Star Wars Saga Unfolds on Small Screen — As a Cartoon

By Max Gross

Published May 27, 2005, issue of May 27, 2005.
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About a month ago, Genndy Tartakovsky and his wife strolled past the line that already had formed outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre for “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith.”

As the Tartakovskys got closer to the intergalactic faithful, several faces lit up.

Pens were out, and Tartakovsky was asked for his autograph.

“I usually keep a low profile,” Tartakovsky told the Forward.

That is often possible, since not every Star Wars fan knows who Tartakovsky is. (It’s not as if he has reached the status of Han Solo or Princess Leia. But he’s getting there.) In recent weeks, Tartakovsky memorabilia has been hawked in Star Wars auctions on eBay along with memorabilia from such Star Wars luminaries as actor Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) and Muppet-master Frank Oz (Yoda).

It could be argued that Tartakovsky is the closest thing on this side of the galaxy to legendary Star Wars creator George Lucas. Tartakovsky’s work is definitely the answer for those who were either disappointed by Lucas’s long-anticipated prequel or crave more after viewing the new batch of Star Wars films.

As serious fans — the ones who eat, breathe and sleep Star Wars — can tell you, Tartakovsky is the creator and director of the animated television series “Clone Wars,” a project sanctioned by Lucas that appeared on the Cartoon Network. The series featured a first batch of 20 three-minute animated Star Wars shorts (now available on DVD) followed by five additional 10-minute installments. The cartoons — which bridge the two most recent Star Wars films (think Episode 2.5) — follow Jedi knights like Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker as they draw lightsabers to do battle with droid armies and blank-eyed Sith warriors.

Most amazingly, the always fickle Star Wars fans seem happy with Tartakovsky’s effort.

“They like and appreciate the work,” Tartakovsky said of the Star Wars stalwarts.

Tartakovsky’s voyage into the Star Wars realm has been far from conventional. For one thing, he was introduced to George Lucas’s space opera a year late, in 1978, at a second-run movie theater — after he and his family immigrated to Chicago from Moscow. “I loved it,” Tartakovsky said of the original film. “But we didn’t have a lot of money, so I couldn’t buy… a lot of the toys.”

In Russia, the Tartakovskys had lived a privileged life; Tartakovsky’s father was a dentist, and the family didn’t really suffer from antisemitism, he said. After the family left the Soviet Union and arrived in America, Tartakovsky’s father no longer was able to practice dentistry.

“It was very hard for my parents,” Tartakovsky said. “The medical degree doesn’t carry over, and that was very hard on him. We moved to lower-income [status] from the upper class.”

But being in America did have one important advantage.

“As soon as we immigrated, I got into television,” Tartakovsky said. “I was slowly starting to get into superheroes and sci-fi.”

The next few years were a revelation. “It sort of blew your mind. In the ’70s there was really nothing… In Euro cultures it’s more learning to read and storytelling. Back then I never had heroes. It was mostly storybook stuff.”

Suddenly Tartakovsky was reading Wonder Woman comic books (among his favorites) and watching Bugs Bunny and the Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters. “I would get up on Saturday morning and mark up my TV Guide [for] what I would watch for the rest of the day.”

Unlike his older brother, who would hang around with other Russians, Tartakovsky ran with American kids, perfected his accent and eventually began working on cartoons.

He refined his craft at California Institute of the Arts, located outside Los Angeles. Shortly after completing his studies, he went to work animating a Batman series for television. Eventually he linked up with Cartoon Network, drawing shorts.

“I got a chance to jump in my career from animator, to storyboard-artist, to director,” Tartakovsky said. “My career plan was to be an animator for 10 years, then become a storyboard artist, then maybe a director. That’s how the industry worked. I was 24 at the time; there were no guys running their own shows.”

But when Tartakovsky came up with the idea for “Dexter’s Laboratory,” he was given a shot.

And of all Tartakovsky’s creations to date, the eponymous prodigy Dexter, his orange-haired, bespectacled inventor with an annoying older sister, remains closest to his heart. “I think creating Dexter as a character — and that he’s lasted for [more than] 10 years — is what I’m most proud of,” he said.

Not that Tartakovsky’s devotion to Dexter came without a price. “I lost three girlfriends, but [I thought], ‘You never get a second chance.’”

Over the past decade, Tartakovsky has become one of the foremost animators in the country, producing not only “Dexter’s Laboratory” but also “The Powerpuff Girls” and “Samurai Jack.” With Tartakovsky on board, the Cartoon Network’s viewership soared to 85 million from 12 million.

The brown-haired, 35-year-old baby-faced animator seems largely unfazed by his newfound Star Wars celebrity; among other things, he’s not quite the Star Wars maniac that others in his business are. (Although he loves the movies, he could never quite get into all the Star Wars literary spin-offs. “I read some of the comic books — which I don’t really like,” he acknowledged.) His hope, he said, was that the Star Wars project would serve as a gateway for fans to become familiar with his other cartoons.

The shot at Star Wars fame came when the Cartoon Network approached Lucas about producing a series of shorts connecting episodes II and III. Lucas agreed, but he wanted the cartoons kept extremely short — no more than one-minute in length — and Tartakovsky was invited to take part in the project.

“I said: ‘Yeah, but I’m not going to do one minute. I need three to five minutes.’”

When Lucas found out that Tartakovsky was doing the cartoons, he immediately granted the additional time — the Star Wars creator, it turns out, is a big fan of “Samurai Jack.”

Tartakovsky was then given the keys to the Star Wars universe.

“Basically [Lucas] just… said, ‘Okay, and don’t bother me again,’” Tartakovsky said. “He’s busy with the movie and his empire.”

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