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The creator of Samurai Jack and Hotel Transylvania is bringing back old school animation

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Jul 10, 2018, 3:00 PM EDT

Genndy Tartakovsky's three Hotel Transylvania movies bear all the hallmarks of modern blockbuster animation, from the vivid next-level computer animation and eminently marketable characters to the plots that, in the end, reaffirm the importance of family. And yet, Tartakovsky's work is probably the more distinguishable than most animators working in the studio system today. Over the last 20 years, he has developed his own house style — in part by paying homage to the greats.

A casual student of animation can also see in the billion-dollar franchise the influence of his heroes, the groundbreaking Warner Bros. animators such as Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett: the frenetic energy of the action, characters' elongated legs and tiny feet, the sudden pauses in the action to address the audience, and the male characters who lose the ability to communicate in anything but gibberish when they spot an attractive woman.

Those attributes are even more apparent in the now-iconic TV shows he created or helped create for Cartoon Network, including Powerpuff Girls (which he directed), Dexter's Laboratory, and Samurai Jack. Ahead of the release of Hotel Transylvania 3, the 48-year-old filmmaker gave us a rundown of his life in animation, from childhood to the present day, by answering our SYFY WIRE Survey questions.

What was the first short you ever made?

I guess it was, my first animated go was my first year in college I did an academy leader, it's a countdown from ten to one. Most people did something real simple, just the numbers kind of morph into themselves. Because I was so into animation, I did a tribute to Tex Avery that every second there was a gag. I was 18 and it was horrible, but it kind of began my overachieving or attempting to do something that was more than I was really capable of.

What were the gags?

They were just the standard slapstick-y type of physical, Bugs Bunny, Tex Avery type stuff. It was really like an homage to Tex Avery. There was a lion roaring, a cat and a dog getting bit, and there would be new gag literally every second.

And you came up with what became the basis for Dexter's Laboratory in college, too.

It was my technically third year in college and my second year at CalArts. I started doodling this girl dancing and I really liked to animate kind of cartoony dancing, so I go, oh, maybe I'll make my short solo about her. And that was Dee Dee. And then I go, well, what's the opposite of art and dancing? It'd be science. So maybe she's got a little brother who's super nerdy and into science and stuff. And then that little idea started to build itself. And then she would come into his room and mess around with his inventions.

You mention Tex Avery as your inspiration. Were there others?

For sure, Bob Clampett, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones. Those guys were my number one. That's kind of what I was drawn to. For me, it was the raw energy and the individuality that the Warner Brothers and Tex Avery's stuff had — and Hanna Barbera also, Tom and Jerry was really big for me too.

Are they still touchstones for you as you go back? Do you look to those things as you are making your stuff now?

Yeah. I mean, it's kind of developed. Through the years, I've developed a style or a language that I like, even when it applies to action. All my action principles are very similar to my cartoony principles, because all the poses want to be really strong. And then through the years, Harvey Kurtzman became a big influence. Of course, anime came into the picture when I was a kid too. That started to inform it. Everything started to melt together.

What are the principles?

There's a certain thing when I do any kind of action show or action themes that it's still dynamic and there's a caricature to it, you know? It's not based in reality. I guess that's the simplest way to explain it without getting too geeky in all the details. My goal is to always try to make you feel something, whether that's humor or sadness or excitement, and to try to manipulate screen space. Feeling is what's really interesting.

In the early days, we were just kind of doing whatever. We weren't really thinking about it too hard because we were young and we really didn't know what we were doing. And as you do more and more, you start to understand what you're going after. And so now I'm starting to get a little better control of it and start to understand what I'm doing.

So what else informed these principles?

There's a lot of comic book inspiration and stuff I do that people probably won't recognize. I grew up in the '70s, so there's a lot of little things, like Three's Company and Gilligan's Island. Those shows were the foundation of my comedy in a way. Because as a kid, especially an immigrant kid [ed: Tartakovsky was born and lived in Russia until he was seven-years-old], I would watch everything from Wonder Woman to The Incredible Hulk to Three's Company, Gilligan's Island, The Munsters, Addams Family. All those shows that were around in reruns when I was a kid, I would watch them religiously. Also Abbott and Costello and the Marx Brothers.

You can definitely see The Munsters in Hotel Transylvania.

