The legendary creator of Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack tackles his first feature for Sony Pictures Animation.
Last Thursday, in front of a packed and wildly enthusiastic Ottawa Animation Festival audience that had just sat through a raucous premier screening of his new film, Hotel Transylvania, Genndy Tartakovsky shared that early in production, after leaving a particularly frustrating meeting, he was ready to throw in the towel. “I almost quit,” he told the crowd, describing his frustration with a studio production system very different from the TV animation production digs he was so accustomed to.
But recognizing his unique position at the helm of a big studio animated feature, he found a way to “work it out,” to know when to dig in his heels and when to compromise. Soon, he found himself in a mind space where “It was all good,” and by the looks of the final film and the audience’s reaction, the results of those efforts are all good as well.
Over several interviews, I had a chance to talk to Genndy about the challenging transition from TV animation creative icon to “newbie” director on the block, taking over Sony’s troubled feature that after six years in development, finally hits the theatres tomorrow.
Dan Sarto: Hotel Transylvania had been in development for many years before you signed on as director. You come in, you’re new to the studio, new to the film. How much pressure did you feel taking over such a large production?
Genndy Tartakovsky: It was definitely hard because it was like being the new kid coming into the school mid-semester. It’s not even at the beginning of the year. Everybody is already settled in. So it was definitely difficult. But I’m one of these types of people that used to love the first day of school. I used to love meeting new people. It was always exciting for me.
And so, that part of it was okay. The pressure? The pressure was more about making sure I did a good job and really had an opportunity to show what I could do.
When you have a project that’s been paused many times, it’s always a challenge. That’s how I looked at it. It was less about the pressure and more about “this is a great challenge for me.” Can I pull it together, can I find a way to push it through and still have a decent movie at the end of the day?
Hotel Transylvania was a project they’d been working on for a long time that everybody loved from here all the way through the top at Sony. They always liked it, so they never wanted to give up on it, no matter how many story issues they had. Conceptually they liked it and they thought there was something there. They didn’t want to give up on it.
DS: Obviously you weren’t just brought in because they needed a new person at the helm. You’re brought in because of who you are and the stellar work that you’ve done for many, many years, both because of your comedic storytelling sensibility as well as because of your very distinctive creative vision and artistic style. So, how much did the story and design change since you took over?
GT: I think they changed a lot. It became a totally different movie than what they had. I think for me, when I came in, it was a big picture, a movie about a hotel for monsters. I didn't want the movie to take itself too seriously. It’s about heart and emotion, but it didn't need to have an epic struggle-type of feel. It wasn’t Lion King, if you know what I mean, which is almost Shakespearean. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to do a movie that has a really broad comedy feel? There aren’t a lot of animated movies like that.
So, let’s try to do a movie that’s really funny first and foremost and then secondly, has nice strong character, emotion and story. Let’s try to get a lot of good laughs. For me, I would always talk about movies like Dumb and Dumber, which is really funny. The story [in that film], you don’t even know what the story is. It’s really about these characters and a lot of great funny situations.
Sometimes on a show you get lost. 80% of the struggle of movie making is knowing what you’re making. If you know what you’re making, you can point everything in that direction. But sometimes, we were just trying to find out exactly what we were making. So when I came onto the project, I said, “You know, we’re making a broad comedy with strong emotional undertones. It’s a funny movie.” We just started pushing the train in that direction and everybody jumped onboard.
DS: Your instincts as a director, coming from TV, are, “Okay, I understand the medium, I understand what we need to do, this is what we need to do, let’s do it.” On a feature film, there are more people involved, more discussions about the film’s direction and how you’re going to get there. How did you handle the jump from TV to features?
GT: Yeah, definitely, the jump was both positive and negative. Coming from television, I had an advantage going into the feature world. In TV, there is no time. In TV, before I finished writing a thought, as soon as I finished making a drawing, it was pulled away from me and it was on TV six months later. It’s that kind of dynamic. So, all you have and all I’ve ever had is my instinct. Right from the very first Dexter short, I said, “I’m just going to do it the way I want to do it, and if it’s wrong, it’s wrong, if it’s right, great.” You learn from your mistakes. “I shouldn’t have done this - it was good I did that.” You learn to go with your gut. You learn to make quick decisions with confidence. You learn to trust your decisions. Because sometimes as a director, that’s all you have.
