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Immersed in Movies: Back to Basics with 'Hotel Transylvania'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood September 20, 2012 at 11:53AM

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 "Monsters, Inc." and "Finding Nemo") might be light on story, but...
Hotel Transylvania

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.

This article is related to: Immersed In Movies, Animation, Sony, 3-D, Features

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.