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Something I've always liked in animation is the notion of restrictions. Animation itself seems to impose certain inherent restrictions. Sometimes, more interesting results can be achieved when a set of restrictions are imposed. For example, the way Norman McLaren made a film entirely out of vertical lines scrolling back and forth. (AND one with just horizontal lines) Another example is Kiyoshi Nishimoto's Laughing Moon (2000), in which an entire short film is made by creative reconfiguration of a set of 12 blocks. I haven't been able to find the latter online, but it is available on a DVD from the British Animation Awards. I think having some sort of restriction maybe forces you to be more creative with the available materials, and also focuses the viewer's attention on that creativity by eliminating distractions. Pixel Film by Garth+Ginny is a cute, fun example of this. I like how they've managed to make an appealing film using (presumably) only 50x50 pixels. The material being restricted here is the information resolution. What's the smallest resolution at which a compelling film could be made?
This film is part of a wave of creative work being done in the 8-bit and 16-bit format, both in graphics and music. Stemming partly from nostalgia for the early video game culture of the Atari, Nintendo and other game systems of my youth, people all over the world today are using retro video game equipment to make videos and music, and making it available online for free in user communities like the 8-Bit Collective, which is one of the most vibrant user-driven artist communities I've run across. They are creating art that deliberately embraces the limitations imposed by antiquated technology. To some (including me), a significant part of the appeal of this music is nostalgia for the familiar clipped and pure sounds created by the microchips in these old technologies. Many of the creators active in the genre are too young to have experienced all that as kids, though. For them, and, I believe, most of the great artists working in the genre, called chiptune, it's more than that. Everyone is different, so the motivation of the people making the music is as varied as the music is, but I think one of the fundamental appeals of using retro equipment like this is the creative challenge of restriction; of having to use a limited range of channels and sounds to create a compelling piece of music. That, and the empowerment of appropriating a technology and re-visioning it towards your own creative ends.
I myself had of course heard a lot of chiptune music in my youth without realizing it, and have fond memories of those games and their soundtracks that transported me to faraway lands. Today's chiptune is a direct extension of the music of these games in sound, spirit and execution. There are a huge number of artists active, some of whom are of very high caliber. Even the stuff of lesser caliber is usually always enjoyable. There's something about the crisp, precise chiptune sound that makes the music always fresh and lively. The music itself is extremely varied, since we're talking about a method here and not a style(?). Some of it is peppy and melodic, some has a driving electro beat, some has fast complex rhythms, some constantly changing, some is a symphonic landscape. If you liked the music of Omodaka's Kokiriko Bushi, you might like to listen to some more chiptune. Omodaka is definitely near the top of the pile, but the chiptune community is huge and has many great artists, and it's constantly evolving. It feels like a music that's really fresh and in its prime.
I've become kind of scary-obsessed with the stuff ever since I discovered it through the music of Chinese chiptuner sulumi, two of whose albums I found in a music store in Beijing one year ago. To convey the extent of my scary-obsession, and hopefully spread the infection to others, I shall confer some of my acquired wisdom. Here are a few good places to start for anyone who likes this stuff and wants to hear more.
♦ Albums: Shnabubula's Controller 1 was the revelation of my chiptuned life.
A documentary on chiptune came out recently entitled Reformat the Planet, and right now I'm really hoping it will be coming to this year's Vancouver International Film Festival two months from now.
To close on a more OT note, I've been on the lookout for good chiptune music videos for months now, but I have yet to find one that is a true standout as a music video besides Omodaka's Kokiriko Bushi. The promo video for Saitone's Overlapping Spiral is one of the more decent ones I've found, while the video for
Goto80's Polycanyon is representative of the trend in the chiptune community to use 8-bit graphics to provide the video accompaniment to their music. Otherwise, I've found that most of the chiptune videos, like the one for Meneo's Papi, tend to be amusing but not that compelling as music videos.