Death Maze Challenge (2014)



Even though animation has come a long way, there’s still so much to discover. The formats, the mediums, the people are all evolving, all the time. YouTube is among the most popular medias of this age, and video games are the most inflating forms of entertainment there are. Almost all video games are practically a form of animation itself, but even that considered, there’s some really notable pieces nodding up to some classic animated films too, like Machinarium and Limbo.

What is truly bizarre, is that aesthetics of classic video games have not so much mixed up with the animated films. Until just lately. But while animated films haven’t crossed so much with for example platformers deliberately, some much older techniques have a lot in common with this newer medium. Most distinctly silhouette animation, Lotte Reiniger, Bruno J. Böttge, Manfred Henkel and Michel Ocelot. They’ve all made some fantastic silhouette films that at times have the same aesthetic feel as the platformers. A recent addition to this tradition is a very nice Romanian music video by Stefan & Ducu Buzea – Alex Bratu: Eroul Fara Nume!

Also from Romania, comes this whole new approach on the medium called Death Maze Challenge. A new episode was originally supposed to be screened on every Monday at YouTube, starting from today. Due to all the work load on one-man band behind all this, Virgil Mihailescu, it is now a bit uncertain whether it’s going to last for many episodes that way. The concept is great nevertheless.

What is this all about? I had a chat with Virgil Mihailescu, and you can read all about it after you check out the teaser from here and if you like it, subscribe to Death Maze Challenge.




ea_1 You’re doing an animated series based on the laws and aesthetics of entirely different medium, the classic 2D platformer. It’s a very traditional type of video game standard, and within just around five years it’s been popular again due to successful indie games made by people who grew up playing them.

(I myself played hundreds of video games during the 1990s, I especially loved the platformers, adventure games and strategy games, everything to do with progress of man, mankind and technology. I didn’t like where the gaming industry in general went with 3D at some point, but it was indie-games like Machinarium, Limbo, VVVVVV, Hotline Miami, Super Meat Boy and Bindings of Isaac that got me interested again.) So, firstly I’m interested in your gaming history now. What’s it like?

dmc_1My gaming history is not that impressive. I don’t play as much as others. I didn’t even have my own PC until I was quite old.. like 18-19 years old? I was a musician and didn’t care much about spending time on a computer. But even if I didn’t have a computer as a kid, some of my friends did, and I was mesmerized.. I started drawing platform games on paper, sort of like table-top games, and played them with my friends..

My first console [I was about 14] could only play Tetris and the Snake. I didn’t care much for the latter, but I was obsessed with Tetris. It’s only much later though that I had a decent PC to run fancy games. I like lots of games, like shooters, action RPGs, open worlds, sandboxes, a bit of strategy, empire-building games, racing and I’m especially interested in Indie games because they often embody the vision of one person and are born out of passion for games and the need to play a game that doesn’t exist yet, not from the need to make money.

Let’s stay with platformers. Probably the first I ever played was Dizzy. I’ve been constantly on and off platformers, but they’re a recurrent motive.. I played a bunch of NES and SNES games on emulators, on the PC, but I’m more interested in the recent ones. Limbo, VVVVVV, Risk of Rain, Nifflas’ games, Rayman, Broforce, Spelunky, Starbound, N, Super Meat Boy and lots of others.

Nowadays platformers are getting more and more sophisticated, more alive, more dynamic and original, people keep trying new things.. on top of tried and true game mechanics, which is great! I think 2D platformers are a gold mine, like shooters. They have this excellent core mechanic: jumping very accurately, no holding hands here. Being precise when navigating around a death maze.

They still have a lot of potential, I’m sure a lot of things have not been tried yet, and as AI evolves, as computers evolve, so will platformers. I’d love to play an empire-building game inside a sandbox platformer for ex. A 2D platformer where you build your own armies and go conquer a procedurally generated world.




Are you more into the retro platformers or new indie-games, the neo-retro platformers. Or both equally? Your work reminds more of the new ones. And does your inspiration to do this work come more from animation or video gaming?

