"I hate realism," director Genndy Tartakovsky said last week over the phone. "In America especially, we're very narrow-minded as far as animation goes. There is only one kind of movie, and that's that big, family-oriented, four-quadrant, please-everyone kind of film. But if I wanted realism, I'd watch a live-action movie. Those lines are being blurred every day. When I go to see a movie, especially an animated movie, I'm going to escape. The more realistic it is, the less believable it is."
That line of thinking puts Tartakovsky — the award-winning creator of such innovative shows as Dexter's Laboratory and Samurai Jack as well as the director of the new animated feature Hotel Transylvania — at odds with the animation community that he feels has grown more and more homogeneous over the years. Tartakovsky's flat, abstracted style of drawing, dependent on the "limited animation" techniques pioneered by the likes of Looney Tunes directors like Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, is eccentric by today's Pixar/Dreamworks standard.
That mode seems ideally suited for Hotel Transylvania, which follows the old Universal monster gang as they hide out from the world in a secluded castle. The film would ideally allow Tartakovsky to prove that his style worked on a bigger scale, especially because, as he puts it, "'cartooning' is a taboo word when it comes to feature films."
"But when it's hand-drawn, you can always tell, 'That person drew it,'" Tartakovsky insisted. "I didn't want to make something where the viewer thinks, 'Anyone could have done that.' That's all we have, especially if you don't end up creating the idea and the characters."
Tartakovsky's fears of losing control were not unrealistic given that he was the sixth director brought on to the project since it started development in 2006. Tartakovsky maintains that kind of turnover is not that unusual when it comes to feature films, animated or live-action ("I'd almost be surprised if there was one director and a story figured out right away.") He compares the experience to being "dropped into combat. I don't know whose side everybody is on. Nobody's really happy that I'm there. Now what do I do?"
That feeling of helplessness belies Tartakovsky's status as something of a cartoon veteran. In 1996, his Dexter's Laboratory spurred Cartoon Network's growth and garnered Tartakovsky Emmy nominations. He recalled how difficult it was to get Dexter's Laboratory off the ground initially because he was told that his proposed signature approach "won't work in animation."
"I looked at my producer and said, 'Do I really have to make all of these changes?" Tartakovsky recalls. "And he goes: 'Well, they say you don't have to, but the guy's really experienced. He knows what he's talking about, so I recommend that you change it.'"
Tartakovsky didn't take the hint. "I was like, 'Great, so I don't have to!' And I never did, and I think that made it a better series," he says. "But everything changed at that very moment. I was able to fail by myself or succeed by myself."
Still, the problems Tartakovsky initially faced with Hotel Transylvania — even after crafting something great from the Star Wars prequel universe with 2003's Clone Wars — were the kind Hollywood throws at the untested. "Let's say you're driving in the middle of the road, and all the signs and the lights are facing you," Tartakovsky explained. "And you've been on this road before, so it all seems right. And everybody else is going at the opposite direction, yelling at you that you're going the wrong way. And it's not just the executives. The artists and other people were saying that. It was very strange. But slowly, they started to see what I was going for, and I started to convince them. Then everyone slowly started to come onboard."
That success on Tartakovsky's part can be attributed to his knack for knowing when to choose his battles, a skill that has helped him to not only maintain his career but also to make his projects his way. In fact, now that he has secured a deal with Sony Animation and is working on two new feature projects, Tartakovsky says he's starting to feel comfortable making feature films. He even dared a bit of optimism: "It's starting to feel like those golden days at Cartoon Network."