Hotel Transylvania Director Genndy Tartakovsky Tells Tales Outside the Lab

The creator of Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack and Hotel Transylvania dispels rumors Selena Gomez is a cartoon.

Director Genndy Tartakovsky is booking a summer vacation for classic monsters in Hotel Transylvania 3. But don’t expect anything truly frightening. The Russian-born animator who cooked up Dexter’s Laboratory takes his horror comically, preferring Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to the original which sent Mel Brooks running home from the theater screaming about “the knobs.” The Young Frankenstein director plays a vampire in the sun in the upcoming animated feature. Tartakovsky was the  Sym-Bionic Titan who added Chemical X to Craig McCracken’s Whoopass Girls to concoct The Powerpuff Girls, . Starting his career at Hanna-Barbera teaching new trips to 2 Stupid Dogs, Tartakovsky took Cartoon Network on an inner journey with Samurai Jack, and copy-and-pasted Jedi DNA into Star Wars: Clone Wars for Steven Spielberg himself. Filling the gap between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, the series won three Emmy awards.

For Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation, or A Monster Vacation, director Tartakovsky is working with the disembodied voices of Brooks, Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kevin James, David Spade, Steve Buscemi, Keegan-Michael Key, Molly Shannon, Fran Drescher, Kathryn Hahn and Jim Gaffigan. Tartakovsky spoke with Den of Geek about moving from small to large screens and how funny scary should be.

Den of Geek: What’s it like directing a major animated motion picture like Hotel Transylvania after spending so much time developing for the small screen?

Genndy Tartakovsky: It was good. I mean, there was a big difference between TV and features as far as the timing and the pressure, where basically I draw something and then six months later it’s on TV. There’s really not a chance to rethink it or overanalyze it. With movies, you have two or three years, sometimes four or five even, where you’re focusing on this one idea and you keep changing it, adjusting it, trying to make sure that it’s going to stand up because basically you have that opening weekend to lock in your audience or the movie goes away pretty quickly.

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Do you spend a lot of time with the voice talent?

Not really. No, I mean I get pretty fortunate that the cast is super funny and they’re super pro and that part of it is pretty easy, so we record maybe four or five times through the process. Yeah, it’s just kind of those sessions, and we see each other for press. But not really, you know.

Alright. Do any of them, in the studio, have any physical quirks that help them squeeze their vocal cords into the voice?

No, they’re pretty solid, just pretty solid actors. I don’t think anybody does any funnier, kind of weird contortion. Trying to think if anybody does do it. No. No. Everybody’s pretty straightforward.

Working with Mel Brooks, did he give you any stories, advice, grooming tips?

Mel’s very, like he always talks about stories about his life and stuff, especially in the beginning. He would kind of test me out where he would ask me to do the line reading for him. That was kind of crazy because Mel Brooks is one of my heroes and idols and his movies helped shaped my comedic sensibilities, and so to give him a line reading that he’s going to do was a lot of pressure. But I think he was more goofing with me. He probably could tell I was probably a little bit more nervous with him than anybody.

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When you’re writing or drawing things like Hotel Transylvania, did you listen to the theme from The Blob? Or what do you listen to?

I listen to lots of different stuff. I don’t listen to horror music or anything that specific. Usually, it’s just whatever’s on. I’ve probably been through my library too much, so I just put on almost a radio type of thing and listen to different things.

The reason I brought up The Blob is because you play Blobby. Gelatinous, unexpected. What does that say about your approach to animation?

It was just the light, funny sound that I could do that felt right. I could get the right rhythm that I wanted. Sometimes when you’re doing something that’s goofy and stupid like that, it’s easier to just do it yourself because I can hear it rather than try to teach somebody. It’s three “buh, buh, buh, buhs” and like, “buh, buh, buh, buh, buh.” You know? It’s almost to make my life easier.

How much time do you spend drawing your characters before they actually come to life in your head?

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It takes a while. Usually, I’ll almost fill up a whole sketchbook with doodles of a character. I mean, I have probably reams, especially Dexter. That one was like a tough one. Coming from my student film, where he looked completely different to the way he ended up, I just kept doodling him, doodling him, and other people doodled him. And then suddenly you catch onto something. Then same thing with Jack. That’s the funny thing. By the time you start your show and then he looks one way or your main character looks one way, and then by the end of the fourth season, he already looks completely different. It’s kind of an evolving process. The characters organically change as my drawing style changes or as I get better and more used to trying it.

