Boasting a vintage 1930s 2D visual style and packed with wacky antics, “The Cuphead Show!” is the latest addition to Netflix’s burgeoning animation slate. The 12-episode series, based on the hugely popular run-and-gun game from Studio MDHR, follows the adventures of brothers Cuphead and Mugman as they hop out of the frying pan and into the fire only to land on their feet ready for more high-octane escapades.
The reckless and impulsive Cuphead, voiced by Tru Valentino, is tempered somewhat by his cautious and slightly neurotic brother Mugman (Frank Todaro), while Elder Kettle (Joe Hanna) is the patient guardian who ensures order in their snug little cottage on Inkwell Isle. Luke Millington-Drake voices the duo’s nemesis, The Devil, with Wayne Brady pitching in as the voice of the Cab Calloway–styled big band leader King Dice, and Grey Griffin as the noir-inflected Ms. Chalice.
Now streaming on Netflix, “The Cuphead Show!” is executive produced by Dave Wasson (“Time Squad”) alongside “Cuphead” creators Chad and Jared Moldenhauer. The animation is provided by Lighthouse Studios, the Kilkenny, Ireland-based 2D animation studio co-owned by Mercury Filmworks and Tomm Moore’s Cartoon Saloon (which has the Nora Twomey feature “My Father’s Dragon” with Netflix this year).
The retro, hand-drawn visuals for which the game is known channel classic Fleischer cartoons and Disney’s “Silly Symphonies,” complete with wobbly, “rubber hose” arms and legs and even dancing skeletons. The careful observer will note a bevy of vintage touches, including film grain and other artifacts.
“I love this era of animation,” said Wasson, who previously worked on Disney Television Animation’s “Mickey Mouse” series. “The animation from that time period is so raw and so lively. That was something I really prayed that we’d get.”
To capture the distinctive vintage look and feel of the “Cuphead” game, Wesson knew the series would also need to employ its signature hand-painted watercolor backgrounds. “That’s what the backgrounds in the 1930s looked like, and that’s what the game emulated as well,” he said. “Maybe it was naive, but I was just like, ‘That’s how it has to be,’ even if I really had no idea how we would pull it off.”
Art director Andrea Fernández was tasked with creating the look of the series, including the development of a visual style guide for producing digital backgrounds that delivered the handmade quality of watercolor paintings. “I spent about six months just researching and developing how to achieve the work in a way that could be done over thousands of backgrounds of unique places,” she said. “The game has about 25 backgrounds. The show has thousands. It’s about 100 per episode. It’s a lot of artwork to make in this particular style [of] animation, especially TV animation, because of the intense, laborious process behind getting this look. You paint something, especially with the watercolor, it’s so personal. It’s organic. It’s so fluid that it’s really hard to systemize.”
Fernández developed different color palettes for each episode featuring new characters, just as a cinematographer creates separate looks for a film to support the narrative. The vibrant Technicolor hues of the 1936 Fleischer Studios short, “Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor,” were especially useful as references. “The ‘Sinbad’ cartoon had elements of so many things that were in the game that I was just like, ‘Oh, this is so cool!’ Like, we can take some of this palette and put it in the Underworld. We can take some of this palette and we can put it in the high seas, and we can take some of this and put it on this volcano adventure.”
Similar to the 2D pipeline employed for the “Mickey Mouse” shorts, “The Cuphead Show!” was animated using Toon Boom Harmony. “Since we’re trying to do a 1930s look on a TV schedule and budget, we knew we’d have to embrace more modern technology,” Wasson said. “Basically, inside Harmony you can build a two-dimensional rig for a character, but if you use the rigs as they are, they can look a lot like puppets. They don’t really feel like traditional 2D animation. But if you add hundreds of very specific individual drawings to each frame, you can ‘trick’ the system into making it look like traditional hand-drawn animation.”
The show’s catchy intro was written by Wasson and co-executive producer Cosmo Segurson (“Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling”), and then fleshed out by series composer Ego Plum (“SpongeBob SquarePants”). The Easter egg–laden sequence features animation by stop-motion specialists Screen Novelties, known for their work on Adult Swim’s “Robot Chicken” and Nickelodeon’s “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
“I just felt like we really needed a great opening sequence,” added Wasson, describing the chatter about how skippable main titles are on streaming platforms. “I was like, ‘I don’t know about you guys, but my kids love a main title sequence. They watch it every time.’ I think if we do it right, it won’t be something that people want to skip over.”