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Genndy Tartakovsky and the Return to ‘Samurai Jack’

AWN editor-in-chief Dan Sarto sits down with celebrated animation director Genndy Tartakovsky to discuss his roller-coaster ride at Sony, the shifting landscape of television animation production, and the return of a beloved TV property.

Genndy Tartakovsky, the award-winning animation visionary, director, writer and producer best known for the hit Cartoon Network series Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack and Star Wars: Clone Wars, needs little introduction.

A recipient of the prestigious Winsor McCay Award in recognition for his outstanding career contributions to the art of animation, Tartakovsky has received an impressive 13 Primetime Emmy Award nominations and has been awarded three Emmys for his work on Star Wars: Clone Wars and Samurai Jack.

In 2012, Tartakovsky made his feature directorial debut with the Golden Globe-nominated Hotel Transylvania and most recently directed its sequel, Hotel Transylvania 2. He is now back at the helm for the third installment of the monster franchise.

Tartakovsky is now returning to his roots, bringing back the fan favorite Samurai Jack after a twelve-year hiatus. Samurai Jack originated from his desire to create the greatest action-adventure animated series ever. The result was a show that is cinematic in scope, incorporating action, comedy and intricate artistry and is truly unlike anything else on TV. The new season makes its debut on Adult Swim on March 11, and we couldn't be more excited.

AWN editor-in-chief Dan Sarto sat down recently with Tartakovsky to discuss his roller-coaster ride at Sony, the shifting landscape of television animation production, and the return of a beloved TV property. Read the full Q&A below:

AWN: You have a storied history in TV with Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack and Star Wars: Clone Wars, among others. You moved from TV to features by jumping right into a troubled Hotel Transylvania, then on to the Hotel 2 sequel before suffering through the brutal Sony company email hack and subsequent shut down of your Popeye feature. In a certain sense you’ve come full circle now that you’ve returned to TV with new episodes of Samurai Jack for Adult Swim. How does it feel to be back working in TV? What brought you back?

Genndy Tartakovsky: It feels incredible. I remember when I first sat down to start boarding the first episode [of the new Samurai Jack show], it was like feeling unshackled. On everything I drew for Hotel T it was always, “What are they going to think? What are the hoops I have to jump through to sell this idea?” With this, I’m just doing it and it’s going to be on the screen six months later. That’s such a different mentality. In features, you’re making it but you’re…I don’t know where this is going to end up. With this I know exactly where everything was going to end up and pretty much I have the support and trust of the network to get it there in the most creative interesting way that I could.

With some parts I was excited to jump in…it was like I haven’t used this muscle in a while. Then I have to jump into it fast too because now all the sudden we’re on a schedule and I have to get stuff done. That part felt great. I finished Hotel 2, and then, what am I going to do? Am I going to do more features? I went through the whole Popeye and Can You Imagine? scenarios. That’s two…can I start over emotionally on another project and try to sell it? Obviously, the interest is there, but can I go through with this again if another project fails? Because I come from TV I’m not built that way.

I know I’ve had a very lucky and fortunate TV career where I can make something and somebody buys it and then I make the next thing and they want the next thing. I know that’s unique. But in features, it’s not that. Popeye was tough because we actually made it.

AWN: Yeah. I remember the day that cancelation news came across my desk…it was pretty disheartening.

GT: That was a killer. That is the most I hear about nowadays. Are you going to make it? Why aren’t you making it? There’s confusion about it. Even when the whole executive branch at Sony shifted, I figured maybe there’s hope. Even when I finished, I tried to sell it somewhere else. But there’s this stigma attached to it that studios don’t trust it because it’s old. But…let’s not dwell in that world.

I was at a low point and I’m like, what am I going to do? What can I emotionally handle? Then I thought Samurai Jack was always a conversation somewhere. I thought, nothing is immediate, but maybe I’ll just try it. Let me just send out one email and see what happens. And I told myself, “If I get one story note, even an email, ‘Come pitch us the story,’ I’m out because I do not want to deal with it. It’s a really egotistical way to approach it, but I couldn’t deal with it on Jack because it’s mine.

[Cartoon Network executive VP Rob] Sorcher kicked it to [Adult Swim executive VP Mike] Lazzo. Lazzo called me the next day, we talked for 10 minutes, how much is it going to cost and when can I have it? That’s all he asked. I gave him my estimates and within two weeks the deal was done and we were off and running.

