Features Film

How “Bendy and the Ink Machine” Draws From Animation History

At the beginning of the year, Mickey Mouse’s first animated short Steamboat Willie fell into the public domain. In a predictable rush, a number of horror films and indie games based on the film were announced. Things have come full circle, as the old cartoons from the Golden Age of Animation have already inspired horror video games, particularly in referencing their “rubber hose” style. Standout examples include the critically acclaimed Cuphead and Bendy and the Ink Machine.

Bendy, created by TheMeatly, has become quite the expansive franchise much like Five Nights at Freddy’s, spawning several games, books, and a planned movie is in development. The foundational game takes heavy inspiration from the pioneering days of animation, which occurred between the 1910s to the 1940s. Certain characters and plot elements within the inky world of Joey Drew Studios pay homage to influential figures and milestones within the industry’s history.

Dreams Come True

The premise of the first game involved former animator Henry Stein returning to the animation studio he co-founded with his friend Joey Drew. Joey, an eccentric dreamer, ran an often unfair work environment, but found success with characters like Bendy the Ink Demon, Boris the Wolf, and Alice Angel. The studio closed due to Joey’s rising debts, but he would not let go of his dream.

He and the Gent Corporation build the eponymous Ink Machine to bring cartoon characters to life in the real world. Their first attempt was a monstrous version of Bendy, who they imprisoned in the machine. Joey experimented on his own employees, turning them into inky monsters. The machine’s ink itself appeared to develop a collective consciousness, threatening to consume the lost souls. Henry is drawn into the Ink Machine’s realm of twisted dreams, finding he and the corrupted denizens are trapped in a never-ending cartoon called “The Cycle”.

Joey Drew

Joey Drew is based on animation pioneers Walt Disney and Max Fleischer. Most people recognise Walt Disney, who is often solely credited as the forerunner for American animation. However, Fleischer actually developed several techniques years beforehand, inventing rotoscoping and blending live action scenes with animation. Disney introduced sound-synchronised cartoons and Snow White as the first feature length animated movie. Both men were known to be demanding businessmen, but were driven by vivid imaginations. They rarely gave personal compliments, but valued their staff for their talents. Both major studios faced strikes from their animators over harsh working conditions and unequal pay.

Max Fleischer invented rotoscoping in 1914 – a technique which allowed live action footage to be traced onto paper frame-by-frame to create realistic movements. This was used in the short Out of the Inkwell, in which Fleischer interacted with Koko the Clown, who emerges from an inkwell into the real world, before being forced back in by his creator. Now that sounds familiar. Both Disney and Fleischer created many iconic characters. Disney created Mickey Mouse, introducing him in Steamboat Willie in 1928, followed by the likes of Donald Duck and Goofy. Fleischer created Koko and Betty Boop, whilst bringing both Popeye and Superman to the big screen.

Henry Stein

Henry is based on Ub Iwerks, Walt’s first hired animator, a close friend, and co-creator of Mickey and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Walt moved from Kansas City to Los Angeles in the 1920s, founding his own studio with his brother Roy Disney, inviting Iwerks to join him after their first studio went bust. Working under Universal, they created Oswald, who was a huge success. In 1928, producer Charles Mintz told Walt he did not own the rights to Oswald, and most of his animators had secretly been hired away to work for Universal. Walt left Oswald behind, co-creating Mickey with Iwerks. In 1930, Iwerks left Disney, unable to keep up with Walt’s demands and felt unappreciated. He returned to the studio a decade later, developing special effects for films and the theme parks. This is mirrored when Henry left Joey’s side for similar reasons.

Bendy and Boris

Bendy is a fusion of Mickey, Oswald, and Felix the Cat, serving as Joey Drew’s mascot and most popular character. He is portrayed as a mischievous imp, reminiscent as to how Mickey used to be in his earlier films. One of Bendy’s first cartoons is “Tombstone Picnic”, presented in “Sillyvision”, referencing The Skeleton Dance, the first entry in Disney’s Silly Symphonies. Another character that Bendy has similarities to is Bimbo, a cartoon dog and early star from Fleischer Studios. However, Betty Boop’s rise to popularity and the introduction of the Hays Code led to Bimbo being pushed into obscurity.

Boris the Wolf, appearing as a good-natured ally to Henry, is Bendy’s cartoon arch nemesis. His design is likely based on either Goofy or Horse Horsecollar. His role is a nod to Pete, the recurring enemy to Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. Pete is actually Disney’s oldest character, pre-dating both Mickey and Oswald, first appearing in the Alice Comedies in 1925.

Alice Angel

Then, we have Alice Angel, an obvious reference to Betty Boop, the most successful character created by Fleischer Studios. Their designs are similar: a pretty, dark-haired woman dressed in a tight halter top skirt. Betty began as a supporting character to Bimbo, appearing first as an anthropomorphic poodle. She quickly overshadowed Bimbo, becoming a sex icon during the 1930s. In the games, Alice was predicted to outshine Bendy in terms of popularity. However, one character suggests this was not the case due to disappointing sales in her toys and merchandise.

