Sunday, January 7, 2018


Hi again, gang. I'm back from the outer reaches to gather together a few thoughts on an item in the 30's vein that got quite a bit of attention last year: the Cuphead video game. But first I should preface this post with two disclaimers. One: I’m basing my comments  on the numerous Youtube videos that have been posted of Cuphead’s gameplay.  I haven’t actually played the game. Secondly: this post may only be here for a short while since I like to confine the subject of this blog to cartoons made in the 30's and not modern recreations. So, enjoy (or detest) while you can.

This is probably the thing I like best from what I've seen of Cuphead. Nice hand-made looking titles are a rarity these days and ain't no shame in showing your love for Iwerks! Still, I can't help but be annoyed by that Acme reference: a tired cliche.

 Never mind that bendy straws did not exist in the early 30's but have you ever seen anyone drink tea or coffee with one?

With a years-long production schedule elapsing those of most animated feature films (and certainly those of any animated television show) Cuphead wears it's love for Ub Iwerks and Van Bueren cartoons on it's sleeve. At the same time it shares an undeniable link with side-scroller video games of the 80’s and 90's like Sonic The Hedgehog (Sega) or Mario Brothers (Nintendo). In fact, it’s the first game to draw a  direct line between side scrolling animation of the 30’s and ‘platformers’ of the Mario genus. Intellectually it seems like all the pieces should fit. There have been more than a few iconic video game characters that have reflected the influence of 1930’s cartoon design. Think Pac-Man’s pie-cut eyes (in the advertising anyway) or Donkey Kong’s grill teeth.  And yet the results of Cuphead are an amalgam of pieces that don't seem to quite fit.

Not a particularly attractive drawing but the pie-cut eyes demonstrate the link some early video game designers (and merchandisers) saw between video game characters and animated cartoon characters of Yore.

Part of this is what I see as a fundamental misunderstanding of the differences between the 'house styles' of the various studios of the 30's. Take for instance the painted backgrounds of Cuphead. While they draw upon a number of sources of inspiration it seems to me their primary 'guiding light' stylistically is Disney of the 30's. Those had a specific approach that favoured a naturalism and desaturated colors over the sort of eccentric, and sometimes daring, flourishes that studios like Fleischers and Iwerks tended towards. It was a conservative approach.

A comparison between a scene from Disney's 'Music Land' (1935) and a level of Cuphead shows at least a similarity of color palette choices and 'wash' approach (favouring realism).

You may notice the flower character above gesturing in the manner of this character from 'Swing You Sinners': an ominous Fleischer Talkartoon from 1930. Out of context the gesture in Cuphead comes off as random. Not so in the original where the character (a ghost) is intended to be a manifestation of a guilty conscience. 

An 'enchanted forest' level of Cuphead.

Scene from 'Snow White' (1937)

Disney backgrounds were created specifically for a certain type of ‘soft’ story and characters. It's widely reported that, excepting the odd special or dream sequence, Walt didn't care for the type of surrealism Cuphead revels in. The cartoons generally bear out the theory as well.  Instead the studio was pushing towards a more realistic style of animation and storytelling through most of the 30’s. Even cartoons like ‘Music Land’ (1935) are amazingly reticent to show anything really strange such as the Fleischers (and others) were producing a few years earlier (and even afterwords). In my opinion part of the problem with Cuphead is that so many elements appear 'sampled' and stuffed in without much thought as to how well they will work with the other parts. That's something that wouldn't have happened in the 30's where departments worked together closely to create a product that appeared produced seemingly by one hand.

This particular effect, known as a 'smear', is generally accepted to have entered animation with Chuck Jones 'Dover Boys at Pimento University' (1942): a clash of styles with the earlier 30's aesthetic the game is pushing. Note also how superfluous detail and poor color choices in the painted background fight the foreground for attention: hard to keep the eye from drifting to those red areas! 

One of the famous smear frames from 'Dover Boys at Pimento University' (1942)

That last bit is important. It's why we so often hear of work "done in that 30's style" rather than specifically done in that Iwerks, Van Bueren or Fleischer style. So cohesive was the work that, at a glance, it almost appears that one person did all of it! However, the fact is that all the studios of the 30's were on their own distinct paths. Fleischer was moving to the shake-up that would ultimately result in Famous Studios and their unique conception of Warner slapstick and Disney sentiment.  Terrytoons threadbare 30's cartoons moved on to their own blend of colourful fantasy and cynical humour in the 40's. 

