The Style & Substance of Cuphead’s Animation


Wow where do we start? This game is
insanely ambitious with its visual style, it’s amazing it ever got made at
all. Sorry, I’m really resisting the urge to do a crazy zany voice just because
I’m a puppet. Get your notebooks out and let’s have a look into Cup Head’s
animation in this episode of Video Game Animation Study! This game pays beautiful
homage to animated cartoons from the 1930s and 40s in such a convincing and
painstakingly sincere style they you’d almost be convinced this was something
lifted straight from that era, right down to colour offset and dust and scratches. It
looks so authentic because the designers used traditional animation techniques
to achieve the style. They drew all the characters on traditional workstations
and separate pieces of paper using early animation techniques, although unlike
traditional Golden Age animation which then went on to paint these lines onto
see-through cells studio MDHR scanned each of these
drawings into a computer and cleaned them up and coloured them digitally. Now
this game is all about style over substance and that’s not necessarily a
bad thing, let’s see why. Firstly let’s look at references. Cartoons from early
on in the Golden Age of animation like Felix the Cat Betty Boop and other
Fleischer Studio cartoons have been the clearest influence for Cuphead. This
means that characters will always be moving in some way, even when standing
still. This is why characters tend to bob up and down in a resting stance, because
why would you spend all your effort as an animator of bringing a character to
life when it’s just going to be static? It’s like the opposite of Dragon Ball Z
Like in Fleischer cartoons, many characters in Cuphead are
bendy and malleable, almost like big parade balloons filled with water. This
has much to do with character appeal which we’ll come to in a bit. Before
Disney came in and cleared the decks with this new realistic and
aesthetically more pleasing animation process, this “rubber-hose” animation was
what animators used as the benchmark. What’s interesting to note is the lack
of easing which is when a movement comes to a slow and gentle stop. It’s not
entirely absent but most movements are often flat and snappy. This doesn’t make
them any less accomplished of course but it removes any sense that the character
could exist in a more real-world setting and this is why the sinister character
designs are even more effective. The fact they’re fully fictional and cartoony
means they can do absolutely anything like turn into a plane, and it wouldn’t
seem out of place at all. This also means that while you’re quite happy fighting a
genie, you’ve no idea if he’s going to turn into a screen filling monster.
There’s something about these rule-breaking transformations that are
quite nightmarish, fuelling that extra dread when facing these super hard boss
fights. It’s also interesting to note get, your notebooks out, that many of the boss
fights final phases end up with them changing into a vehicle or machine of
sorts and personally I find these transformations really satisfying to
watch, just cos they’re so smooth. Even though this rubber hose animation
sometimes feels awkward to look at, the actual design of the characters helps
their appeal. Appeal is how aesthetically pleasing it is to look at character,
either in their movement or in their character design or both, and can apply
to protagonists in the sympathetic way so you’re on their side, or to
antagonists in an interesting way so you’re not turned off from them sharp
design. You’ll notice how most characters in Cuphead all have circles or curves
some way in their design, even in characters where straight lines should
be, like in the robot or the boat. Curves traditionally convey warmth and comfort
and character design, while straight edges might convey a sense of danger or
aggression, which makes the rounded bouncy design of the bosses even more
menacing. This contrast between the simple happy
design and their menacing actions is what makes the boss characters in this
game and indeed many characters from this era much more unsettling. Also
curves make for some great undulating wavy motion. The boat and the genie are
great examples here. it’s almost hypnotic to watch, not that
you really get chance to watch, mind! What curves do mean though is that when
a strong or directed action takes place straight lines will be prominent. This
gives a great sense of power and creates a cool dynamic contrast within the
character. You’ll still see Cuphead and Mugman retaining their floppy
Mickey Mouse movement throughout most of the actions though. What you’ll also
notice with these two is that you’ll not often see their teeth. That might sound
like an odd observation but you’ll nearly always see the boss characters
teeth, so much so that it’s almost a prominent feature. This is, of course, a
very clear way to show aggression. That’s only natural, you’re fighting with them.
Cupman and Mughead do bare their teeth when shooting of course. Expect to see a lot
of anticipation in Cuphead because this game is all based around muscle memory.
