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Comic-Con International was something of a homecoming for Hotel Transylvania director Genndy Tartakovsky. Speaking with Spinoff Online, the creator of such animated series as Dexter’s Laboratory and Star Wars: Clone Wars recalled when the first episode of his Samurai Jack screened at the convention in 2001.
“It was in Hall 6,” he said. “It was great. It was like 5,000 people.”
Before that premiere, Tartakovsky was anxious, noting that when Dexter’s Laboratory began, Cartoon Network’s audience was about 12 million people. But by the time of Samurai Jack’s debut, viewership had ballooned to between 60 million and 70 million. “You’re always very nervous about showing stuff to people, especially something very new,” he said. “The reaction [that night] was really great. I couldn’t have been happier. It was one of the best Comic-Con experiences I’ve had.”
This year, Tartakovsky brought his first feature film Hotel Transylvania, which stars Adam Sandler as the voice of Dracula, who’s so tired of the world of mortals, that he opens a secret vacation retreat for his fellow monsters. It all works great until a human named Jonathan (Andy Samberg) arrives and falls for the Count’s daughter (Selena Gomez).
The project was in development for some time at Sony Pictures Animation, but it was only after Tartakovsky found that last element that he really cracked the story. “It started out with the concept, a hotel for monsters,” he explained. “It’s one of those high-concept things. ‘Oh, yeah, that sounds funny!’ But then what do you do with it? Once we hit upon this Dracula’s daughter angle and Adam Sandler as the voice and Selena Gomez, everything started to come together.”
“Then I came on and I pushed it all through to the end,” he added.
Arriving from television animation, Tartakovsky noted that the biggest difference between the two mediums is the nature of the pressure. “In TV, you have multiple episodes. If you do one that’s not so great, usually, the fans will forgive you because they know that the next one should be better … or hopefully will be better,” he said. “So, the pressure is relentless, but it’s a little bit forgiving; you have a lot of shots up to bat.” In comparison, with a feature film, you only get that first weekend at the bat. “So you work all these years to get your story right, to get your characters right, and it has to be memorable, it has to be entertaining, and you have to fall in love with the characters — everything within an hour and a half.”
With less screen time comes the desire to get every shot as letter perfect as possible. It’s a process the director found far different from building a series. “You’re always building this one project,” he said. “You’re trying to make sure all the pieces fit and every step of the way gets elevated. Then you get this big marketing blitz and all this money and eyes on it. It’s crazy.”
It’s also a far cry from his first job in the business, working on Two Stupid Dogs in a trailer for Hanna-Barbera. “It was six of us in that trailer,” Tartakovsky remembered. “They didn’t even put us in an actual building. [In] those days, we were 23/24, so it was just fun. We were just happy working in animation. Now, I’m 42 and things are different.”
Whether he’s working in a trailer or with all the resources at Sony Pictures Imageworks, Tartakovsky is happy to be creating animation. “I knew I wanted to be an animator since I was 10 or 12. It’s some kind of deficiency in me, wanting to do that,” he said. “And I’ve never looked back. No matter how hard it gets, it’s what I love.”
Part of that hard work was the transition to computer-generated animation. “Honestly, 2D is something I love. I love drawings. I got into the industry because I love drawings on a screen, the TV screen or the feature screen.” Tartakovsky said. “Then, to come into the CG world, I thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to lose my identity, I’m going to lose everything that I’ve built to be my style.'” Instead, he found a group of animators who were familiar with his work and excited to see what he could do with a new set of tools. “The people at Imageworks were so supportive that I was able to push them and break the way they do things and fit what I wanted to do with CG. A lot of it is in the animation, because we brought really energetic, broad things in. They broke the computer and put it back together to make it work.”
Another challenge was keeping a straight face while working with Sandler, Kevin James and other members of the voice cast while recording the dialogue for Hotel Transylvania. “As funny as all those guys are — I like to call them ‘professional comedians’ — they’re very serious about it,” he said. “Even though they goof around and stuff, once it comes to delivering the joke and saying it the right way, and finding the rhythm, it’s really amazing how serious they are about it.”
Tartakovsky said he was surprised by the craftsman-like dedication Sandler and the cast had to drawing every drop of humor out of the dialogue. “They can sense it [or say], Tthat line’s not landing.’ Adam would record a line and he would say it five times and you could tell he was searching for they way to say it right and when he hits upon it, suddenly everybody laughs,” he said. “It’s really cool to watch.”
The director said the involvement of Sandler, who boarded Hotel Transylvania shortly before he did, was part of what drew him to the project. “I’m a big fan of Adam, and it was a chance to do a new Dracula,” he explained. “Vampires are so different nowadays, and we wanted to do a funny, broad caricature version of Dracula and hopefully push Adam to do a funny, cartoony voice was really exciting. That was one of the big reasons I took the job.”
Tartakovsky will work with Sony on the upcoming Popeye animated feature. A fan of the old cartoons, he sees the project as an opportunity to bring a broad, comic tone to the film. “Popeye is big, physical comedy. It’s a silly tone, it’s got some good music in it,” he said. It also presents a great challenge, as the characters must be brought to a modern context. However, he’s trying to avoid a “baseball cap, sunglasses and jeans” version of the character. “We’ll have to figure out how to contemporize it, but not lose the essential qualities.”
He also holds out hope that a Samurai Jack feature will eventually be made. “People come up to me and say, ‘I love Jack because of A, B, and C.’ Great. Then we go into feature development and they say, ‘Well, we have to get rid of A, B, and C because that doesn’t work in feature.’ And [those things] make it work as a whole concept.” After a pause, he added, “We’re still fighting for it.”
Hotel Transylvania opens Sept. 28.