It turns out that Genndy Tartakovsky's hand-drawn vision for "Hotel Transylvania" was just what this troubled movie needed. The monster mash about letting go of your children and learning to live with humans (echoing Pixar's "Finding Nemo" and "Monsters, Inc.") might be light on story, but it's fun and engaging as a result of the Tex Avery-style shenanigans. And it obviously plays to Tartakovsky's 2D strengths that he's already demonstrated in his celebrated TV work ("Samurai Jack" and "Dexter's Laboratory").
Indeed, it's delightfully subversive watching the uptight Dracula (Adam Sandler at his looniest) lose his grip over his rebellious teenage daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez). She winds up falling in love with the anarchic Jonathan (Andy Samberg), who upends the luxurious resort her father's constructed to imprison her. Yet the way Drac twists and turns way out of proportion merely undermines his fast-talking facade. By contrast, Jonathan's infectious enthusiasm rubs off on everyone, including Drac, who even enjoys jousting with him in a "Star Wars"-inspired game of levitating tables.
"Starting it and not having any idea what it was going to be as the story was still being rewritten was really hard and makes you nervous," the director concedes. "Then you know what the tone is and it becomes easier." He was kind of like Drac in search of control. "Every week was a new challenge whether it was technical or creative. I couldn't control the pieces as much as I'm use to."
In fact, the technical demands of the director's hand-drawn aesthetic nearly upended Sony Pictures Animation, especially after it achieved such photo-realistic strides on "Surf's Up" and "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs." They worked on the fly for a year keeping up with Tartakovsky: breaking rigs and coming up with various deforming tweaks to get the right squash-and-stretch in CG. Sometimes this was simulated, other times it was customized. During one sequence in Humanville, for instance, Drac sees that one of the zombie's heads has fallen off and he zips through the crowd very quickly and becomes snake-like.
And similar to Glen Keane on Disney's "Tangled," Tartakovsky drew over the footage to illustrate the extreme poses that he desired. The animators were then on their own to figure out how to translate it. "What scared us initially is that we had a lot of assets but they were built for a different picture, from a different director's point of view," explains Dan Kramer, the VFX supervisor. "The characters were the same, the castle was the same but we had to roll with it. We had to figure out how to get there. And we never wanted to compromise the story or Genndy's vision. And so we had to make those decisions very quickly and decisively. Luckily, we had a director who knew what he wanted."
In reality, it took the animators only a shot or two to get the hand-drawn vibe the director was after. But they had to learn that it was OK to constantly go off model, to deform the proportions so much that it didn't look like a mistake but was part of a defining moment when Drac or Jonathan were pushed to emotional extremes.
"Sometimes it was all about taking a character from one place to another," Kramer adds. "Other times it was more in your face. Genndy wasn't afraid to stretch characters. He doesn't have much experience with CG animation. To Genndy, it was a matter of hitting the feeling he wanted. He did draw-overs and it was freeing for the animators. And it's changed my viewpoint in being a little looser."
However, it put a lot of pressure on the cloth team when Drac's cape would suddenly flap around uncontrollably or even disappear. As a result they had to sculpt every single simulation to make it work with the hand-drawn animation style.
But Tartakovsky also wanted strong silhouettes and to suppress detail outside the line of action. For example, there's a long shot of Drac amid a big field of silhouettes in front and behind him, and he's the only one lit and in color. It's very impactful but also non-photorealistic and very cartoony. This wasn't easy: it required a silhouette tool that strengthened the geometry by drawing a wire over the character.
Ironically, when Tartakovsky first showed a test from a Cartoon Network series proposal to demonstrate his hand-drawn aesthetic, the animators were thrilled at the results but never thought they'd be pushed that far. "It was really pushed like 'Dexter,'" recalls animation lead Bill Haller. "But toward the end of 'Hotel T', we looked back on that and realized we'd actually surpassed some of things he was doing in that test."
Now that Sony's gotten a taste of Tartakovsky's method, they are preparing to systematize some of the techniques for "Popeye" and a more personal project also in development. It's all about energy and caricature.
"Probably the biggest challenge [of 'Popeye'] is keeping the essence but making it contemporary," Tartakovsky says. "That's one thing I haven’t figured out 100%. I feel like I've got a handle on what I want it to look like, so if you could imagine that rubber hosey animation with real clothes on him, it could be its own kind of style. So for me, I want to respect the past but still put it into now. I'm not saying like sunglasses on baseball caps but making it feel contemporary and keeping the essence that I liked as a kid. It's that same kind of pressure when I worked on 'Star Wars: The Clone Wars'; now it's our chance to do it without ruining it."
Now if Sony will only let Tartakovsky make his 2D "Samurai Jack" movie.