Everybody always has excuses. “Well, the executive made me do it their way.” At Cartoon Network, I had a great situation. The executives really trusted me. There was a trust in the friendship between us. And so, they let me develop and they let me make mistakes and at the same time I was able to learn. So, as I came in here at Sony, I had probably too much confidence. Making stuff on TV for almost 20 years, I developed a very strong gut about what I thought was going to work.
So I came into Sony very bullish about everything. Then I found there was a committee of stuff that you have to work through. But I definitely found a good place and I was able to prove myself. Like the art of taking notes, listening and digesting things. The truth of it is, there is more than one way to tell a story. That’s when you have to learn those give and takes. But if I believed in something 100%, and that was very important to me, I would fight for it tooth and nail. But if it was something that I thought, maybe it could go a little this way, a little that way, it won't make a huge difference and it will make everyone happy and I’ll still be happy, I tried to accommodate.
What’s really interesting is in TV, if you make an episode that’s not so great, usually people will forgive you. They’ll say, “Oh, the next episode hopefully will be better.” But with features, you get one shot. You get 85 to 90 minutes to setup the characters, setup a story, make people fall in love with the characters, have some laughs and an adventure. Nowadays, you have an opening weekend. If the story doesn’t land, you’re done. So, that kind of pressure made me really question what I did much more so.
DS: Where there any major differences between directing a feature film versus directing a TV series? Was it easy for you to slip into the feature directing role?
GT: Yeah, I mean, I feel like I’ve been directing for 18 years. You’re guiding a story, you’re setting up animation design, guiding it all the way through production, communicating ideas, coming up with characters and telling a story. Here, we’re doing the same things. So as far as directing goes, it was very similar.
The one thing that was a lot different for me was, when I first started directing, I wanted to make sure that I knew how to do every part of the process. I used to shoot my films on film, so I knew all the camera work. I knew all the technical things. I could draw a background. I could paint a background. Not very well, but I could do it if I had to. I could do a character design.
The key to directing is surrounding yourself with people who can do the job better than you. Then you guide those people based on your sensibility. So, I’ve always tried to surround myself with the best, because I’d rather hire somebody who draws better than me. I don’t have any ego issues like that.
But the biggest thing about coming here was the CG animation. I didn’t know how to do computer animation. I’d tried, I’d fiddled with it but I didn’t become comfortable with it. But here at Sony, I didn't have to do as much physically as I was used to doing. On a TV series, I would redo the storyboard, I would redo some designs, I would tweak some backgrounds and tweak a few color things. I got really involved in the process, tweaking all the way through production. Here, I’m just directing people to do that. I don’t physically have to do it. I mean, I did a lot of storyboard work, some design work, but otherwise, it’s been more watching a scene play out and criticizing it.
DS: You’ve got a much bigger team now.
GT: Yeah. At one point, we had almost 80 animators. That’s one of the most exciting things that I did on this project, sitting in the room with my animators and going through each shot. Meticulously talking about it. That was the most amazing thing. We could take a shot, we’d watch the rough version of it and nobody laughed. Then we’d massage it and squeeze the humor out of it in the next couple of passes. We’d show the same scene to the same animators and all of the sudden, the room laughs. That was the fun of it that I hadn’t done for a while. In TV, usually I’d write out the instructions and we’d send it overseas to get animated. And then you’re stuck with it. Sometimes it turned out great, sometimes it didn’t.
DS: Your film is filled with tremendously iconic characters. Were there any particular references you used or any particular path you took with how you created these characters?
GT: I thought it was funny because when I started reading up on some of the mythologies, I really wanted to remember the characters as icons like you mentioned. But I didn’t want to be trapped by that mythology. I considered what’s iconic about all these characters and how could we twist that a bit and make them more modern and much more conversational.
So, they are more like your aunt and uncle rather than Frankenstein. Kevin James’ Frankenstein, you get a big lovable uncle. The voice cast pushed us to redefine the characters. Dracula, he’s an obsessive father, but he still has all those controlling qualities that you think Dracula should have. He had that depth of being able to stand still and control the room, then completely freak out over his daughter leaving. It’s contrast that always brings the humor. So, the more we could go from still to active, the more extreme it became, the funnier it became.