Famous Studios represented a blossoming of sorts for Dave Tendlar. His style made a number transformations from the 30's through the 50's

The mechanical fantasyland of 'Post War Inventions': a 1945 Terrytoon.

Iwerks' studio didn't survive the 30's but went on to influence, in ways both subtle and overt, the cartoons of both Chuck Jones and UPA.  Van Bueren and Charles Mintz' studios were fellow victims but worked as training grounds for a 'murderer's row' of animators that would influence the business for decades. Warners and Disney were, of course, ascendant in the 30's but would not achieve their lasting fame until the 40's. Whatever the case there wasn't a clear single direction for all. The problem is that Cuphead is trying to be all these things at the same time. 

An example of how different the approach to background can be seen in this frame from Iwerks' 'Alladin'. Disney of the 30's wouldn't have allowed stairs to be drawn this way (unless the character were having a nightmare or something). 

What strikes me is that on some level Cuphead appears more of an intellectual exercise than a piece aching to be created.   It's elements-some lifted directly from the original cartoons (testing the fine line between 'homage' and plagiarism)-seem forced into service of standard platformer gameplay. The gags, ostensibly intended to mimic the surreality of the originals, seem indulgent in a way the original cartoons never were. For instance, a cartoon like ‘Bimbo’s Initiation’ had a logic to it in which conflict is introduced and time given to Bimbo’s predicament before commencing with the final chase and denouement. Pretty well all the Fleischer cartoons of the early period were fashioned this way.Gags tended to start slowly and then escalate to a final ‘blackout gag’.   It wasn't haphazard. In an interview given at the time of the game's release one of it's creators stated: "when you go back to the late 20's and early 30''s almost as if they wanted to make surreal animation just to make it".

This is really confusing. Not only staging and color value but a curious weightlessness that permeates the animation in the game. The best 30's cartoons had no such impediments. It also opens issues of research. Did the makers only base their material on old cartoons or did they research the period? When the Fleischer artists drew night clubs or restaurants it was from personal experience. It wasn't an affectation. Even the music is wrong! And that crowd anim... okay ... take a breath, John...

Surreal and crazy but clear and laid out with purpose: Bimbo's Initiation (1931)

Still, with all these criticisms I don’t want overshadow Cuphead’s good points. In many ways I think it achieves what so many neo-30’s animation undertakings have missed. Compare for example the over wrought feeling ’Belleville Rendevous’ section of Triplettes of Belleville (2003). So, these things are definately improving. Further, Cuphead's fully traditional animation (on paper over tablet) gives it a certain kind of life not seen in animation for a long time. I agree that a little line wobble is a good thing.  And I fully support surrealism in animation. As far as I’m concerned if you are working in a medium in which you can show the laws of physics being defied, at least some of the time, why wouldn’t you do it? If you want reality look out the window. A helluva lot of good old fashioned elbow grease went into this and it shows. It's warm reception is encouraging to see. 

A nice drawing from the 'Belleville Rendezvous' section of 'Triplets of Belleville' (2003). Unfortunately the animation in the sequence comes off stilted and rushed. By contrast, Cuphead's characters have the nice flowing (and hypnotic) action and sensitivity to volume that the 'Rendevous' number could have benefited from.

I know there will be people who disagree but I think doing animation with pencil and brush gives an added quality that the fully digital process can't quite match. It's great to see and to see people responding to it.

Too often I encounter a snide attitude with regards to 30’s cartoons.  As if they were the 1950’s rubber monster or flying hubcap movies of animation. The tendency to think of every one as a ‘bouncing ball’ exercise (the first thing they teach in animation school) misses the point that many of these artists were creating the bedrock on which all those animation courses, and indeed the entirety of the animation business, is based. If one looks carefully at those early cartoons all the finer animation achievements of later years can be seen in their early stages.  It’s deceptive though and a lot of people have been fooled by it over the years. In spite of the simple designs these were not artists content with standing still. 

Deal with it.

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