Cuphead Animation—the Good, the Great, and the Amazing
Before we begin, I need to give a huge thank you to Cuphead animator Jake Clark for posting some of his wonderful pencil tests of the game’s animation found throughout this article! Here’s his Tumblr, and he’s @JakeClarkDude on Twitter.
(Editor’s note: A pencil test in animation usually means compiling animation frames into a gif or similar format to test if they create the right motion before inking/clean-up and coloring.)
A Great Slam and Then Some!
Studio MDHR’s hit, hand-hewn, hellishly hard indie title Cuphead recently surpassed 3 million copies sold across Xbox One and PC. Released just under a year ago, it’s almost needless to say that going triple platinum is a huge triumph for this beautifully animated boss-rush bash.
Next up from the makers of Cuphead — a couple really cool things.
Those Sweet, Sweet Jams
2018’s Kensington Market Jazz Festival in Toronto will be the first live-concert performance of Cuphead music. According to a tweet from the game’s composer, Kristofer Maddigan, the concert will feature the original band along with “a few surprises!” You can only get tickets with cash at the door, and regrettably, I’ll be in the wrong part of Canada to be able to attend.
I mention this event because I am about to gush about this game — its animation in particular. In doing so, I will knowingly give its music (and its gameplay, to an extent) the short end of the stick in terms of the praise it really, truly deserves. This game has over two and a half hours of awesome, period-accurate music — all recorded live in studio. The music in this game has so much attention to detail, there’s even a freaking tap dancer in some of the tracks to add to the authenticity of the 1930s’ jazz-inspired score. It’s just unreal.
Even more to love
Then there’s The Delicious Last Course, the upcoming DLC announced at Microsoft’s 2018 E3 conference (more about it at the end of this article). And as someone who has gotten all the achievements for Cuphead and S-ranked all the bosses, I am absolutely head-over-heels excited for more of this game to play! But beyond the gameplay, I might be even more excited to see more of that amazing artwork and animation.
Can we all just take a moment to say bless the Moldenhauer brothers and their whole crew for getting back to the sometimes agonizing grind that is hand-drawn, hand-inked animation? From what I know about the difficulty of animation, the light sense of finality in the DLC’s title doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Genuinely, one of my biggest moments of shock from 2018’s E3 (besides that Elder Scrolls VI trailer, which I wrote about here) was the announcement of The Delicious Last Course.
I was just absolutely stunned watching the trailer. I couldn’t believe that after everything it took to make Cuphead, Studio MDHR would be willing to go back to their drawing tablets and animation stations to give us even more. Even considering some of the game’s unused content and its initial success, making a fully functional, fully animated expansion will definitely be a labor of love.
I’m not an animator per se, but I have made a couple extremely short and rough digital and hand-drawn animations just to mess around with the medium.
BOY is it hard!
I thought I might use my (extremely) limited animation experience in an attempt to put into context the general process and amount of work that goes into creating the animated content in this wacky, sentient glassware-based game.
The rest of this article will get technical at times, although I will do my best to explain things as clearly as I can. This article focuses on some general animation practices and techniques that people who have never tried animating anything might not know. I will not discuss 3D animation, how to draw, how to create movement, or how to integrate animations within video games, specifically.
‘A frame’ in animation (or at least 2D animation) does not always translate to ‘an image/drawing.’ In general, a frame is a space in a sequence that displays the next part of the overall project or holds what the previous frame displays in place. Simply put, a frame is like a numbered slide in a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation and the actual drawings are more like the text boxes you add to display information on those slides.
My longest animation (it’s bad, unfinished, and irrelevant to this article but it lives here) is digital and roughly 19 seconds long. It runs at a speed of 12 frames per second and takes over 220 frames to run. Hours went into creating over 220 individual drawings,
(because I’m an absolute genius who didn’t realize you have the option to copy and paste with digital animation) all for under 20 seconds of run-time. It’s an almost embarrassingly large disparity of time in to time out.
In case you’re having trouble picturing 220 drawings as a unit of measurement, I encourage you to grab the means with which to draw … let’s say the outline of Mickey Mouse’s head ten times in a row. Each time, draw exactly the same shape and size. Give the first Mickey a simple closed-mouth smile. Now give the final Mickey a mouth wide open in surprise. And now give each Mickey in between a mouth shape that completes the sequence (make him go from happy to surprised).
