Here be monsters
Russian-born kids’ TV animator Genndy Tartakovsky has hit box-office gold with his first feature about a hotel for monsters run by Adam Sandler’s Dracula. He talks to TARA BRADY
ANIMATION IS A team sport; all that drawing would be pretty hard on the wrists otherwise. It requires a remarkable artist – a Michel Ocelot, a Jan Švankmajer – to emerge as a genuine auteur among legions of talented doodlers. An even smaller subset of great talents manage to survive, unmolested by the dictates of house style, within the bigger animation studios.
Genndy Tartakovsky is the exception that proves the rule. The Russian-born creator of Samurai Jack and Sym-bionic Titan has been enlivening Saturday mornings since Dexter’s Laboratory premiered on Cartoon Network in 1996. His style – a dazzling mash-up of thick-line anime, Russian Futurism, and American psychedelia – is wildly varied, instantly recognisable and likely on a TV near you.
“Ive been very, very lucky,” says the multi-Emmy-winning, multi-Annie winning animator. “I’ve been able to work on my own creations over and over again. I think a studio is much more likely to go with a young creator now than they were 20 years ago.”
Tartakovsky has only vague recollections of his first cartoon show in the USSR. Anxious that the children avoid anti-Semitic sentiments, his mother Miriam, a teacher, and his father Boris – a dentist to government officials and the Russian hockey team – moved the family to Italy, then Chicago, when Genndy was seven.
“When I was in Russia, there was one animated show that I watched,” says the filmmaker. “I think it was the only animated show. So when we got to America, my dad bought a TV set and I turned it on. And I was like: ‘Oh my gosh! Warner Bros! Tex Avery! Tom and Jerry! Wonder Woman! The Six Million Dollar Man! There was so much, all of a sudden, to look at. I was lost in it. I can’t imagine being a kid right now. With all those channels? I would never have left the house.”
Tartakovsky got serious about drawing when he was 10. He spent hours copying frames from Hulk and Batman until, one day, dad arrived home with another exciting electrical appliance.
“You know those giant old VCRs? They were the size of a room. Suddenly, I was able to record cartoons and that changed my life. I would sit there still-framing them and copying what I saw. I have all these sketchbooks full of Bugs Bunny and Scooby Doo and superhero stuff.”
He retains a childlike love of the medium, despite the commercial pressures of the job: You could drive yourself mad wondering what would a 12-year-old girl like or what would an 8-year-old kid like. An 8-year-old kid might like pirates one day and not the next. I stopped thinking like that a long time ago. All I have is my gut and if I think it’s funny or entertaining, and if some of the people I work with think it’s funny or entertaining, then we’re going to go with that.”
Hotel Transylvania, Tartakovsky’s first theatrical feature, broke September box office records in the US last week, finishing $22 million clear of second-placed Looper. The lightly gothic animated fable concerns hotelier Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler), his wayward daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) and the celebrity monsters – Cee Lo Green’s Mummy, Steve Buscemi’s Werewolf, Kevin James’ Frankenstein – who frequent the titular resort.