Genndy Tartakovsky couldn’t make the Popeye he wanted at Sony but he continues his cartoony sensibility in Hotel Transylvania 2 and hopes to make the very ambitious Can You Imagine? The gang’s all back as Mavis (Selena Gomez) and Johnny (Andy Samberg) get married and have a son and Drac (Adam Sandler) adjusts to being a grandpa and a world where monster and human co-exist. There’s even a cameo by Mel Brooks as his dad, Vlad.
Bill Desowitz: What was it like walking into this very different situation?
Genndy Tartakovsky: Initially, I didn’t want to do the second one and I started doing some stuff on Popeye. And then they started working on the second one. It feels weird because you’re part of creating this world and it’s successful and you start feeling kind of left out a little bit, and then they started talking to me some more about it. Basically, we decided if I got a co-director I could do the second one and Popeye at the same time, so in an ideal world, I could have a movie in 2015 and 2016. It didn’t work out that way but when I came on the story was already started with the kid. The beginning was a lot different — there were different characters. We put it up and had the first screening and it was all wrong [it was very much Sandler and Robert Smigel humor focusing on a conflict with a real estate agent who wants to franchise the hotel and very dialogue-driven). We realized the faults and I was able to put my own ideas in like the Vlad thing.
BD: Monsters and humans are now co-existing but Drac still has to learn to accept that and let his son be himself.
GT: Right. We worked in the theme of generations and accepting that, when we all have kids, the wife wants the kid to be one thing and the husband wants the kid to be another thing. For us, it’s monster vs. human and Drac’s the same old guy stuck in his old-school ways until we realize that Vlad’s even more old-school.
BD: You’re also able to work in some fun PC humor when they go to Drac’s old camp and everything’s become too safe.
GT: The good thing about this world is that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s a Mad Monster romp.
BD: Talk about the technical challenges.
GT: I wanted to push lighting and color. The computer does realism really well, but, for me, I want cartooniness, more silhouette value, vignettes, clear reads without flattening it out. And so we talked a lot about color theory [with production designer Michael Kurinsky, senior animation supervisor Alan Hawkins and VFX supervisor Karl Herbst]. We brought in this theory of cool and warm, so if the background was warm we’d have some cool light on the characters, especially on the ending fight sequence — it was really fast and busy so we tried to atmosphere out the background. On the first one it was still colorful but a little grayer. Plus, we were getting out of the hotel for greater periods [the camp is woodsy/gothic].
The other thing was cloth dynamics, which was the biggest challenge in the first one and motion blur because we move so fast and the computer goes crazy — it just wipes everything away so you can’t see anything. So they designed a new motion blur system [called Genndy Blur] for this movie, which is based on how we animate in 2D. They would use smears or dry brush to represent motion blur in the old Warner Bros. cartoons or multiple images of the same drawing. There’s a scene where Drac talks about what the Mummy’s gonna do and there’s literally like eight hands. And so the new motion blur picked that up better. And cloth is regular physics in our world and in the Hotel T world it’s so fast and so different that clothing never knows what to do.
For me, it’s cartoony animation with real cloth dynamics and that was so hard to do so they updated the system a bit. It’s almost like have to frame-by-frame it. They also built a muscle system for the cronies. I wanted to try out something like you’d see in a Spider-Man movie for the Lizard and see how they would work in our cartoony world. Because everyone moved a bit too fast, you never got a feel of it. So there would be extra jiggle when a monster stepped. And once we got into it, we realized we can’t make the cronies too scary. So they had to be sillier.
BD: What’s the status of Can You Imagine?
GT: We’re in development. We had a really good first act screening a couple of months ago. And so now just trying to figure out how to make that better. And it’s a new world here with Tom Rothman running the studio and Kristine Belson [The Croods producer-turned president of Sony Pictures Animation], who’s very supportive. I’m trying to find my place. Tom’s balls-out and is a very confident studio head who has his convictions. He had Blue Sky at Fox and he knows animation is valuable. I feel like because of the success of Pixar and Disney, we’re still in that mindset of this is how features should be, whereas Despicable Me and Minions are also super successful. It could be sillier and cartoonier and I thought we started to develop a brand for Sony that was cartoony with heart. And now I’m not sure if that’s going to continue or not.
BD: What are you trying to do with Can You Imagine?
GT: It’s a personal story. As a parent, you juggle being a parent and a friend, especially for me being very young-minded. I think I’m a kid still, but at one point I was best friends with my son and at five or six he suddenly wanted to hang out with his friends more so than me. So the movie’s about losing our youth and finding it again. And it’s contemporary the way I’m telling it…very different kind of storytelling than traditional movies. And then you get to have fun in the imaginary world.
BD: You mean non-linear?
GT: A little bit non-linear. Some experimental stuff that we’re trying to do, not relying on dialogue. More cinematic but with more cartoony acting and cartoony designs…like Fleischer and Warner Bros. combined together. Maybe because I was drawing Popeye for two years. There’s this roundness about it and volume that’s really strong. Big noses and big expressions and big personalities. My style is Warner Bros., Hanna-Barbera, Disney all blended together.
BD: Is there any 2D in it?
GT: There is one character we want to keep 2D running around in his imaginary world. We’ll see. I feel like 2D has gotten a rotten reputation now and ends up being in the end credits [including Hotel Transylvania 2], so I’m always trying to push for more. But it’s hard enough to sell a CG movie let alone a 2D movie.
BD: What happened with Popeye?
GT: I’ll be honest: it was painful. We had the whole movie up, it was a great screening. We had the test, which was very successful. And so we were all ready to go and they just couldn’t commit to it. As much as they want Popeye (it’s still in development), it’s not my Popeye. I agreed to give them Popeye that’s a little bit more contemporary but without losing everything that made him Popeye.
There’s this theory that when you redo things, there’s a reason why he survived. I don’t know if I can verbalize it. But for me, I was going to bring the essence of what I loved about it…. We forget about how you go to a movie theater and you watch and the kids don’t laugh at anything until there’s some physical jokes. It happened on Hotel T. Kids and adults are both laughing at slapstick humor. And I don’t get it why we don’t do more of it. Popeye was full-bore. We had a sleep walking sequence with Olive Oyl paying homage. And so it was hilarious and once animated, it would’ve been incredible. But there’s room: Can You Imagine? has a lot of that too. You want it to feel like an animated film.