Cartoon brainiac Genndy Tartakovsky revitalized American animation with anime-inspired knockouts like Samurai Jack and Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Now he’s crashing mecha convention with Sym-Bionic Titan, premiering at 8 p.m. Friday on Cartoon Network.
“For whatever reason, I have always loved the idea of kids driving giant robots,” the Russian-born but American-bred Tartakovksy told Wired.com in a wide-ranging e-mail interview. “Anime always seemed to execute action better than American animation. So when I developed Samurai Jack, I wanted great action but through our point-of-view, and everything followed after that.”
Tartakovksy’s Sym-Bionic Titan is another masterful hybrid of international animation styles and substances that, like his acclaimed former series, appeals broadly across demographics. Its sci-fi story of three aliens — plucky princess Ilana, her soldier protector Lance and their level-headed cyborg Octus — hiding out in Illinois from space mutants sounds like child’s play. But once they attract intergalactic assassins to Earth, Sym-Bionic Titan instantly transforms into an adult-oriented intergalactic smackdown that levels everything from skyscrapers to military battalions in its action-packed path.
We chatted with Tartakovksy about Sym-Bionic Titan’s mecha mayhem, anime classics, demographic discrimination, working with J.J. Abrams on the Samurai Jack feature film and when Tartakovksy might finally direct his own silver-screen blockbuster.
How long have you been an anime and mecha fan?
Genndy Tartakovsky (pictured above): I grew up with Battle of the Planets, Speed Racer, Spectraman, Starblazers, Robotech, Voltron, Johnny Socko and other Japanese imports from the ’70s and ’80s. Add these shows to all the Loony Tunes, Hanna-Barbera, Tom and Jerry and Tex Avery cartoons that I watched, and you have my complete childhood TV schedule.
How long can we expect Sym-Bionic Titan to last at this point?
Tartakovksy: Our initial order was for 20 episodes. So if the premiere goes well, we hope to be expanding that.
So what’s Sym-Bionic Titan’s genesis?
Tartakovsky Sym-Bionic Titan originally came from the idea of doing a show about an android in high school who secretly is a hero that becomes an Ultraman type. I think it is a great set-up to have a robot devoid of emotion in a setting of high drama. But then as co-creators Paul Rudish and Bryan Andrews developed it further, it formed itself into having three characters essentially dealing with the same thing in their own way.
How about the show’s characters? They remind me of Padme and Anakin from your insanely great Clone Wars miniseries, but also of Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop and other source code.
Tartakovksy: I’m definitely a huge fan of Cowboy Bebop. But I think more inspiration came from Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky. The relationship between its two heroic kids is one of my favorites. But the biggest influence is from John Hughes movies like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club.
Wait, does that mean Lance is less like Spike and more like Judd Nelson’s “wastoid” John Bender?
Tartakovksy: Actually, we tried to make Lance like James Dean, but with more of a sense of humor. Ilana’s character is something we have been really working on for a while through a number of various projects that we have had in development. A positive strong female character is something I’ve always wanted to create. As much as I love her, Dee Dee from Dexter’s Laboratory only goes so far.
Can we talk about demographics? This show seems like it’s for kids, but then all of your work does. Yet it still has effortlessly transcended age and style barriers.
Tartakovsky: This show is definitely skewed a bit older, because we will be dealing with more teenager issues rather than those that would have fit in Dexter’s Laboratory. But really, we have to make everything for ourselves. Because as soon as we start thinking what a teenager or any kid likes, it becomes insincere.
Is there a demographic discrimination when it comes to work like yours, which has broad appeal but is perhaps misconstrued as being specifically aimed at certain ages?
Tartakovksy: We hope that if we like it, people of any age will too. Animation has always had the problem of being perceived as purely for kids. I think things are better than a few years ago, but the stigma still exists.
What can you tell us about what you or other hardy souls at your production company The Orphanage are excitedly working on?
Tartakovksy: We opened Orphanage Animation Studios in 2005, and have since developed multiple movies and TV shows. We have a couple of features in official development with studios and we continue to develop and pitch various TV shows. Bryan Andrews, who I worked with [on] Iron Man 2, is currently working on storyboarding The Avengers for Marvel. The rest of the team is spread throughout the industry working on various projects. But here’s a scoop for you: Because our sister company The Orphanage folded, we are officially changing our name to Viking Animation Studios.
Vikings over mechas and samurais? Why?
Tartakovksy: Vikings are cool, and we have a Viking movie that we are really fond of.
Please tell me you’re still involved in the Samurai Jack film that J.J. Abrams’ company Bad Robot is working on.
Tartakovksy: Luckily, I am involved with the Samurai Jack feature with Bad Robot, which I think is great! We’re currently in the writing and development phase. But for the past year or so I have been head over heels in love with Sym-Bionic Titan.
Tartakovksy: It’s been the most challenging project I have ever done. But hopefully it will be the most rewarding. After Clone Wars, I thought we had reached our plateau, as far as quality goes. But there are certain sequences and episodes from Titan that I think have gone far beyond anything we’ve done in the past.
From the catastrophic fights to the bracing race sequences, it’s a kinetic blast.
Tartakovksy: They’re turning out like mini-features. Please watch them big and loud.
Speaking of your storyboards for Iron Man 2, when are loyalists getting their first Genndy Tartakovksy feature film?
Tartakovksy: I’ve been holding out to do one of our own ideas, and we are closer than ever before. I was attached to Astro Boy very early on, and was sad that one, as well as the Dark Crystal sequel, didn’t work out. But I’m always open to projects that have character-driven stories and a need for a strong creative vision.
This article appeared at WIRED