Imagine doing that exact thing you just did (or probably imagined doing tbh, I’m not judging), but with the rest of Mickey’s face, body, and clothes included. Also imagine doing it all over 200 more times.
Yeah, if you know anyone who animates and sometimes they’re too busy or too tired to hang out, it’s probably because the person you know animates.
This Battle Will Get Red Hot!
Cuphead, by comparison, runs animations at the smooth, cinema-standard speed of 24 frames per second. My amateur 19 second animation, if animated in the same way as Cuphead, would require approximately 440 individual drawings to serve as the initial frames of animation. Then, another 440 new, cleaned up and inked frames based off the initial frames. Each one of the inked and cleaned up 440 frames would get digitally scanned onto a computer or drawing tablet. Finally, each of those scanned 440 frames would need to be colored and shaded individually because in a side-by-side comparison of digital to hand-painted gauche, Studio MDHR found that digital coloring looks best in-game.
All this for 19 seconds of animation — and I’m not even including the time it takes to finalize character/world designs, decide what actions the subject takes, settle how the movement should look overall, and all that jazz.
Check out this short video for a look at the different steps (0:15-1:45).
That video shows (sped up and probably lightly choreographed) what it takes to make a singular finished frame. One out of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of frames in that particular sequence. Yeah, that’s unbelievable.
It’s so easy to forget how much work went into this game when it’s just absolutely wrecking your shop. But Cuphead really is just an absolutely incredible piece of animation work and a wonderfully fun game in general.
The Old 1, 2, 3 Punch!
Now, when I said in the example that the animators over at Studio MDHR would create around 440 frames for a 19-second-long animation, I really do mean they would create 440 unique drawings for the initial animation and inking. The Cuphead animation team does something called animating ‘on ones’ (as opposed to animating on twos or threes), which explains why the animations look so smooth.
Animating on ones means that each drawing appears for the space of one frame. Motion, especially faster moving actions, will generally be very smooth and detailed because you see every step needed to complete the action. Think of The Walt Disney Company’s two-dimensional feature length films for reference.
Take a look at this simple animation I made as an example, and please ignore the fact that the ball doesn’t quite move correctly by Earth’s gravitational standards. He’s just a bouncy boy who wants to get somewhere. These 64 frames run at 24 frames per second, which means that in the space of each second you watch it, you will see 24 unique images. (Sequentially unique, I mean — the images never repeat themselves.)
Something animated on ones would look like: a-n-i-m-a-t-e if you looked at all the frames sequentially.
Animating on twos means every one image holds for the space of two frames — almost as if images appear twice in a row instead of once. I say “holds for” and “almost” because it’s important to understand that something animated on twos would not look like a-a-n-n-i-i-m-m-a-a-t-t-e-e. Drawings aren’t duplicated, rather they simply remain on screen for the space of two regular frames.
Halving the Speed Does Not Mean Animating on Twos
This is the ball animation from before. Here it plays at 12 frames per second, but it is still animated on ones. You are actually looking at 12 unique images every second — NOT at 24 images a second, 12 of which are unique. It looks like the ball’s motion happens at a slower speed not because of how the motion was drawn, but because of the speed at which the drawings appear in sequence.
Holding Frames is the Key Difference
This is the same animation played at 24 frames per second and animated on twos. I removed every other drawing and left the frames where the drawings were blank so each remaining drawing would appear one frame longer. To repeat, you’re looking at 12 unique drawings every second, but each frame stays on screen twice as long and that’s why this version is animated on twos.
Animating on anything besides ones, to varying extents, tends to create a sort of strobe light effect on motion. Strobe lights make fast motion look especially choppy because part of the visual sequence you normally see gets removed from that sequence. Your brain has to work a little harder filling in the gaps for you to register the disconnected images as motion. Luckily, with Cuphead being animated on ones, the animation motion doesn’t require more brain power to process everything on screen than the gameplay already does!
Animating on threes means that each drawing holds for the space of three frames. When animating on threes, even less explicit visual information exists to fill in the gaps in motion between key actions. Which means motion will look more choppy and less fluid, but production time and costs will often look great. Generally, the fewer drawings needed to convey movement to an audience, the lower the production time and cost to produce animated work. Although, this may not always be the case.
Importantly, the smoothness of motion in animated works absolutely does not make one animated work inherently “better” overall than another. Animating on ones does not necessarily make for a superior animation and animating on twos, threes, fours, etc. does not necessarily make for an inferior animation. For example, sometimes anime or other types of animation might be animated on threes or even fours so that more time and resources can go into making extremely detailed and/or time consuming illustration work, rather than focusing on movement fluidity.
