Veteran Sony Pictures Animation production designer walks us through the visual development process on Genndy Tartakovsky’s hit animated feature sequel.
The successful release of Sony Pictures Animation’s Hotel Transylvania 2 may have been a bit of a surprise to industry critics, but not to production designer Michael Kurinsky. Fiercely passionate, enthusiastic and proud of his work on the Genndy Tartakovsky-helmed sequel, Kurinsky led a young, talented design team on a mission to build upon the sets, assets, colors, lighting and “feel” of the first film and create the look for a sequel that needed to feel familiar, yet new and exciting to its audience. Kurinsky spent over two years alongside the director, helping design new locations, environments and other key elements to serve Tartakovsky’s story, which centered around a monster wedding, a lovable grandson and his grandfather’s attempts at “vamping” him through “camping” him.
In recent conversation, Kurinsky shared some of that enthusiasm for his work on the film, discussing in detail his main duties as the film’s production designer, the dynamic of his working relationship with the director and how even the coolest 2D vis-dev sometimes just doesn’t quite translate into something usable in the 3D/CG world.
Dan Sarto: Describe your primary duties on Hotel Transylvania 2.
Michael Kurinsky: As the film’s production designer, initially, I oversee all the pre-production visual development 2D art. First off, I read and break down the script, figuring out what we need…what's new that we need to design and what designs we can use that already exist – I break that down in my head. In my script copy, on the sides in the borders, I’ll write down color ideas, little doodles and things like that.
The next step is to hire a team. Because I’ve already broken down the script, I can focus on types of people I want to hire. "I need a person who does this, I need a person who does that. I need a good colorist to help me with color script.” I really tried to hire people with different strengths so I could say, "You're going to be my person that really takes care of this."
I even had a person who did anything in the movie with a graphic. I didn't have to go to somebody and say, "Have you ever done this before?" I knew I had someone…"You're going to do these graphics." I had another person who was a straightforward designer, because when we got to designing the human world I needed someone who could emulate the drawings of Marcelo Vignali [Sony Pictures Animation production designer / art director]...I was very calculated with the people brought in to make sure that all my bases were covered, based on the script breakdown.
Overall it was my job to oversee that team, hand out assignments to the appropriate artist and help them with any suggestions. Sometimes I’d take their painting, work over it a little bit, that kind of thing.
Once we’d get the images right, the designs, paintings, textures and colors, obviously we’d show those to Genndy [Tartakovsky, the film’s director]. Once he approved, it would go over to Imageworks [Sony Pictures Imageworks]. Now they have all of our 2D art for one section – we’d try to hand it over in a packet – for let's say the camp area that we have in our movie. We hand over all the things that have to do with the camp: the environment and any new characters. Now I watch them build it. I have to watch them building and modeling characters, helping to make sure they're hitting all the marks our character designer hit. There’s the building of the camp, making sure scale is correct, which is really important. 2D drawings can lie a little bit sometimes...
DS: I imagine scale is always a concern…
MK: Sure...Forced perspectives and things like that. Even though you believe you're being faithful, you get a camera down and you suddenly see, "Wow, this is much bigger than I thought it was going to be. Let's try it with different lenses. Nope, still too big. We need to push these things together, we need to do this and that." So I oversee things in the rough phase of modeling. They'll show me light texture paintings of certain objects. I've got to make sure the textures aren't too busy. Do they feel like the right kinds of textures for the specific look of the Hotel T world, which was established in the first movie? Luckily, we had a lot of texture painters who worked on Hotel Transylvania and knew what they were doing. That made my job a little easier.
Once we have all those assets built at Imageworks, I make sure that the sets look the way they need to, that they're adhering to the quality and color of lighting that is supporting that story moment and translates the same way into CG. It's really important that we support the story with the right light. The color keys kind of happen sporadically, mostly near the backend. I work on the color script with a couple of other artists. That's pretty much what my job entails.
DS: So you came on at the very beginning.
MK: I started over two years ago. I was the first artist to come on board. Character designers are usually the next people to come on, then one by one I start hiring a team as needed. Mostly designers first, people who are just going to design and not take it to color.
