be a good creator. Accept your flaws and be willing to overcome them.

Otherwise your career will die in flames.

But hey, what do you think of the interview? Was it an interesting look at what it’s like to be a video game spriter or SmithyGCN’s experiences in the field?

Or do you think there are questions we should have asked here?

Post your thoughts here or on social media today!

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