Genndy Tartakovsky Talks About His Work on Samurai Jack

What was your inspiration for Samurai Jack?

After doing Dexter's Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls, I really wanted to create something different.

My goal in creating Samurai Jack is to develop a highly stylized action show.  I love action and I love action shows, but I've never seen a show that has enough action to satisfy me.  And I also wanted to do something sincere like Dexter's Laboratory. 

I decided I wanted to create good action that's choreographed and I liked samurai.  So I came up with a back story and it all started to come together. 

Tell us about Jack and his nemesis, Aku.

Jack is the son of an emperor who has been defeated by an evil wizard.  Jack has undergone physical and scholarly training around the world, then returns to liberate his people. Before he has a chance to destroy him, the wizard, Aku, tricks him and sends him into the future. The future is miserable: everybody is unhappy, everybody is under the grasp of Aku.

Jack is heroic.  He's a great warrior, but he's also very sympathetic.  He's not invulnerable.  He loses, but weaknesses make his character stronger.  There is just something very mythological about him.  Jack must return to the past to undo the wrongs that have been done.  It's a basic good versus evil story.

Aku is just pure evil.  Although he is evil and creepy, he is very appealing. 

Is this an anime show?

Anime is one of the small influences on Samurai Jack.  Anime characters use only limited expressions.  Most action characters are stoic and straight without much life, but we made Jack more of an emotional character by giving him big, expressive eyes so that his character has more of a range like Dexter and other animated comedy characters. 

 How does Samurai Jack differ from other cartoons stylistically?

I wanted to do something different than anything else I had ever worked on.  We have a great background painter who has built an amazing mood through the backgrounds.  Environment and the background really are major characters in Samurai Jack.

Music is also a huge key. Because Jack travels to different civilizations we incorporated a lot of culture and ethnicity into the music.   It will be filtered and twisted and mutated, combining classical and traditional elements with traces of hip-hop and techno to come up with something new.

Will Samurai Jack appeal to both kids and adults?

Samurai Jack is for everybody.  It has comedy, action and adventure; it's all those things combined.  From show to show you will never guess what will happen next.  I think that it is going to be the most unique and different experience viewers have had watching a cartoon.  Hopefully, people will really feel like this is a new mythology and they will want to follow the legend.  For kids, it has great samurai action.  Adults will appreciate the great filmmaking, the mood and the humor.

What are some of your influences for the action elements of Samurai Jack?

I grew up loving everything from Bruce Lee to Kurosawa films.  I love Clint Eastwood in old spaghetti westerns.  It's all kind of the same thing.  When you're a kid, you like that kind of stuff.  And I still like it.

How does Samurai Jack differ from Dexter?

Jack is an adult with a mission in life, while Dexter is a grumpy kid. Samurai Jack is darker in tone because he's trying to avenge his people and undo all the wrong that has been done through the centuries. Dexter is just trying to work in his lab without being bothered by his sister, while Jack has a far more serious motivation.

Genndy Tartakovsky Talks About Star Wars: Clone Wars

Q.  How was Star Wars: Clone Wars project initiated?  Did Lucasfilm first contact Cartoon Network or vice-versa?

A.  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 Tartakovsky).  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!

Q.  After working for years in half-hour formats, how did you go about preparing three-minute episodes?

A.  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 installment 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.

Q.  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?

A.  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.

Q.  So what is this new scenario, your particular angle, to the Star Wars story?

A.  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 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.

Q.  Was there anything off-limits or forbidden to you from the original story?

A.  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 Padm'.  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 Padm' 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 Padm', though, in the very first episode as she waves goodbye and later on in the series.

Q.  Did you have to produce storyboards for Lucasfilm before moving ahead with actual production, or did you plunge ahead once they approved the original overall storyline?

A.  Once we presented the overall outline covering the 20-episode series, we wrote one or two-sentence descriptions for each individual installment.  After these were approved, we then created storyboards for these episodes and shared them with the partners.  But since we were working within a tight timeframe to meet the Fall '03 premiere, we immediately began production on each chapter once the storyboards were finalized.

Q.  Were you a Star Wars fan as a kid?

A.  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.

Q.  Do you have any specific memories of watching Star Wars for the first time?

A.  Not really'but what I do remember is how much I wanted to buy the toys, the action figures and the space vehicles!  We didn't have a lot of money while growing up, so there wasn't much I could afford to buy.  So I only had a few of the actual main figures.  But I remember trying to save up every bit of money I could so that I could buy just one more character to play with.  All I know is that I kept thinking, 'I need more toys!'

