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Genndy Tartakovsky gets 'Hotel Transylvania' open for business

The animated film went through several directors before the creator of 'Dexter's Laboratory' and 'Samurai Jack' brought his strong cartoonish sensibility.

August 25, 2012|By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times

Tartakovsky's monsters stretch, squish, hover and crouch in ways that challenge computer software that was designed to replicate the real world. In meetings with the "Hotel Transylvania" animators, the director drew over frames of the film on a digital tablet and acted out desired poses — Dracula hunched under his cape, for instance. For animators working within the constraints of a CG model, the wildly expressive shapes created problems.

"The animators would be very tentative," said "Hotel Transylvania" producer Michelle Murdocca. "No one would ever say 'no,' but they had to go back and figure out if they could really do what he was asking for."

For Tartakovsky, the exaggerated poses are the whole point of working in animation to begin with — cartoons, he believes, should actually be cartoonish. "I took all the aesthetics I like from 2-D and applied them here," he said. "I don't want to do animation to mimic reality. I want to push reality. You want to have your own identity. You don't want to have an expression that Pixar has. That was super important to me. In 2-D, the way you draw defines you, but in CG the computer takes away your identity. I wanted to make sure the movie had my point of view."

Drawing from experience

As a kid, Tartakovsky learned English from Bugs Bunny cartoons and began to create his own cartoon flip books, selling them to classmates for a quarter. He had moved to the U.S. from Russia at age 7, first living in Columbus, Ohio, and then Chicago. His father, Boris, a Jewish dentist for the Russian hockey team, was worried that anti-Semitism in Russia would cloud the future for Genndy and his brother.

"I loved drawings," Tartakovsky said. "Loving that to begin with and watching it move. That captured my imagination — how to make this thing come alive. And the next level was actually doing something and having a kid laugh at it. It was a way of doing my own stand-up comedy. I didn't have the verbal skills to be funny. I wasn't even very good, that was the funny part. I wasn't talented in any way."

After two years of studying film at Columbia College Chicago, Tartakovsky transferred to the elite animation program at the California Institute of the Arts, where he met "Brave" director Mark Andrews, who would later work as a storyboard artist on Tartakovsky's shows "Star Wars: Clone Wars" and "Samurai Jack."

"There's very little dialogue in a Genndy show," said Andrews. "It's pure visual storytelling. That's the great thing about Genndy that we don't see in animated features."

Tartakovsky's first film at CalArts was a silent 41/2-minute movie called "Muffy Meets the Mafia" about a cat who saves a dog and then can't shake the grateful canine. It was also at CalArts that he began creating the show that would become the Cartoon Network's first original hit — "Dexter's Laboratory," about the adventures of a boy genius.

In TV animation, much of the work is produced overseas for cost reasons. At the Cartoon Network, Tartakovsky worked with animators in South Korea and launched a new episode every two weeks.

"He's directed a lot of episodes," Osher said. "He's very experienced. Animation directors in the feature space just don't have as much opportunity to develop. Having that experience gives you a certain amount of confidence and a sure hand. He knows how to talk to the crew. He knows what he wants. In the TV space, the time window is very dense so you have to make decisions. You have to be very disciplined."

Tartakovsky said he played his experience card often on "Hotel Transylvania" — to persuade the crew to try his 2-D style, to persuade executives to follow his story impulses and to sell Adam Sandler on some visual jokes.

"You're the chef," Tartakovsky said. "You're hired 'cause they like the taste of your soup. You start cooking and they go, 'No, no, no more salt, take out the chicken.' And you're like, 'But this is chicken soup.' Really nobody's wrong. It's just all opinions. You're coming into the situation thinking you've been hired because of your point of view.... All of a sudden my point of view is gone. So I feel like that's where I fight."

Though "Hotel Transylvania" doesn't hit theaters for a month, Sony Animation has already signed a deal with Tartakovsky to develop two more movies. One will be an original idea of his (a family comedy) and the other a new take on "Popeye" — which he plans to make as artful and unrealistic as possible.

rebecca.keegan@latimes.com

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