But yes, I started right from the beginning. The first thing I did was take Genndy to lunch…I said, "Just talk. I want to hear everything, right now, based on what you know about the film. Give me everything. My job is to get your vision onto the screen." To me, in any of these design positions, the best thing you can be is a good listener, especially in the early stages. Listen to your directors, what they're looking for, and do your best to try and turn that right around into some sort of painting, design or drawing.
DS: Translating from your 2D design world into the modeled world of 3D isn’t easy. What were some of the inherent difficulties you faced in this area of the film’s production?
MK: Dracula’s grandson Dennis, Mavis and Johnny's son, was the most major new character we introduced in the film. Craig Kellman, our character designer, made these great drawings of this crazy charming kid with a giant mop of hair. We took Johnny's crazy hair and multiplied it by ten, putting this big, curly mop of playful hair on Dennis’ head. It looked amazing in Craig’s 2D drawings. I did the first painted exploration from those drawings. When Craig drew this mop of curly hair, he would just squiggle, squiggle, suggesting, but not actually showing form or anything. Somebody had to translate, and it ended up being me – you need to translate into form the idea of what he was saying with those squiggles. I started thinking about them as all these big cylinders on his head. You look at a cylinder, you can see straight on and sideways. I had to render those into looking like real hair, and it worked great.
In a 2D painting, at the angle I painted Dennis, you think, "Yeah, this is going to be awesome. That big head of hair is going to be hysterical. His hair's going to be like another character in the film, it'll have so much charm." Then we started modeling it. They didn't even get it into hair texture, just a volume, a mass, based on Craig’s drawings and the painting I had done. Genndy and I looked at it and we're like, "Oh, no!" The minute you spun it, it was, "Oh, no!" You could just see, "Oh, that's not working."
Then we looked at Dennis, based on those proportions, next to, let's say, Drac, to make that head of hair feel like it could actually sit on a head. Dennis' head was huge! He looked like some sort of circus freak. On his own, he looked OK, but when you put him next to Drac, his head was one and a half times bigger! His hair was so big that Dracula couldn't even hold him close to have a tender moment. We knew, "Okay, this isn't going to work." That's where you have to deviate from what worked in 2D and you believe was going to work in 3D. The 3D translation just didn't work. So we had to capture the spirit of what we loved in those 2D drawings and the painting. We scaled down the hair, which meant the head could get scaled down as well. Everything became proportional.
DS: In this case, to find the proper 3D model design, did you first go back and make new 2D art, or did you stay in the 3D world and modify from there?
MK: What we did was take frames of front on, side and three quarters from the rough 3D models and draw right over them. We did those draw-overs, they remodeled, we took another look, then it became more of a verbal thing to get the final design down. Once we got the masses all feeling right, then they took that lump on his head representing the hair volume and turned it into hair.
The other thing to remember as well was that the initial hair volume was so big in front, it looked like a giant shelf. However we lit it, Dennis' face was always in shadow. I thought, "What are we going to do? Have this invisible light always following him around?" Technically, it didn't work. It was a great idea, and it had such spirit and life in the 2D world...
DS: But it just didn't translate.
MK: It didn't translate into 3D. It would've caused more problems than it was worth. I think we still captured the spirit of the big hair. Dennis' hair is still just as playful and fun, it has all this secondary animation action to it. It’s kind of its own character because of its color and vibrancy. But you have to make those choices. It's really important that you let certain things go because technically, it's going to be a nightmare down the line. For the animators and everybody else, keeping Dennis' giant head in a shot, we would've always had to scale Drac's head up, then scale him down. It would've been more work for everybody.
DS: Though you’re doing some of the earliest visual development, primarily, you're managing designers as opposed to doing this work yourself. Are there times where your instinct says, “I'll just take care of this myself,” because it would be easier to just do it than to try and articulate how someone else should get it done?
MK: Early on, that’s exactly how it was. We were only six months in and my wife said to me, “You are going to burn out. You have a team of people who you told me are..." I called them “my rock stars.” I hired a great team of artists. She said, “You need to just let them at it. You're not letting them do enough because you're still doing a ton of work and going to production meetings.”
