Netflix’s Cuphead Show! the team addressed the racist history of animation early on

Like its video game source material, Netflix The Cuphead Show! takes heavy influence from the American Golden Age of Animation – the early 20th century era that popularized sound cartoons and spawned iconic characters like Mickey Mouse, Popeye and Bugs Bunny. It’s also an era of animation notoriously riddled with racist caricatures. When the game came out, Cuphead was criticized for separating the art style from the charged context of the 1930s.

“It was definitely something we were aware of,” executive producer Dave Wasson told Polygon. “This era of animation is fraught with problematic portrayals of characters and races. And there is also misogyny. It is certainly problematic. It was a very different time.

Art director Andrea Fernandez explains that the team approached these creative decisions carefully, seeking different perspectives on potentially harmful tropes where necessary. Whether or not they ended up using a particular animation element has often been a long discussion.

“It wasn’t just about getting away from it for fun, Oh, don’t touch that“says Fernandez. “We really talked about the root of what was causing the problem so that we could finish [asking] OK, is the style or artistry of this sometimes worth breaking away from this awful trope? Sometimes it wasn’t.

Picture: Netflix

Cuphead and Mugman walk along a sunny path

Picture: Netflix

Cuphead and Mugman celebrate with Chalice on a carnival float

Picture: Netflix

Picture: Netflix

This era of animation encompasses a wide range of cartoons, from Fleischer Brothers shows to Disney’s Silly Symphonies. Beyond conversations about period-heavy imagery and what to leave behind, the team also had to narrow the scope of inspiration. They ended up watching the game and identifying the boss characters.

“That was what was so fun about it,” Fernandez says. “Each boss character almost had their own distinct look. For some bosses, we would refer to a very specific group of episodes from the 30s. [The] cookie carnival is a great example. We were able to really lean into these really fun episodes because we had the perfect designs for this individual boss character. In a way, as if we had to build levels for each of these characters.

One of the main differences (besides easier access to color in their animation) between The Cuphead Show! and 1930s styles is that the Netflix series is almost entirely animated using computers. Even the elements of the series which see hand-painted, like the lush watercolor backgrounds, were digital. It did, however, give the team a chance to move past the Golden Age touchstones. Wasson describes what they achieved as a “rubber hose animation hybrid”, giving character movements and facial expressions more nuance for modern audiences.

Cuphead and Mugman surrounded by skeletons

Picture: Netflix

“At this moment [the 1930s] the audience hadn’t seen a lot of animation,” he explains. “So if you just had a guy on the side of the road doing this [dance movement] It was enough. People are like, Wow, look at this guy, he’s dancing.

It’s a change that impressed even the game’s designers.

“They push the emotions and some of the faces into just awesome areas,” says Chad Moldenhauer, one of the game’s co-creators. Ren and Stimpybut still mixed with a 30s-style quirkiness.”

The animators also used more tactile stop-motion animation for specific scenes, like Cuphead and Mugman’s teapot-shaped house establishment shot. It’s an oddity reminiscent of Fleischer’s cartoons, where animators created stop-motion sets on giant Lazy Susans and took pictures of them while hanging the cel animation in front of the set.

“It was a technique that only really lived in the 1930s. It was so signature that it was perfect for our show. We couldn’t do the 1930s and not use it,” Wasson says. “We tried to be a bit more strategic with that. [than the Fleischers]use it for [heightened] moments, as if there were a chase.

While the animators tried to incorporate a number of 1930s animation styles and techniques into the show, there were some things they couldn’t quite capture. Wasson mentions looking at the works of Ub Iwerks, which Fernandez describes as “super weird”.

“At one point we talked about doing everything and a three-color process, like Dave was, Take it easy. It’s too crazy. she says. “There were so many crazy things going on in the 1930s. These are some of the challenges that really say, OK, that’s what we’ll stick to. And that’s gonna be our show. Because there were so many fun aesthetics back then.

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