Welcome back to the Hotel Transylvania, where monsters go to relax, away from the presence of humans.
Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation have scheduled another visit, following up the 2012 spook-tacular animated feature Hotel Transylvania with the hauntingly entertaining
Hotel Transylvania 2. The new film brings the human and monster worlds closer together, as Mavis (Selena Gomez) and Johnny (Andy Samberg) marry and give birth to Dennis, leaving Dracula (Adam Sandler) to wonder if his grandson is at least partially a vampire.
Mike Kurinsky is a production designer at Sony Pictures Animation and spent two years working with a team to develop and refine the look of the film’s environments, characters, and props. Here, he talks about his work on the film and a number of its visual highlights.
Did you work on the original
I worked a little on the initial film at the end (see “Pose by Pose,” CGW August/September 2012). I came in at the end to work on the lighting and color script. I do painting that informs lighters on how scenes and sequences should look. That’s all I did on the first one.
Can you elaborate on the role of a production designer?
A production designer oversees the overall look of every aspect of film – from the environments, to the characters, color and lighting, and texture – making sure it’s consistent with the style that had been set. In this case, I had a first movie that was already set by a different production designer. The rules ofHotel Transylvania were already set. I wanted held to those rules but also find ways to put my own touches on the movie to make it feel fresh and new.
What were the guidelines?
I inherited things that would not change. You have a castle, and it’s iconic. It’s almost like a character in the first movie, and you don’t want to change that. But are there ways to make it look and feel different? Yeah. Lighting is always a way you can take an environment and completely change it.
Where were you able to put your own touch on this film?
In this movie, I had many opportunities, after reading the script. There were sequences in the script where I went, ‘Oh my gosh! A wedding that takes place in the hotel!’ Johnny and Mavis get married and have a child, so we have a wedding sequence. Every day you have these hotels that transform banquet rooms into magical, one-night wedding receptions. This is Drac’s hotel, so it would be a big event. He would do the whole hotel, so here was a chance to take something that already existed in the first film and light it and swap out some colors of drapery, and I gave it a fresh, new feel. That was my way of taking what’s old and making it new.
Are there new characters in this film?
There are a lot of new characters. The biggest one is Dennis – Johnny and Mavis’s son – who is four years old and just about to turn five. He is sort of the center of the whole movie, about the human world and monster world coming together. Dennis is right in the middle of that. Is he human? Is he a vampire? Nobody really knows. The folklore in the movie is that if you don’t receive your fangs by age five, then you are human. And he is dangerously close to being five. It’s a contrast of this kid trying to figure out who he is, because he is surrounded by both [heritages].
What was the challenge of designing Dennis?
First, visually, parts of both Johnny and Mavis had to be represented. Because he was a boy, and Johnny was so much fun and has crazy hair, we leaned more toward Johnny in his look. That’s where his hair came from. That was a lot of fun. But his eyes are Mavis’s eyes. They are the exact same color. So we wanted the soul of him to be represented by his mother, but his outward appearance comes more from his dad.
His hair is unique?
It’s one thing to design in 2D and draw a giant head of hair on a new character, for instance, but once you actually build him in CG and model that to scale, and put him against existing characters…you can’t change their proportions. They are who they are. He’d need a ginormous head to support this ginormous hair. Dracula literally couldn’t hold Dennis because his hair was too big, and he couldn’t even get him close to himself. Dennis’s hair and head were twice the size of Dracula’s. You have to capture the spirit of the design, but it has to work in an already existing world.
How do you adjust for that?
I do all my work in the computer, but in a 2D way. I work in [Adobe’s] Photoshop. In the old days, I was a background painter at Walt Disney Feature Animation, and you would start with a blank whiteboard and do a painting. I don’t think any differently in Photoshop. I pull up a blank whiteboard/screen/window and start drawing on it. And those drawings become a painting. Those paintings get passed on to Imageworks, which is our production house, and they translate those paintings and drawings into 3D.
Is that the typical way design is done?
I have a few people – like my layout designers – who don’t work in color. Maybe they would start thumbnailing a little bit on paper, scan their thumbnails into the computer, and put layers on top of that, and keep refining and refining. I know character designers who still do their initial sketches on paper and put those in and start refining in Photoshop. It can be a little bit of both. Here at Sony, there is nobody painting traditionally. If you are doing a sequence illustration, everybody does them in Photoshop.
So you are using a pen and tablet?
We are using the Wacom Cintiq high-definition [unit], so you put the stylus right on the screen and paint. It is so close to traditional painting in many ways. You are applying right to your board.
As designs progress, who ultimately approves them?
The director is king. It’s the director’s movie. I was hired for the ability I have, but it’s a team effort. The team is trying to find the vision of the director. He’s the first stop. We get an assignment – the ballroom –we work on how we are going to decorate it. We show some preliminary sketches to [Director] Genndy Tartakovsky. He’s really great. He’s the type of director I like working with. If he likes it, he lets you know right away. If it’s not right, he’ll pull out a sketchpad and do a little thumbnail. His is the approval we are looking for.
Are you a Sony Pictures Animation employee, or are you brought in for specific films?
I have been a permanent employee for 12 years. I was 2D traditional animation for almost 10 years at Walt Disney Feature Animation before that, and I was doing truly hand-painted stuff – paint and brushes.
Describe your workflow.
