Genndy Tartakovsky is a real life American success story and, more specifically, a film student success story. Born in Moscow, Russia, Tartakovsky moved with his family to Chicago when he was seven years old. When it came time for college, Tartakovskylike so many of his generationwent to film school, specifically Chicago's Columbia College. Eventually he moved on to the prestigious Cal Arts in Los Angeles to study animation, and it was there that one of his student films was selected for the Cal Arts Producers Show, forming the basis of what would become the highly successful Cartoon Network series DEXTER'S LABORATORY.
As successful as DEXTER'S has been for the young animator, Tartakovsky, who also serves as a producer and director on THE POWERPUFF GIRLS, craved a new challenge. The result is the rather unique SAMURAI JACK, which premiered in August and returns to the Cartoon Network this month with brand new episodes.
SAMURAI JACK tells the tale of an ancient warrior thrust through a time portal into a dark future world where his lethal enemy, the evil wizard Aku, lords over the masses. Relying only on his skills as a warrior, Jack must navigate through this strange new world in an effort to find his way home.
With its heavy action elements, anime-inspired style, and exceptional visuals, SAMURAI JACK is quite a departure from the likes of DEXTER'S LABORATORY and POWERPUFF GIRLS. But, as creator-producer Tartakovsky explains, he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I wanted to do an action show because I felt like I wasn't getting that fill as an audience member [on POWERPUFF]," he says. "I wasn't getting enough action animation and it wasn't the right kind of stuff that I wanted to see. And Cartoon Network was kind of talking to me about doing an action show anyway. Because [the] action genre, or science fiction, falls into only a few categories (like STAR WARS, STAR TREK or BLADE RUNNER), it was hard to come up with [something] unique. And then I started to think, 'Why don't I do something that's more sincere?' And something that's close to my heart is samurai stuff. [But with] samurais, then I have to have him cut up people, and [Cartoon Network said] I can't do that on television with humans. I go, 'Oh, maybe they can be robots,' and that brought in the future element. And then I started to weave a story around that."
The result is undeniably a show that is like nothing else out there right now. Stylistically, SAMURAI JACK differs so much from Tartakovsky's other work that he found it helpful to call upon some truly classic sources for inspiration.
"I definitely wanted to push myself and I didn't want to just do DEXTER again," Tartakovsky explains. "So we started to do research and I started to really get into some David Lean films and also some Miyazaki stuff. What I noticed, especially about David Lean, was that he made the environment the character. I thought that was really neat, especially if Jack was to be traveling through the future and visiting all these different environments. [I wanted to] have the environment be a character so that in each show we'd make sure that the audience feels the environment just like Jack does."
While Tartakovsky is clearly concerned with developing a fresh new atmosphere for his series, he's also aware of the limitations that some action and anime animators place upon themselves regarding character design.
"A lot of action shows, they're drawn very realistically," he says. "You have a very limited amount of expressions. With Jack I still wanted to have a cartoony aspect. Because I like to draw cartoony anyways, I still wanted to keep that aspect about the show. I didn't want to just change all my sensibilities that I ever learned and experienced. So I gave Jack big eyes, and even though he's humanistic, he's still cartoony. He can have as many expressions as we need to. Then I was looking at some Golden Books stuff and I realized that they didn't have any lines around [the characters], and I thought that would be a really neat idea."
When it came time to design the villainous wizard Aku, Tartakovsky and his team continued to call upon a variety of unique sourcesranging from the "dragon parades" of Asia to the four color adventures of modern superhero comics.
"I read as many things as I could just so I would have a good foundation and wouldn't be just going off the cuff," the animator details. "Aku came just because I like the whole mask ideathere's Japanese masks, but there's also Chinese masks. Aku's actually based on Loki [from] THOR comics, because he's got those horns and I always liked that about a lot of the villains in THOR. So I started to put the two together. And I wanted to make him a shapeshifter, so that kind of became the black shape [of his body] and then we just stuck the mask on and that became a really good look."
Despite SAMURAI JACK's obvious Asian influence, Tartakovsky stresses that the program does not fully embrace the established styles of anime, but rather incorporates certain aspects of Japanese animation and mixes them with a variety of methods.
"There's definitely anime aspects to it because anime is a big influence in things that I do," he says. "But there's also a lot of traditional [animation] and also a very simplistic way of handling action. In anime a lot of times they'll do a lot of cuttingyou cut and they're just flying through the air. We do some of that too, but also we do a lot of just straightforward choreographed stuff. We'll spend like 30 seconds and we'll actually choreograph a whole fight sequence without cutting, and that's something a little bit more unique than what a lot of people do."
While the show offers a fair share of humor that is sure to keep the kiddies interested, it clearly is aimed at an adult audience. In fact, Tartakovskyonly half jokingclaims that he sees JACK's target audience as "everybody between eight and 50." Ultimately, he feels that kids won't have a problem with the more adult elements of the program.
"It's definitely more mature, but I like to give kids a little more credit," he explains. "You know, kids watch RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and even though it's very simple, it's still mature. There's a lot of hard things and death and violence, but it's still fun and it's not heavy-handed. That's what we try to do also."
Another new approach to television animation can be found in the music of the show. As Tartakovsky explains, from the genesis of SAMURAI JACK he knew he wanted to do something different.
"What we're doing is this kind of fusion thing where we're taking, say, old traditional Moroccan music [and] combining it with like hip hop or techno beats, and making this new kind of cultural hip hop type of thing," he says. "And so each alien race or each different village that Jack encounters will have their own music that's based on ethnic themes, traditional world themes, but that's twisted into a modern sound."
Despite all of these unique spins placed on the show, don't expect to settle into an eventual comfortable groove. Tartakovsky promises that he will keep things interesting and moving week to week.
"Every episode will be completely different than the one before it," he laughs. "If one episode's going to be kind of dark and moody, the next one will be maybe light and funny, or it might be completely different in another way."