Cartoon Network animator traces his path to the top

When Genndy Tartakovsky first saw “Tom and Jerry” as a kid, he knew he wanted to be an animator.

Now successful in that profession, 38-year-old Tartakovsky told the story of his impressive career to a rapt audience in the Rhode Island School of Design’s auditorium on Saturday night.

“In high school I would drink on Friday night, wake up on Saturday with a hangover and watch my cartoons,” Tartakovsky said to his audience. “Deep in my heart, I have always loved animations.”

Tartakovsky said that he always thought his animation interest would just be a hobby. Coming from an immigrant, blue-collar family, he assumed it would be something he would do in his garage, at night after he got home from his real job.

Thirty years later, Tartakovsky doesn’t just pursue this passion at night, but full-time as one of the industry’s most accomplished animators. He created, wrote and directed the cartoons “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “Samurai Jack”, produced “The Powerpuff Girls,” directed the Star Wars animated mini series, “The Clone Wars,” won two Emmys and is now working on Iron Man II and a project with J. J. Abrams, director of the upcoming Star Trek movie and executive producer of several TV shows, including “Alias” and “Lost.”

Tartakovsky’s lecture was organized by the RISD Events and Activities Team, that got the idea from a comment on its Facebook group. Tartakovsky flew out from Los Angeles for the weekend to speak.

The animator talked about his life, stressing the importance of luck, maintaining relationships and hard work. He showed clips of his animations, including a never before seen episode of “Dexter’s Laboratory” that was deemed too risque for the Cartoon Network and shared stories about Hollywood, including accounts of his nerve-racking meetings with George Lucas.

“My career has been totally haphazard, and I never really know what’s going to happen next,” he said. “But ultimately it’s been my relationships and balancing what I want with what I need that have gotten me where I am today.”

“I also know where I suck and hire people who are better than me,” he said, laughing. “And then I take all the credit,” he added.

Tartakovsky said that at one point he thought it would take 40 years to break into the animation industry. But, through a combination of talent and luck, he got his first show, “Dexter’s Laboratory,” on air by the age of 25.

“Dexter’s Laboratory,” was inspired by Tartakovsky’s doodles of a tall, spindly, blonde ballerina.

“I thought, ‘What’s the opposite of a ballerina?’ Ah-ha! Science!” he said.

Originally a two-and-a-half minute final project for art school, Tartakovsky did not think his story of a mastermind kid scientist would ever go anywhere. But after working in Spain for a couple of years on the Batman television series, he got a call from a new company, the Cartoon Network. It had seen his work at an exhibition coordinated by the California Institute of the Arts, where Tartakovsky studied animation. The network remembered his student film and wanted him to make it into a seven-minute pilot.

“I was like, ‘What? Ok! Yes! Definitely!'” Tartakovsky said of his reaction to getting this opportunity as a young animator.

At Saturday’s lecture, he showed the pilot for “Dexter’s Laboratory,” as well as the original student short film that inspired the show. Both feature siblings Dexter and Dee Dee in an epic battle using one of Dexter’s creations that turns the two into a variety of animals at the push of a button. The pilot comes to a hilarious climax when the two characters, transformed into a snail and turtle, race to hide from their mother.

“I realized I got to do stand up comedy in front of people without being on stage,” Tartakovsky said of the show, adding that it is his favorite animated work.

Tartakovsky then showed an episode of “Dexter’s Laboratory” that Cartoon Network had banned from the air. The episode featured the “Rude Removal Machine,” a contraption that removes rudeness from Dexter and his sister Dee Dee, then creating violent and messy alter egos of the siblings, endowed with the extracted “rudeness.”

“Samurai Jack,” Tartakovsky’s next project, was a much more serious and sophisticated show that won four Emmy awards. Tartakovsky described the Emmy wins as vindication after years of only nominations for “Dexter.” He joked he had only bothered to go to the ceremony for the free dinner.

“We were sitting next to “The Simpsons” table, who win like every single year. And when they called “Samurai Jack,” their table all yelled, ‘What?!’ Then we all stood up and peed our pants,” Tartakovsky said.

He also won an Emmy for “The Clone Wars” that same year.

Tartakovsky explained that he got “The Clone Wars” gig, which was thought up by Lucasfilm Ltd., because the action figures for the recent Star Wars movies weren’t selling as well as they had hoped.

Cartoon Network has a relationship with Hasbro, the company that produces Star Wars action figures, Tartakovsky explained.

“Eventually I just got a call. I was like, ‘Star Wars? Of course I like Star Wars!” he said. “But it was stressful because I had to translate this world I’ve loved since I was a kid into something completely different.”

To give “The Clone Wars” a new perspective on Star Wars, Tartakovsky utilized his love of martial arts and the knowledge of fighting he acquired during production of “Samurai Jack.”

He showed a comic sequence where Jedi Master Mace Windu takes down an entire army of battle droids without his light saber.

“I love to put the juxtaposition of comedy and violence,” he said of his work.

Tartakovsky ended up doing two seasons of “The Clone Wars,” and won an Emmy for each. He has since cut ties with Lucasfilm Ltd. and become the creative president of Orphanage Animation Studios, where he is working on advertisements. He added he would love to get involved in another personal interest – film.