Animator and director Genndy Tartakovsky already has a string of well-known credits to his name, like Samurai Jack, Star Wars: Clone Wars, Dexter’s Laboratory and the Hotel Transylvania films. His latest, prehistoric action tale Primal, hits Adult Swim this week — and we got the chance to talk to him about it.
The show — about a caveman and a dinosaur, fighting to survive as both an Odd Couple-esque duo and a deadly fighting team in the harshest environment imaginable — has a slightly unusual structure; it’ll be airing each night this week, with more to come next year.
“We have 10 episodes total,” Tartakovsky explained. “Because we could only have five ready this year, we decided to release these five, and then the next set is next year.”
Will Primal return for more, after its first 10 episodes? Tartakovsky hopes so: “So far it’s been received very positively, and I think the network is being very supportive. At the same time, we haven’t gotten ratings and all that good stuff in yet, so we’ll see — but I think everybody’s very excited about the show.”
We got a chance to check out the first four episodes of Primal ahead of our interview with Tartakovsky, but won’t be getting into plot specifics at all — other than to say you won’t want to miss this wonderful, brutal, totally unique new series.
Eddy: What was the initial spark of inspiration for Primal? What made you want to explore this world and these specific characters?
Genndy Tartakovsky: I wanted to do something different, especially after doing the last season of Samurai Jack and doing something more adult. I really enjoyed it. There’s things that we have to do for family audiences that are sometimes limiting. You know, as much variety as we’ve done, sometimes you kind of feel like you’re holding back. Because the last season of Samurai Jack was received so well, and everybody kind of talked about the visual sequences — the sequences without any dialogue — it kind of came into my mind, like, could I actually just do those sequences? Can I tell a story that way, and can I make a series like that? I started to get excited about that idea because it’s so new and different for me.
At the same time, I’d been playing around with this boy riding a little dinosaur idea that I had for a long time. None of the stories that I had were clicking with it, and then when this started to come together, I realised, “Oh, I could do something really different.” So the two thoughts met, and I updated my idea to be much more adult and gritty and more pulpy.
Eddy: Since not incorporating dialogue was the plan from the start, did you encounter any pushback to the idea at all?
Tartakovsky: It’s been nothing but support. I think if anybody questioned it, it was me, because when we were putting together the first episode, when we started to get sequences in and edit it together without any music or sound effects, I was watching it and I started to get nervous. I started to think, “Wait, are people going to miss the dialogue because we’re so used to it? You see a character, why isn’t he saying anything?”
But then once we started to fill in with the sound effects and the music, and him screaming and grunting — so we know he can talk, he just doesn’t know how — then it filled in those missing gaps and everything was working great. One of the greatest things that came from it was that people felt like they had to really pay attention. That’s what you want, you want people to be completely dialed in and not on their phones or anything. Just watching the show.
Eddy: Primal is set in a fantasy version of past — obviously, since it shows dinosaurs and humans together — but did you still end up doing any kind of scientific research going into the show?
Tartakovsky: It’s not reality, of course. But at the same time, while it’s a fantasy world, we do a lot of things that are realistic. Even though the crutch of the science is completely made up, we tried to do real anatomy, we tried to do some more historical things. But at the end of the day, yeah, it’s science fiction for sure.
It’s fantasy, it’s pulp, it’s our caveman Conan, whatever that means. It has more of that than anything else. We wanted it to be fun and dark and different in tone than what you’ve seen in that past — that was a big goal, to have some kind of different experience.
Eddy: The show does an incredible job balancing these huge, life-or-death action sequences with funny and sometimes even sweet moments. There’s even a poop joke at one point! How did you set about finding the right tone to support that emotional balance?
Tartakovsky: It was challenging! I’m actually not a very violent person — I don’t like gore and guts and horror. I’m actually kind of a softie. So we wanted the intensity that you get from that, but at the same time, we wanted it to be a character story.
At the end of the day, if this show succeeds, I think it will be because of the relationship — we wanted this man and beast relationship, not like specifically a man and dog, where the man controls the dog, but kind of equals. How did these two creatures who share a very similar tragedy, how does that bond them to be together and help them survive this horrific world?
And yet I’m so happy you’re saying that [it’s also funny and tender]. It’s kind of hard to sell that emotion in a trailer, so we made the trailers very intense and violent. But there’s a lot of heart and emotion, and the more you connect with these characters and the more you see how much they care for each other, the more intense the violence is going to be. That’s what’s exciting: We’re doing something a little different and not just violence for violence’s sake, because we can.
Eddy: You mentioned a man and his dog, but did you have any other specific inspirations behind the relationship between the caveman and the dinosaur?
Tartakovsky: It’s really my dog, in a way. I have this giant St. Bernard and she is a terror, and she doesn’t listen, and we love her so much. But there’s a lot of little things that she does that — I think a lot of animals do, it’s not just completely dog-specific. I definitely mined a lot of that feeling from our relationship.
You know, we’ve always talked about doing things that the audience finds accessible. On Dexter’s Lab, it was the brother-sister relationship — that’s what we kind of got right. So for this, we needed a relationship to hang everything else on. These two animals, to a degree, have to find a way to survive together — and myself and [my dog] have to find a way to survive together [laughs], so there’s a lot of little nuances that we picked up on and put it into the show.
