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Genndy Tartakovsky Talks ‘Primal’ and Telling Stories Without Words

With a second season renewal now in hand, the storied creator of ‘Dexter’s Laboratory’ and ‘Samurai Jack’ discusses his viscerally gripping and beautifully animated Adult Swim series about a caveman, a T-Rex, and the bond that helps them survive.  

For a generation of animation fans weaned on seminal TV series like Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, Star Wars: Clone Wars, and Samurai Jack, the name “Genndy Tartakovsky” carries considerable cultural weight, much like Chuck Jones, Hayao Miyazaki, or Matt Groening. Their names are synonymous with the shows and films they created. A prolific artist, writer, director, producer, and showrunner, the four-time Emmy Award and two-time Annie Award-winning Tartakovsky helped shape some of animation’s most memorable and impactful series, an impressive set of characters and shows that remain hugely popular still today. Even with his jump to big budget animated features with Hotel Transylvania, the 2012 film he saved from six years of development hell by wrangling into the first of a hugely successful three-film and growing franchise, he kept his hand in TV, producing an additional season of more adult-oriented Samurai Jack episodes that aired in 2017.

And then came his unlikely hit, Primal.

Focused on an unlikely friendship between a caveman, Spear, at the dawn of evolution, and a T-Rex, Fang, on the brink of extinction, as they fight to survive a violent, primordial world, the first five mesmerizing episodes of Tartakovsky’s new series debuted on Adult Swim last year with unexpected success; five more episodes of Season 1 are currently airing Sunday’s on the network, having debuted October 4, and a 10-episode Season 2 renewal was just announced, though no release date was shared. You can watch the first five Primal episodes on AdultSwim.com or HBO Max.

The series, billed as an animated painting come to life, is uniquely told without dialogue; it features an emotionally compelling story voiced through breathtaking animation, mind-blowing sound design, and a gripping original score by composer Tyler Bates (Guardians of the GalaxyDeadpool 2John Wick). Tartakovsky’s long-time partner in crime, art director Scott Willis (Monsters vs. AliensHotel Transylvania 3), lends his talents to the show’s design. Just last month, Primal won three Juried Emmy Awards: Tartakovsky, Willis and character designer Stephen DeStefano. Safe to say, people love their dinosaurs.

I recently spoke with the director about the show, his creative approach to its development, and his successful embrace of storytelling without dialogue that makes Primal unlike anything else on TV.

Dan Sarto: Primal is a project that’s become a force of nature in a way, going from five episodes, to five more episodes, to now a second season renewal for 10 more episodes. You’ve circled back to your roots in auteur-driven TV animation. How did this show come about?

Genndy Tartakovsky: It's funny because the whole thing with Primal is that I thought nobody's going to want to do this, so I’ll just do it as a short. But it started getting more and more attention, more and more love. And then it grew to five [episodes], which were successful. And then a second five. And then I had this idea for how to continue the storyline. I pitched it and everybody loved it. I have such a special relationship with Adult Swim because of Mike Lasso, Keith Crawford, and everybody there. They’ve all been incredibly supportive in what I want to do creatively. TV for me has always meant complete freedom and trust to try different things, to push where I think I can push, and to strive to do better work. And especially with the addition of [Studio] La Cachette, doing the animation for Primal, it's a whole different level of quality and I'm so much happier. There's not as much compromise, because sometimes on a TV schedule and budget, you're like, “Well this is the best it can be for the time and money that we have.” But with Primal, it feels very creatively satisfying. 

DS: Where the idea for Primal come from?

GT: It started off maybe 10 years ago as a kids’ show. I was drawing this little Astro Boy, [Osamu] Tezuka inspired, cartoony caveman kid riding a T-Rex.  It went through some iterations where it became more of an alien kid riding this creature, but that never connected. I always trust my gut on an idea; if it sticks, there's something really good. And if I can write 10 stories within 10 minutes, then I know there's a solid idea. But I got distracted by other things and the idea never went anywhere. Then, after we did the adult Samurai Jack season, and it premiered, everybody was reacting to our non-dialogue sequences, which we've always had. There was such reaction to it, and because the themes were more complex and sophisticated, I started to think, “Oh, wow, can I actually do a whole episode, or a whole series, just with these sequences?” And then my caveman riding a T-Rex idea pops back up. In the preceding year, I’d been reading all of Robert Howard’s “Conan” books, which were so well written and so interesting. They're so simple, but there's so much character and action and excitement and thrill, that I thought, “What a perfect venue to try to do this type of storytelling and animation.” 

