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‘Get Better’ video director Stefanie Grunwald on new adventures as a pixel artist, and finding beauty in darkness

Artist Stefanie Grunwald’s digital pointillism is an art of contrasts; blending the serene shadows of sleeping cityscapes with the comforting glow of halogen street lights, which highlight towering shapes amid the darkness. No wonder that style is capturing the imaginations of other artists – most notably, indie band alt-J, who asked her to direct the music video to their single Get Better. Having just finished work on a second music video, the artist also known as Moertel spoke to Indy Film Library about her inspirations, ambitions, and having the courage to try something new at any time.

For the uninitiated, could you give our readers a brief explanation of what pixel art is? And is there a particular artistic aim you have for the pixel art you produce?

Most people aged 30 and older, or anyone who has ever owned a Gameboy or a Nintendo DS, will remember the pixelated nature of 80s and 90s video game graphics. Pixel artists actually put individual pixels on the screens, click by click. It’s pixel-level control. With a few notable exceptions, most of this art is cheerful, colourful, or filled with sci-fi elements.

I wanted to make pixel art that carries the same nostalgic feeling but does so in our everyday reality. No sci-fi, no magic, no fairy tales. It’s been described as dark and neo-noir, but trust me when I say that deep down inside there’s something cheerful to be found as well.

Of all the pieces you’ve created, is there one that you feel captures or exemplifies that style best of all?

Who Owns the City?  is a good example. On the surface you see the artificial: the racing cars, the concrete and the somewhat violent screen-shake. If you look closer, you see a glimpse of nature: a crow calmly flying across the street. So… who owns the city, then? Us? Them? I know my answer.

Because of its association with retro-video-games, some people might unfairly only associate pixel-art with cosy or kitsch nostalgia. Your art doesn’t fall into that bracket though. What drew you to the idea of composing these shadowy scenes via 8-bit imagery?

When I discovered pixel art as a standalone art form in 2014/2015, I enjoyed the fiery sunsets, cute scenes and neon sci-fi settings, but I felt that something was missing. Whenever I’m on vacation or staying at a hotel, I’m known to choose a view of glowing city lights, highways or airports, and I can literally spend hours just watching them. (Ask my colleagues how working in an office with a view of an airport made me 1) voluntarily show up at 6AM and 2) drift off during conversations. Luckily, it was just a visit!)

I don’t know what it is that fascinates me so much about those artificial constructs, but it’s this feeling I want to capture in my art. I still haven’t quite achieved it, so I’ll keep trying.

Are there any artists or filmmakers – pixel-related or otherwise – who inspired you when developing your method and style?

I still haven’t quite overcome my obsession with the game Limbo, and its magnificent art style. I even started a webcomic in this style, plus my own little neon and gradient additions, back in 2018, but it never took off. @kldpxl was and still is one of my favourite environmental pixel artists who captures reality magnificently well; as well as @octavi_navarro whose dark humour drips with every pixel.

@romain_trystram’s neon colours (especially his older works) never fail to inspire me and I absolutely enjoy @faunwood’s dark creatures.

My inspiration mostly comes from the glowing city of Hamburg and its crossroads, highways and sparkling city lights, though.

There are no particular filmmakers that come to mind but I’ve been hugely fascinated by the editing and shot composition of Breaking Bad, with its unusual angles outright brilliant colour grading.

On that development of style – it’s hard to believe, but you only started producing your art at 30. A lot of people considering trying something new can end up blocking themselves for fear of ‘getting it wrong’ – especially after one of those ‘milestone’ birthdays. What kept you from making art until then? And how did you get past that point?

This one is dear to my heart.

Apart from doodling silly things during class, my art teacher in school kept telling me that I just “didn’t have what it takes”. In her eyes, I was no artist, and I believed that for the longest time. Programming, maths and physics brought me joy, and that’s what I pursued as a professional career. Even if it doesn’t sound like it – programming is highly creative too. Games, apps, websites – they all require programming to come to life.

The most inspiring journey to watch was that of 8pxl on Tumblr. I discovered her around 2015 and she just kept getting better and better with each artwork she published. (If you look at her artworks today, they’re nothing short of insane.) Seeing that trajectory spiked one question: Could I do it too?

And so, I tried. There was no obligation to post the result to social media or even to show it to anyone. I could quietly delete it and move on. What I thought would be a fun afternoon escalated quickly and I spent over two weeks on it after work. It was actually fun, and I was so proud of myself that I posted it. My software engineering followers on Twitter loved it, and I realised that even without any training in art whatsoever, my work could be appreciated.

Answering “Could I do this?” with a clear “YES” makes you invincible.

Did that process of taking up pixel-art, getting over those initial doubts, help at all when you were tackling another first: directing your music video?

If I truly like an idea, I’ll do everything in my power to actually make it happen. Just like little children want to become doctors and firemen – if you had asked me as a 14-year-old what I’d want to do for a living then it would have been “music videos!” If I didn’t take this opportunity, I would have spent the rest of my life wondering “What if?” and I couldn’t let that happen.