Eddy: Based on a certain campfire scene on Primal, I’m guessing your dog might snore.
Tartakovsky: She soooo snores [laughs].
Eddy: Now that we’ve acknowledged the more tender moments on Primal — there also are tons of fight scenes, and they’re all so intense. What kind of planning went into those sequences?
Tartakovsky: It’s funny because we’ve done so many fights through Samurai Jack and Clone Wars and Sym-Bionic Titan, it’s kind of become somewhat second nature. Like, if you were to ask me what was the most challenging thing, it wouldn’t be the action.
In this case, the hardest thing about the fights was to come up with a new fighting style. I didn’t want to do martial arts, I didn’t want [the caveman character] to seem like he’s got kung fu training with a spear. I wanted it to be very brutal, very ape-like.
So, I did look at some apes fighting and mannerisms — the more intense things get, the more on-all-fours he gets, and walks and fights more like a gorilla. You wanted it to have that individuality that’s very specific to him. So that was one of the little challenging things.
The bigger thing was, “Oh my god, I’ve never drawn a T-rex before. I’ve never drawn a T-rex fighting.” That’s a whole new thing; she uses her mouth, her feet. Those are all new things for a creature to use, and that brought in some fresh things that we could storyboard and mess around with.
I’ve always treated action as a musical sequence. It’s got rhythm, it’s got highs and lows, it’s got fast and slow parts. That kind of dictates the way we go with it. And the fights are fun — that’s the great thing about it! It wasn’t just another samurai fight with a sword that we’ve done so much. It was completely unique: A hundred raptors chasing them and then fighting while they’re running was super difficult to do, but at the same time super fun.
Eddy: Just to pull out something you brought up just now. Primal doesn’t go out of its way to confirm that the dinosaur is female, but it’s implied...
Tartakovsky: Yeah, I mean I think it’s something that you can infer. It felt more interesting as a female and a male together. It made it one level more interesting because she’s a mother, she has lost; he’s a father, he has lost. And now the two are together.
Eddy: What artwork inspired you and your team when you were designing the look of the show?
Tartakovsky: Scott Wills is the one who does all the painting, and Christian Schellewald does all the drawing. Basically, Christian draws almost like kind of a Moebius-y style where it’s much more illustrative. Even though he’s worked in animation for a long time, his background is much more illustration. So that brings right away a different mindset to the way he composes.
It makes it a little bit more “him” — it’s just the way he draws, really. That’s when you really know you’ve struck gold, is when you find somebody with such a unique style that you just want to do their style. So he’s amazing.
And then when Scott and I were talking about what Primal is going to look like, we’re both ‘70s kids, and so we love the grittiness of the ‘70s, the cinema of the ‘70s, and the sci-fi paintings. Of course Frank Frazetta is a huge influence for both of us, so we looked at a lot of his paintings. That was always the gold standard: How could you make a Frank Frazetta painting come alive? They’re so beautiful and iconic and there’s so much to it.
So Scott started to develop this look, working with Christian’s background, and how the two were going to blend together. At the same time, we knew we didn’t want to just repeat what we’d done in Jack — we wanted to push further for the world to come alive and to define itself under Primal. We referred everything to the title of the show to make sure it’s the rawest and most savage that it can be, or the simplest.
That started to really come together like that, and we also looked at a lot of sci-fi illustrations, paintings, and of course some of the Ralph Bakshi stuff. We wanted this gritty, not-clean, textural linework, very drawn show. And then when we started the character design, it fell into place.
The initial character designs I was doing were much more [Osamu] Tezuka-influenced, they kind of looked more like Astro Boy. Like a man version of Astro Boy. And I realised, “Yeah, that’s too derivative, number one, and it just doesn’t feel like it fits any more with the direction that we’re going.” So then myself and Stephen DeStefano started doing these drawing that are much grittier, more comic book-y illustrations.
There’s a very big mould for animation, for the way you can do things, and a lot of animation designs start to blend together. So we wanted to kind of push away a little bit. There’s a certain familiarity with what we end up with, but at the same time, it’s a little bit unique to itself.
Eddy: The episode titles read a bit over the top, but once you see them in context they are perfect. My favourite is the genuinely scary “Terror Under the Blood Moon”! You mentioned earlier that you’re not a big horror fan, but did you always know you wanted to do a horror episode?
Tartakovsky: For sure. There’s sometimes a fine line between horror and monster movie, and I like when I’m doing horror, I just don’t like watching horror. I like thrillers — I like the suspense, versus just the cheap scare around the corner. It’s funny that you mention the titles because they’re the most pulpy, cheesy thing about it, but that’s what gives it its framework, and because the show is, I think, honest to what it’s trying to do, it kind of connects.
And yeah, that episode, the fourth episode was titled “The Killing Fields” because they’re just in this field of terror. And then Scott painted this red moon, and I was like “Oh yeah! Blood moon.” And it changed the framework of the episode, which was great.
We’re all trying to tell the same story, either with colour or with music or with visuals or with action. And that’s the amazing part of it, once you watch episodes five through 10, they’re completely different than the first four. Each one has its palette, each one has its own unique story, and that’s what I think is fun about the show.
Primal kicked off its special five-night event on America's Cartoon Network this week, but an Australian release date has not yet been confirmed.