The main idea for Death Maze Challenge comes from stick figure death mazes. You can find tons of them on YouTube. I only wanted to give them human expression. They’re fancy stick figures with a bit of character, who don’t just fall into a trap, but feel miserable about falling into a trap. And don’t just move from A to B but are happy or excited or unsure or afraid to go from A to B. The inspiration comes just as much from film and animation as it comes from games.

Your idea is fresh and interesting way to explore the medium. It’s also a great example of new kind of influences and way of thinking and possibly story telling in contemporary animation. Traditional animated film makers have been looking up the book illustrations, painting, comic books and different techniques, and not being interested in video games at all. I’m still surprised the video game looks and platformer looks and the whole method of telling a story has not been exploited properly. Do you want to explore the idea further, telling a large scale story, journey or progress of man or another unit or theme in more metaphorical manner? Or do you wish to try completely new things in the future?

Thank you, it’s very nice of you to say that! I hope that I will indeed manage to do some things in DMC that you can’t normally do in a platformer, and take people unexpected places.. We’ll see. I must confess I don’t know where this series is going. And I’m very happy about that. You might find this insane, but I really want to be just as surprised about every new episode as the audience will [hopefully] be. Even more so, I hope there will be a response, and if people contribute with ideas.. that might take the series even further and zanier.

Also, my initial plan was to start working on a feature. And drawing flat worlds and 2D animation that doesn’t move in depth.. is much easier than involving a 3rd dimension. So.. that was the first step, and then I kept drawing and planning all sorts of stories.. like this one: A boy, a girl, 2 swords, 1000 platforms. That was one of the early ideas for a platformer-feature-film. :} They’re going to Candy Mountain to defeat the mean old man who chased them out of Candy Paradise.. or something. And they’re eating sandwiches, sitting on a platform, in mid air. And they help each other climb the mountain of platforms and defeat the tons of buzzing bees defending Candy Kingdom and so on. :} And then I thought of many other such stories, of ‘real people’ having to deal with a 2D platformer. But then for this YouTube series I wanted something simpler, no story, just craziness.

I agree the gameplay isn’t exactly featured in movies often. Strangely enough, since gameplay can be pure visual entertainment. Games on the other hand are trying really hard to become movies. Strangely enough again, since good gameplay is something very different from good storytelling, if you ask me. Story messes up gameplay and vice versa.

I don’t usually see game characters as empathic humans, most of the time they feel just like game objects with a very limited, scripted agenda. They deliver information, puzzles, bullets. It won’t happen that an NPC will simply not be found where expected, because he woke up late, or felt ill, or just didn’t care. I have to be able to rely on that NPC being at work every day.. or I will get very frustrated for not being able to progress in the game.

This is not only nonsense but also really boring for a story, it’s a logical progression, not a chain of unexpected events. I think gameplay is all about logic and balance, story is all about the unexpected. That being said, of course the 2 worlds can happily collide, and I think we’re only starting to understand how games can have real storytelling behind, and the movies, I hope, will also start to pump some more adrenaline or just borrow some fresh ideas from the wild world of games.




How about your history on animation then? How long you’ve been practicing the medium and how?

I started learning animation 10 years ago. I’m a 3D animator by day. I worked in commercials and games, did a bit of freelance, and now I work on the awesome Total War series for the Creative Assembly. I started writing and drawing stories as a kid though. I became a musician then, studied composition, rediscovered the visual arts and here I am, many years later, doing music and drawings. I always wanted to make animated films, still do, but I have no idea how to turn my cartooning into a business, I’m no businessman.

If I make a pilot for a TV series I wouldn’t know how to pitch that to Whichever Network. So I’m starting this YouTube series, I’m happy that it’s my own stuff and there’s no 3rd parties involved. Who knows, if there is an audience for it. It will grow. And then it might be followed by a story-driven series. But for that I will need help.. I won’t do that on my own. I hope a solution will come in time.

How did you end up in the particular aesthetics on your animation?

