Director Genndy Tartakovsky and Producer Michelle Murdocca
Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Animation
By Gordon Meyer
In late July, the folks at Sony Pictures Animation invited me to an advance look at “Hotel Transylvania,” their latest 3D CG animated feature. They showed us a few work-in-progress segments followed by a discussion with voice actor Selena Gomez, producer Michelle Murdocca and director Genndy Tartakovsky. I shared my initial response here.
The film opened on September 28 with a $40 million opening weekend, making the folks at Sony very happy campers. I had the pleasure of speaking with Tartakovsky earlier this week, basking in the afterglow of his film’s success at the box office. For those not familiar with Tartakovsky and his work, after graduating from CalArts’ celebrated animation program, the Russian born Tartakovsky spent several years at Hanna-Barbera where he created, wrote (or co-wrote) and directed the original series “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Samurai Jack,” “Sym-Bionic Titan” and “Star Wars: Clone Wars.” George Lucas personally chose Tartakovsky to spearhead that project. “Hotel Transylvania” is his first feature and had already been in development for many years when he came on board.
One of the things that attracted Tartakovsky to the project was the idea of Dracula as the father of a teenage girl with Adam Sandler’s voice. “I got very excited about the opportunity to present a comedic Dracula to a new generation. Some of my favorite monster movies were movies with comedic takes like ‘Young Frankenstein’ and ‘Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.’ I thought this was right up my alley. “ Tartakovsky says he had a number of challenges, beginning with the fact that he was coming into a project that already had a crew, a script and had already started to build assets based on earlier drafts and storyboards.
Writers were already wrapping up a draft by the time Tartakovsky came on board, but before he had an opportunity to put his stamp on the project. Up until then, he was accustomed to either writing his own material or at least strongly guiding it. “When I read that draft, it was in a different tone than the kind of movie I thought we were going to make. So I took it upon myself to re-write the movie where I was able to put in my own pacing and structure before we started to dig deep into the jokes and other things.” Tartakovsky then showed his draft to Adam Sandler, who, in addition to voicing Dracula is also one of the film’s executive producers. Sandler liked what he read and then turned the script over to Peter Baynham and longtime collaborator Robert Smigel for another round of rewrites.
Once he was satisfied with the script, Tartakovsky tackled character design and art direction. “I liked many of the characters that were already designed, including Frankenstein, Eunice (aka Mrs. Frankenstein) and the werewolf man. But Dracula’s design was so far off from what I felt he needed to be for his character that I insisted he be re-designed. My biggest influence was on the way we posed the characters and their expressions to be more in line with my style and sensibilities. If you saw the old Frankenstein and the new one and the way they were posed, it’s almost like they were two different characters.”
Tartakovsky readily admits to being strongly influenced by the cartoons of Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett, especially with their pacing, exaggerated takes and strong physical humor and wanted “Hotel Transylvania” to have similar sensibilities. “That was my goal. In feature animation, the cartoony style of Warner Brothers was kind of taboo. A lot of people told me that you couldn’t sustain a feature length story with that kind of animation and I always felt that was kind of ridiculous. I wanted to make a big, broad comedy with characters like Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. I worked very hard on the pacing to make sure we delivered that kind of energy.”
As a major proponent of 3D, it’s no surprise that Sony wanted “Hotel Transylvania” to be released stereoscopically. For someone accustomed to working in traditional 2D cell-type animation, this posed additional challenges for Tartakovsky. “This was one of the more difficult things because I feel like 3D often takes you out of a movie. I wanted the 3D to be effective, but no so much that it takes you out of the story. What I found was that the type of composition and storytelling that I like to do actually fit into 3D really well. It became a really nice fit into the way it fit into the movie.” At the recent 3D Entertainment Summit, Sony showed us some key set pieces from “Hotel Transylvania” that were dazzling demonstrations of how effective 3D can be when used properly. I’d have to say that for someone using that medium for the first time, Tartakovsky learned how to use 3D space, pacing and staging remarkably well.
Meanwhile, Tartakovsky’s future plans include a new take on “Popeye” using CG animation and an undisclosed project that, he was not at liberty to discuss, but none the less was enthusiastic about. Being a long-standing “Popeye” fan, especially the 1930s vintage Fleischer Brothers cartoons, I especially wanted more details. Although the latter film is still in development, Tartakovsky did say his vision was to emphasize physical comedy with his take on “Popeye.” Considering his body of work to date, I am very optimistic as to what he’ll do with the characters. Meanwhile, “Hotel Transylvania” is an auspicious feature debut for this talented artist.