Do you think CGI stifles imagination by confining the parameters to a computer?

Not at all, no. It’s just another tool. It should have no stifling or anything. A computer can do anything that you can come up with. It’s just a pencil can do anything that you can draw, so we just haven’t really pushed its limits. We’re still in our infancy to a degree in CG animation.

What about happy mistakes?

Yeah. I think that happens in some cases, but generally not in a usable way. We still figure out the story. I still figure out the acting and the character designs and all that stuff still with pencil and paper. Those happy accidents still exist.

Okay. Isn’t Selena Gomez really already a cartoon?

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Selena? No, she’s actually super cool and chill. She’s probably the least cartoon-like out of our cast. She’s very sincere and actually down-to-earth.

So who is the most cartoonish person in the cast?

I would have to say probably either Andy Samberg or Kathryn Hahn, who’s kind of our new addition. Even Jim Gaffigan was very cartoony also. He was really funny.

What was the secret ingredient you added to turn the Whoopass Girls into the Powerpuff Girls?

Oh. Well, I think when Craig McCracken who created the show, was doing it in school, we kind of helped each other out. In my student short, Craig helped me with character designs and on his student short, I helped him with some of the animation timing and some of the action. And so when we got to doing his pilot, it was kind of the same thing. I had a knack for doing comedic action, in a way, and so I would help him out with some of his action sequences. Then overall, through the whole series, I was the producer and director, so I handled a lot of the timing aspects, some story, and generally helped out with post a lot.

What do you think about The Clone Wars series’ legacy now, and do you want to reenter the story’s universe now that it’s finding its way back to TV?

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No, I have no interest really to do anything more with Star Wars, I don’t think. I mean, maybe. Who knows? If the right live action movie came along, that might be interesting. But as far as animated, I think we’ve put our imprint on it and something that was super fun to do, and I think it’s lasted the test of time to a degree, and so I feel like I’m kind of done.

You won’t be cloning anything else?

I will not be cloning anything else, no.

What cartoons caught your attention when you were a kid?

Wow. Everything, really. I was overwhelmed with it. I loved Warner Brothers, Tex Avery, Hanna Barbera, Popeye cartoons. I think those were my kind of four things that I loved equally and then Disney features, of course. But really, the Warner Brothers ones really caught my attention. There was something about them that I really loved. It was the animation and they were actually funny and crazy, and yeah. I loved the feel of them.

Like Seinfeld, I’ve learned everything I know about culture from Bugs Bunny, so I do see a lot of Tex Avery. So just tell me a little bit about Tex Avery and what he did to your style when you were growing.

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I think, first of all, he was like a master of comedic timing. His cartoons, it was the really first time I started to realize what a director does and what impact a director has because in my head, I always thought of directors like Chuck Jones, where he was the best drawer on his team and it’s his drawings you’re looking at. Then when I really started to investigate more of Tex Avery, I realized it’s not all about the drawing. It’s actually about the sensibility and the type of gags, the type of structure you do for a story, the type of story. Especially when I started to look at Tex Avery storyboards. They were the essence of the cartoon. You could see the animators really liked them and the poses were selected. The storyboard’s just better drawn.

He really made me appreciate timing because he was really the master of that style and really the inventor of it, to a degree. And so I would study his cartoons. I actually did a lecture at Cal Arts once to show how powerful timing is, and I re-edited some Tex Avery cartoons and I changed a six-frame hold to an eight-frame hold to a 12-frame hold, so the students can see how it took the humor away. And it really made you appreciate his mastery of the craft.

What about things like National Lampoon and Mad Magazine? How did they play into what you then put into motion?

Well, those came later, especially Mad magazine when I discovered Harvey Cartoons. That blew me away and that kind of drawing. It was already in tune to what I was doing. We were always trying to use as few lines as possible to draw something, and his stuff wasn’t like fifties, like Hanna Barbera where it was very geometric. His stuff was organic and it was powerful, and it was very bold and a different type of cartoony-ness that I really didn’t grow up with. Because I grew up with Marvel Comics, DC comics, more of the superhero genre besides all the animation stuff. It wasn’t until much later in college where I started look at the Mad Magazine, and Jack Davis, Lollywood, and then especially Harvey Kurtzman. Then he started to influence my work in a more bold, even more graphic light.

