Getting familiar with C64 graphics converting tools

Like I told in my previous post I wanted to enter one of the graphics competitions in this year’s Alternative Party. I wanted to make my picture using C64 graphics formats, but I wasn’t planning to pixel the picture in native formats in the first place. Instead, I was planning to draw the picture using modern tools and then convert it! Shocking!

I already had a concept in my mind that I wanted to try out: to combine and use different screen modes for different parts of the picture. Of course it wasn’t possible to actually use different screen modes with the picture, especially with my non-existing programming skills. So the road I had to take was to draw the picture elements separately which I then converted to different graphics modes. The parts would have to be combined, and then finally, converted into final picture.

This gave me a good reason to start checking out the different graphics converting tools.

I started by looking for suitable tools. I knew about Timanthes and Project One, so I tried those. To my surprise Timanthes was a complete graphics suite for pixelling with some very advanced features – like a Photoshop for pixel graphics. However, I was going to use Photoshop anyway so I didn’t need any of those features. Project One in turn offers a simple pixelling interface together with very configurable converter that can convert images to different C64 graphics modes. I wasn’t planning laying pixels like bricks anyway so Project One’s converting tool offered just what I needed.

I wanted to include PETSCII in my picture so I needed a converter for that aswell. I spent quite some time searching until I found a tool called ChrStudio. It converts any truecolor image to monochrome bitmap using PETSCII tiles. So I was covered there too!  (Editor’s note: the site seems to be gone, and I have not found the software elsewhere. Please check comments below for download)

The result of different conversions would have to be combined and then converted again into some C64 graphics format. C64 screen modes have plenty of restrictions, and I was going to combine and layer hires, multicolor and textmode parts on top of each other without even considering the colour restrictions. I needed to use some modern converter and graphics mode that is able work around the restrictions and produce colorful hires image.

I was aware of converters like Mufflon and various Algorithm’s converting tools. During my initial tests MUSC-Hires Converter performed very well with some truecolor images I tried, and it exported C64 executable .prg file. Now my tool chain was sorted out, I thought, except that the exported .prg files were larger than the 16 kb size limit of the compo. Ok, it needs to be crunched.

Never before I have needed to do anything with crunchers – time to find out about those. So Exomizer seems to be popular these days, and it’s cross-platform and everything. Nice. Now, some test pictures converted first using MUSC-Hires Converter and then exomized were well below 10 kb. Everything’s sorted out!

Now, on with the drawing process!

First I needed a picture to convert. It was a natural choise to make something in the theme of the event which was, as the tagline “Red Machine” suggests, Soviet Union!

Step 1. Draw a former Soviet leader.

This was done using Photoshop and a Wacom tablet. This was also one of the most time-consuming parts of the work. Because of the limited amount of shades and colours on C64 I didn’t have to consider the use of colours at this point. Grayscale image would work fine.

Step 2. Draw a matching skull in black and white.

Again, Photoshop and tablet.

Step 3. Make some grunge to outline the skull part.

These were the central parts of the picture and were converted to multicolor-like mode and monochrome PETSCII images. With some trial and iteration the results looked like this:

Half of the face after FLI-conversion:

The skull and the backdrop converted to PETSCII images:

And these combined:

Ok – so at this point everything looked good. Except that it was almost midnight the day before the event. I still needed to make some background for the picture. And I had a day at work in between finishing the picture and going to Altparty.

So time to move on and not think about it too much. From the very beginning I had imagined a crowd cheering or dancing in the background for some reason. The crowd didn’t come out quite as I had thought, but at this point I really didn’t care.

Using black, white and red would fit the theme so I came up with putting a red shaded star behind the character.The star and the crowd was then combined and converted to unrestricted hires picture with C64 palette. Originally I was planning to have the background in native hires mode with all the artifacts, but it didn’t work as well as I hoped so I gave up on that idea. Now looking back the background is the weakest part of the picture and also causing the most apparent errors in the conversion.

Now I had the background, the PETSCII parts and the face done. Yet I needed one more layer to add: poor Vladimir needed some shoulders and collars. After that was done the picture looked like this with the different parts combined:

Now I had the picture together. Time to throw it into converter. I had several attempts with MUSC-Hires Converter with different settings, and unfortunately even the best results produced quite a lot artifacts. It wasn’t nice to realize in 3 AM that the converter works that much better with truecolor images than with already “pixelled” graphics. At least I had working .prg file that was clearly within the size limit after exomizing. I had a look with real C64 only to see that it didn’t look quite as bad as on PC screen, but somewhat shite still. I was too tired to try anything more and went to bed.

Next morning I woke up with the motivation to have an attempt with Mufflon. And indeed, it performed clearly better with my picture. Now I only had to figure out how to make an executable from the output file. A deeper look into Exomizer help and familiarizing myself with start addresses made me a lot smarter. Now I had my picture converted into NUFLI looking a lot better and exomized to be an executable .prg file. Phew! Morning spent well!

Here is the final, converted picture as VICE screen shot:

And with PAL emulation which represents well how the picture looks like on real machine. Click for non-scaled view.

The name of the picture is
In Soviet Party Picture Converts You!
Get it?

And as a bonus and comparison, here are all the components and layers combined into one hand drawn picture in bigger resolution.

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8 Responses to Getting familiar with C64 graphics converting tools

  1. Wow, that’s really awesome. Funnily enough today I have been looking for programs to convert images into specific retro ‘styles’. I found a Spectrum one but couldn’t find any others.

    Looking at what you went through to convert it to C64 looks a bit beyond my meagre skills though!

    • ilesj says:

      Thanks! Of course I went trough a lot of steps and trouble thanks to the approach I took. You get off much easier if you are simply converting an image to some C64 format or style using one of the converters mentioned here. Getting that special retro-look to any picture is quite easy for example with Project One or Timanthes. I’d suggest trying out those!

    • Thanks for the reply. Well I guess what I really wanted was to kinda recreate from scratch my blog header into a Spectrum or C64 style, which of course I’d have to do by hand.

      I used Project One to convert the header though and it looks pretty ‘C64’ but I do wonder how many people visiting the blog (the header rotates between the normal, Spectrum and C64 styles) will just think the picture isn’t formatted correctly!

      :)

      Thanks again!

  2. Owen says:

    Great article and really awesome artwork. Do you know where I could find ChrStudio? The link is broken and I don’t see it anywhere else (I’ve been Googling to no avail)!

  3. Owen says:

    Thanks. I’ve added this to my collection of tools!

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