StudioMDHR's Cuphead is an innovative new game inspired by a very retro aesthetic: 1930s-style American cartoons. While its creators have successfully inspired excitement among a steadily growing indie gamer audience, few know that this unique, action-packed game was painstakingly illustrated, frame-by-frame, by hand, using Copic Multiliners.
Earlier this year, we had the opportunity to interview the creative minds behind this mindblowing game/artpiece-in-motion, brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer. Here's what they shared:
What inspired the creation of Cuphead?
Cuphead is a love letter to the two things we liked the most growing up: arcade action games and 1930s cartoons. Those two things set the design template for what we wanted to achieve, and we have striven to be as authentic as possible to both inspirations. On the game side, we've stuck to our arcade roots with fast action and a challenging obstacles. On the art side, we've tried to replicate the production methods of 1930s animation using pencil and ink animation, hand painted backgrounds, a hot jazz musical score, and foley sound effects.
Excellent! Backing up, how did StudioMDHR get started?
From an early age, we had always dreamed of creating a video game, but it wasn't until recently that we saw a place for the kind of game we wanted to create. For so long, video games were dominated by giant productions, developed by dozens or hundreds of people, and the barriers to entry were high enough to exclude many talented designers. Then, around 2008, a handful of amazing single-person and small team “indie” games (Braid, Castle Crashers, Super Meat Boy) were released, and they revolutionized the idea of who could make games. The success of those games inspired us to create StudioMDHR and became the impetus to start weekly design chats for a game that, over a very long road, eventually became Cuphead.
Talk about how the game bridges the traditional and digital arts.
All of the art in Cuphead started with traditional media. We did a huge amount of testing early on and found that the small imperfections present in hand-done art are instrumental in replicating the animation of the 1930s; they give the art a sense of liveliness and character. Our animation starts at a paper and pencil level and then is hand-inked to create the final look of the art that goes into the game. Since we ink on paper, not celluloid, we use modern inking pens rather than fountain pens. It is impossible to achieve fluid lines when using traditional fountain pens on animation paper, and we found Copic Mulitliners simulated the perfect result of mirroring the fluidity of the line work from that era.
Source: TIME, See How Cuphead's Incredible Cartoon Graphics Are Made
We initially started out traditionally inking and painting each frame of animation on celluloid, but after a bunch of tests, we found that inking the frames on paper, and then digitally painting the frames, produced an end product indistinguishable from the hand painted cels—and saved us about one million years in drawing time! Once we switched to modern inking pens and digitally colored frames, we never looked back!
All of the backgrounds are hand-painted with watercolors and scanned in as separated layers so that we can digitally create a parallax effect for distant objects as the screen scrolls. We try to emphasize the strengths of each medium through the process; traditional media for the creation and vibrancy of the art, and digital composition and editing for efficiency and flexibility.
Is Cuphead a work of art? What is your team's philosophy on video games as an artform?
Every video game is a work of art, but any given art form may be perceived as more or less "legitimate" than others in popular or critical circles. Disney's main goal during the golden era was “art for art's sake”, and to some degree, we follow that mentality by animating everything that appears on screen to an insane degree. That said, any artistic medium, the genre comes with its limitations. Video game design is a responsive medium, and the art on the screen needs to react quickly to the player's inputs. Consequently, we have to create a balance between the extravagance of an animated flourish and the ability to transition from one animation to another quickly for gameplay purposes.
How many illustrators are working on the game and what tools do they use?
Chad Moldenhauer, as our Creative Director, visualizes and tests a lot of the art that goes into the game. [He] uses his favorite pencils and Copic Multiliners for sketching and creating concepts. Our five amazing animators use their favorite drawing pencils, erasers, and epic amounts of animation paper. The Cuphead team of animators is made up of Hanna Abi-Hanna, Jake Clark, Joseph Coleman, Danielle Johnson, and Tina Nawrocki.
We have one main inking artist, Marija (Maja) Moldenhauer who works on the final inked frames for the game. To date, she has inked upwards of 25,000 frames – so you can imagine how many pens she goes through. She defines what the final look of the art will be using Copic Multiliners (sizes: 0.3, 0.5, 0.8 and 1.0 mm). Danielle Johnson has also been a great resource in assisting with inkwork as well—when she isn’t animating.
Our main background artist, Caitlin Russell, uses Yarka St. Petersburg watercolour with gouache highlights, on Arches watercolour paper. Our specialty background artist, Ali Morbi, uses a lot of different media to create a few of the physical set pieces we have in Cuphead—and these “3D” background sets are heavily influenced from Fleischer Studios!
Sounds like an amazing team. Any advice for artists and game developers trying to collaborate on a game?
Collaboration is delicate. It's good to find people with the same interests, and promoting the strengths found where people diverge is key. You want to have a unifying vision of what you're trying to create, but you also need to let people have ownership of their creations to allow them to add their personality into them. In the end, we've found that bringing on people with the same mentality, passion, and drive that we share works for us. Everyone has to desire the same level of quality, because inevitably, there will need to be sacrifices along the way to make the project work.
What are some of the challenges of being an indie game developer?
The hardest thing about being an indie game developer these days is competing with the huge amount of incredible games that are constantly released. There is no shortage of talent in the industry, and there's never been a higher bar for quality than there is now. Thankfully, the audience has grown broader than ever, so hopefully we are able to find our niche of people who love the same things we do!
We congratulate the Cuphead team on their immensely successful game released on September 29th, 2017 and are thrilled to have played a part in the creation of their mesmerizing game! Get the Multiliners!