Project: El Pollo Diablo

Project: El Pollo Diablo

Remem­ber The Curse of Mon­key Island video game? I know I do, and I hope you do. After all, it had a huge influ­ence on my cre­ati­vity – and on the style of my art. Also it planted a weirdly specific idea in my head.

The third installment in the Monkey Island series was, in my opi­nion, one of the best point-and-click adven­ture games ever made. It was rele­ased in gol­den years of PC gaming (96-97), but also at a time when its particular genre of adven­ture games was slowly fading away.

In 1997, Luca­sArts cra­fted this ama­zing piece of art, combining Bill Tiller’s atmo­sphe­ric back­gro­unds, Larry Ahern’s funny cha­rac­ter desi­gns, and Michael Land’s fan­ta­stic soundtracks.

Thanks to all that – plus great wri­ting – the game was full of memo­ra­ble moments. One of them was when the game’s hero, Guy­brush, enters the “Blon­de­be­ard’s Chic­ken Shoppe” and examines pecu­liar pain­ting han­ging on the wall.

screenshot from a video game Monkey Island 3 showing main character Guybrush in a restaurant
First you need to have a rese­rva­tion.

I just love the fact that the game’s deve­lo­pers actually spent all that extra time – just to make that totally optional still shot.

Monkey Island 3 in-game screenshot of El Pollo Diablo painting.
¡Madre de Dios! ¡Es el Pollo Diablo!

The Project

A while ago, I decided to make a real-life replica of that El Pollo Diablo painting. And I wanted to make it big enough to hang behind my chair on my office wall – and big enough that it would terrify people on video calls.

That basically meant to reproduce the painting and make a proper frame for it.

A few other arti­sts wanted to recreate The Chicken before, but the results weren’t very true to the ori­gi­nal. And some just relied on Photoshop filters. In truth, these versions were mostly intended as tri­butes, rather than full attempts at reproduction.

set of five fan made illustrations and paintings of el pollo diablo
Authors from the left: Francesco Trivella, Lucas Valpreda, Jaimi McEntire, @tinystuffz, r/Jrn_n

I really do like the fra­med one, tho­ugh – it seems that Jeroen was simi­larly dedi­ca­ted to the idea.

Source material

In the original game, the ­pixel resolution was low, and the image was pretty small. Hardly enough to hang on a wall.

Even though Mon­key Island offe­red the pre-game set­ting cal­led Mega-Mon­key, along with the fore­ver-disa­bled 3d acce­le­ra­tion check­box, these didn’t help much. And the Scum­mVM software used to run old Luca­sArt games couldn’t do much either, since it wasn’t a pixel-art game.

very pixelated image of a muscular chicken
Look at all these pixels.

So, just to cla­rify – that original 640 x 480 pixels shot, printed at a resolution of 300dpi, would produce an image that was a maximum of 5.5cm wide (2.1”). And I needed a print of at least 50cm (19.6’’).

Nonetheless I took that only screenshot I had and determined to remaster it at nearly ten times the size. But before that, the least I could do was to re-tilt the source image.

The painting in the game was shown from a slightly tilted bottom-view perspective, to look more menacing, but the real print would have to fit the rectangle shape of the frame. So I had to straight out the chicken.

3 step progress of retilting an image of a chicken
Say, that’s the second biggest chicken head I’ve ever seen.

Turns out his head gets ridiculously big if you just do that. Probably because it was never meant to be shown like this in the first place. So to keep it faithful enough and in ‘realistic’ proportions I had to play around with perspective and warp tool a bit.

At this point I had the image fair, square and ready to be remastered.

The Frame

Impor­tant part of the El Pollo Dia­blo pain­ting is its gol­den frame, sho­wing that spe­ci­fic over-the-top twirly-swir­li­ness of the in-game gra­phics.

So I cal­led one of the best frame-maker pla­ces from Kra­kow and asked them about it. I’ve send them the pre­view and after weeks of silence they respon­ded with the fami­liar ‘uhm, I don’t have time…’ vibe, and gave me some ridi­cu­lous “bar­rage” price for it, just to buzz off.

Maybe I sho­uldn’t have mentioned the part about a mon­ster chicken? Or maybe they had a family history involving diabolical poultry? We’ll never know…

For­tu­na­tely, turns out my friend’s father-in-law was wor­king in the carpentry busi­ness for reli­gious pla­ces – reno­va­tions of altars and things like that. So making a gol­den frame of any shape was an option. I asked, I paid, and he made this:

golden frame laying next to the wall on a wooden shelf
An unique wooden frame. Made in Radom.

Not bad for a 70y old man. I love how bizarre it is, but the color was a bit too bright comparing to the one in the game, so I had to repaint it a bit.

I used Rem­brandt Series 3 deep gold paint to add a more warm tint to it.

tube of golden Rembrandt oil paint
Rembrandt Oljefärg 40 ml Deep Gold – 803

I pain­ted over the frame using a soft brush and a kitchen sponge. The goal was to avoid visi­ble brush strokes and not to cover too much of the ini­tial “goldness”, so the frame would remain shiny.