It all depends on — partly resource management, yes — but ultimately on art direction and how creators want to tell their story and/or present their work.
Cuphead Animation Speed vs. Gameplay Speed
Remember that one time I told you Cuphead runs at 24 frames per second? Yeah, well, I lied right to your face about that. At least a little bit. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. This is the internet and my name doesn’t show up at the beginning of this article. How do you know I’m not a robot or that I haven’t been lying to you this entire time? Well, I guess you made it this far. Might as well finish since the article’s almost done anyway. Just remember for next time, a reasonable amount of Cartesian skepticism never hurts.
The Truth, Probably
The animations in Cuphead run at 24 frames per second, but the actual gameplay happens at 60. How is this possible? Well, I’m not sure if I can properly explain. No joke — trying to get some of the information for this article into my head at times was like trying to nail Jello to a tree using a dead fish.
Luckily, there’s an interview with Chad Moldenhauer from Time Magazine that briefly mentions how this works. From what it sounds like, Cuphead and Mugman’s animations show them running in place, as opposed to running across the screen. The speed the frames play at is 24 frames per second, but the characters’ movement has been drawn to look more natural when they move forward at 60 frames per second. The player moves those animations around the screen at 60 frames per second, as if they were clicking and dragging a text box around a word document at a constant speed. As players play the game, the characters’ stationary run cycles create the illusion of true movement.
I can’t speak for the validity of this explanation, nor can I say if it applies to any of the animations beyond that of Cuphead and Mugman, although I imagine this may be the case for most projectiles. All I know is that being an animator is basically the closest thing you can get in the real world to being a wizard specializing in illusion magics.
A Brawl is Surely Brewing!
Cuphead is just fantastic. So much thought and work and time and energy went into every aspect of this game, and it really shows. Hopefully it’s now a little easier to see how crazy it is for Studio MDHR to create any kind of expansion for Cuphead, at least in terms of the pains they take to produce the game’s animation. Or maybe I’ve just confused you. Either way, I can’t express to you how appreciative I am that this game is a thing that exists in the world.
(Like, fun fact — I kind of destroyed both my right thumb and the ligament attached to it a little bit playing hockey in high school, which can sometimes make these button mashers a bit of a pain to play. And I still one-hundred and two-hundred-percented this game, then got all the achievements for it, then S-ranked all the bosses. That’s how fun this game is.)
According to Studio MDHR, The Delicious Last Course introduces one (presumably final) isle full of new bosses bent on destroying the adorable beverage receptacles we’ve come to know and love. It also features new weapons, charms, and the unlockable playable character Ms. Chalice. Man, will it be exciting to see Ms. Chalice as more than just something to save from ghosts to get a reward.
Some Quick Stats About The Delicious Last Course:
- What’s it about? According to the Cuphead website, players can expect to “help Chef Saltbaker on a brand new adventure to uncover the mystery of Legendary Chalice’s secret quest!”
- Ms. Chalice must be unlocked or acquired.
- Ms. Chalice has a “modified moveset and new abilities,” one of which looks like a double jump.
- Players can use Ms. Chalice in newly added and existing boss fights.
- That should be very fun and hopefully Mugman will be playable for single players, too.
- Chef Saltbaker appears to have a book with a skull and crossbones on it, a humanoid skull, a skeletal arm, an axe, and a jar of mummy dust in his kitchen.
- I want to love him, but giving a chef character a book with the universal sign for POISON on it doesn’t exactly give me the warm fuzzies, you feel me?
One last shout out to the amazing human and actual animation student who helped me fact check and finalize the more technical points about the animation process! She’s one of the best people in the world and I’ll fight you about it. Here’s her Tumblr!
Did I get anything wrong about animation or about Cuphead? Please let me know!
Want to read my silly, yet deadly serious, article asking for better butts on male video game protagonists? Find it here! Please, please, someone get those boys some half-decent butt muscles so they can save the world without their tool belts (i.e. fanny packs) slipping right off ’em! Poor guys can’t pick them up off the ground because you need a functional butt for that.
For more from The Punished Backlog, check out our most recent articles (as of mid-September 2018) about our favorite merchants in gaming, our fantasy gaming league, Nintendo Direct predictions, No Man’s Sky, One Piece: World Seeker‘s delay, and Okami!