Many of the most popular characters in monster movie history resurface in Sony Pictures Animation’s Hotel Transylvania, directed by Genndy Tartakovsky. Of his collaboration with SPA, whose combined crew with Sony Pictures Imageworks under the umbrella of Sony Pictures Digital Productions numbers 500, the director noted, “We are trying to stay true to the icons of the monsters, and, at the same time, be free with it.”
Certainly with appearances by new incarnations of Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy, The Invisible Man and The Wolf Man, among many others, the film had a lot to live up to considering the classic films of yore, but Tartakovsky, 42, remained loyal to the material which inspired this new project while instituting his own personal touches throughout the production.
He first came aboard the computer-animated film in February 2011, so, considering the fall 2012 release date, the project’s schedule was surely accelerated. But Tartakovsky was undaunted. “Speed is good because you make a commitment and have to stick by it,” he said. “I was used to making decisions.”
When he started work on the film, the titular castle which houses the named hotel was already built in a 3D environment, including several of its rooms. Additionally, characters such as The Frankenstein Monster, The Mummy, and a new character called Mavis were already realized as 3D models. However, the director noted that the meat of his duties began from that point regardless. “It’s almost like a live-action movie – I had my actors and sets but no story,” he said. “We didn’t have the time or money to change a lot.”
Using Tartakovsky’s input, SPA artists altered the looks of Count Dracula (Drac) and a human character named Jonathan, and the director set the tone of the script from that point forward. ”One of the influences was Mad Magazine and Warner Bros. – a fun, silly, jokey feel,” he stated of what he wanted from Hotel Transylvania. “More of a Mel Brooks movie – a silly romp. Tex Avery was a huge influence – to have a cartoon movie which would set us apart.”
With Saturday Night Live alumni and writing partners Adam Sandler and Robert Smigel co-writing a draft of the script, Tartakovsky next made his pass through the screenplay. “In my career, I’ve written most of my stuff,” he said, noting that Sandler’s contributions often go uncredited though they are significant. “I had to find a way to tell their jokes. For comedians doing standup, it’s facial expressions and timing. I had to make sure Adam’s jokes and Robert’s jokes were delivered. Comedy is harder than anything. It has to be sincere.”
Once Hotel Transylvania stepped into full production, Tartakovsky’s 2D animation background became useful in the new project. “I found a way that I can translate my sensibilities into 3D,” he said, noting his work with SPA. “They totally supported all of the crazy things that I made them do. I feel like I found a voice that I could hone in on in CG – this broad cartoony sensibility.”
On a typical day as a computer-animation director, Tartakovsky explained his process. “You come in and right away there are storyboard meetings where I tweak a few drawings,” he detailed. “I pitch the storyboard to animation and talk about the posing and what we want to see in it for animation. I check color keys and we finish up the animation launch. Afternoon is all CG reviews – the layouts and animation shots – then final rendering with lighting. At night I hear some sound effect previews. It’s non-stop.”
After building a scratch track of the dialogue, created for animation timing, Tartakovsky puts together a working storyboard of the entire film with the scratch track added. “You can tell where it dips and where the good and bad sections are,” he stated of this phase. “I love the beginning of it – crafting the story, and making the characters come alive. Getting involved in animation and watching it in the theater with the animators and laughing at movement – that’s the true joy of it all for me.”
After approving all sequences, Tartakovsky color timed Hotel Transylvania, which he noted is considerably less strenuous using computer technology. He also approved the 3D presentation and went to London to record the music at Abbey Road Studios.
With a computer-animated feature now under his belt, Tartakovsky feels as though he has further expanded his horizons. “It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, and I came out of it as a success,” he said. “It’s definitely great to get on this playing field and get respect for it.”
Up next for him at SPA, already in the pre-production stages, is a computer- animated feature film of Popeye. “I hope it becomes a modern version of Popeye that still feels like the Popeye we all grew up with and love,” he said. “They are great characters, if we can service them well, that’s what I want to do.”