Born in 1970, in Moscow, Russia; son of Boris (a dentist) and Miriam Tartakovsky; married Dawn David, 2000; children: Jacob. Education: Attended Columbia College, Chicago, IL; attended the California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles, CA.
Office—Cartoon Network, 1050 Techwood Dr. NW, Atlanta, GA 30318.
Began animation career drawing for the Batman television series, c. 1991; served as creator/producer of cartoons for the cable channel Cartoon Network, including, Dexter's Laboratory, 1995—, Samurai Jack, 2001—, and Clone Wars, 2003—; served as supervising producer/director for the Powerpuff Girls, 1998—.
Since 1994, the Cartoon Network has remained among the top five ad–supported cable network channels. Part of that success is due to cartoon sensations like Dexter's Laboratory and Samurai Jack, both brainchilds of Russian–born animator Genndy Tartakovsky. In fact, Tartakovsky has earned such a stellar reputation in the industry that Star Wars creator George Lucas tapped him to create a 20–episode cartoon micro–series surrounding the legendary Star Wars characters. These action–packed stories ran on the Cartoon Network through the spring of 2004, while Episode III, due in 2005, was being filmed.
Tartakovsky was born in 1970, in Moscow, when Russia was still a Communist country. His father, Boris, was a dentist who took care of the Russian hockey team at a clinic where he supervised dozens of other dentists. Tartakovsky recalled that one time his father had to work on a Russian Cabinet member while soldiers stood guard outside. Because of Boris Tartakovsky's position within the government, the Tartakovsky family lived well—they had a three–bedroom apartment and ate caviar for breakfast.
Though Tartakovsky recalled his time in Russia as happy, his Jewish parents feared the family would be better off in a place not so anti–Semitic, so they moved to the United States in the mid–1970s. On the way, the family had a three–month stopover in Italy as they awaited papers. While there, Tartakovsky and his older brother, Alex, spent their days wandering through a flea market filled with other would–be immigrants selling their possessions to make money to start their new lives.
There, the Tartakovsky boys befriended an older Russian girl who spent her time sketching scenes of the crowds and peddlers. "We imitated her making sketches like you take photographs," Alex Tartakovsky told Alec Wilkinson of the New Yorker. "Then Genndy started drawing figures from American comic books someone was selling, and that was the main thing that became interesting to us. Just looking at the figures and then drawing pictures."
The family eventually landed in Columbus, Ohio, but Boris Tartakovsky's dental license did not transfer to the United States and he could only find work as a technician making dentures—a job that was hard to support a family of four on. Tartakovsky immersed himself in television culture and credits the tube for teaching him English. American cartoons captivated his mind and he began spending every possible moment watching them. Every morning before school and every Saturday morning Tartakovsky could be found in front of the tube.
When Tartakovsky was ten, the family moved to Chicago, Illinois, to live alongside some Russian immigrants with whom his father was acquainted. Tartakovsky, however, rebelled from his heritage and did not want to have anything to do with the other Russian kids in the neighborhood or at school. Desiring to fit into his new homeland and no longer be an outsider, Tartakovsky wanted to dress in sneakers and jeans like the American boys; he yearned to be cool. As Tartakovsky recalled to Thelma Adams of the New York Times, "Definitely that was a big part of my childhood: wanting to fit [in]. As an immigrant, you talk funny, you look funny, you smell funny. I wanted to do nothing but fit in and talk English and sit with everybody else."
To this end, Tartakovsky spent the better part of his youth watching television so he would have things to say to the American kids at school the next day. Often, he would check the television guide and map out his morning cartoon schedule. Even as a teen, the preoccupation continued and Tartakovsky recalled sneaking off to watch animated films like The Jungle Book. He recalled that he stood out in the theater because he was much older and bigger than the other moviegoers.
