Last November I attended the GIRAF independent animation festival in Calgary. I have been a few years in a row now, and it is always well curated and a lot of fun. Inside, a short by Paris-based artist Mattis Dovier was one of my favorite films of the festival last year. Check it out below:

INSIDE from Mattis Dovier on Vimeo.

I appreciated the lo-fi, 90’s video game aesthetic that the artist created in the short film. It reminded me of the MS-DOS video games I grew up on, like Commander Keen and Math Blaster. Nostalgia is a powerful thing.


Dovier uses a graphics technique called “dither” extensively in his animation. The short is entirely black and white, so dither is used to create shading and depth. Wikipedia describes dither as:

An intentionally applied form of noise used to randomize quantization error, preventing large-scale patterns such as color banding in images.

Dither is a versatile concept with many cross-domain applications, it especially useful when processing audio, image, and video data. Some other uses for dither that I found interesting include:

  • The mastering of audio in order to override harmonic tones produced by some digital filters
  • Reduction of color banding and other visual artifacts during image processing
  • Seismic data processing
  • The addition of random delay (referred to as temporal buffering) to financial order flow in order to reduce the effectiveness of high frequency trading

Dither in image processing

A common use of dither in image processing is to reduce visual artifacts and preserve information when moving to a more restricted color space. Today’s screens and graphics cards support the display of more than 24 bits color (16+ million different colors). Older screens, however, did not have this capability, although even today some media formats are more restrictive than you may realize (GIF files only support 256 unique colors).

We can demonstrate visual artifacts associated with a reduction in color space by converting an image to monochrome (black and white). The Python function below changes each pixel in the source image to whichever color it is closest to, black or white.

#!/usr/bin/env python3
from PIL import Image

def monochrome(source):
    """Convert an image from color to black and white. 
    Ref: https://stackoverflow.com/a/18778280"""
    img = Image.open(source)
    greyscale = img.convert('L')
    monochrome = greyscale.point(lambda x:0 if x < 128 else 255, '1')
    return monochrome

Gracey Gracey the black lab, sound asleep

Gracey in b/w Gracey converted to black and white using the monochrome python function

As you can see the the image above, if you convert an image to a more restrictive color space a great deal of image detail can potentially be lost. This is an extreme example, 1-bit monochrome color is the most restrictive color space possible!

Applying a dithering step to this process is a way of preserving detail by tricking the brain while still moving to a more restrictive palette of colors.

Floyd–Steinberg dithering

There are over ten different implementations of the dithering algorithm, all which look slightly different and produce distinct visual patterns. The display medium for the image (animation, printed, screen) and the size of the output are considerations for picking the algorithm.

Below is a Python implementation of Floyd-Steinberg dithering. The Floyd-Steinberg algorithm makes use of the concept of error-diffusion. The residual error from the conversion of a pixel is passed to it’s neighbours. If the algorithm has rounded a lot of pixels in one direction, it becomes more likely that the next pixel will be rounded in the other direction. This error diffusion is responsible for the pointilism effect which preserves image detail and fools our brain.

#!/usr/bin/env python3
from PIL import Image
import numpy as np

def fl_dither(image, palette):
    """Convert the colors in image to those in the supplied palette using
    the Floyd-Steinberg dithering algorithm."""
    img = Image.open(image)
    for y in range(img.height):
        for x in range(img.width):
            oldpixel = img.getpixel((x, y))
            newpixel = closest_color(oldpixel, palette)
            img.putpixel((x, y), newpixel)
            error = np.subtract(oldpixel, newpixel)

            if x < img.width - 1:
                diffuse(img, x+1, y, error, 0.4375)

            if x > 0 and y < img.height - 1:
                diffuse(img, x-1, y+1, error, 0.1875)

            if y < img.height - 1:
                diffuse(img, x, y+1, error, 0.3125)

            if x < img.width - 1 and y < img.height - 1:
                diffuse(img, x+1, y+1, error, 0.0625)
    return img

def diffuse(img, x, y, error, coeff):
    """Diffuse the conversion error at (x,y) to neighbouring
    newpixel = np.add(img.getpixel((x, y)), np.multiply(error, coeff))
    img.putpixel((x, y), tuple(np.int_(newpixel)))

def closest_color(pixel, palette):
    """Return the closest color in palette to the provided pixel."""
    array = np.asarray(palette)-pixel
    index = np.argmin(np.linalg.norm(array, axis=1))
    return palette[index]

Gracey Photo of Gracey converted to black and white using Floyd-Steinberg dithering

The black and white photo of Gracey created using Floyd-Steinberg dithering has a significant amount more visual information retained than the image created using the monochrome Python function from earlier. Shading is visible in the dithered photo, represented by a differing density of black or white pixels. The new image also that 90’s video game feel that I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

Dither is a simple but elegant algorithm with suprisingly broad applications across technology, animation, pixel art, and music. Hopefully you enjoyed reading about dither as much as I enjoyed learning about it