A longtime collaborator with director Genndy Tartakovsky, production designer Scott Wills helps bring a 2D sensibility to CG production in Sony’s latest animated comedy feature.
The release of Sony Pictures Animation’s new animated comedy, Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation, marks the latest installment of a unique and long-time collaboration -- and friendship -- between writer/director Genndy Tartakovsky and production designer Scott Wills, who have been working together on an impressive and extensive list of animated projects for more than 20 years.
Wills has lent his considerable skills to feature films and TV shows dating back to The Ren & Stimpy Show in 1992, including art directing both Monsters vs. Aliens and Flushed Away for DreamWorks Animation -- his work with Tartakovsky includes 20 episodes of Sym-Bionic Titan, 20 episodes of Star Wars: Clone Wars, and an astounding 61 episodes of the legendary Tartakovsky creation, Samurai Jack.
But in a long and storied career that includes numerous projects helmed by his frequent collaborator, Wills had never worked on a feature with Tartakovsky until Hotel Transylvania 3. The movie also marks his first time as a feature film production designer. “I’ve been a production designer on other film projects,” Wills notes a bit sheepishly, “but they didn’t make it to the screen. I spent three years as production designer on a DreamWorks feature that they then shelved. It was heartbreaking.”
For Wills, he defines his role on Hotel Transylvania 3 as pretty straightforward. “You have all the designers working on character design, environments and effects, and the production designer needs to bring it all together into one look, and one theory. Then, you work with the director to make sure this is what you’re supposed to be doing.”
The big difference for him on this project, compared to previous movie efforts, was in his relationship with the director. “Genndy has so much trust in me,” says Wills. “The really nice thing about doing a movie with him is that I actually have the director’s confidence. Whereas usually, there's a lot of doubt. These productions tend to be filled with doubters. But Genndy's the exact opposite. He's like, ‘No, this is a fun idea. Let's go for it.’ He not only wants to go for it, but he doesn't want to be timid about it. He wants to really push it.”
Wills goes on to recount that working in a doubt-filled environment ultimately decreases one’s effectiveness. “The doubting impacts you a lot. It makes you doubt yourself of course. It really kills your enthusiasm when everyone's in doubt and has no confidence in a project. That's the thing with someone like Genndy. He believes so strongly in the ideas that you get excited about them. It breeds excitement…it breeds ownership. Everyone has ownership of their designs, which makes people prouder and more confident. Really, you are more creative and effective working under that kind of thinking.”
Hotel Transylvania 3 marks the first time that Tartakovsky, director on all three franchise films, has had free reign to create a movie from the ground up, from story to gags to design. For the director, that meant pushing everything in order to bring a “cartoon” sensibility back to animated films. For Wills, that meant harnessing the vision of a director who saw things much more clearly than others may have, at least initially.
“There's a specific challenge to a Genndy project, especially this one,” he notes. “It really is his movie. The visuals, the environments, they're very cartoony, much more than the last two movies, because they're from Genndy's story ideas. You get environments that are really fun to design, because they're so ridiculous. For example, there is a destination on the cruise where they go to the Bermuda Triangle. It was a weird idea, and the way Genndy was storyboarding and pitching it to me, I felt that in CG, it was going to look weird because it was so cartoon-y. I didn’t see it like he did. So, the challenge for me was taking that ridiculous idea, and making it somewhat convincing, without losing the fun and cartooniness that Genndy wanted.”
The production designer appreciates how unique Tartakovsky’s approach to directing is within the animation community. According to Wills, “I'm so used to working with Genndy now, it's actually shocking when I go work other productions for other directors. Genndy is unique. It's all his training in television. He just makes decisions…and believes in those decisions. It's shocking to the rest of the higher-up executives, because they're used to, ‘Well, we'll try this, and we'll try that, and we'll iterate a lot, and we'll land on something.’ But Genndy very quickly knows what he wants to do, and that's shocking to everyone. I'm used to it, and I love it. I love a director that sees the movie in his head and knows what he wants to do. And then the storyboards are very tied down. So, you have this great template, and you just make the film.”
For Wills, though Tartakovsky’s vision for the film always remained steadfast, it still needed translation from the 2D page to the 3D world, which was often challenging. “In a 2D cartoon world, an idea Genndy would have, you wouldn't question very much or even think about whether it would work or not. But in a CG world, things can look strange, or impossible, in a way that's not convincing. You have a different set of expectations. There were a lot of environments like that in this movie, where you're wondering, ‘That's such a crazy idea. Is it going to work? Can we make it work?’ That's the challenge dealing with Genndy’s sensibilities.”
