Hotel Transylvania Director Genndy Tartakovsky Uses Looney Tunes Logic To Push Animation Envelope
It's good to see Genndy Tartakovsky on the big screen. Even when he was working at Cartoon Network beginning in the 1990s, where he produced such contemporary animated classics as Dexter's Laboratory, Powerpuff Girls and the visually stunning Samurai Jack, Tartakovsky and his team created remarkably three-dimensional worlds using 2D animation. It was only a matter of time before he graduated to feature films, and on Friday his engaging and funny directorial debut Hotel Transylvania opened in theaters in 3D.Movieline talked to Tartakovsky about the challenges of making the transition from animated TV series to feature films and his push during production to achieve a hyper-exaggerated, Mad Magazine-meets-Looney Tunes style of animation that, he says, is largely taboo among the gatekeepers of the genre. The Moscow-born Tartakovsky, whose family moved to the United States when he was 7, also talked about working with Adam Sandler, who as the voice of Dracula, gives one of his best performances in a long time, and another genius of a certain type of animation, Saturday TV Funhouse creator Robert Smigel. Tartakovsky also talks about his influences, which aren't limited to cartoons. You may have noticed that there's more than a little The Good, The Bad And The Ugly in Samurai Jack, which, happily, Tartakovsky says, he wants to revisit via a film or miniseries.
Movieline: This is your first theatrical feature.
Tartakovsky: Yeah, I’ve done long-form movies for DVD, but this is my first theatrical feature.
What are the challenges of making the transition from TV to feature films?
One of them is the simple idea that, in television, you have episode after episode. So, if you mess up one, the audience usually forgives you. In features nowadays, you work all this time and put out all this effort for one weekend. If you don’t open, you’re dead. And so it’s a totally different type of pressure where you’re working so hard to tell a good story and create good characters. Usually in TV, it takes six to eight, sometimes, 10 episodes to really get going and know what the show is. There’s always that moment in TV where a show clicks. Seinfeld had it. A lot of shows go through it. But in features, you don’t have that choice. You’ve got to figure everything out. You’ve got to know what your movie is. And you’ve got to know what story you’re telling. And all of this pressure and build-up was very different for me because I was like, this is it. This is the one shot that I get at this.
When it came to the monsters in Hotel Transylvania, I thought I saw and heard a lot of references to pop culture: the Universal monsters, of course, but also Count Floyd from SCTV and Young Frankenstein.
Tartakovsky: Well, the main monsters are all inspired by the iconic things that we know them by. but we actually tried not to put in too many references. So, for Dracula, we tried to make him his own design, even though he probably has classic flavors of Count Chocula and other things. [Laughs] But that definitely wasn’t on purpose. If anything, we were trying to do almost a Mad Magazine type of vibe. We tried not to take ourselves too seriously. So any of the references you may have thought you saw weren’t on purpose.
I first became of fan of your work watching Dexter's Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls and Samurai Jack on Cartoon Network. I’m also a fan of screenwriter Robert Smigel's Saturday TV Funhouse for SNL. How did you get involved with Sandler and Smigel and that crew?
When I came on, Adam was already signed on to do the voice of Dracula. I worked on the script to take the tone and other aspects in the direction I wanted them to go, and then I gave it to Adam. He really liked what I did. No matter what movie he does, Adam brings in his own guys to help write whatever character he's portraying, and one of the guys he works with is Robert Smigel. He asked me if I wanted to work with Smigel, and I said, 'Oh yeah, definitely. I love the stuff he's done." And that’s how he got involved.
So this project didn't originate with you?
I came on board after it had been going through the grinder for few years.
Judging from some of the bios I read about you, you grew up a pretty alienated kid. Did monsters help you deal with those feelings?
The actuality is that I was really scared of scary movies. I think kids either get off on it or they don’t. I was one of those that didn’t. I like knowing things. I didn’t like that feeling of what’s around the corner? I never went to haunted houses or anything like that.
But at the same time, I liked the idea of Dracula and Frankenstein – definitely the older movies weren’t as scary as today’s are. So, I definitely watched those. But, for me, where I really liked the monsters were in comedy, like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, or, of course, Young Frankenstein which is one of my favorite movies. That was my introduction to the monsters, until I read some of the books and thought more in terms of the truer sense of them.