The funny thing is, I was not a fan of horror when I was a kid. I was scared to watch scary movies. And then along came Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. And I like those films because they made scary funny, and it was kind of ironic that I ended up doing the Hotel movies. ... It's that same philosophy, we never wanted to scare any kids, we just wanted to make the monsters funny.

When you came on to Hotel Transylvania, it had been in development for a long time and had lost a bunch of directors. Was it scarier when you came on?

They were floundering between ideas. I think it started off as just a concept, a hotel for monsters. And then I think the first go around before my time there was Igor character, and he wanted to run the hotel. So there was that storyline. Then I think they had one which was much more, almost like maybe more of a Disney-type take on it, where it was a very, very sincere, romantic story of Mavis falling in love with a human. And then when I came on and Adam Sandler was signed on, then I realized we have a Mad Monster Party, Mad Magazine type of scenario.

So what is your dream project?

I think it's to do something that hasn't really been done. Whether it be something I built or something maybe in the action space with animation, like if you can imagine a Samurai Jack but with a big budget for the theaters. Something really stylish and unique. I think for me, it's definitely pushing the envelope. Just really trying not to repeat myself. It's always about doing something different and doing something new, challenging myself, and going forward.

Do you still want to work in 2D after doing these movies?

Yeah, absolutely. It can be done. Independently, they're still being done. Especially in Europe, I could probably get a 2D feature going. But it's going to be very limited, limited in its distribution and how many people see it. And for me, I want to do it on a mass scale. So if I ever want to do a 2D feature, I want everybody to see it. And I think I'm getting closer because the more success I get, the more people listen, and perhaps the more they're willing to risk something.

Because when you think about it, especially nowadays, it's so competitive where there's two, three, four movies opening every weekend and a studio is releasing maybe 15 to 20 movies a year. And they want each of those movies to be huge. So for me to do a $10 million, $20 million movie, even if we make $100 million, which would be a huge success, it's not big enough of a profit. So I think they'd rather take a gamble on a $100, $200 million movie with the potential to make $1 billion than make a $10 million movie and make $50 million.

Do you think audiences are less interested?

I think they've forgotten how fun it is to see something 2D on the screen, because when 2D died, we were just repeating ourselves for years. There was nothing new. Everything was the same. So the audiences were burnt out on it. And CG is still fresh, it's still kind of new. And it looks very expensive. It looks very detailed. It looks really good. But it's just a completely different aesthetic than 2D. That's the thing. And once you see a really well-made 2D thing, I think audiences will eat it up.

What's the hardest scene you've ever had to animate?

Probably doing Clone Wars in the beginning was the most difficult just because we were fans of Star Wars and it was the first thing I've ever done that had a preconception to it. Whenever we did Dexter or Powerpuff or Samurai, they were original shows and nobody has any idea what it was going to be like. But when you're doing Star Wars, all of a sudden the pressure changes because, like, all right, we've got expectations and you better meet them because otherwise we're not going to like it. So going into it, that was very difficult in the beginning.

What kind of expectations did Lucasfilm give you? What were the guidelines?

Really it was very simplistic. They basically said you have to do your stories within the Clone Wars timeframe and you can't progress the plot, because the third movie [Revenge of the Sith] was coming. And so that kind of led me to do more of that Band of Brothers type of take on it where it was just vignettes from the Clone Wars. And that was it. That was really our limitation. And then they have some stuff that they wanted to see, like some ARC troopers and they wanted us to use Durge as one of the villains. That was fine with us. If anything, we wanted to have them more involved as far as telling us. But at the end of the day, obviously George [Lucas] was busy and they just kind of gave us the guidelines and we did it and filled it in.

It's funny that they said don't advance the plot. Ties your hands a bit.

I think for the first season especially, George had no clue what we were going to do with it and I think he was apprehensive of somebody else doing stuff with Clone Wars. And then once he saw it and really his son really liked it, then we had a meeting and he was like, "Yeah, I want you to introduce Grievous" and all of a sudden now we can make Anakin a Jedi and we can actually do real Star Wars lore storytelling.

What's the best creative advice or tip you've ever received?

My old boss, Fred Seibert, used to tell me to have meetings with people, people I didn't know, and don't pitch them. I was a young kid; I was like, that's crazy. What are we going to talk about? We can't just sit there. Basically, the point he was making is you get to know these people because they have to entrust you with all this money to make something, and so they have to know your character.