I like simple drawings, I want to focus on expression.. not on lighting and shading. I want very simple limbs for my characters, so I can draw them really fast. And I thought more seriously about some Rayman-like game-like animation, because it’s easy and fast to animate. I really like what they did in the recent Rayman 2D games, they’re expressive platformers with many simple animations that combine and flow really well.

My stuff is simpler, fewer poses and animations, but I can make crazier combinations and I can adjust things on the fly. I mean a stop/skid/turn pose might be used for climbing or jumping or dodging bullets, you name it. And if I don’t like the face I erase it and pop another one in pretty quickly. Everything is based on a small number of initial drawings, like.. 5 head shapes and 5 body shapes, plus maybe a prop or two. Turn that into a bunch of poses/animations. Go crazy.

I also always loved black and white comics. I think you either do black and white line drawing, or you go with color and think in terms of color, shading, lighting, but not line. I usually don’t like colored line-drawings, I think color often looks kind of cheap and out of place there.. There are exceptions, maybe using colored lines, and I find that hard to draw. I want to be able to sketch things really quickly, focus on ideas, shapes. Keeping things black and white allows me to do that.




Your favorite / most influential films?

Oh man, this is hard. I like lots of things. My favorite directors appeal to the 12-14 year old child in me I guess.. Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa. So let me try a top 10..

1 Alien.
The best SciFi movie ever made. I like that it’s simple and primal, it explains little, it shows you.. not too little, not too much. The perfect film.

2 Jurassic Park.
Grand idea. I really like Spielberg when he is telling stories for kids, like ET, I think that’s where he’s at his best. Jurassic Park is not ET, which I like for its simplicity and emotional moments, but it’s more colorful, exotic, and fantastic.

3 Seven Samurai.
It’s hard to pick my favorite Kurosawa movie. I guess between this and Yojimbo. I like the charismatic.. intense characters, the idea, the setting. It’s a serious film for kids of all ages, which is the kind of stuff that I’m most interested in.

4 Saving Private Ryan.
One of my favorite quests and war movies. Great story, great characters, great idea, great cinematography.

5 Dr Strangelove.
Each Kubrick film is unique and amazing, but this is his funniest. It’s simple and fluid, it talks very simply about a potentially complicated political situation and just focuses on the ridiculousness of it. I love ridiculous and surreal humor.

6 The Lord of the Rings.
The story is silly but.. there is nothing more epic ever made, so far. I’m waiting for better fantasy anyway, something like what Alien is for sci-fi. And I don’t necessarily mean gritty realism, I’m waiting for fantasy that is really fantasy, only.. for the very demanding 21st century audiences. People go crazy for fantastic worlds, but are always afraid that the storytelling will be superficial and silly. Because it usually is, in fantasy at least.

7 Burn After Reading.
I like all Coen brothers movies, and especially this total, crazy, creative clusterfuck.

8 Reservoir Dogs.
Intense.. I guess my favorite Tarantino movie. Yet again, I like that it’s simple and primal.

9 Deconstructing Harry.
Simply because it’s one of Woody Allen’s best films [this one and Annie Hall are my favorites] and Woody Allen is enormously funny.

10 Kung Fu Panda.
One of the best superhero movies ever made, excellent characters and story, really funny. And I had to add an animated film, right?

Your views on animation in Romania?

We have the Animest festival, and we have our animation pioneer, certainly the only famous Romanian animator, Gopo. But what can I say… it’s not doing that great, for the time being. There are very few people working in the field, very few studios.. like FrameBreed for example. They’re some of the best on the Romanian market.

There’s little demand and little offer, and nobody can afford quality animation. Also, not much in terms of learning actual character animation in schools, although that’s generally true almost everywhere. : } People probably mostly learn just like I did, on their own, thanks to the world wide web..

That is very true.

So, all you animation and video game buffs out there, do encourage this awesomeness by spreading the word. If you’re still not sure about it, check out this other teaser here and be convinced. A grim marriage between tension, black comedy and horror soundscapes! Fresh, contemporary, fun art.



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