If we are living in a Golden Age of American animation—although that’s an open question that only History can answer, signs point to yes—then the roots of this renaissance can arguably be traced to the mid-1990s, when Cartoon Network began to shift its focus from endless reruns of Scooby-Doo and towards original programming. The upstart cable channel soon established itself as a home for innovative young talents like Craig McCracken, Maxwell Atoms and Danny Antonucci, all of whom brought idiosyncratic design sense and understated humor to a medium that had long been dominated by static, formulaic Saturday-morning fare. With quirky shows like Johnny Bravo, Ed Edd n Eddy and The Powerpuff Girls, Cartoon Network threw down the gauntlet, spurring competitors like Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel to raise their game. The spoil of this artistic arms race fell to us, the fans: a bounty of whip-smart, great-looking cartoon shows.
Genndy Tartakovsky was one of Cartoon Network’s young guns: creator of the indescribable Dexter’s Laboratory, vital creative voice in the early years of The Powerpuff Girls and mastermind behind the hyperstylized, often wordless Samurai Jack. In recent years, Tartakovsky has been showrunner for the wildly popular Star Wars: The Clone Wars, sublimating his creative vision to that of George Lucas.
Popdose gets the scoop on 50 rock 'n' roll classics in Heatley & Hopkinson's 'The Boy in Song.'
With Hotel Transylvania—which just wrapped its opening weekend—the Russian-born animator has made his first feature film. And Titan’s lavish new tome The Art and Making of Hotel Transylvania gives a gorgeous peek at how this whimsical monster mash came together.
If you’ve listened to as many DVD commentaries as I have, a discussion of the making of a computer-animated film may evoke mind-numbing details of rendering speeds and processing power. But while author Tracey Miller-Zarneke doesn’t skimp on the tech talk, her text remains centered on the artistic process that led to the finished film.
Even more than a traditional Hollywood production, feature animation employs a collective creative method. Work starts not with a screenplay, but with brainstorming sessions where animators and designers pitch their takes on the various elements of the story, generating a pile of material that the director winnows through to shape the final narrative. Elaborate gags, subplots, even entire characters may be cut before the story attains its final shape. That’s why animated DVDs don’t tend to feature a lot of deleted scenes; most of the discarded bits and characters never progress beyond a few concept drawing, long-gone before a single frame of animation is rendered. The hundreds of sketches and paintings included here are the only evidence remaining of the different forms Hotel Transylvania might have taken.
These preliminary sketches and designs also provide a welcome showcase for Hotel Transylvania’s crew of animators and designers, and a chance for them to parade their individual styles. There are common influences at play, of course. Suggestions of both Charles Addams and Tim Burton abound, along with a strong echo of the iconic “Animagic” productions of Rankin-Bass—including 1967’s Mad Monster Party, which bears a perhaps-not-entirely-coincidental resemblance to Hotel Transylvania in its particulars.
But every member of Tartakovsky’s team brings a unique set of influences to bear in his or her own work. Designer Carter Goodrich, for example, gives his characters weight with masses of Edward Gorey-style crosshatching, while Annette Marnat’s bold, colorful figures are more in the Disney tradition; John Norton’s work has a manic line reminiscent of Chuck Jones, and Carlos Grangel’s etiolated figures recall the work of British cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, who designed the animations for Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
The variety of styles on display is eye-opening—and a little saddening. One of the small tragedies in the move from traditional line animation to CGI is the loss of a sense of the hand behind the pen. Computer animation, of necessity, imposes a certain uniformity on the look of a film. As a result, the stylistic contributions of a particular artist may be muted or lost, subsumed in the overall affect of the whole. Only in behind-the-scenes books like The Art and Making of Hotel Transylvania are those individual visual voices preserved. By the time they reach the screen—assuming they do at all—a lot of the quirkiness will be sanded away. Even in a Golden Age, some things still get lost in translation.
Jack Feerick is Critic at Large for Popdose.