Genndy Tartakovsky interview: Hotel Transylvania, and creating animation for the big screen

Dexter’s Lab and Samurai Jack creator turns to direction with Hotel Transylvania. Here’s our interview with the unique animator…

To animation fans of a certain age, the likes of The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack are canonical texts. Each series was a cornerstone of a classic Cartoon Network programming slate that was filled with bold, distinctive and often unhinged animation – a decade or so of great TV that lasted until Adult Swim stole its thunder, or the fans grew up, whichever came first.

Genndy Tartakovsky, the creator of Dexter’s and Jack, and one of the directors behind The Powerpuff Girls, became known during that period for his strong visual style, frenetic pacing and inspired approach to the medium. Now, almost 20 years since he first started work as a animation director on 2 Stupid Dogs, he gets his shot at the big-time, transferring to the big-screen to helm a glossy, CGI-powered Hollywood blockbuster – the 3D monster mash Hotel Transylvania.

In the run up to the film’s release (before it topped the US box office, and broke September opening weekend records in the process), we had the chance to chat with Tartakovsky about ‘going Hollywood’, putting his distinctive spin on different forms of animation, and where he looks for inspiration.

Hotel Transylvania has been knocking around for quite a few years, and lots of other directors and writers have been involved along the way. When you come aboard a project like this, which has so many fingerprints on it, how do you put your own stamp on it?

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Well, it’s definitely a difficult thing. When they pitched me the story, and it was about Dracula and Dracula as a father, and it was a comedy, that really excited me, to do Dracula for a new generation. One of the reasons I haven’t been in feature animation is that I’ve been trying to pitch my own ideas. And that takes time. But I thought that this is something that I could have some fun with and still have my point of view on it, so I thought I’d step in and try it. 

When it comes to putting your point of view on it, so much of Hotel Transylvania seems to be so distinctively your own – the visual style, the pacing, the gags, and so on. So when you come onto a project where a script is already in place, do you have the space to play around to it and bring your own ideas to the table?

Yeah, absolutely. The fortunate thing was that when I came in I had the chance to do some rewriting and, before Adam Sandler read it, I was able to put to the structure in place. For me, timing and pacing is something I have a gut for and I have an instinct, and I really wanted to affect it. And there’s so much in the translation from script to screen, but I was definitely able to come up with key sequences and flesh out the story and characters.

Before we started, they had a design for Dracula that I really didn’t like. I felt like he wasn’t a star, and I wanted Dracula to be the star of this movie. I wanted him to be a Daffy Duck or a Bugs Bunny. So I said, right up front, that I wanted to redesign Dracula before anything. And they agreed. It’s so fortunate that I was able to do so much work directing before I stepped into this role, because I was able to have a point of view, and I think that sometimes when making a movie, there are so many obstacles to get across, and so many opinions. It’s a collaborative process, but it makes it much easier if you have a point of view, an opinion of what you want the movie to be. 

This movie is a lot of firsts for you. It’s your first feature film, your first film using CG animation, and your first film in 3D. So let’s take them one by one. CG Animation. Dexter’s Lab and Samurai Jack use 2D animation in such a distinctive way – and their design senses are so angular – that mainstream, polished CG animation seems to be a big shift for you. What were some of the differences and challenges there for you? 

The whole thing! You hear all these stories… All my friends who work in the industry, they continually tell me that people just say no. And I know computers, but I don’t know how to do some of the stuff we were doing. I’m not technically savvy with that stuff, and so I was afraid that they would just say no, and I couldn’t tell them ‘well, what if you tried this?’ And so, I was very worried that everything that I wanted to do, that they’d just say ‘we can’t do that, the computer can’t do that’. But they were so amazing at Sony Imageworks – they never said no. I said I wanted to do very cartoon-y, very exaggerated animation, and I wanted to push the characters like they were hand-drawn. 

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That was really my mantra throughout the movie. I wanted it to feel hand-drawn and organic and unique. So, for us, Dracula looks different in every sequence. Sometimes Dracula even changes from animator and animator, kinda like the old Bugs Bunny cartoons used to be. And I thought that would give it a much more organic feel. For me, CG tends to feel watered down and it becomes cold because it’s so perfect. So I wanted to get some of those imperfections in there that are created when you do hand-drawn.

I would always draw over their animation and do these crazy poses. And they were always shaking their head to begin with, saying ‘we don’t know how we’re going to get there’. But then they did, they figured out a way. And a lot of the animators really started to understand what it is I was trying to do. Tex Avery stuff and Warner Bros stuff. 