After few minutes of brushwork, and clueless wiping with a sponge, I got this result:

golden frame laying next to the wall
Making the gold more golden.

Some of the shininess was lost in the pro­cess but the result was clo­ser to the ori­gi­nal, I think. It should look more cartoony and less reflective in the spotlight when hanging on the wall.

I didn’t know that before, but the orange oil paint can dry for over a week! Not like I was in a hurry or something. I still had to solve how to rescale the painting.

AI upscaling

The pro­ject went on pause for quite some time, since I had nobody to help me with.. enlarging that cock.

But! With the dawn of the new age of computing, some solu­tions have emer­ged. Year 2021 has brought few ama­zing inno­va­tions, like water­less hair­care, real estate-the­med NFTs or publicly ava­ila­ble scripts for gene­ra­ting ima­ges from text.

set of four pictures of ai generated ai chickens
¡Madre de Dios! ¡Estos no son los Pollos del Diablo!

Ini­tially I was inte­re­sted in AI that could trans­fer the con­tents of one pic­ture into the style of ano­ther. So maybe I could just put the diabolic rooster into the hands of vir­tual Bill Til­ler and “ask him” to paint it again, but big­ger.

Sadly AI that han­dles this sort of pur­pose, at this moment, was only sup­por­ting limi­ted set of sty­les – and was adding some defor­ma­tions, weird­ness and gene­rally did not work great with any­thing other than trans­for­ming pho­to­gra­phs into pain­tings.

set of ten pictures of ai high quality generated muscular chickens
Midjourney has the best looking outputs, but they mostly ignore the input style and composition.

Paid AI upsca­ling solu­tions such as Giga­pi­xel AI was also disap­po­in­ting, kil­ling too much detail in the pro­cess, even with its dedicated Art & CG model option.

badly upscaled image of a chicken with visible artifacts and noise
Well it was bigger, but not better.

Few weeks later I noti­ced on Youtube that some­one rema­ste­red all videos from the Mon­key Island game with an AI. The interesting fact was how well it wor­ked with this spe­ci­fic art style.

Adding so many frames was IMO unnecessary, but the details are amazing!

That guy used AI mode­led specifically to only work with videos. Extrac­ting other assets from the game was some­thing dif­fe­rent. Luc­kily some­one on Discord men­tio­ned another simi­lar AI, tra­ined to upscale ima­ges, often used for car­to­ons and anime, cal­led Real-ESR­GAN.

Appa­ren­tly it’s free to use too. So I found a public build of it and decided to give it a try. Results were very promising.

ai upscaled image of muscular chicken
Finally! Big and (almost) crispy chicken.

So at this step I went from 640×480 to 5900×8200 with “minor” losses in the deta­ils. Quite impressive. I could finally gene­rate a pic­ture big eno­ugh to work with in real life.

Adding the details and printing

AI may be smart and all, but some­ti­mes you have to take mat­ters into your own hands. The sim­plest way to make The Chic­ken more deta­iled was to just… draw the deta­ils. So I prin­ted the thing, sket­ched over it using pencil, scan­ned it and mer­ged the lay­ers in Photoshop with a tint of noise on top. I also extended the margin on each side so it could fit to the frame if needed.

process of upscaling the picture of ell pollo diablo

Then I added some more details using mouse and the smudge tool and voilà! The chic­ken was ready to be sent to the print shop.

After a week I got this bad boy waiting in my mailbox (well technically it wouldn’t fit in there, but you know…)

picture of el pollo diablo printed on canvas
I had to fix his teeth too.

So, after eve­ry­thing, here’s a pic of the final out­come han­ging on the wall:

framed real life image of el pollo diablo hanging on a wall
¡He dejado en libertad los prisioneros y ahora vengo por ti!

And of course comparison to the original:

comparison of original in-game screen of el pollo diablo and a real life painting of it
Not a fan of salmon-colored walls.

Summary and lessons learned

  • It took waaay lon­ger than expec­ted
  • Prints usually appear darker than on-screen proof of colors
  • I should have pink walls for this, to stay faithful
  • From all the The Curse of Monkey Island playthroughts on Youtube only one guy from Germany actually looked at the painting.
  • I wanted to place LEDs under the chicken’s eyes but wife said it would scare our kid too much
  • Maybe I will put some fluorescent paint on it someday 🤔.
  • I wish I could use Procreate more and learn how to paint digitally
  • Canvas prints have edges that have to be printed too, so the bleeding is quite big
  • Canvas prints have a very bright gloss and appear darker in real life
  • AI upscaling is fun! But also sucks!
  • Goldest paint in the world is not the goldest
  • Warm gold is called “Aztec”
  • Linseed based oil paints don’t smell
  • Dogs eat linseed oil paints (and smell)
  • It’s my first blog post written in English!
  • The International House of Mojo has some original concept art of the chicken