Q.  So do you have all the Star Wars toys now?

A.  No, no.  I got over that phase and moved on toward thinking more about the stories themselves, how they were constructed, the imaginary worlds that comprised Star Wars, the characters, that sort of thing.

Q.  Is working on the project a 'dream come true?'

A.  It's certainly fulfills one of my dreams, to work on a project like Star Wars that is so thoroughly established it has become a part of our culture.  Here's one of the biggest phenomena of our generation and I get to add my own voice to it!  I get to be a part of it, to share in its ongoing creation.  That's an awesome assignment and I'm really honored to be a contributor to its legacy.

Q.  Were you at all scared to take on such a cultural icon?

A.  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 free-hand 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.

Q.  Do you have a favorite character from Star Wars?

A.  I think Han Solo and Chewbacca are my favorites.  As pirates, they were the true rebels among the cast of characters.  And Han Solo had such a cool charisma about him.  He was the bad-boy character, but he still helped out when everyone needed him.  I was such a 'good kid' when I was young, I think I wanted to secretly break out and be more like Han.

Q.  Any least favorite character(s) you didn't want to deal with?

A.  I think I'll just say 'no comment' to that one'

Q.  Do you have plans to work on more projects with Lucas or Lucasfilm?

A.  Nothing definite, but hopefully, yes.  The relationship between us so far has been very good.  His name and the company name have become such leading brands in entertainment industry.  So to have their support for this project really helps bring animation into the spotlight, which isn't always an easy thing to do. 

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

A.  Most of the visual elements in Star Wars: Clone Wars have been created through traditional cel 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 dog-fights in space that are so much a part of the Star Wars appeal.

Q.  Can you tell me more about the sound and soundtrack to the production?

A.  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 recognizable 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.'

Q.  Because Lucasfilm had admired the original work, is the team now working on Star Wars: Clone Wars the same team that produced Samurai Jack?

A.  Yes, the same production team is in place on both projects, but the look of the two shows is definitely individual, distinct from the other.  Samurai Jack is a far more stylized, design-driven show, while Star Wars: Clone Wars is much more realistic.

Q.  Speaking of realism, how did you go about creating the realistic animated versions of the characters within Clone Wars?  Did you try to copy to face and bodies of the live-action characters in the films?

A.  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.

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

A.  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.

Q.  Would you say this was the most challenging aspect to the project?  Or was it something else?

A.  I think casting voice talent was one of the big challenges upfront, but then we rather quickly settled that issue and moved forward.  To me, the biggest challenge was to create that unique Star Wars 'feel' for the series.  There is something quite singular about Star Wars that makes it very extraordinary.  There are a ton of science-fiction films and TV series that have been produced over the years, but none of them feel like a true Star Wars property.  So what is it that makes something feel like Star Wars?  As I analyzed the question, I realized that there were many answers one could name: the triangular space ships slowly moving into the picture above frame, the sound of the vehicle engines, the particular art direction used for both internal and external sets, the unique space creatures that appear throughout each film, the sense of duty and honor to the Jedi traditions, etc.  After all of this research, I finally reached a place where I could watch what we produced and confidently say, 'THIS is Star Wars.'

Q.  How many times did you watch the Star Wars films in order to get ready for this project?

A.  I didn't go back to watch them at all.  Actually, I did go back to the second move, The Empire Strikes Back, to study a little bit of how the robots moved, but otherwise not at all.  We all wanted to, but the project came up so fast and we were moving so quickly on it, we just didn't have time to sit down for eight hours to review the films.

Q.  Did you then simply rely on your memory of the films and the characters?

A.  Yes.  Star Wars is frankly so embedded in us, we really didn't have to go back to the films.  We all had seen the films so many times before and we each had particular moments within each film that have stayed with us.  There really wasn't a need to go back again to review what we already knew by heart.  I speak primarily about myself, too, because since I would be responsible for putting it all together, I already knew what key elements we had to have.

Q.  Was there a particular moment as a child that you remember most from Star Wars?

A.  I particularly remember the light-saber fights, the distinct sound of them gliding through the air and the movements the actors used as they fought with them.  And I remember the X-Wing Fighters coming into formation and opening up for battle.  Those moments will be with me forever.

Q.  If you were commissioned right now for your next dream project, what would that project be?

A.  It would definitely be to create and direct a 2D theatrical feature film.  I think I'm ready for that now.

Q.  Do you know what happens next for the Star Wars characters in Episode Three of Star Wars?

A.  Well, we all know where they end up generally by Episode IV (the original Star Wars film), but I haven't been briefed about what will actually occur in the next theatrical film.