The alt-J single Get Better was accompanied by a short film you made. The song is an examination of pandemic-era grief, contrasting beautiful memories with dark and devastating moments of loss. Your neo-noir style was perfectly suited to complementing that – as so much of it is about playing with light and darkness. How did you land the project, and was that a factor which helped?

I’m still humbled when I think back to the first call that I had with the band to discuss the project. Their creative manager had reached out to me previously and asked whether I was interested. I thought we’d jump right in and discuss what they’re looking for, but instead they pulled up one of my artworks and said that it looked like it was taken straight from the video they were imagining. I guess that’s when we both realised that it was a great match.

Throughout the years, feedback on my art hasn’t always been positive. “Eerie” or “disturbing” were things I heard, and many people were confused that I have no interest in painting sci-fi scenes. The contrast of dark and light, rooted in today’s day and age, is exactly what made my art style a great fit.

The credits of the film list you as the director, while the concept came from alt-J’s Joe Newman. How did the collaboration work?

alt-J wanted the visuals to follow the storyline of the song and Joe had put together a written storyboard. All my ideas, suggestions and experiments were more than welcome and appreciated, though. As an example, Joe suggested the first and last shot with the cat appearing and being let in, and I continued that thought and made the viewer follow the cat around the city and hospital, a constant companion to guide you through the song.

I was definitely nervous and constantly worried but they were one of the sweetest and most easy-to-work-with clients I ever had. The perfect blend of feedback and creative freedom.

I mentioned in my write-up of the video that your art had added “another layer of vibrant emotional potency” – which is really a fancy way of saying “it made me cry even harder.” We’ve all lived through a moment of massive social trauma, many have lost someone along the way. Art like this is important to help some of us realise what we’ve been bottling up, so thank you for that. But what was it like for you to have to deal with these themes constantly while producing the film?

It helps that when you direct a music video, you have to listen to the song about 1,000 times and not necessarily work on the scenes in order. Drawing the hospital bed, I was more concerned with the animation of the tiny heart monitor than the theme of the scene itself. Hearing the song, I was more concerned with timing the visuals than listening to the lyrics.

It was only when I prepared the rough cut and saw all the scenes finally come together that the emotions overtook the logical centre of my brain. After the band, label and I watched the rough cut together and the last scene faded to black, you could hear a pin drop. “Give me a second” I remember someone saying through the silence. The song and video will forever be special to me.

What has the reaction been towards the video, and your work more generally, since Get Better’s release?

I’ve gotten amazingly great feedback from so many people, but most importantly also from alt-J fans.

Indy Film Library recently added music videos to our review service. As it is a medium many filmmakers get their first break in, do you have any tips for artists approaching a music video project?

Get organised! The biggest mistake I made was not meticulously planning out every single second of the song and I had to pay the price eventually when the first shots were arranged but 10 seconds of the song were still completely blank. In traditional filmmaking, hopefully you have some B-roll to help. In animation, it meant unplanned extra work.

Don’t align the cuts with the beats! It’s one of the surprising unintuitive things I learned about music video editing. If you cut off-beat, the cuts seemingly disappear and don’t disrupt the flow. (If you follow this advice for a song and then finally do add a cut that coincides with a beat, you get an extra exaggerated effect.)

And do you have any advice for critics on what they ought to look out for, or encourage among the artists submitting their work? 

When directing a music video, the song should have the centre stage. Visuals should support, divert or otherwise elevate the message of the song but never try to be greater than the music. I’m not sure whether I’ve succeeded on that quest but it’s something I feel is the essence of music videos.

It’s one thing to know all the technicalities, the editing techniques, the transitions. But it’s a whole other thing to be able to create a music video that is greater than the sum of its parts.

So far, Get Better is your only music video. I know I can’t be alone in hoping it doesn’t stay that way – would you be interested in directing others, or short films more generally, in the future?

Absolutely. Although it’s important to me that I like the band, their music and their attitude; and that my art style is a good match. I’ve just co-directed my second music video, though, and I’m excited for the future. I can’t give away the name of the band just yet, but it’s one that has been dear to me for decades.

There are indy creators who produce video games that also play with the pixel-aesthetic to produce darker, morally challenging content – like Undertale. Since you seem to have a knack for turning your hand to new forms of art, have you considered a foray into that world as a possible next adventure?

I’d love to! In 2022 I’ve started to combine my programming and art skills and made my first Android app, and I can well imagine making a game. It would be a huge time investment of several years, though, so I’m currently still favouring projects with a smaller scope.

Finally, are you working on anything at the moment you’d like to talk about? And how can our readers support you?

Stay tuned for my second music video, that will feature a distinct noir style! The rest of 2022 for me will be about bringing alive little pixel art worlds as interactive Android wallpapers, and I’m starting an exciting new adventure in November, when I’ll be switching from working full-time to working part-time, so I have more time for my pixel art projects.

I’ll be investing more in making tutorials and learning material to share what I learned, so if that’s of any interest to you, following my journey on social media, my blog or my newsletter would mean the world to me. For anyone who wants to be more involved in supporting my journey, you can become a Patreon, get one of my animated prints (they exist!) or go and get my Android app.

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