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The Cuphead Show! team grappled with the animation’s racist history from the start

‘Is the style or art of this worth detaching from this awful trope at times?’

Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

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

“It was definitely something we were aware of,” executive producer Dave Wasson tells Polygon. “That era of animation is loaded with problematic portrayals of characters and race. And there’s also misogyny. It’s definitely problematic. It was a very different time.”

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

“It wasn’t just staying away from it for the sake of like, Oh, don’t touch that,” Fernandez says. “We really did discuss the root of what was problematic so that we could end up [asking] OK is the style or art of this worth detaching from this awful trope at times? Sometimes it wasn’t.”

Cuphead looking up at Dice King who’s posing for the crowd Image: Netflix
Cuphead and Mugman walk along a sunny path Image: Netflix
Cuphead and Mugman celebrate with Chalice on a carnival float Image: Netflix
Image: Netflix

That era of animation encompasses a wide gamut of cartoons, from the Fleischer Brothers shows to Disney’s Silly Symphonies. Beyond the conversations about the loaded imagery of the time period and what to leave behind, the team also had to narrow the scope of inspiration. They ended up looking at the game and pinpointing boss characters.

“That was the thing that was so fun about this,” says Fernandez. “Each boss character almost had its own distinct look. For certain bosses, we’d reference an entirely specific group of episodes from the ’30s. [The] Cookie Carnival is a great example. We were able to really lean in on these like really fun episodes, because we had like the perfect motifs for that individual boss character. In a way, like we got to build levels for each of these characters.”

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

Cuphead and Mugman surrounded by skeletons Image: Netflix

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

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

“They push the emotions and some of the faces into realms that are just brilliant,” says Chad Moldenhauer, one of the game’s co-creators. “Almost into that Ren and Stimpy, but still blended with a ’30s-style quirkiness.”

The animators also employed more tactile stop-motion animation for specific scenes, like the establishing shot of Cuphead and Mugman’s teapot-shaped house. It’s a quirk that harkens back to the Fleischer cartoons, where the animators would create stop motion sets atop giant Lazy Susans, and take pictures of it while hanging cel-animation in front of the set.

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

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

“At one point we talked about doing the whole thing and a three color process, which Dave was like, Take it easy. It’s too crazy,” she recounts. “There was so much crazy stuff going on in the ’30s. That’s some of the challenges really saying, OK, this is what we’re gonna stick to. And this is going to be our show. Because there were so many fun aesthetics during that era.”