During the first six months, I was able to do a lot of painting because we didn't have as many production meetings. I wasn't yet going over to Imageworks to oversee work there. But slowly, more and more of my day became overseeing. Also, as inventory would come in, and we were locked story-wise, that meant it was ready to design. At first when the work was trickling in, there was enough to say, “I'm going to take this, this person's going to take this, and then this other person is going to take that.” Then, eventually there was so much work. I had to delegate it all to the team. It was overflowing. You can't stop it at that point.
In the beginning, I did some painting on my own. But eventually I let the team do what they do, and they did it really well. I learned to feel just as satisfied, even though for almost my entire career, I was the guy who came in, and for eight, nine hours a day, sat behind a desk and painted. Every day I'd come back and do it again. I did that for 20 years - that's what I'm used to. It was weird for me to go around and verbalize what we were looking for instead of actually showing people what we were looking for. Once I got comfortable with that, it was all good. Once I had the trust of my team, too, that was really good.
DS: As you say, it's your job to get Genndy's vision up on the screen. It's also your job to get your team’s best work. That's just not just being a good artist, that's being a good manager. What were some of the ways you managed a team of creatives to get them staying passionate about their work throughout the long production schedule on an animated film?
MK: A couple of things. One, I hired the right people to do the right jobs. You could really see in their work what they liked to do. If ever an assignment came up, I would think, “I know Aurora [Jimenez, visual development artist] is going to want to do this. I know Chin [Ko, visual development artist] would be very happy doing that.” I'd make sure to give them things they absolutely would want to do. Other times, it was cool to say to them, “Hey, pick. What do you want?” You’d see enthusiasm in their work. If someone really wants to paint something, they're going to give you their best work because they're excited to be doing that assignment, and you see it in the work.
Usually, I have more work to give than there are artists. An artist can actually take their pick from, “What if I offered you these five things? Which one of these makes you crazy excited that you can't wait to paint it? What would you want to dig your teeth into it.” That was one way of getting the best work out of people.
Then on the opposite side of that, sometimes giving people work that they weren't as familiar doing...
DS: …Outside their comfort zone...
MK: ...That was good for them because they liked being challenged. Later on, they’d tell me they had been really nervous. One designer in particular, she became one of the best artists I had on the team. She's a newbie, it was her first feature animation production job, and I wanted to help her become a well-rounded artist. That's what you should do. You should see where they have holes in their portfolio and have them work on those areas specifically. Then, when they move on to their next assignment, next project or next movie, they’re a better artist. More complete. She told me later, being given that challenge made her work harder because she really wanted to do a good job and not mess it up.
I don't know if these were really conscience things, tricks for me trying to get the best work out of people, but it ended up working out that way.
DS: When you came to Sony, part of what excited you, and part of what was so good about the experience, was that you yourself were challenged right away to grow as an artist. People gave you the opportunity and trusted you to do a whole new set of things you hadn't done before. That's how you learned, and that's part of what you, in your position as production designer, are doing for the people that work for you.
MK: I try never to forget that. During my time at Disney, if I had a boss that did something I admired, I’d stick it the back of my brain, thinking, “That made me feel really good. I want to remember this so maybe one day, if I get a chance, I’ll want to do the same thing to make one of my employees feel really good.” When I came to Sony Pictures Animation, I quickly realized we're a lean and mean studio compared to most. You have to wear a lot of hats. Being just a background painter, I never got to touch on characters, yet it was one of the first things Sony had me do. They asked, “Have you ever painted characters?” and I said, “No.” They said, “Well, today you are!”
I ended up doing about 80% of the characters on Open Season. One day I'm painting characters, the next I'm designing signs and graphics. Next thing I know I'm being asked to do a color script. I remember all of those things, all of those learning opportunities that my boss on Open Season gave me, and I try to do the exact same thing with my artists. On Hotel T2, I knew there were people who wanted to try their hand at doing a color script. I told them, “I'll give you a sequence. I'll give you a couple of keys to do so you can try your hand at it.” Those people ended up doing even better than I thought they would, handling several sequences in the movie which helped me out considerably with the color script.
DS: How would you describe your working dynamic with Genndy? How did you guys handle decision making on the film’s visual development?
