Get a closer look at the entirely hand-drawn animation of the latest indie video game sensation
Four years ago, when brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer and a few of their family members formed StudioMDHR to create and animate their debut run-and-gun video game, Cuphead, entirely by hand, they figured it would be a labour of love. But some 60,000 hand-drawn elements and a partnership with Microsoft ID@Xbox later, they’ve seen their little-indie-game-that-could go platinum in the two weeks since its release in late September.
The Moldenhauers grew up playing video games and cite Super Meat Boy in Braid and Castle Crashers as the indie games that made them think they could, just maybe, build their own.
“Jared and I both grew up watching 1930s cartoons. And they stuck with us our whole lives,” says Chad. “And we just wanted to make a game that stems from the games we grew up with in the late ’80s and early ’90s. That’s one of the key ingredients that makes Cuphead stand out today.”
Maja Moldenhauer, the game’s producer, inking artist and Chad’s wife, says that the 1930s style lends itself well to the kind of gameplay they wanted to create. “Back then it was limitless what the characters could do. Their arms could extend outside the screen; their tails could turn into a match. Every object could be personified in a different way,” she says. “There were no boundaries in making this game. We could let our creativity run wild in terms of creating these characters and their enemies.”
That includes the title character himself, and his brother, Mugman. “We [wanted] a character that felt like it fit in the world of the old cartoons, but was still semi-original,” says Chad. “From the 1930s up until now, almost everything has been done—every single animal, every type of humanoid character. So we just kept brainstorming.”
Chad had two or three sketchbooks filled with the genesis of the Cuphead character. After posting some of their early work on NeoGAF, a gaming enthusiast forum, the Oakville, Ontario–based StudioMDHR got The Call. Someone at Microsoft had seen Cuphead—and it eventually led to a partnership. The Moldenhauers suddenly had a few more animators and artists to help, and an exclusive distribution deal for Microsoft Windows and Xbox One.
“There’s this notion that you have to be in a big office and have all of these different materials and all of these skills to do something,” says Maja. “But you just have to get started. You don’t have to be a massive studio. You can be one person in your bedroom to create something epic.”
“As the scope grew, I had to pull back and become more of the art director instead of being so hands-on,” says Chad. Jared moved into the game direction side. Says Maja, “It’s so laughable now when you look at it—how much actually goes into the game and how little we knew back then.”
So what does go into an entirely hand-drawn game? Once the brothers had the concept nailed down and specific characters, traits or actions in mind, they would pass them on to the animators for roughing.
“We could nail it in the first go, or it could take up to 20 concepts,” says Maja. “But we would never sacrifice the vision for time. We’d never settle. Chad is very particular. Even if an eyeball looked crooked or was in the wrong direction, we’d have to go right back to the drawing board.”
Once the roughs were approved, key frames would be animated in order for the brothers to get a general sense of movement. Then the sequences would be animated at 24 frames per second. “We leverage a lot of tricks like holds and foils and loops,” notes Maja.
Then the animations would arrive on her desk for clean up. “I’d put down a new sheet of paper to ink everything, which then gets scanned in [to the computer]. That’s how we’d colour digitally,” she says. “It’s kind of cool to have touched every single frame of animation in this game—which is a lot!”
She continues, “We did everything by hand because we really wanted to capture the character that came out in 1930s cartoons. When we set out to do this, Chad tried all-digital tests. Everything is done digitally, so you’re thinking inside the box, and it it’s just the fastest, most efficient way. But it never felt or looked right. That’s when Chad and Jared decided, why not try to do it the way they did it in the 1930s? And that was the magic.”
That was also reflective of their deep commitment to the craft, which touches every part of the game, including its original soundtrack by longtime friend and musician Kristofer Maddigan. Maddigan, who is a member of the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra, had never composed music before, but developed 13 big band numbers to accompany Cuphead. True to the game’s Depression-era style, they published the soundtrack as a four-LP album with gold embossing.
Now that Cuphead is out in the world with early positive reviews, the team is trying to take it all in. “One challenge has been exactly like the reward system that’s built into the game—you just have stuff piled up and you never feel like you are going to win the battle,” says Chad. “But in the end, when you see [all your work] finalized and running in the game, you feel revitalized.”
“The success of this has solidified that we get to continue making games, which has been the best news so far,” adds Maja. While Cuphead’s “Don’t Deal With the Devil” subtitle may hint at future iterations, she says the studio isn’t yet ready to commit to anything. “Everyone wants to stick together doing this. We are going to still be doing 2D animation, but we’re not tied down to the 1930s era.”
Says Chad, “We’re just trying to pick up the pieces of our lives that disappeared as we were working on this game!”
See a preview of Cuphead below, and see more process work in the top slider.