So I started having these connections, and it really worked. I've held that tip and I've been doing it ever since, and keeping in contact with not just artists but also executives and people that ... and that when I have a meeting, I don't necessarily pitch anything. We're just kind of catching up and seeing what's what.

There's stories from the old days that you always love to hear, because I'm a fan of animation history and a student of it. When I first started at Hanna-Barbera, there was a lot of "old-timers" still working there and I would love to hear stories that they shared from the old days and from the new days. They kind of survived from the golden age of animation through the collapse of animation in the '70s and '80s. They were the inventors of them, of the modern day animations. So it was nice to hear all those anecdotes from their adventures.

So what's been your best day at work, and what happened?

I mean, there's a lot. There's a lot of good days. I know in Samurai Jack there was a lot of great moments, like when we won the Emmy. It was a big surprise and everybody was crazy.

One of the recent good moments was after the first Hotel movie. It was my first movie and it was a bit of a struggle to make it, and you're fighting everything, and I kind of had to start over in a way. I couldn't rely on everything that I had established in my career. And so we struggled through it, fought our way through, did the cartoon type of animation and everybody was kind of unsure about it.

Then the movie opened up huge. It was the biggest selling opening as far as an animated movie. And that day we had a big toast, and that felt really good. Because you're not just vindicated creatively, but when the movie makes money, because it is a business number one, it made it feel like, yeah, I was right. And all the battles were worth it because now you have this success and people liked it and they went to see it. So that felt good.

I've done a lot of stuff on a smaller scale. Cartoon Network, when Dexter first came out, it only had 12 million viewers. All the shows built the network together. And Sony was kind of the first bigger scale thing.

When you went to go make Hotel Transylvania 2, was it easier for you to do and get things done?

No, there were some other complications.

Like what?

I don't want to really get into it, but it's complex. Because sometimes the more success doesn't necessarily equal more freedom.

So what was the worst day you ever had?

The worst day was definitely when they canceled Sym-Bionic Titan. Definitely. I won't forget that. We just wrote 10 more episodes and we were really excited. The show was starting to get its footing a little bit. And then I got called into the head of the studio's office and he said, "Look, we're not going to make any more episodes."

And that's never happened to me before. That's the thing. I've been very fortunate in my career where everything that I've done will keep going forward until I say, "Look, I'm burnt out. I don't want to do anymore." And this wasn't the case. This was where basically they canceled, and the reason wasn't great. And so that was a horrible day.

So how did you handle it? How did you react?

"This is bulls**t, I'm not going to stand for it, you're making a mistake." And I moved on. I mean, what can I do? I'm not a wallower. It kind of fed into Hotel Transylvania actually because at the time I needed to have a job, so I was developing another movie with Sony Animation, and I said, "Look I've got the means to do more than just this one move development." And then two weeks later, the opportunity opened up to be a director of Hotel, and so I took it.

When you look back at your work or the things, is there one thing you would change if you could?

No, because that's the thing. Everything I've ever done, I have put in 110 percent, especially in the beginning. I lost girlfriends, I lost all these things where I had to do the best that I could do, and I never wanted to get into the situation where I can look back and go, "Oh, I wish I could've done that." If I made Dexter now, it would've been twice as better just because I can draw better, I can communicate better. But at the same time, there's something about it that still works really well. Same thing with Samurai and Clone Wars. So yeah, I tend not to look back. And I don't really like looking at my old stuff. If somebody was watching it or whatever, it's fine. But I don't really seek it out. And I'm still moving forward.

What are you working on now, now that you finally have finished the voyage of Hotel Transylvania 3?

I'm kind of juggling a couple things. I might do a TV show and maybe write another movie for Sony. So I'm seeing how things develop. I don't want to announce anything yet because I just want the movie to come out, settle in, and then I'll kind of see where it's going to take me. But I've got some things lining up that I'm really excited about.

Are you done with Hotel Transylvania?

I mean, I got to do Samurai Jack in between the two Hotels, and I came back for the third one because there was a good story that felt natural for a third one and I was able to co-write it and make it more of what I sought to be. So I had a little bit more control over it, and so it was the right situation for me. we got to get out of the hotel and do all this stuff, if you see the movie, it feels more like something that I had done, where maybe the other two there's little glimpses but it's definitely more of a ... not by committee, but a few voices were heard in that one.

Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation hits theaters on Friday.