Was Dexter the only person who heard his voice with that accent? Did he hear himself that way or did he actually speak that way?

Well, it’s a myth. Nobody knows. It’s he pretending to be a German scientist or something with a weird accent, or does he actually have the accent? I really don’t like to answer those questions because it’s a question that should forever exist. You kind of make your own mind up about it.

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What do you see that’s changed in the industry since you’ve started?

Wow. There’s some good, some bad. I came in at a time where it was … I guess it’s kind of almost the same. Me and Craig and some other people, we were the first really young generation to get our own shows. I was 25 when I did Dexter, and so that was crazy. Everybody before us were in their forties, at least, and so it was a very different way to do something where we had no clue what we were doing and we were just trying to make each other laugh and it was just the right amount of chemistry and the coming of Cartoon Network, and so it was the right place at the right time to have an opportunity to prove yourself. Now it’s kind of like that too, to a degree. The Cartoon Network, most of the creators are very young, and so that part of it I think is the same.

What’s really amazing now is the amount of opportunities between Netflix and Amazon and Hulu and Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, all the different streaming and cable networks. There is a lot of opportunities to do your own show, which is great. It’s great and bad because at the same time, it’s sometimes nice to work for somebody and learn, but now you kind of have to do it on your own. There aren’t a lot of mentorships happening, and so that part of it is great, so I think that’s a big change. There’s just more jobs around right now to do different things and to do your own thing. Before Dexter, you would never imagine doing your own show. You were just lucky to get a job as a storyboard guy or a character designer or a director on somebody else’s show. So the big difference now is you can run your own show. Everybody’s hungry for content, and that’s a good thing for artists and creators.

I wanted to also know what non-animated films actually inform you. Besides the cartoons and the animated films, what other films would inspire you or shaped you?

Especially I would say during the seventies the basics, movies like The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Jaws, Raiders, of course. Those are definitely part of it. Then I loved the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. Kurosawa films were huge. There were some French films. Rafifi was a big influence. The Third Man. There’s such a variety. Peter Sellers’ The Party was a huge influence on me. The first 30 minutes of Conan the Barbarian was enormously influential. I’m a film buff, and so I watched a lot of films and I collected laser discs and all that kind of stuff. I really tried to understand what I was watching and how it was crafted, especially when I got a chance to really start directing.

I never knew I was responsible for how it’s going to sound. How much louder should the music be than the dialogue or the sound effects? Those are all those things that they don’t teach you in school that you kind of have to go on the job. And so I’d look to live action films more so than animation to see, “Wow. I’m feeling really said at this moment. How did they get me to feel sad?” I would analyze and break down what I was watching to its core to then know about it and learn about it, and then I could start changing it and making it my own version of it.

What was your contribution to Steven Universe?

I timed the pilot and then I helped Rebecca. I wrote the foreword for her book and stuff, but my involvement was very little in the beginning. Just on the pilot, really, and so after, I was in the middle of making movies and TV stuff. I didn’t get a chance to watch as much stuff as I really should.

Between the band-like setting of the early Craig McCracken and the work with Rebecca Sugar, do different personalities actually mean anything when it comes to working with people?

Yeah. We were very fortunate when we all came together, Paul Rudish, Craig, myself, Rob Renzetti. There was a small group of us that really got together. I mean, I was roommates with Craig and Rob for a while. Then after a while, then you start going your own way and you’ll try to rebuild that core group as much as you can here and there. I remember when I broke off and started my first thing that I was doing without anybody. It was hard because we relied on each other a lot, I think.

Then when somebody’s behind you, supporting you, and all of a sudden that’s gone, it’s very easy to fall. And so you start to learn how to stand on your own feet and you find other people to help you and build. But yeah, I mean, the people around you are the most important. When I hired Scott Wills for Samurai Jack, that was it. After that, we did every single thing together because you find people that are like-minded and who are amazingly talent and you don’t want to let them go.