Growing up, Tartakovsky did more than just watch animation. He also spent a fair amount of time drawing figures from comic books. He created flip books by filling his notebooks with stick figures that dunked basketballs or ran in circles when the pages were turned quickly. Tartakovsky expressed his thoughts this way to Misha Davenport of the Chicago Sun–Times: "I've always tried to figure out where the idea to animate comes from. Something about watching movement you've created on screen still thrills me and there's something about telling a story through pictures that I find so appealing."
By high school, no one could deny Tartakovsky's passion for art. "Our parents noticed how much he liked to draw, so they brought him to an art teacher," Alex Tartakovsky told the New Yorker's Wilkinson. "After several classes they asked her opinion, and she said, 'Well, he's no Michelangelo.'"
After high school, Tartakovsky enrolled in an art–and–film school called Columbia College, located in downtown Chicago. His father had recently died of a heart attack, so Tartakovsky stayed home to live with his mother. To support himself, he began working as a theater usher and as a cook at a restaurant.
At Columbia College, Tartakovsky decided to study advertising art, figuring that would be a safe way to earn a living. Instead, he got caught up in cartooning after taking a class from Stan Hughes, an instructor who collected 16–mm classic cartoon prints. Tartakovsky would lock himself away with the cartoons, loading them onto the school's editing machines and advancing them frame–by–frame. But Tartakovsky did more than just look at the frames—he sketched each one. Through this painstaking process, Tartakovsky mastered the art of how to make a character move.
In time, Tartakovsky was accepted into the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles. When Tartakovsky arrived, he was blown away by the talent of the other students, most just 18 years old. He was already 20. Determined to follow his dream, Tartakovsky caught up to his peers by working twice as hard.
Tartakovsky only attended this school for two years because that was all he could afford. Next, he found work in Madrid, Spain, drawing for the Batman television series. It is common in the cartoon industry for some of the production work to take place overseas, where artist wages are lower. While away, Tartakovsky's mother died of cancer. His employer went bankrupt, forcing Tartakovsky to return to California. There, he landed a job at Hanna–Barbera Studios. Tartakovsky, it turns out, walked into the right place at the right time. The studio was just looking at the possibility of founding Cartoon Network.
Nearly 50 animators were invited to test out seven–minute pilots. Wondering if his work was good enough, Tartakovsky showed some of his pieces to studio executive Mike Lazzo. These pieces featured characters named Dexter and Dee Dee. Tartakovsky developed the characters as part of a CalArts assignment. He created Dee Dee first after he got an image in his head of a blond–headed, pigtailed and quite gawky ballerina dancing around. Tartakovsky gave the ballerina a nasal voice. He drew her tall, but made her short on brains. Next, Tartakovsky tried to picture her nemesis, or her opposite. He came up with Dexter, a small, thick boy genius preoccupied with science.
Tartakovsky showed Lazzo a pilot episode he had developed. In the pilot, Dexter has created a shape–shifting device in his secret lab. His sister, Dee Dee, discovers the gadget and the two wrestle for control. Each time one of them activates the device, it turns the other into a dinosaur, whale, duck or snake. In a subplot, their clueless mother wonders why the kids are not ready for school on time.
Lazzo was hooked. He told the New Yorker that Tartakovsky's pilot was the first fully formed cartoon to come in. "It had all the key ingredients you need a cartoon to have—it had a funny premise, it had things you could do in a cartoon and couldn't do in live action.… And, above all, it had genius timing. Genndy has a scientist's version of creativity. A cartoon can't just be a bunch of pretty pictures. In cartoons, you literally have to count frames per second to figure out when something should happen or not happen. He has a gift for that kind of delivery—it's musical. What he really has is art and science together. You never see that."
Tartakovsky has admitted that his childhood inspired the creation of Dexter and Dee Dee. Growing up, his brainy brother, now a computer engineer, always had complex toys he did not want to share. Tartakovsky says that his brother is Dexter, while he is the annoying Dee Dee.