We work on a multitude of things. First, we do design of characters, environments, and props within those environments. That’s just design – no color at that point. I have people who are primarily designers – all they do is design things for me. Then those get passed on to the painting team, and they are responsible for the appropriate colors and textures, and really rendering the things so that when we hand them off to Imageworks, there’s no guesswork. They know the texture for a character’s shirt and the color skin of a monster.
Then the last thing I do is a color script. We pull six to 12 frames of a sequence – the major moments of it – and we’ll paint over those and do color keys, to say, ‘This is the color lighting, this is the quality of lighting it should be.’ If it’s an action sequence, it should be very contrasty red. If it’s a happy scene, it might be softer, with more ambient light, and warmer and friendlier. We try to set the appropriate lighting and color for every sequence. That’s kind of the last part of the process.
Is that typical for a color script?
The Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs one was about eight frames. If it’s a particularly long sequence, you pull more. But about eight should cover everything.
Ultimately, there must be hundreds of frames that you do this for.
There are thousands! All the designs for the environments, all the props, all the characters…. If they change wardrobe, each is a different painting. And the color script could be 100 or so little paintings. There is so much artwork done.
How big is the team working on this?
At the high point, which was last summer, 15 people. It started with me and two others. Then there were five, then eight. Then the design [work] goes down and they move on to other shows. We work in chunks. The first teaser trailer shows the guys on the tower, giving the flying lesson. We don’t want to turn it over little by little. It’s a package. That is so much work for them, it keeps them incredibly busy.
Does the audience see more of the human world in this film?
In the first movie, we saw a little bit of the human world. It was more of the third act, where we went into the town of Transylvania, where there was a monster fest going on, and the humans were loving the monsters and dressing up like them. And they are on an airplane at the end. That was the most we saw. This one, we really crack it wide open. We meet Johnny’s family. We go back to where he grew up.
That gave me an opportunity to go, ‘What would the human world look like in the scheme of Hotel Transylvania?’ I like contrast, and this movie is about contrast, so if you look at what was set up for the first movie, the monster world is vertical. It’s very tall and kind of thin. Think of the castle, with all its columns. And lighting-wise, lighting is very colorful in the castle and sometimes comes from under-lighting. It’s really dynamic. The contrast to that is, if the monster world is vertical, the human world is horizontal and flat. If the lighting in the monster world is dynamic and colorful, why don’t we make ours kind of even and drab? And that helps support certain story ideas we were trying to get across.
The characters add contrast, too. Can you point to certain scenes that demonstrate that contrast?
In the 7-Eleven, Mavis stands out a little bit – this dark silhouette in this evenly neutral-colored sort of grays and tans, and subtle colors. She is the most dynamic and contrasty thing there. Even Johnny – his outfit is so colorful. He’s the weird bird in the family. Everyone else is super straightlaced. They are wearing tans and neutral colors, and his hair is the wildest. That’s why he fits in so well in the monster world, and why he married Mavis. He’s more on the monster side of things. The human world is a little blander and more even. These two elements should look out of place in it.
Is there a scene that you are particularly proud of?
The wedding is one. It was really important because I have a 14-year-old daughter, and when I told her that Mavis was getting married, you could see – it got real! ‘Dad, make it beautiful and don’t mess up her dress.’ So I was responsible to make sure we got it right. I put my best people on getting that dress right, and I personally handled the look of the wedding. That was for my daughter.
The “vampire camp” is also new?
It’s a brand-new monster location in the world of Hotel Transylvania 2. That was really fun. It wasn’t exactly what we’ve seen before – it wasn’t in the castle. When I read the script, it was described as ‘monster camp out in the woods or wilderness.’ That’s a pretty broad description.
What I like to do when I am creating something, even if it’s not used in the script or story, is give myself a backstory for something to grab onto. We know from the trailer that it’s the camp that Drac went to, so it’s at least 1,000 years old. I started thinking: It’s a vampire camp on Earth. It’s been there for 1,000 years, but monsters have only been out [in public] since the last movie – say, a year – so how has it remained hidden for 1,000 years?
I started thinking about Yosemite. When you are on the canyon floor and you have those rock walls and grand monoliths sticking up – those are 3,000 feet high. I thought, what if they were 30,000 feet high? What if you could hide something? It would be a natural wall. We made these mountains that were all rock, and they surround this camp area and keep it completely hidden. In doing my research for this, I came across a town in Norway that they built so deep in a crevasse that during their winter months, they don’t get any natural sunlight. They built a mirror up on the mountain to bounce sunlight into the town square. If you had 30,000-foot walls all the way around this camp, vampires could go out all day long. None of this is ever said but gave me something tangible. So I knew the geography and I could start populating that geography. Giving myself that backstory really helped.
But you still had to get the moon in there?
In the trailer sequence, whenever I read that part in the script, I always saw the tower they were standing on, backed by a giant moon. There’s no skyline. Those cliffs are so high you never see the sky. So I cut one V-shaped trench just so the tower is right in front if it, and it’s the only place you can see the sky. That way I could get my moon where I wanted it.
Tell us about the camp’s design.
The fun part was populating inside that camp – [determining] what a monster camp would look like. There are half and half [buildings] – log cabin meets gothic haunted house. Everything came from that. I started with the main house – the bottom half is very bunkhouse and the top has the gables and fireplaces, and feels more like a haunted house. It’s a combination of Goth meets woodsy.
While the plot in Hotel Transylvania 2 tells the tale of two separate worlds coming together, the visual design of the film extends that concept, resulting in a touching, beautiful production.