Now what I mean here is that the animation is so meticulous in Cuphead
that in order to keep a genuine animated look to the characters and
experience and not a “game” look, nothing you actually do to a boss will affect its
animation, with the exception to phase changes, and even then they tend to round
up to the nearest loop of animation. Health will be getting lower in the
background but nothing the boss character does will signify this. If
every time you hit a boss and they recoiled, the frame of animation that
they’re currently in would suddenly need to snap to the recoil animation and this
sudden change would ruin the illusion that you’re playing a cartoon, although
this does actually happen occasionally. Hey, it’s not perfect.
And also, if you’re eagle-eyed you might see a slight pause where the game is
deciding which move the boss will do next.
Anyway, unless there was a specific set of transition animations for every frame
to the beginning of the recoil animation, which would be terribly laborious and
arduous and let’s face it not fun, it’s simply best to have the animation
run through all its frames into the next action, meaning that every boss is
essentially on a big tiny loop. So when it comes around for a boss or one of its
underlings to attack you, and because you have limited health, there’ll be a long
moment where it pauses after pulling back. We’ve discussed before that this is
called anticipation but it doubled up as a clue to win the boss will next attack,
although the design of the game is such that you kind of need to get hit so you
can learn anyway. So you’re bound to die a few times on the new boss. Projectiles
and various elements that track you, occasionally including bosses, are the
only variables. Otherwise the boss battle would just continue even if you weren’t
there. Now I said in my last video that additional animated flourishes are often
my favorite bits of animation but that’s not quite so in this game. This time I’m
in love with bouncey, squash ‘n’ stretch and follow-through and those lovely
transformations. Damn it the bounciness is just so nice in this game. How
Baroness Von BonBon jiggles around atop her monstrous castle is really fun and
like I said earlier the genie’s mouth and facial features at the end are all
pinned to his bobbing up and down so the mouth closes followed by the eyes and
the head and the pipe almost like a wave. You’ll begin to see this everywhere like
in the rat’s can-machine, also just quickly want to point out the really
nice character turn here, you don’t see many character turns as smooth and
accurate as that I tell you. The cigar has a real nice look to him as
he’s essentially just a big curve, this allows for that nice big squash and
stretch here. And the clown has some nice stretches as he
jumps into his car. There are many points in the game where there’s just
some random transformations from one thing into something else, like the
bird’s head into a trash can and the queen bee’s knife and fork into a wand
but they never seem out of place, and I think probably my favorite
transformation is the Zeppelin into the moon. Okay let’s quickly go over some other
techniques as well. I really like the little smear on Baroness’s shotgun here,
it gives it a nice weight and rubbery movement. Similar to when the devil
swings his trident, there’s some similar fast motion players on there big cats
paw as he swipes and there’s also some multiple frames here to give an even
greater sense of speed, much like when the Big Frog turns into a fan. The
rabbit in a hat has a really brief smear to quickly fill in the quick gap with
his action, looks really terrifying when you pause it like that. Some quick action
doesn’t need smearing such as the gravestone with some little motion lines.
Some characters will vibrate violently if they’ve just performed a heavy or
powerful action, such as the barrel here in the boat fight or the rat when he’s
pulling his levers. The frog’s legs will jitter in a similar fashion here as well Some characters blink with their pupils
which is unsettling, such as the boat and the slime ball.
Speaking of pupils, when some characters go into a sort of overdrive mode, their
pupils will go really long like with the dragon in the castle and some characters
eyes will spin if they’re performing an action like the carrot, Queen Bee and the
dragon, and sometimes they’ll change color like the flower and King dice
sometimes they’ll be REPLACED WITH SNAKES like the mermaid. There’s a
fantastic video hosted by J Clark from Studio MDHR and he goes through
his design process for the boss characters and it’s really interesting
to watch and he explains through all these references and how he builds from
a few key frames into really smooth animation. This game took around four
years to make and it’s the studio’s first game and there’s so much passion
and soul into every part of it. I sincerely hope that this reborn
animation philosophy begins to make its way into more areas of game design
because it’s not necessarily the understanding of animations history
that’s required to make something look nice like Cuphead but an understanding
of how to make moving things interesting enjoyable and fun to look at. Sure you
can apply a classic idea to a new skin on a 3D model and that will do the job
but you’ll nearly always be able to tell when something’s had more heart and soul
poured into it. Thanks for watching!
Consider supporting me on Patreon if you want to see a video more than once every
two months. You get some cool perks and consider sharing this video too, comment
below on what your thoughts are on Cuphead’s animation and have a lovely
Christmas. loveyoubye

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