In 1995, Dexter's Laboratory made its debut on the Cartoon Network and became a staple in the channel's lineup. The show ran through 2003 and earned several Emmy nominations. Tartakovsky, in fact, has been nominated for an Emmy eight times, though he has never won—and does not even mind. "I'd rather be nominated and lose than not nominated at all," he told Davenport in the Chicago Sun–Times. "A nomination means acceptance by your peers. I don't get caught up on whether I win or lose. Besides, I'll take good ratings over an Emmy any day."
In 2001, another Tartakovsky creation aired on the Cartoon Network. Called Samurai Jack, the cartoon follows a warrior, Jack, who has been banished to the future, only to find it dominated by a wicked alien force ruled by a demon named Aku. The show is populated with robots and aliens and strange creatures with magical attributes. The characters drive flying cars fortified with weapons they use in battle. The premise is that Jack is perpetually trying to find a way back home. While doing so, he is in constant battle with Aku. Unlike most cartoons, the show uses little dialogue—maybe two minutes in a 22–minute episode. The action–adventure series also proved to be an instant success. Over the years, Tartakovsky has had his hand on several other successes. He served as producer and director for the network's top–rated Powerpuff Girls series.
Despite his success, Tartakovsky refuses to slow down, working up to 70 hours a week because he believes in taking opportunities when they come. One opportunity of a lifetime was to produce for Star Wars creator George Lucas a series of animated cartoon shorts to run on the network between 2003 and 2004. The shorts, dubbed Clone Wars, were meant to fill in some of the storyline between Episode II and Episode III (due in 2005) of the Star Wars saga.
The task was daunting. Each episode was to run for a mere three minutes. During that time, Tartakovsky had to tell a complete story. After beginning work, Tartakovsky realized that every scene had to say something and advance the plot—there could be no scenes just for beauty's sake. Besides working with the time constraints, Tartakovsky was also faced with the challenge of creating cartoon characters that mirrored their live movie counterparts. Tartakovsky discussed the dilemmas with Los Angeles Times writer Charles Solomon: "We played with the style a bit to make it fit, but the biggest problem was: Do we caricature the actors or do we caricature the personalities in the movies? It became less about how does Ewan McGregor look and more about how does Obi–Wan Kenobi look as an animated character. Once we made that leap, we felt comfortable with the look." The 20 three–minute shorts debuted in November of 2003 on Cartoon Network. Lucas, too, was pleased with the results. As he told the Los Angeles Times, "Clone Wars is definitely Star Wars, but it clearly has Genndy's style. Visually, it's like nothing else out there."
In June of 2004, it was announced that Tartakovsky would write, produce, and direct five 12–minute animated Clone Wars adventures that would continue the storylines first set out in the 20–episode microseries. These installments introduced a new bad guy, General Grievous, and were scheduled to be broadcast in March of 2005. As an animator, Tartakovsky has a unique vision—and, much to the delight of his fans, that almost guarantees him a long and legendary career in the industry.
Selected animation credits
2 Stupid Dogs, art director, director, 1993.
Dexter's Laboratory, creator, executive producer, producer, director, writer, 1995.
Cow and Chicken, writer, 1997.
The Powerpuff Girls, supervising producer, story, director, 1998.
Samurai Jack, creator, executive producer, producer, writer, director, 2001.
Clone Wars, creator, 2003–04.
Chicago Sun–Times, November 24, 2002.
Los Angeles Times, November 7, 2003, p. E31.
New Yorker, May 27, 2002, p. 76.
New York Times, August 19, 2001, sec. 6, p. 17.
St. Louis Post–Dispatch, November 6, 2003, p. F1.
"Cartoon Network," National Cable and Telecommunications Association, http://www.ncta.com/guidebook_pdfs/cartoon.pdf (May 15, 2004).
"Genndy Tartakovsky," Cartoon Network, http://www.cartoonnetwork.com/watch/studio/ap/gtartakovsky/index.html (May 15, 2004).
"Genndy Tartakovsky," TV Tome, http://www.tvtome.com/tvtome/servlet/PersonDetail/personid–18926 (May 16, 2004).
" Star Wars 'Toons Up Again," E! Online, http://www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,14284,00.html?eol.tkr (June 11, 2004).