With two films worth of designs to draw upon, as well as Tartakovsky’s penchant for “getting down to business,” Wills was all too happy to embrace a faster, director-driven production dynamic. “There was already an established aesthetic from the first two films, a certain kind of language to the designs,” he explains. “Even so, we did this movie fast. We were working on Samurai Jack, and Genndy was writing Hotel Transylvania 3 at the same time. So, once we started production, it was full steam ahead. It almost felt like a television production, where you start and you just go, go, go. ‘Here's this environment, just do it, you don't need to iterate 50 times. I don't need to see 50 versions.’ It was a Genndy kind of thing -- it was a very straightforward, clean production. You get down to business, and you're not wasting all your time convincing a bunch of people. On so many features, there are a lot of iterations, trying to convince people, trying to alleviate all that doubt.”
For Wills, a fast production also meant fast turnaround times fleshing out various design ideas to determine their effectiveness. Though that often meant working on an idea that didn’t quite make sense to him, the fact it made sense to the director made the development process that much more enjoyable. “First of all, Genndy is very confident, so he just knows something is going to work,” says Wills. “He doesn't question it. It was the rest of us that would think, ‘Hmm.’ So, we had the storyboard, which was always really worked out, and the idea was worked out, and then we'd draw it, and then we’d paint it in as realistically as we could, to try and prove it would work. But that's really all we could do. We didn’t have time to build it in CG, because that would take too long. We ended up with a nice painting where we could show Genndy what it's going to look like. But, with him, he could ‘see’ it. Even if it wasn’t a CG render, he could ‘see’ if it would work or not. That's the great thing about working with Genndy. He’s not like an executive saying, ‘I can't see it.’ He can see what it will be in the end. It’s a really fun way to work.”
One of the more interesting, seemingly mundane but critically important issues Wills faced on the film was not “where,” but “when” the story was set. He explains, “An interesting and weird thing that I didn't even realize, because I didn't work on the other movies, was that the whole movie takes place at night. Because the studio moved our release date from the fall, I think in their mind, this was a bright, daytime summer movie…a summer comedy. Then, as we were working on it, I thought, ‘Hmm, every single sequence is at night.’ So, how do you make those nighttime sequences feel bright and colorful, without them just getting ugly, and flat, and losing all their drama?”
Wills continues, “I didn't even think about it, and then it was like, ‘Oh yeah, it's vampires.’ That was a challenge, because you don't want to see the same night for the whole movie. So, we had to come up with a lot of different types of night, with different color schemes. I was always wondering if the studio would panic and say the movie can't be at night.”
Like many artists who work both in TV and feature film animation, Wills recognizes the inherent pressure that comes along with the attention to detail a movie production affords the crew. He explains, “People always ask, ‘Which do you like more…TV or film?’ I tell them they couldn’t be more opposite. But the great thing about feature work is that everything gets polished. You get the exact great animation that you want. You have the time to get everything right. In TV, it's the opposite. It's so fast, and so low budget, it's heartbreaking actually. You aim for something in TV, and if you get 60 percent of that, you're thrilled. In a feature, you should get 100 percent of what you want. You have the time, and you have the money. So, it's great that way. You get the visuals you want. The downside is, since there’s so much money on the line, with a lot of people, there’s tremendous doubt. There’s a lot of people that are afraid. Is every decision the right decision, is every design the best design it can be? That's feature thinking. In TV, it’s just do it and its done. There aren’t all these voices questioning everything.”
As far as productions go, Wills in particular faced a unique type of pressure last year with the release on Adult Swim of 10 brand-new episodes of the hugely popular animated series, Samurai Jack, broadcast 13 years after the original run of the first four years of the show. He and Tartakovsky, revisiting some of their greatest creative work after so many years, didn’t disappoint critics or audiences, treating old and new fans to even more of the visually stunning and highly stylized world they’d come to expect from the show.
“Of all the shows I've ever worked on, artistically, that's the one that everyone just loves,” Wills describes. “They love the design. They love the look of that cartoon. I get 10 times the reaction on the artwork for Samurai Jack than on anything I've else I’ve done.”
But, fans can be fickle. And the world of animation had changed considerably from when the show was first produced. “Working on Samurai Jack again was a thrill, but it was also just surreal,” Wills notes. “It had been 13 years or so since we’d done Jack. The animation world had really changed. It was all digital, where originally, we did it all by hand. So, I was really excited, but I also felt pressure to live up to the old show. In a weird way, I felt we had to deliver something even better than the old show, because your memory of a show from the past is usually better than how the show really was if you go back and watch it. We really had to up our game, to make it feel like your memory of the old show. That was the real challenge and fear. We didn’t want to blow it. We didn’t want to mess up the legacy of this really revered show, right?”
So, with Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation now in front of eager audiences, Wills is proud of what he, the crew and the studio have achieved tackling Tartakovsky’s “crazy ideas.” “Really, if I could tell anyone why they should see this movie…well, artistically, the animation is just incredible,” he concludes. “I've never seen this level of fun, cartoony animation in a feature. It's just amazing.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.