Here's these two characters. It's about survival. And I haven't really done a man and beast relationship idea before. That's something new and fresh for me. And I came up with that pilot episode where they bonded over this tragic loss they both suffered. And we started going with it. I have that sheet of paper where I wrote 10 ideas and I think we did seven of them already. That's always a sign of something fresh.

Now, for the second season, we’re taking it to a whole different level. I mean, it's just crazy. And you'll see, we've even advanced our storytelling to deal with more complex emotions in several of the episodes. You start to realize that not having dialogue is almost an advantage in a way, because you could tell this complex story, but it's all about the gut-wrenching emotion of the subject matter. That's pretty heady. I couldn't be happier. I'm super excited about it

So, that’s how it started. Primal was just this kid show that evolved organically.

DS: In previous discussions, you’ve shared with me how directing TV is so much different for you than directing big features like the Hotel Transylvania franchise. Unlike in features, with a TV show, there’s little time or budget to ponder your decision-making too long. You have a different type of control in TV. Let’s get to it! You trust your gut, you trust the team, you don’t over-think things.

GT: That's exactly right. And it took me a while. Funny enough, I still struggle with it, where once I make a decision, I feel like it's right. Of course, I've made wrong decisions plenty of times. But generally, I trust what I'm doing. And when I make a decision, I'm like, “Yeah, this is what I want to do.” And when there's pushback or discussion or analysis, I get flustered, being told, sometimes incorrectly, there's something wrong or it could be better. After being in TV for 25 years, you're just used to it.

Now, in features, things happen at a different speed. So, you're like, “Okay, calm down, don't get too angry. Let's reevaluate. Let's find a better way to do this.” And then you have to accept it. 

DS: The explosion of streaming entertainment distribution has meant an explosion of episodic animation production. As a creator, how does this new reality impact you? Could you have gotten a greenlight on Primal five or 10 years ago?

GT: No. What you're saying is true. The thing is, there are more buyers now than ever, right? In the early days of Dexter [Dexter’s Laboratory], there was pretty much only Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. Disney Channel was mostly only doing Disney stuff. So, if you wanted to do original stuff, that was it. Saturday morning was dying out completely and it’s not like they would do anything interesting anyways. And so, you were stuck with a very small window of opportunity.

Now you can go to five, six, seven, eight different places and see if somebody likes what you're trying to sell. And so, the potential of success for younger creators, for I don't want to say auteurs, but people who can really bring an idea and see it all the way through, is so much greater now. It's not such a phenomenon like it was back then. You can be a lot more trusting with a new creator coming in. Maybe they need some extra support or whatever production-wise, but generally it's a successful formula. So, yeah, there's so much more opportunity now. 

DS: For much of the episodic animated entertainment we’re seeing hit the streamers and broadcasters, it’s safe to say, most wasn’t produced because of some unique artistic design or look. You’re known for your designs, cinematography, the composition of your characters and worlds. And with Primal, you go even farther by telling intense, compelling stories without dialogue. The show is billed, and promoted, around it’s visuals. How important are the visuals both in your own art and how it drives your projects? 

GT: I mean, it's everything. It's everything I strive to do from the very get go. You know, I was always in love with animation. I wanted to be an animator. But I didn't realize this was going to be my path. And so, all my sensibilities are tied around movement and spectacle and interesting visuals. And without even getting into story stuff, my visuals drive the story, you know? I will come up with a vignette, or we'll talk about a scenario that's more visceral. And then we build the story around it. I've always operated that way. It was something as simple as, “Oh yeah, Jack is on this long bridge and he comes up and there's somebody coming up against him.” And that was the springboard to the Scotsmen episode on Samurai Jack.  Everything stems from something visual. Now, after doing this for so many years, and especially with Primal, it's the perfect showcase for the type of storytelling that I like doing. I like seeing it in Sergio Leone, the best of Coppola, filmmakers like that. There's a raw energy to having visuals tell the story.