MK: Genndy is the kind of director I like to work with. After 20 years in this industry, I've worked with many different kinds of directors. They all have their pluses and minuses. The best kind of director, to me, is the director who knows what they want, not because you showed them 50 different things. “No, that’s not it, I'll know it when you show it to me.” I've had that director. Genndy knows what he's looking for. He'll verbalize things and we'll get to work. If we hit the mark, he’ll say, “Yes.” If it's a no - here's what I love about Genndy - he'll pull out a sketchpad right in front of you, draw something and say, “Like this.” I'll tear off that sketch, bring it up to my artists and say, “We were close. Try something more like this. Genndy gave me this sketch.”
That's the most efficient way to work. It's not, “Hmm, try some other things. Show me something else.” With every facet and asset of this movie, it seemed like Genndy already knew what he wanted to do. He'd verbalize it to a point with me. He and I would chat about anything new that was coming up. In the early days of the movie, every Monday I would sit down with him and say, “Okay, I've been told this area and these two characters are coming up. Thoughts?” I would take a notebook and write his thoughts down. Now I had something to take to the artists as a first step. “He's thinking this kind of texture and look for this character, and for the environment, he'd like it to have A, B, C, and D.” We'd execute first passes, put them up in front of him. I like to show work that’s not all the way finished, but is not so early that it's hard to see what’s what. We’d show him the work. We’d either get a "Keep going," or a quick sketch, with him saying “Push it a little like this."
He never had vague answers, I never had a vague answer with Genndy as a director. That's incredibly important. I wasn’t directly involved with animation, but he worked the same way with the animators. They would show him stuff, and to a laymen, even to myself, and I've never been an actual animator, you’d think, “Wow, that was really great.” Then Genndy would draw right on top of their poses and you'd say, "Dammit, that's better." It's much better. It's clearer, it's funnier, it's pushed. He has the whole movie in his head. Best kind of director to work with, hands down.
DS: Looking back now on this film, what were the biggest challenges you faced?
MK: One was being respectful to the first movie. I wanted to make sure I didn't step on anyone's toes. I inherited a movie from brilliant designers. I can't take credit for certain things, but I'm a professional, I've been asked to do this work and I wanted to be respectful. But, I also needed to own part of it myself. That was the fine line at the beginning: What do I tear apart from what was old? On things where I didn't tear anything apart, I ended up sort of enhancing areas that we were all familiar with from the first movie, making them feel fresh, new, different, but all based in supporting new story ideas. What I didn't end up doing was going, "I never liked how this looked in the first movie, and for no reason whatsoever I'm going to tear it down and redo it." I didn't do that. I changed things, mostly lighting and maybe some new set dressing, solely based on story. So, I was able to do two things: Be respectful to the first movie, and put my own spin on it.
The other challenge had to do with creating the human world. We saw only a little bit of the human world in the first movie, mostly with a European feel. We saw the city of Transylvania, the town where they had the festival, and that kind of still felt a bit like the monster-ish world. But we crack it wide open in this movie. We go back to where Johnny's parents live, where Johnny grew up. We're in California. What does California look like in the world of Hotel Transylvania? That was a challenge to figure out. There were rules already set up in the monster world - rules for shape and color - basically I just said let's make the human world be the opposite. Let's make it contrast. Really, that's what this movie is about. It's about the contrast of two different worlds that come together: the human world and the monster world. If I can help support that visually, then I'm doing my job as a designer, helping support those story ideas.
It was a big challenge getting just the right look for the human world, while also holding back. When you watch the movie, you see I actually played down the human world. It's actually very boring for a purpose, from a story perspective. When you design stuff, sometimes you want to go, "Let's make it awesome!" But it's like, "If everything's awesome, nothing's awesome!" Sometimes to get the contrast and to sell the story idea, you have to...
DS: Dial it back…
MK: ...Dial it down. In doing so, now you really see there's a big difference between the two worlds.
DS: Now that the film is finished, when you look at your work, what gives you the most personal sense of satisfaction?