Samurai Jack was very different from anything. What do you think is his legacy?

I think it’s great. I mean, one of the most amazing things that happen to me is a comic book convention or a screening or something, doing a lecture or whatever. People come up to me, younger people, and they say that they got into animation because of Samurai Jack. That’s probably the biggest and most meaningful thing because the shows directly influence people to come into the industry. It’s like their Tex Avery is some sort of way, that he was for me, even though I never met him. I think that’s one of the nicest things. Also like all the times me and my mom or my dad would watch the show together. It was something that bonded us.

So all these stories people use have used the show as something that’s kind of meaningful in their lives, besides just entertainment. Those kind of things are far, far past anything I could ever imagine. I mean, all I was trying to do is just do some entertainment and have you feel something when you watch it.

Who’s your favorite Dracula?

I guess Bela Lugosi, especially in the context of Abbott and Costello. Yeah, I was really, as a kid, I really did not like horror movies, so I never really watched them. And the way I got introduced to all those characters were through comedy, and so it was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Meet the Mummy and stuff. I like to be scared and laugh at the same time, so it was kind of ironic that I ended up doing Hotel Transylvania because I went for that same thing. I don’t want to scare anybody. I just want to make them laugh with these iconic characters.

What other influence did Abbott and Costello have on your work?

It’s the character humor. Where some people’s humor comes from satire or observation, I think everything that I’ve liked is from character humor. One guy’s dumber, one guy’s smarter. Their interaction, true buddies and true friends and their dynamic. One guy’s yelling at him all the time and the other guy’s kind of pathetic and cute. All those things really left a lasting impression on me because it’s the character humor that works and lasts. The Dexter and Deedee brother/sister relationship that I hit upon was very real. It was kind of like my brother and I to a small degree, and other people that worked on the show.

It’s something that was accessible, and so beyond the high concept of a kid scientist who has a lab, a lot of the humor was really character humor. It’s her coming into his room and bugging him, playing with his toys, his lab, and ruining it. That was a very exaggerated version of my life as a kid.

Abbott and Costello, and Deedee and Dexter also had the visual balance. Yeah, the visual balance of the fat and skinny, and tall and short. Tell me about balance in animated humor.

I mean, it goes back to the purest source. It’s you have one tall, skinny, Laurel Hardy. You have one tall and skinny and one’s short and fat. That dynamic, especially with drawing and animation, you want to go … You can push those limits much more than human life, so you can exaggerate it and have somebody be a little square, which was Dexter, and Deedee ended up just pretty much being a stick with a head on it. You keep pushing that difference and it ends up being … At one point, you hit upon an icon and like, “Oh, look. There it is. There’s that perfect blend.”

Mark Mothersbaugh did the music. Tell me about working with Mister Devo.

Mark is great. Mark is the ultimate creative. You know when he’s look at something, he’s looking at it in a completely different perspective and view that you’re looking at it, and that’s pretty magical. I met a lot of artists in my time, and I’m always amazed at them because they really view life from a different perspective, from a different lens, and that’s what makes them so unique and iconic and great, and Mark is that person. He approaches things from a very different point of view, which is what you want, which will make your stuff better. The music, especially for this third movie, is really funny and eclectic. We pushed it to be more cartoony music and break it out of the more normal movie score, because I’m making a big cartoon and so I want big music. Working with Mark is fantastic.

Of all your cartoons, which one’s most you?

I think Dexter and Samurai have really represented me. Dexter’s probably the best representation because it’s funny and there’s action, where Samurai Jack was a little darker, even though we had lots of lighter things. The purest is, for sure, Dexter because I like the humor and then I like to do really cool, fun action that doesn’t take itself too seriously. But in my older days, I think the new things that I have going are going a little darker. Not that I think that I’m darker, but that’s where I’m heading. Because I think of when I push the envelope and see what I can get.

The Professor with a ponytail, so you’re becoming Samurai Jack.

I’m not becoming Samurai Jack, no.

Will mankind ever quench its thirst for the divine conflict, the supreme struggle, or will our planet be doomed to the same fate that has befallen so many?

That’s a heavy question for an animation dude.

Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation is hits theaters on July 13, 2018.