Genndy Tartakovsky

Genndy Tartakovsky is the creator/writer/director of
Dexter's Laboratory and co-creator of Dial M For Monkey and Justice Friends. In addition to being voted Toon of the Year by Cartoon Network viewers in 1996, his first professional cartoon creation Dexter's Laboratory has received four Emmy nominations and an Annie Award. One of the youngest animation directors in the industry, Tartakovsky was born and raised in Moscow, U.S.S.R. until his family moved to Chicago when he was seven years of age. After high school, Tartakovsky studied film at Chicago's Columbia College before moving to Los Angeles to study animation at Cal Arts. At Cal Arts he wrote, directed, produced and animated two student films. One of his films, which was selected for the Cal Arts Producers Show, was the basis for Dexter's Laboratory. Sci-Fi-Online spoke with him as his new series, Star Wars: Clone Wars, was due to start broadcasting on Toonami...

Sci-Fi-Online: How was the Star Wars: Clone Wars project initiated? Did Lucasfilm first contact Cartoon Network or vice-versa?

Genndy Tartakovsky: . The project came together through joint conversations between Lucasfilm and Cartoon Network. Lucas wants to keep the Star Wars property robust and active between motion picture releases. So they approached me and asked if I would be interested in creating a one-minute program based on Star Wars.

Well, of course I said "yes," but told them that I couldn't really do anything significant with one-minute episodes-it's simply too short a time to tell a story. Cartoon Network went back to Lucasfilm and told them that they would be working with the team behind Samurai Jack [Emmy-winning series created by Tartakovsk - pictured right]. And it turns out that George Lucas watches and really admires Samurai Jack, so they sent word that we now would be worthy of creating three-minute Star Wars episodes.

When we got the greenlight from Lucasfilm, I still wasn't really sure even three-minutes would work. So I took several existing 22-minute episodes of Samurai Jack and re-edited them into three-minute versions to see what I had. I wanted to know that in three minutes you could make sense, capture the viewer's interest and still tell a compelling story. And I found that it actually worked, particularly if each instalment worked to build upon the previous one, to offer an important piece to the overall story arc, then end with a cliff-hanger that would inspire the viewer to come back to see what happens next. I think you'll see that each episode, despite being only three minutes long, has a beginning, middle and an end that pulls the viewer in and makes him or her want to know more.

SFO: What is Lucasfilm's involvement with the creation of the series? Has the company told you what storyline to follow or have they given you a free hand?

GT: They've been remarkably hands-off with us about Clone Wars. I think once George Lucas gave his overall blessing or "seal of approval" because of what we've achieved to date with Samurai Jack, everyone felt they could trust us to handle the property with the appropriate care and concern it deserves. So we went away and developed our own storyline, a new perspective and approach, along with character designs and production elements-all of which really excited us-and we brought it back and pitched the new scenario to them. And fortunately, everyone really loved it.

Because this project is composed of so many different short segments, I like compare it to HBO's Band of Brothers - a project I really admired that takes a huge story like the European Allied campaign of World War II and presents it in a series of "a day in the life of" stories. As I see it, this project mirrors that approach by showcasing several "days in the life of the Clone Wars." For instance, in the first few episodes, we're presenting a singular, but extremely important campaign, The Battle of Muunilinst, an all-city planet under attack by the Imperial separatist movement. We're able to explain the goals and obstacles the old Republic and Jedi must face, reveal important internal conflicts between the main characters, and still have time to highlight the action of the battle.

SFO: Was there anything off-limits or forbidden to you from the original story?

GT: Really, there was only one area where we were told by Lucasfilm not to approach, and that had to do with the love-story between Anakin and Padmé. We actually had an idea originally where at some point in the middle of the war, Anakin would have a quiet moment and he would take out a small hologram picture of Padmé and reflect upon how much he misses her. But since we were told not to explore any romantic interest in the story, we had to let that go. You will see Padmé, though, in the very first episode as she waves goodbye and later on in the series.

SFO: Were you a Star Wars fan as a kid?

GT. Oh yes, of course. Really, everyone my age grew up with Star Wars. It was definitely one of the first big movies I saw after immigrating to America. I think it truly is one of the most inspirational, most influential movies of our generation. It certainly inspired me to dream of worlds beyond the here and now.

SFO: Were you at all scared to take on such a cultural icon?

GT: Oh, yeah, absolutely. At first I thought it really might be more fun for someone else to do it, and then I could just sit back and watch the show, because an animated Star Wars is such a cool idea. But then I thought, "what if they make it wrong?" Then I would be really upset, and I'd be left with nothing to do but complain: "Well, we should have made it!" So, because I'm a rather aggressive person, I reasoned that I'd better take the challenge myself.