Weirdly, I saw Hotel Transylvania knowing that you were involved but unaware that Sandler was the voice of Dracula. And I have to say, his usual trademark vocal tics weren't obvious.
That’s hilarious. I am a real Adam Sandler fan, but, at the same time, when a celebrity voice overtakes the character, it can throw you out of the film. You realize who's doing the voice and you're just, ‘Oh, it’s that actor playing that character.’ And so, I was really worried about it. That’s why I tried really hard to push Dracula’s expressions and his posing and to push for Adam not to do his voice. At first, I think he was really hesitant—you know comedians are really hard on each other and they’re hard on themselves. They want to make sure they don’t sound hacky, or whatever. And doing something [as iconic] as Dracula, you’re opening yourself up.
But I loved the voice Adam did. We started looking at it, and for me, I wanted this to be a broad comedy. So I kept pressuring him to do it as cartoony as he could get and still be comfortable. So, whenever he yelled and did those big ranges and different rhythms, the happier I was because then we could make some really fun, old-school animation — like Mel Blanc when he would do Bugs Bunny or Daffy. For the emotional stuff, he definitely came down, and we have that kind of contrast.
I loved the scene where Dracula is chasing the airplane that's carrying his daughter's boyfriend, Jonathan (Andy Samberg) and sees him watching some sort of Twilight-like movie with bare-chested pretty boys. And even though the sunlight is burning him up, Dracula has to make some sort of smart-ass comment about the state of vampire movies today. Was that your idea?
That was an Adam and Smigel idea, I think.
I thought you were successful getting most of the actors not to sound too much like themselves. How did you manage that?
It all depended on the character. With Fran Drescher, for the Bride of Frankenstein, we really wanted it to be her voice, which is super cartoony to begin with. With Kevin we decided to do Frankenstein as really conversational, so he could be more of his voice. If we were successful, I think it had a lot to do with the visuals. The way we executed performances and stuff, you weren’t paying too much attention to the voices because they just kind of all fit.
Tell me about what you were striving for in terms of the animation.
We really tried to push the animation to be better than other movies, to have it’s own point of view. And, again, to support the broad comedy of it, we wanted to do a Tex Avery-, Warner Brothers-influenced type of animation. When I first started doing it, everybody was so hesitant because that’s the big taboo in feature animation.: you can’t have things too over-exaggerated. I always thought that was ridiculous because for me the best scene in animation is in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, where you’ve got these crazy looking dwarves and Snow White’s dead and they’re super sad. They’re as unrealistic as you get. They’re ridiculous. And then they shed a tear and the audience is rapt. They’re so involved in these characters. To me, it was always ridiculous that you can’t emote if you’re doing something cartoony and exaggerated. I always argued the opposite. The more cartoony and exaggerated you are, the more range of expression you have and it will be more believable. And so, that was the whole point. Push the expressions. Push the animation. Push the posing to a much more exaggerated level.
When did that silly rule get made?
Look at the movies. It’s really be around since Disney. Disney started really cartoony, and then it switched. It started going more and more realistic, and eventually that look kind of stuck. And that became the law. When you have a movie like Beauty And The Beast that’s very realistic making so much money, that starts the argument that you can only do it that way. It’s just a trend that never went away.
Maybe you’re about to reverse that.
I’m hoping. [Laughs]
The animation is all CGI?
Technically, it’s the same as any Pixar, Dreamworks or big CG feature. The only thing that’s really different is that we really pushed the drawing aspect of it. We tried to get funny expressions, funny poses and that’s what really stands out. We really broke the puppet. With CGI, you have this model of a puppet in the computer, and it can only do a limited number of things. But if you push it and stretch it and pull it and break it, it can do so much more. And that’s where the Mad Magazine theory came into play. If you pause on a frame of Dracula, you get a funny expression. And that’s a really hand-drawn 2-D animated theory, where you have a funny drawing and you laugh at it. And that’s what I wanted to get more of — that the movie is drawn, not so much just posed.
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