Animator, artist, writer and director Genndy Tartakovsky was born in Moscow, Russia in 1970 to a Jewish family. They later moved to Italy, which is where Tartakovsky first started drawing and became interested in art, and then to the United States (to avoid antisemitic circumstances) where he lived in Chicago, Illinois and got into DC comics and became interested in storytelling. As a teenager, Tartakovsky’s father died of a heart attack and so Tartakovsky pursued a career in advertising as a way of providing for his family, but this avenue eventually led him down a more interesting career path when he was assigned animation classes. Thus a new passion awakened for Tartakovsky.
He first studied film at the private art school Columbia College Chicago before moving to L.A. and studying animation in 1990 at the California Institute of the Arts, a school many of Tartakovsky’s future collaborators would also attend, including Rob Renzetti, Robert Alvarez, Craig McCracken, Paul Rudish, Butch Hartman and Lou Romano.
After two years at CalArts, the staff of Batman: The Animated Series was impressed by Tartakovsky’s 2½-minute animated pencil test student film about a child scientist and his annoying sister (later the basis for the TV series Dexter’s Laboratory) and so Tartakovsky was hired at Warner Bros. to work on the shows Batman and Tiny Toon Adventures as an animation assistant and then later moved to Hanna-Barbera to work on 2 Stupid Dogs as a storyboard artist and director, following Craig McCracken’s recommendation after McCracken was hired as that show’s art director.
Tartakovsky’s time at Hanna-Barbera in the nineties would prove critical to his career and mark a significant turning point creatively. While working on 2 Stupid Dogs, the show’s producer Larry Huber gave Tartakovsky a phone call to tell him that Cartoon Network wanted Tartakovsky to develop his CalArts student film into an animated short. The film would be fully storyboarded and animated and it aired on Cartoon Network’s animation showcase anthology World Premiere Toons (later retitled What a Cartoon!) in 1995. The short film about boy genius Dexter and his sister Dee Dee transforming each other into various animals was the most popular What a Cartoon! short with viewers and with Cartoon Network head of programming Mike Lazzo at the time, and it ended up becoming the pilot for the animated sci-fi comedy Dexter’s Laboratory.
Dexter’s Laboratory was hugely popular and received a lot of praise from critics and frequent Emmy and Annie recognition. After premiering on TNT, it ran on Cartoon Network for four seasons from 1996 to 2003, initially featuring the voice of Christine Cavanaugh (Gosalyn in Darkwing Duck and Chuckie in Rugrats) as Dexter and the voice of Tartakovsky’s college friend Allison Moore as Dee Dee, before she was replaced by Kat Cressida, who became Dee Dee’s most well-known voice actor. According to Tartakovsky, the origin of the series began with the creation of the energetic and mischievous Dee Dee, with the idea of a counterpart that would be her complete opposite leading to the creation of Dexter. The central dynamic of the show was created and rife with comedic possibilities.
In 1998 after two seasons, first-time showrunner Tartakovsky was exhausted and put the show on hiatus, instead working as a supervisor on Craig McCracken’s TV series The Powerpuff Girls, which is similar in style and humor to Dexter’s Laboratory, maybe explaining why Tartakovsky and McCracken worked so well together. Tartakovsky later returned to Dexter when he directed the 48-minute television film Dexter’s Laboratory: Ego Trip (1999) in which Dexter travels through time and meets himself in the future. This was intended by Tartakovsky to serve as a series finale but Cartoon Network wasn’t ready to end the popular series yet, so they produced two more seasons afterwards with director and storyboard artist Chris Savino (future creator of The Loud House on Nickelodeon) serving as the showrunner while Tartakovsky went to work on a brand new series called Samurai Jack.
The series Samurai Jack, which followed the quest of a samurai prince (voiced by Phil LaMarr) from feudal Japan who gets transported into the future by the demon king Aku and spends the series trying to find a way home, took inspiration from the 1972 TV series Kung Fu as well as everything from David Lean to Akira Kurosawa to Frank Miller. It was maybe the best American animated action series at the time with Tartakovsky’s usual visual and artistic flare on display, even more so here than usual since Jack spends most of his time alone and the show has very little dialogue. It ran from 2001 to 2004 on Cartoon Network and concluded years later as a miniseries on Adult Swim in 2017. Like Dexter’s Laboratory, it received tons of accolades and praise, including an Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program in 2004.
During Tartakovsky’s time working on Samurai Jack, Lucasfilm conceived an animated Star Wars series to be set between the events of the films Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) and Tartakovsky was hired to produce and direct it with a small crew in a short amount of time, the first season of Star Wars: Clone Wars airing in 2003 and consisting of ten 3-minute episodes with the second season following suit in 2004 while the third and final season consisted of five 12-minute episodes airing in March 2005, two months before Revenge of the Sith made its theatrical debut. The action series was highly entertaining, similar in style to Samurai Jack and it also received critical acclaim, as well as a lot of love from Star Wars fans. This eventually led to further Clone Wars adventures with the 2008 CGI series Star Wars: The Clone Wars which Dave Filoni supervised.
Next, along with Bryan Andrews and Paul Rudish, Tartakovsky co-created the sci-fi adventure series Sym-Bionic Titan in 2010. Inspired by mecha anime like Robotech and Voltron while the high school scenes were inspired by John Hughes films, the promising show was cancelled by Cartoon Network after only one season in 2011, which was the same year Tartakovsky left Warner to work for Sony Pictures Animation on Hotel Transylvania, a film which had been in development since as early as 2006 and went through several directors before landing on Tartakovsky who is the one responsible for injecting a cartoony 2D style into the final film.
The supernatural comedy was released in 2012 and featured the voices of Adam Sandler as the hotel-owning vampire Count Dracula, Selena Gomez as his daughter and Andy Samberg as the human she falls in love with. Genndy Tartakovsky’s feature film directorial debut was such a huge hit with audiences that he would go on to direct the sequel Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015), write and direct the sequel Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation (2018) and write the story for Hotel Transylvania: Transformania (2022). None of these films received stellar reviews but I like most of them and I love all of their animation styles, even as the writing becomes more tedious and less funny with each entry.
Tartakovsky has tried getting several projects off the ground with Sony like Popeye and Can You Imagine?, but both of those films got cancelled. However, Tartakovsky is seemingly done with the Hotel Transylvania series for now because he is currently working on two original films for Sony Pictures Animation, the canine comedy Fixed and the action adventure Black Knight, while the Popeye film has also been revived with Tartakovsky expressing interest in directing if he has time in his schedule.
Meanwhile back at Warner, following the success of the 2017 Samurai Jack miniseries, Tartakovsky is currently working on his TV series Primal, which premiered on Adult Swim in 2019 and follows the journey of a caveman who teams up with a dinosaur trying to survive in the wild. Every episode of the prehistoric action series is told without dialogue and yet it’s one of Tartakovsky’s most riveting shows. A month before the second season of Primal is set to premiere in 2022, Tartakovsky had officially signed a deal with Warner that gives him access to the Warner IP library and lets him virtually create or develop whatever he wants for Cartoon Network and HBO Max, his first original project under this deal being Unicorn: Warriors Eternal which should come out some time this year. I look forward to checking it out, as well as all of Tartakovsky’s creative efforts. He is unlike many other people in the animation medium as he seems to have truly mastered the art of directing animation (whether in dynamic action scenes, comedic scenes or silent emotional scenes) better than most filmmakers with a distinct sense of timing, and based on the shows he has storyboarded and directed you can tell he is a master draftsman, which is something I always loved about his work. That’s not bad for someone who claims to have had trouble drawing a circle before he pursued an artistic career.