We wanted this energy in the movie, and that was definitely one of the challenges up front, how to get this animation to be very cartoon-y. The computer is designed to mimic reality, and I hate reality. I want to make worlds that you can look into and escape into for an hour and a half, and we wanted to create something that’s a caricature, rather than just mimicking reality. 

There’s still a big debate raging about the creative merits of 3D. What was your experience with it? Have you been convinced?

The experience itself was fine, it wasn’t a very complicated process at all, but it’s a debate I still have with myself. First of all, we’re making two movies at the same time. You’re making a 2D version and you’re making a 3D version, and some things that work in 2D actually don’t work very well at all in 3D, and vice versa. So, the Invisible Man’s glasses, the floating glasses, actually looked better in 3D than they did in 2D. You can really feel them in the space, three-dimensionally. But with other things, you lose a little bit. So, it’s definitely hard to make two movies. 

If we were only making a 3D movie, I would do a lot of things differently. It’s one of those things, like, if you were making a widescreen episode for television, but you still had to keep everything television-safe, there’s no point to do it widescreen, because nobody’s going to care.

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For me, I rarely go and see 3D movies because I feel like, when you’re wearing glasses, you’re aware that you’re in the theatre. And the whole thing for me with the movie experience is to be lost in the movie. But the market drives those things, they’re beyond my control. 

How is creating something destined for the big-screen different from creating something for TV?

It’s crazy… To sit with an audience and watch the movie is so amazing to me. In TV, we work so hard, we make the episode, and then I come home and watch it at home, and then it premieres, and you’re like ‘yeah, I guess that kind of worked!’ There’s no feedback. When we were doing Dexter’s Laboratory, especially, this was before the Internet really got going… I had nothing. You then get a number the next day, a rating. And then you’re like ‘what does that mean?’ Do people like it? It’s very difficult. It wasn’t until I started going to conventions or something, when I started to meet some people who watched the show, that I started to get the feedback.

But then, to sit in a movie theatre, with an audience, is incredible. It’s like I’m on stage doing stand-up without actually having to do that. I can safely hide in my seat, and watch the ebbs and flows of the movie, and people laugh at a joke and then not laugh at other times. That was really so amazing. And that’s what I always wanted, I’m such a fan of movies that I so desired to create something and watch it on the big screen.

We had a retrospective some years back of some of my work, and we projected some Samurai Jack episodes and a Clone Wars episode on a big screen with about 600 people. It was incredible, to watch something like that on the big screen. It transcends TV. TV is great, and I love it, but to watch somebody’s hand-crafted drawings on the big screen is an experience that we’ve forgotten as an audience, how much fun 2D can be. 

Where do you look for exciting animation nowadays? Is it TV? Or cinema? Or short films?

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No… I don’t look at animation. I’m too jaded and too critical! Unless there’s something really new. I look to anime, actually. There’s some stuff coming out of Japan that’s obviously much more pushed. They can do everything from dramas to comedy to adult to kids. Their animation isn’t limited like how we are in America.

But I look to illustrators and artists for inspiration. I feel like animation’s stagnant. There’s not much that’s trying to push the artform, and so, for me, I’m way too critical about it. So I try to look more at how people are drawing, how people are expressing themselves, to see if I can draw something from that, rather than from something animated.

There’s this blog, Drawn, where they post different illustrators, and I just like to look at that stuff. It’s not like there’s anything specific that I could mention, I get inspired by people’s expression. By artistic expression that’s unique and very personal to them. That’s the whole goal of the director, to have such a strong point of view that you can watch that movie, and go, ‘only Genndy could have done that’. I’m always very concerned about being homogenised, that nobody can tell who directed what movie.

Actually, the end credits are rendered in a 2D style very reminiscent of Dexter’s Laboratory. Would you like to do a feature-length 2D film, or are you sold on CG animation now?

Ideally, for me, I want to something different each time. Unfortunately, right now, the market is demanding CG, so it’s kinda hard to go against the grain. But if Hotel Transylvania is successful, maybe it will create an opportunity where I can go, well, I did this big-budget thing, let’s do a small-budget, 2D thing. And it doesn’t have to make hundreds of millions of dollars, because it doesn’t cost that much. Let’s make it for whatever number, and if it makes a little bit more, that’s still profit. So it’s just getting the studio to believe in the business model!

Genndy Tartakovsky, thank you very much.

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