In the space of five years, Betty went through five different voice actresses, before settling on Mae Questel, who also voiced Olive Oyl in the Popeye cartoons. However, Betty’s true inspiration were contested, which is referenced in Bendy. Alice Angel is at first voiced by Susie Campbell, until she learnt that Joey unceremoniously replaces her with Allison Pendleton. Susie has a mental breakdown, made worse when she is put through the Ink Machine, becoming a deformed, psychotic version of Alice, hellbent on perfecting her appearance.

This quarrel over identities references a lawsuit put forth by an actress named Helen Kane against Fleischer for $250,000, on the pretence that the studio had stolen Kane’s appearance and voice without her consent. As such, Kane believed Betty had ruined her career, though it is agreed upon that her career was on the decline at the time. However, Kane may have been committing her own infringements, possibly borrowing her own style from another actress Clara Bow. Her lawsuit was thrown out when it transpired Kane had witnessed singer Esther Jones perform using a similar vocal tone.

The Butcher Gang

Additional characters introduced are the Butcher Gang, a trio of recurring enemies. They are Charley the Chimp, Barley the Pirate, and Edgar the Spider. Charley bares a passing resemblance to Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid, a character created by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising. Debuting in a short similar to Out of the Inkwell, Bosko appeared in over thirty Warner Bros. cartoons. Bosko has been described as a black stereotype, though his creators remained vague about his race. Barley, being a sailor, could be a nod to Popeye, whilst Edgar resembles numerous spiders, such as the one from either the Fleischer short The Cobweb Hotel, or the Silly Symphony short The Spider and the Fly. The game’s sequel, Bendy and the Dark Revival, introduced a rejected fourth member, a ghost gal named Carley, a possible reference to Casper the Friendly Ghost, who appeared in Paramount cartoons beginning in 1945.

Bendy Land

Joey’s most ambitious dream prior to the Ink Machine was Bendy Land. He hires famed architect Bertrum Piedmont to head the project, but a clash of egos, credibility, and budgets lead to the theme park getting shelved. A vengeful Bertrum appears in the Ink Machine’s realm, trapped within one of his own attractions as a deformed head.

Disneyland had many clever Imagineers involved in its design. Bertrum appears to be based on a man scrubbed from the park’s history: C.V. Wood. Wood worked at Stanford University when Walt Disney visited for guidance on building his park, hiring several people including Wood and Harrison “Buzz” Price. So, you could say that Woody and Buzz built Disneyland…

Anyway, Buzz was instrumental in choosing Anaheim, California as Disneyland’s future site, whilst Wood was hired as the general manager and VP of Disneyland’s construction. Wood would bring in Admiral Joe Fowler and Van France to aid in the planning process. It was through the work of these men that Disneyland was built in a mere year. But, why was Wood erased from the history books? Much like Joey and Bertrum, it may have come down to a clash of egos and who was taking credit for Disneyland’s success. Wood described himself as the “master planner of Disneyland”, using his knowledge to spearhead other theme parks like Freedomland and Magic Mountain. In Bendy though, the roles are reversed, with Joey taking credit for Bertrum’s creations.

Cartoonish Cults

The game includes the presence of cult-like behaviour, with the studio’s deranged music director Sammy Lawrence worshipping Bendy as a god. He tries sacrificing Henry to appease the ink demon, but gets attacked instead. Messages on the walls are almost like sermons and prophecies. Henry himself unknowingly sets up a ritual used to power up the Ink Machine, using offerings that represent each studio department. We can speculate that Joey did the same thing to his staff members.

A notable Fleischer cartoon is Bimbo’s Initiation, released in 1931. In the short, Bimbo falls down a manhole, which is sealed up by none other than a cackling Mickey. Max Fleischer had some resentment towards Walt, describing him with some colourful words in his memoirs. Yet, Max’s son Richard Fleischer was a Disney film director, and photographs show Max visiting the Disney Studios. Bimbo wanders the sewers, pursued by cloaked cult members who repeatedly ask if he wants to join their order. The leader then unveils themselves to be Betty Boop, encouraging Bimbo to change his mind. All the members are copies of Betty, enticing Bimbo even more.

Bendy and the Dark Revival steers away from historical references, but begins to include more nods to modern entertainment such as Dungeons & Dragons, The Legend of Zelda, and film noir. The game involves a new film studio, Archgate Pictures, inheriting Bendy and friends with plans to revitalise them. This may be a nod the Disney in the 1980s when outside executives were brought in to bring life back into the company. Throughout the whole franchise, Bendy has never abandoned its signature look of classic, black-and-white cartoons. The sequel hints at efforts for the characters to be brought into a world of colour, which becomes quite literal in the game’s ending.

Are there any historical references we missed? What do you love most about Bendy and the Ink Machine? Leave a comment on our Twitter feed.

About the author

Mark Russell

Leave a Comment