Genndy Tartakovsky Talks About Star Wars: Clone Wars

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


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.


And what about from the hardcore Star Wars fans?


It's also been pretty positive.  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. 


A major new villain, General Grievous, is introduced iun Chapter 20 and will play a major role in the upcoming feature, Star wars: Episode III.  How did you feel about that experience?


Introducing the new character of General Grievous is an awesome responsibility.  Working with the great characters of the Star Wars universe was humbling to all of us on the crew of Star Wars: Clone Wars, but helping to create a new character that will enter the mythology has made us truly feel a part of the Star Wars family.  The fact that he is a powerful villain made it even cooler.


There are a lot of characters in the next batch of episodes that will be new to the casual Star Wars fan ' like Barris Offee and Luminara Unduli.  Why did you choose to bring them into the story at this point?


We briefly saw these characters in Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones and thought they were really cool.  So we decided to build a couple of episodes around them.


We always loved the idea of where the crystals that power the lightsabers come from.  And of course, during war, someone would always sabotage the supplies, so that's where this story comes from.  The Sepratists want to destroy the Jedi crystals so that the Jedi would not have powers.  So that's where that story originates ' so we can see the Jedi Caverns on Ilum. 


It's part of the classic Star wars lore that we all kind of knew about.  It was a mystery that we wanted to explore.  All these stories have originated from things we've always wondered about.  Everything flowed really easily.  We didn't have to do much research.  It was embedded in us.


How has this affected your relationship to Star Wars as a fan?


It's still fun to look at it, but I'll need some time off of it before I go back and re-watch any of the things I've already seen ' including Star Wars: Clone Wars.


What about George Lucas' reaction?


It's been really great. I heard that he said that it is Star Wars, which is what we set out to do: to create really cool action cartoons that fit into the Star Wars story.  He's been really happy about it, especially because his kids like it too, which is important. 


Are there any differences in the tone between the first ten episodes, which aired in November 2003, and the final ten, which air this spring?


I think once we get to the last three episodes, the tone gets much darker because the stakes are much higher. 


Do you have a favorite chapter?


My favorites are Chapters 12 and 13 ' the ones with Mace Windu.  That huge seismic tank is brand new. It is one of the first ideas that I had on this project. 


What was your favorite character to bring into the animated realm?


It was fun to do Yoda.  He's kind of cute, and in these episodes you get to see how tough he is.   They did this in the movies, but we push the concept even further. 


And then Mace was really fun to do. It's just a lot of action, so we were able to really explore Jedi powers.


How does this prepare viewers for what's coming in the next movie?


Most of the series have been stand-alone episodes, but in the last episode there is a surprise that ties into the next movie. 


You really spent a lot of time making sure that, in addition to looking like Star Wars, it sounded like it, too.  Why so much emphasis on the sound and music?


In the Star Wars universe, so much relies on the sound.  Even as an adult, we can all remember the sound of a lightsaber.  The sounds that R2-D2 makes are so particular.


As we started this project, we knew we'd have to spend a lot of energy to make the sound stand out.  And in television, all the sound is kind of squashed. 


We really had to plan out how we would balance the music and sound effects.  We had to keep it a little more open ' so that if we had a big fight sequence, we would stick to just sound effects.  If the scene is more emotional, we'd go with just music.  We had to break it apart a little more than if we were making a feature, where there is room in the dynamic range for both things.


Having access to the Lucas library was the key, because it let us make everything sound authentic. 


There seem to be more characters and locations involved in the final ten chapters than we saw in the first ten.  Was that a deliberate part of your plan?

In the beginning, we needed to set up the big overall story, so we kept the first 10 chapters simple and linear.  If we jumped around too much in the beginning, we thought it would be too distracting. 


The first 10 play out very straight and orderly.  We remind everyone of the story in Chapter 11 and Chapters 12 though 16 are separate stories.  We move around a lot.  Then Chapters 17 through 20 build to a big finish. 


Were there any big themes that you wanted to weave through the entire 'epic micro-series'?


Really, we just wanted good stories and lots of action.  As the story with Anakin and Asajj builds, there is a little more intensity that comes out, character-wise.  It gets more emotional.  The episodes with Mace Windu are just a lot of fun. 


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?


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 distill 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. 


What's next for you now?


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

Source: Cartoon Network Pressroom (Now defunct)

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