AWN: You’ve talked to me before about how in TV, it’s let’s get to it, you trust your gut, which you’ve refined to trust over decades now. The idea being you live and die by your own sword, not committee, which is the beauty of TV as a creative’s medium. But the entire TV landscape has changed since you you’ve been gone, Now that you’re back here, what’s it like? How has it been jumping from features back to a TV production budget, schedule and pipeline?

GT: That’s a good question and it’s interesting because, like you said, even at the end of [Sym-bionic] Titan I saw the landscape shifting. Adventure Time, Regular Show, all this is a different type of storytelling that I don’t do -- it’s very different from me. I’m like, “Wow, I can’t do shows like that because I don’t tell stories like that. I’m the old man out.” You start to feel that way. We were doing the press tours for Titan with JG [Regular Show creator J. G. Quintel] and with Pen [Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward] and I was like, “Wow, these guys are me when I was doing Dexter…they’re the mid-20s guys…I’m like, whatever, it is what it is. You keep trying to think that your storytelling still works.

Coming back to TV, it’s even tenfold now. There are all the copycats of those shows. I’m very traditional in my storytelling even though I try to do it more Avant Garde or whatever you want to call it…visual. It’s still very based in setup and reveal. There’s not a lot of one-liners, not a lot of non-sequiturs, it’s very straight and it’s all about emotion. Are people still cool with that? Then when you look at movies it obviously still is that. We try to think of these episodes as little movies because of intensity level.

Then the other side of it is, how is production going to handle this? Coming in, you’re the journeyman that’s been doing this for a while. The network has supported me financially and staff-wise, it was amazing. It was the best support I’ve ever had. But at the same time we couldn’t find people to work on the show. TV doesn’t pay as much and it’s 10 times as hard. I lost a couple people that I wanted to use but then we found others to replace them, some younger folks…but it was hard. It’s definitely the hardest I’ve ever worked and I’ve worked pretty hard.

But it’s been hard to balance everything. Hotel 3 had started, I was finishing my comic book and doing Jack all at the same time. I couldn’t let Jack suffer at all -- that was number one on my priority list. Luckily, it’s all working out.

AWN: You’ve been quite hands-on with Samurai Jack, much more so than on any of the features.

GT: Totally right. For Jack, it was me and Brian Andrews [writer and storyboard artist] who boarded everything. I probably boarded maybe three, four hours of stuff.

AWN: That’s a lot of boards.

GT: It’s a lot and it felt good. I enjoyed doing it. At the same time though, you’re naked on the air there -- it’s your stuff and you can’t hide behind anybody.

AWN: So, for the new season, we’re 50 years in the future. The show is a bit darker, with characters that are lost, so to speak, on quests that can’t be achieved. You knew where you wanted to take the series if you ever came back. What we can expect with the new episodes? Where do you pick-up the story from where you left this off 12 years ago.

GT: I want [the tone of the new episodes] to be much more emotional. I want the audience to be much more invested, more so than they ever have been before. In my mind, with the previous four seasons, there was investment. But it’s almost like we kept you back a little bit. Jack didn’t change because we weren’t allowed to…we couldn’t do episodic. I wanted it to be more emotional, I wanted you to be invested. All of this is building to something at the very end where it’s the biggest reaction. As a filmmaker, I want people either to laugh or feel something, whether it’s sadness or happiness or empathy or something. You want them to feel.

The greatest thing that George Lucas ever said to me was, “The audience just wants to see a puppy thrown into traffic.” You care about this thing, then you put it through the most horrendous situation. That’s what I’m building to. I’m building to creating more character than we ever have. Tonally, it’s intense. There is something I’m doing in this arc that I’ve wanted to do for a long time in animation. I’ve never seen it done to my satisfaction when other people try to do it. I’m trying to do it for the biggest impact I could ever have in anything I’ve ever done. Hopefully I’ll be successful.

AWN: You are one of the few folks that I can point to in TV that I consider an auteur in that your work specifically is something I’d go to watch. With the more recent changes to the fundamentals of television, such as on demand streaming and binge watching, with so many cable channels getting into original live-action programming, TV, especially and dramatic TV, has become a writer’s and director’s medium much more so than features. With you coming back to do this show, do you think this could mean animation can once again be a must-watch? For so much of our TV animation, we have programming blocks, we have a certain amount of money we make from advertisers, we need to throw some stuff up there…

GT: Yes, egotistically, you want to think that people will tune in. I don’t think of myself that way. I want to try to be as unique to my vision as I can, I want to try to say something artistically. It’s so competitive out there, like you said, and you want to stand out. At the same time, the thing that’s going to get you the most recognition isn’t anything that anybody wants to buy. The great thing about Jack, that I’ve never had before, is a fan base that’s grown through the years. It’s feeling like there’s a fever pitch leading up to this premiere and if it lands big then of course in the big ideal plan it opens up doors for a possible 2D feature.