Of course, sometimes you have to talk and all that stuff. Dialogue is great obviously, but for me, I've always leaned to the visual. Everything is centered around the animation and what’s the most fun thing is this idea to watch animated. Everything is driven from that. So, whenever I run into a story problem, or I have to do some acrobatics around story, my brain always goes, “Well, what's the most visually fun way to do this rather than maybe saying something clever to talk your way out of it?” 

DS: You’ve told me in the past that when you're trying to explain certain things to your production teams, you often just grab a pad and draw it out to get your idea across.

GT: Yep. I mean, there's no other language that I can use as well. From doing all the animation adjustments, the layout and other stuff on Hotel Transylvania, and on all the TV work, we always talk in pictures. 

DS: As a story told without dialogue, Primal relies heavily upon music. But it doesn’t feel too hopelessly melodramatic or overpowering. Your music choices do such a great job helping viewers embrace the often-visceral emotion of the show.

GT: Music, as you know, is so important for storytelling, for emotion. It's one of our key elements: effects, visuals, and music. That's all we have. I’ve always felt that music is underplayed in animation, especially in television; it's often just filler and it really doesn't help tell the story and convey the emotion. Ever since Jack, I've really tried to dig out the music, like here's a musical sequence that’s going to help tell the story. And with Primal, it's so important. Like you said, I really hate when the music is pushing you too hard, right. Or if it's just meandering, and not saying anything. So, we work on finding music that has the right feel and tone.

One of my big revelations is that I didn’t want to play action music in action sequences. Maybe I'm coming to this realization late and everybody else knows it… we all learn at our own speed… but for Primal, I didn't want the music to always be bombastic. During action scenes, we've got the roaring, we've got the sound effects and because there’s no dialogue, I realized, why don't we let the music be the voice of the emotion. It’s not always done that way, but a lot of times. I've used the theory a lot where the music is helping you feel the emotion a lot more than just keeping energy up for the fight sequences like you get in most action films. Tyler Bates and Joanne Higginbottom, who do our music, they understand that.

DS: Discussion within the animation community about projects you are, aren’t, might be, and hopefully will be working on is a cottage industry. There's always speculation about what the future holds for you regarding projects like the Hotel T franchise, The Black Knight, more Samurai Jack… What can you share?

GT: Well, I'm still fighting hard for the two features at Sony - Fixed and Black Knight - which we've announced. You know, it's always a process. And especially with COVID and the shaky future of theatrical releases, it's kind of slowed it down a little bit. What I want to do is more of something new, just like Primal. I want to do something as different in the feature space as I did in the TV space. And sometimes in features, there's a lot more pressure. There's a lot of money and it's a harder, it's a harder sell.

But I love Sony and we have a great relationship. We're trying to figure what the future is. But it's not easy. It's not like, “Oh, let's do another Hotel T,” which we are. That’s a much easier sell as long as you have a good story. And then in the TV space, of course, there’s more Primal, there's some other stuff that might come up, I hope, that's equally as exciting in a whole different way. So, the future is very robust right now. I mean, I'm working more than I ever have, just at home. I'm being super productive. I think I've done almost three hours of storyboarding this year.

DS: Wow. That’s quite a lot of boards.

GT: Yeah, but it's so fun. Everything is coming out easier. I don't know if it's just from my ripe old age, experience, or whatever. It's just more fun. I used to struggle with the drawing and I still do, but not as much. There's nothing like being creatively stifled. Like, I can’t draw this hand in this particular way. That used to ruin my day. Not anymore. So, the future is looking great. There are more originals on their way. And that's really all I can hope for. Unless something magical comes my way, I'm going to stick to my own ideas. There’s so much more that I want to do, so many different types of ideas and stories I want to tell.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

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