DS: Your style, your sense of humor, it’s very distinctly rooted in 2D. It’s not just a slam dunk to transfer that style over to a CG environment. Tell us how you injected your comedy style into a CG environment? Tell us about “Genndy Blur.”
GT: The first thing is performance. I mean, going into it, I wanted to bring in more of a Tex Avery, Warner Bros sensibility. I knew it was going to be a little bit of an uphill climb in this day and age because people have forgotten what was so great about that style of animation. I’m not even talking about the big bulging eyeballs or the big crazy takes. It’s more about the energy, the performance and the posing.
It was important to have characters that were expressive. We chose this expressive cartoony caricature animation style where we were able to push the characters much more, really bring a 2D drawing sensibility into the CG world. We really started to push the expressions of the characters. When you’re animating in CG it’s like you’re manipulating a puppet. I really wanted it to feel like we were drawing, so the animation felt more organic. You’re not bound so much by your models as you are in a 2D drawing. Se we really started to push the characters beyond what the design was. It was very challenging for the animators and the people who rigged the characters.
Really, the simple concept of funny drawings, that’s missing from CG. Usually you can’t tell one animator from the next, because they’re using the same puppets essentially. What I wanted to bring in, what I said was, you can’t figure the scene out doing video reference of yourself. That’s not what I want. You need to draw it out, feel it out, either on paper or on your computer. However you want to do it. Find a pose that represents the character.
That was really the biggest challenge, to get the animators to think about it as funny drawings and funny poses rather than some kind of naturalistic gesture. It took a little while. We did a lot of scenes that started out looking like beautiful Disney animation, traditional animation. Well, you say, what’s special about this scene, what’s funny about this scene? You try to analyze it. Then I would draw some different poses and people started giggling and you knew you were on the right track.
A lot of times, working in TV, I would have to do that in a vacuum because I was home at night trying to figure it out by myself. But here, it was great because I had an audience. As I drew on the screen, people start laughing and it felt good because you knew you were telling the joke in a strong way. As far as the timing, I had to really watch out for the kind of underwater feel that CG sometimes has. James Crossley, my animation supervisor, he understood what I wanted and really helped me guide the animators to make it feel like when we held something, it really held.
People were afraid of holding something for a long time. But it feels great because it gives you that contrast. We have a lot of that quick zippy stuff, but when we do some more dramatic emotional scenes, the characters are very controlled. There is nothing zippy about it.
DS: So as far as “Genndy Blur…”
GT: That whole issue of motion blur was basically my enemy because it blurs all these great drawings away. So, we had to find a system that retained some of the fun and energy of the animation without it blurring away to nothing. Not to get too technical, and I didn't even know this, but the animators had sub-frames in between frames. So, we’d go in and add extra poses in the sub-frames and that tempered the motion blur a little bit.
DS: And that’s the “Genndy Blur?”
GT: And that’s the “Genndy Blur,” yeah.
DS: Looking back on this experience, what was the biggest challenge in making this film?
GT: I think the biggest challenge was probably to have the conviction that what you’re doing is right. Sometimes during this production, and I’m not just talking about me versus executives or anybody else, sometimes I’d feel like I’m in the car, I’m driving and all the signs are pointing like I’m going the right way. And then everybody else is driving the opposite way, yelling at me that I’m going the wrong way.
Sometimes that got really heavy, like am I doing this wrong? Because sometimes, in a way, everybody is against you. That was one of the big challenges. In television, it’s so fast and so quick, everyone says, “All right, this is what you want, I’ll do it, no problem.” In features, the culture is more, “Oh, this is what you want? Are you sure this is going to work the best way? What about something like this?” Sometimes you hear that before anyone even tries doing what you want.
It really made me a lot more bullish. Sometimes I would make mistakes. Maybe that wasn’t the right direction to take. But because I came from TV and because I came from doing so much of my own material, I had this bullish attitude that, no, this is what I want and I know this is going to work.
So I think the biggest challenge was to get everybody on board, to trust me. Because of the schedule we had, we had to change the culture a little bit and have everybody jump on that same train and support it rather than pulling it off the track. It’s very easy to pull something off the tracks. You can make a story in five different ways and it can be good each of those ways. But I chose these tracks for better or for worse. That’s the direction this train is going.
DS: And that’s your decision.
GT: And that’s my decision. I have to live and die by that decision.
Dan Sarto is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Animation World Network.