Graphic Design: Animate a Pixel Christmas Scene

Intermediate level Adobe Photoshop Adobe Photoshop

Drawing the Tree

We’ll start with the bare, undecorated tree.

Step 1

Let’s find a height that we like for it. Of course, the tree could be as big as we want, but we’ll make it slightly taller than the character.


Step 2

Basically, the tree will be a perfect cone shape. When we've determined the height, we'll draw another line going down diagonally from the top. This is a 1:3 line so for every 1 px across it has 3 px going down.

Then, once both lines are the same height, create an oval selection (with the Elliptical Marquee Tool, anti-alias set to off) from the bottom of the vertical line, expanding it from the middle out (by holding alt) until it meets with the diagonal, making sure that the height is half the width.

With the elliptical selection made, you can now fill it with an outline color and then contract the selection ( Select > Modify > Contract…) by 1 px and hit delete. Then you get the crisp outline of a circle.


Step 3

Draw another circle, with same size, in a New Layer.


Step 4

This will be the shadow of the tree. To apply it, fill it with black, reduce Layer Opacity to about 15%, move its layer behind the tree layer and nudge the tree up above the shadow.


Step 5

We can get rid of the back of the circle and the vertical line and then duplicate and mirror ( Edit > Transform > Flip Horizontal) the diagonal to finish our cone shape.


Step 6

We’ll now add some steps to one side of the cone to give it a rougher look. However, just because it’s rougher, it doesn’t mean it has to be irregularly jagged.


Step 7

Clean up and apply to the other side.


Step 8

A similar waviness can be applied to the bottom. And we can now fill in with a nice shade of green, if you want to go traditional.


Step 9

We’ll add a highlight to the tree, to help give it volume.

You’ll want to add a couple of lines that are a bit wider at the bottom and that converge at the top (they don’t need to cover the top pixel).


Step 10

Give those lines a bit of waviness and then fill with color.


Step 11

Change the color to a suitable shade.

And continue by making the other side darker. Here it’s almost half that gets slightly darker and the break between the two colors has some waviness applied to it.


Step 12

I thought it was still looking a bit flat so I added one more, darker, shade.


Step 13

I added a bit of texture to the darkest and the lightest shades because, even with the waves, it was still looking a bit like the whole shape was covered by a smooth surface.


Step 14

A bit of darker shading at the bottom as a last touch. And that’s about it for the bare tree.

You should keep a copy of this, it could come in handy when making an exterior scene.


Adding the Decorations

We’ll be adding lights, ornaments, gifts and even a little hint of Santa.

Step 1

The lights are going to be animated so we’ll finish those last; although we can start placing them on the tree already.

 In a New Layer, draw some regularly spaced markers covering the height of the tree.


Step 2

Draw semi circles at the marked heights. You can use the Elliptical Marquee Tool again, making circles that go from edge to edge and that are half as tall as they are wide and then keeping only the bottom half.

Although, this doesn’t need to be too precise or aesthetic, these are just guidelines.


Step 3

So now in a New Layer, add marker squares going along the guidelines but preferably starting below them and then going above them to achieve that spiral look.


Step 4

Now, you can get rid of the guidelines.

 Later on, we'll be adding animated lights to the tree but we should set the sequence with these markers already. We’ll be doing 4 frames, so that each light goes through these states: off, turning on, on, and turning off.

So we’ll give the markers a total of four colors. Repeat the same sequence over and over on each "horizontal" string of markers (in this case black – blue – grey – purple) …or do this randomly but remember to use each color roughly the same amount of times.


Step 5

Make the ornaments!

I'm going with the traditional baubles with a shiny finish and in three different sizes and colors. You could go wilder with the colors but I prefer to keep my palette more sober to ensure better color interplay.

I also gave the final versions slightly softer outlines.


Step 6

Place the ornaments on the tree. I lowered the opacity of the light placement markers to make this easier.

The tree may need a bit of help to avoid looking like a weird slice of pizza; I thought placing a few of the ornaments right on the edge, or slightly over the edge, helped in this regard.


Step 7

Another thing that may help would be to shade the baubles darker on the dark side of the tree. You can do this by covering the balls with black squares in a New Layer and then lowering the opacity of that layer to whatever you like best.

Also, the few baubles that are on or over the edge should have darker outlines.


Step 8

Opacity adjusted and merged down. Ornaments are almost done.


Step 9

We just need a little extra touch…


…to top our tree.


Step 10

Ask any kid: there’s no Christmas without presents.

We can make three different boxes out of the same shape. Starting with a flat square, turning that into a cube, projecting that cube in different ways and then giving each gift different colors, textures, ribbons and bows.


Step 11

And to get our character into the Christmas spirit we’re going to give him  Father Christmas’ headwear of choice.

Remove protruding bits of hair, draw the cap’s white band (which in hindsight could have puffed out further than the forehead) and cover the rest with red.


Step 12

Draw and place the pompom, finish the cap’s shape, shade, highlight.


And the scene is almost done.


Animating the Lights

Time to draw the lights and animate them!

Step 1

As I mentioned earlier, each light will go through 4 states: off, turning on, on, and turning off.

But turning on and turning off will look the same so we only really need to draw three states. Plus, if you wanted, off could actually be nothing at all so then you’d only need 2 states: one semi-bright and one bright.

The bright is a solid white (or almost white) in the middle with a few pixels of the same color but with lower opacity around it. The semi-bright is almost the same but lower opacity for all pixels and the off (optional) is just one pixel, same color but very low opacity.


Step 2

Place the bright light in a New Layer over all instances of one color of the placement markers.

I merged the rest of the elements into one layer and lowered its opacity to make this easier to see.


Step 3

Let’s work on all four frames at once, quadruplicate the tree and surrounding elements and quadruplicate the light placement markers.

On frame two, the bright light would need to go over the next color of markers. In this case purple, then black, then blue.


Step 4

Then to the left and/or right of each bright light you’ll put the intermediate light and the off for the rest.


Step 5

And now you can get rid of the markers or hide the layer and you've got your 4 frames of animation.

We can give our animation a bit more of a greeting card look if we give it a simple background, which also helps with contrast and harmony.

This is just a pale blue with a subtle grid pattern but I think it’s better than white or transparent.


Step 6

Now you’ll want to copy the first frame completely. You can do that by merging all the elements together in the new background layer or by Copying Merged ( Edit > Copy Merged) …just make sure you’re not copying a white background or anything else behind the new background.

Then Create a New File ( File > New…) with a transparent background, and paste frame 1. Copy frame 2 and paste it onto the same file and repeat until frame 4.

Then open the Timeline window ( Window > Timeline) and set the button in the center to "Create Frame Animation".


Step 7

Press the button and then select from the corner dropdown menu "Make Frames From Layers".


Step 8

Set looping option to Forever and adjust frame delay times to whatever you like. I was unsure between 0.1 sec. and 0.2 sec. so I made my own custom duration: 0.15 sec.


You can now enjoy your own little light show!

What do you think of this tutorial?


In this tutorial you'll learn to create an isometric Christmas tree complete with gifts, decorations and animated Christmas lights. As usual, we’ll reuse our isometric pixel art character. Launch Adobe Photoshop and let’s get christmassy.

Tut Details

Intermediate level 1h 20m 618 views