Why do I say feature as much as I love TV? Features mean more audience. To sit with an audience and experience something that you made is completely different than what you get with TV. With TV you get a rating and then you’re like whatever. But when I watch the movies with 600 people, 1,000 people, there’s nothing like it. You feel the ebbs and flows of the audience. When they laugh they’re laughing at you. That’s what it feels like as a filmmaker -- it’s like I’m doing standup in front of the audience. Especially if we do something that’s hand drawn and they’re literally reacting to something we drew. That’s such a different thing. Film is a stylization of life and animation is the biggest stylization of that.

AWN: What is it about 2D that is still so intoxicating to you?

GT: To me it’s somebody’s abstraction. It’s hard to pinpoint, but it’s like if you look at Calvin and Hobbes, it’s so great and relatable and yet it’s not even moving. In only three panels, you feel something from your life, the humor and you feel the character. It’s so personal. There are artists all over the world that are like that. Then to watch their work three stories high, in a dark room with a mob, it’s a different experience. We forget about that. It’s not hyper-real and it’s unique. But, the uniqueness is going away. With mass media, with everything you can get online, everybody’s stuff looks like everybody else’s stuff.

I probably haven’t experienced it since those old Disney days where you just watched it and you just got lost in the art. The movies aren’t as artistic as they were anymore for whatever reason. You want to feel that magic -- you want to get lost. Maybe there’s something to the getting lost in a drawing versus getting lost in something alive. I don’t know. To me it goes back to doing a flip book in a text book and, wow, that ball is bouncing. The illusion of that, as cliché as that sounds, is incredible.

I got to animate a lot on the Samurai Jack shows because I had to do stuff that was more complex, or fix retakes. I’m an animator at heart and it drives me. I got TVPaint, I can animate digitally so it’s all quicker now than on paper. I’ll do a run cycle with Jack and I’ll play it and yeah, that feels so good. Then I’ll send it to Scott and he flips out over it. It’s still exactly the same as it was in the 1940s…it’s funny how that’s never changed. Animation has never changed. James Baxter helped us out with some cycles for this one episode and his stuff, we watched it, it was like, my god, that’s just incredible. You get that feeling. I don’t know about anybody else but to me it’s a connection to my childhood and my love of animation. It’s never gone away.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything in CG that’s reminded me of my love for animation. That’s why I don’t run out to see any of these movies because as good as they may be, they don’t connect with me. That’s a personal, subjective thing of course, but boy when there’s something projected big that’s drawn it’s a whole different thing.

AWN: Has your work on features made you better at working in television?

GT: Features are high budget. You get that one opening weekend and if you don’t nail, it you’re dead. There’s all this pressure. You spend two to four years on it. Everybody’s job is to give you notes. The good ones support you, the bad ones keep you down.

Craig Kellman, who’s our character designer, thinks differently than I do – he’s much more out there, much more artistically, much more pushed. Sometimes he’ll show me a design that is completely crazy to me. My initial instinct is, “That’s not going to work.” But now, I know better. I say, “Wow, that’s cool.” I don’t react. I go home and I sleep on it. I envision it in the show. Then I come back to him the next morning and go, “Yeah, I think that’s going to be great.”

That’s what you don’t get on features. You get, “Wow this is weird and strange and that’s not going to work, change it. But you hired me! That was the one thing that I always used to say. “You hired me for this job, this is what I do. If you were directing it you would direct it this way, which is fine. But you hired me because of everything that I’ve done and I’m directing it this way.”

If the story is not working, tell me it’s not working and I’ll fix it, but don’t tell me how to fix it and don’t tell me to tell a different story versus the one you bought. Miyazaki of course has the best scenario, people love him, he makes movies, he boards it all himself for good or for bad, and then they come out. With each film, he will say he doesn’t know if it’s going to be successful. As filmmakers, that’s what we want.

I got this idea about a samurai in the future. Sounds great, Genndy, do it. Then boom, there it went. It’s pure. It’s got mistakes on it, it’s never perfect. I don’t know if we’ll ever make anything perfect but you want that opportunity. Some things might work better than others and who knows? Hopefully this new Samurai Jack thing will open up the doors even more.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.