What I should add, though, is that once we accepted the project, literally everyone who was to work on it found themselves extremely hesitant to take the first steps. Paul Rudish, the art director for the show, with whom I've worked for years on Dexter's Laboratory and Samurai Jack, is the type of guy who can draw anything, anytime and anywhere without hesitation-he's amazing. But on the first week of Star Wars: Clone Wars... complete brain freeze at the drawing board! Absolutely nothing would come forth. He couldn't draw, couldn't come up with a palate, anything. And he knows Star Wars better than anyone on the team - could normally draw R2-D2 freehand in total perspective with all the mechanical gadgets... now nothing!

We finally had to take our minds off the enormity of it all and just approach this thing like any other project. At last, once we relaxed, it all began to flow naturally.

SFO: What animation processes are you using with this project? Is there CGI (computer generated imaging) involved, or 3D?

GT: Most of the visual elements in Star Wars: Clone Wars have been created through traditional cell animation at this point. However, we have added CGI elements to the production, including computer-generated spaceships that help create the action and excitement of the dogfights in space that are so much a part of the Star Wars appeal.

SFO: Can you tell us more about the sound and soundtrack to the production?

GT: One of the signature elements to Star Wars is the unique sound Lucasfilm created for the motion picture series. We were extremely fortunate to have Skywalker Sound create the sound effects and background elements for Star Wars: Clone Wars as well.

I was amazed that when the tapes came back to us from Skywalker the whole show suddenly seemed "legitimate." I mean it had the same recognisable sounds as any one of the feature films. We simply couldn't have reproduced this sound on our own.

Every single sound effect in Clone Wars comes directly from the library comprised of the first five movies. And the best part is that we have several new individual sounds in our production that came from mixing two or more different sounds used in the films.

And as for the music, we've been able to use the classic, Oscar-winning John Williams compositions that Star Wars fans expect to hear. Again, this familiar music just makes Star Wars: Clone Wars completely "legitimate."

SFO: How did you go about creating the animated versions of the characters within Clone Wars? Did you try to stay faithful to the face and bodies of the live-action characters in the films?

GT: This actually presented our first stumbling block. Originally, Paul Rudish kept drawing the actors (or caricatures of them) who portrayed the roles in the motion pictures. But this didn't come out right-they didn't look like the essence of the character they were supposed to be. So we started experimenting and determined that our own versions of the characters, ones that merely resembled the actors who played them onscreen, and it worked better in the long-run. They still have qualities that reflect the actors who originally portrayed them, but there are also elements which are drawn from our thoughts about the character.

SFO: The voices of the animated characters sound very much like the actors who portrayed them in the movies. Are they the same?

GT: That actually was a big concern of mine, that the voices sound authentic. No, the actors in the animated series are amazingly talented voice-artists who were able to create readings that are incredibly close to their live-action counterparts. And they were such good actors, too, which made the recordings a wonderful experience overall. Only Anthony Daniels, the original C-3PO, supplies the voice for both the live-action and animated versions of his character.

SFO: What did you think of the fan and public reaction to the first 10 episodes of Star Wars: Clone Wars?

GT: I've been pretty pleased with most of the things I have heard. The responses I have heard from kids have been the best. They really liked it. I heard about one couple that recorded all the episodes and they use it as a bribery tool - if their kid is good, they'll let him watch an episode.

It's also been pretty positive from the hard-core fans. I think the biggest complaint has been the time. Everyone wanted them to be longer. But overall everyone has been happy with all the action and the way that we portrayed the characters. At least that's what I've learned from talking to people and on the Internet.

Of course, there are always going to be people who don't like something. But it seems like about 90 percent of the people really liked it.

SFO: How has this experience changed the way you approach your craft - in terms of storytelling, how to build action sequences and how long a cartoon needs to be?

GT: I think that working in a limited time frame taught me how to really boil down storytelling to the most essential bits. Where we could stretch out in Samurai Jack, here we had to distil everything - to make it much, much shorter and have the same emotional impact.

The ability to finesse dialogue was a big issue as well. We really had to be much more precise with the words to fit into the time frame. We had to condense it into its perfect form - to say nothing more than needs to be said, but also nothing less.

It was also useful to work on someone else's characters. It was kind of difficult. For most of my career, I have worked on my own stuff or things I have helped create. This was hard - to do justice to someone else's creation.

SFO: What's next for you now?

GT: I want to work on an animated feature, but I'll need a little time off to think after this.

SFO: Thank you for your time.

With thanks to David Cox at Wired

The new Star Wars: Clone Wars animated mini-series will start broadcasting in 12-minute episodes on Toonami from the 21 March 2005.

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