MK: There's two places that I'm really proud of in this movie: One is completely new, while the other is taking what's old and making it new. When I read the script and saw a few pages in we're having a wedding, having Johnny and Mavis get married gave me an opportunity to do what happens every day in real life - people transform hotels into a special place to make it the bride's magical night. Who would do this more than Dracula, who we already know obsesses about everything, especially about Mavis? It's his hotel. Of course he's going to make the hotel into the most magical place for his daughter. That means I had to turn the hotel into a magical place.
I got to take things our audience is very familiar with, like the beautifully designed grand lobby we saw so much of in the first movie, and make it feel different. Same skeleton, same bare bones lobby, but with new assets, a new quality of lighting, and a color that to me, represents Mavis. I called it Mavis magenta. I did different hues, subtly, so it didn't feel like the same thing all over. It's all based on a color that I associate with Mavis. I bathed the lobby in that kind of lighting.
We completely transform the outside pool area we saw in the first movie in the way a hotel would do for an outdoor wedding. They'd do things with lighting, taking an area that looks fairly normal during the day and making it magical at night. We set up a chuppah in the corner of the pool area, then we hung - I shouldn't say hung - we floated these giant gauze draperies suspended by bats. Behind them, we have magical fireflies that are illuminating these gauzy, translucent drapes. We get this glowing, sparkly, magical lighting behind Johnny and Mavis on their big day. I'm really proud of how that came out. I did some of the initial paintings for that set. The translation the CG team did to actually make that work, it's magical, truly magical.
Another area is the ballroom. We saw the ballroom a lot in the flying table sequence from the first movie. I actually did the color keys for that sequence. We kept it very straightforward, used very white lighting, so that you could see all the fast-moving action. We completely transformed it in this movie. Again, it’s bathed in Mavis magenta. Most weddings have a dance floor, right? I put a dance floor in there, but I made it a self-illuminating dance floor, and it's magenta. There is a pink underglow throughout the whole ballroom. Very monster-y. It adheres to the monster world of bright colors coming from unusual angles.
There's a dance that Mavis and Drac do on the ceiling. I removed the old ballroom chandeliers and added a crystal chandelier that’s behind them during their dance. It's reflecting, refracting and sparkling all behind them. Again, super magical. We've got our pink glow, we've got our sparkly, magical, twinkly lights because of new assets that I added. It takes an old area and makes it feel like nothing you've ever seen before. I'm really proud of being able to do that.
The new area I got to design is the vampire camp that Dracula takes Dennis to, to give him some vamping lessons on how to be a vampire. We're not sure that he's a vampire yet. He's leaning towards being human, and Drac is worried he's never going to be a vampire. He thinks if he takes him to this camp where he himself learned his vampire skills, then maybe that will help Dennis get his fangs out. It's not quite like anything you've ever seen in the monster world. Genndy and I talked about it, as we did in our Monday meetings, and he said, "Let's do a combination of something Gothic and monster-y yet woodsy and log cabin-y." What does that look like? I don't know! That's my job: Figure out what that looks like.
We also had to consider, where does that camp location actually exist? What is the actual landscape? It's a monster camp, we know that Dracula went there and it's at least 1,000 years old. How could it have existed on earth without humans knowing about it? Monsters were always hiding - we set that up in the first movie. I started thinking about Yosemite Valley and what it's like to be on the Valley floor. Those monuments around you are like stone walls. They’re 3,300 feet high. What if they were 33,000 feet high? What if they were a 100,000 feet high?
That gave me a visual idea, which Genndy liked – the camp would sit at the bottom of a very deep trench. The canyon walls, like in Yosemite, hide the camp, and provide 24-hour shade. Perfect for vampires, right? Now I have something to dig into.
Now that we knew what the environment looked like, we could design all the assets using those buzz words Genndy mentioned: Gothic, monster-y, woodsy and log cabin-y. I figured all camps have a main house. If I can get that aesthetic right, everything else will follow suit. I did a couple of designs, went round and round with Genndy. We landed on a main house design we really liked - it has a subliminal, sort of skeletal face when you light it from inside. It has Gothic chimneys, but the bottom third of it is all logs. It has a very Gothic-y, woodsy feeling, just like Genndy asked for.
I'm really proud of this work – it’s a completely new aesthetic for the movie. It's not the human world, it's not exactly the monster world as we saw in the first movie, it's something new I got to design, from the ground up.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.