featured Interview

Interview: Genndy Tartakovsky Goes ‘Primal’

October 7, 2019Ben MK

Known for kid-friendly shows like Dexter's Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls, Genndy Tartakovsky should be a name familiar to cartoon fans. A 25-year veteran of the animation industry, the 49-year-old has also worked on such genre favorites as Samurai Jack, Star Wars: Clone Wars, and, most recently, the Hotel Transylvania film trilogy. Now, Tartakovsky is back on the small screen with his latest passion project — an epic, limited-run series titled Primal that's aimed squarely at adult audiences.

I caught up with Genndy Tartakovsky to chat about Primal, which follows the action-packed adventures of a caveman named Spear and a T-Rex named Fang, an unlikely duo who find themselves teaming up to take on one prehistoric adversary after another, after fate throws them together.

I haven't seen anything quite like Primal before. Can you tell me more about how the project originated?

Tartakovsky: It started off actually as a very different show that I was developing about 8 years ago. It started with a little kid riding with a dinosaur, and it never came together so I just kind of put it aside. Then a few years ago, I did the final season of Samurai Jack, which was on Adult Swim, and the reaction was really great. It was more intense, more serious, and everybody reacted really strongly to all of the visceral sequences without dialogue. And then I thought, "Wow, can I actually make a show that is just made up of all of these sequences?" Then I remembered my little caveman and dinosaur idea, and I started to put the two together and, organically, Primal came out of that.

Aside from the subject matter, how did you set out to differentiate Primal from your past animated projects, like Samurai Jack and Clone Wars?

Tartakovsky: I think it's a different style and also the tone is probably the biggest difference. Where in Samurai Jack the tone fluctuated through each episode — sometimes you get a sillier episode, sometimes you get more of a serious episode — in Primal, it's a little bit more consistent. Everything's pretty hardcore and intense, and it stays like that for the whole series. And of course, there's no dialogue, it's a different style of storytelling. It's trying to be very visceral, very moody, and gets you to really feel it.

Speaking of the lack of dialogue, what are some of the pros and cons, for you, of telling a story in that manner?

Tartakovsky: Initially, we were coming up with stories that were very simple — they had some emotion, some complexity, but a little simpler. And then we realized, once we started storyboarding and these things started to come alive, [that] we can get a lot more complexity of emotion and thought. Then we started to do stories that [had a] beginning, middle and end, and a lot more complexity; very conditional stories, still with no dialogue, and a lot of emotionality and tragedy and stuff. So what we thought was gonna perhaps be a deterrent was actually a pro.

Did that affect how you went about developing and storyboarding each episode? Since almost everything has to be conveyed visually?

Tartakovsky: Absolutely. The thing is it wasn't strange at all, because we've done it so much — from some sequences in Dexter's Laboratory to The Powerpuff Girls. There's a lot of sequences we did in Clone Wars episodes where there wasn't a lot of talking, and in Samurai Jack, where we have multiple scenes and sequences with no talking. It was very comfortable to do it — the question was, now it's every single one, and also, are we gonna miss the dialogue.

The [lack of] dialogue definitely drives the way you stage it and the way you tell the story, and the sequences that you choose and what happens. And it was really great, it made it, in some cases, very poetic. It was kind of cool to use that muscle that we really haven't done a lot [with] before. Cuz sometimes we're so used to hearing people talk, and for a little while I was actually a little nervous about it. But once we put in the music and the sound effects and the voice of the dinosaur, then it really started to come alive. And I didn't miss the dialogue at all at that point.

Were there any TV shows, movies or comics that inspired you, in terms of the tone, the character design, and the general look of the show?

Tartakovsky: We're kids from the '70s, so we're influenced by that — something like Heavy Metal magazine, Moebius, [Frank] Frazetta, of course, for the sci-fi illustrations. We really wanted to see if we could make a Frazetta painting come alive, in a way. Even though it doesn't look like Frazetta, there's this element in our translation [that] to us feels like that.

One of the biggest influences, story-wise, was actually the old Robert E. Howard pulp novels. I discovered them probably 5 or 6 years ago — being a big Conan fan, actually — and they were so amazing because you kind of just drop in and [Conan] was just walking down in the desert and something comes up and he's gotta deal with it. They're short stories, and I really liked the feel of that, so I wanted to do the same thing. You drop in, something's happening, and our characters have to find their way out of it.

Speaking of which, it seems like the enemies our two heroes face over the course of the series — from Wooly Mammoths to a giant spider — just get bigger, more vicious and more creative as the show goes on. Can you speak a bit about how you came up with these creatures?

Tartakovsky: As soon as you start doing stuff in the prehistoric world, instantly there's iconic things that you want to use and you have to use, typically. And so that came naturally. But as episodes progressed, it did become more otherworldly and more sci-fi. Right from the get-go, as soon as you put man and dinosaur together, you're in the sci-fi world. There's nothing realistic about it. [laughs] And so we just started to build from there.

There's this escalation once we get through some dinosaur issues and first mammal type things, then we start opening it up to more fantasy ideas — the crazy man-bat things and the spider. And by the way, it gets crazier and crazier after that, too. [laughs] But we just let it naturally develop; and, usually, when I develop a new show, the first thing I do once I have the concept worked out, roughly, is I'll write out 10 episode ideas, just to see if the concept is viable and if I can quickly come up with ideas. That for me has been the test, if I have something that could work. And I think I almost wrote down all the ideas that we're doing. [laughs]

What do you have in store for the future of Primal? And what are you working on next?

Tartakovsky: We're doing 10 episodes right now, and so the first 5 are confirmed. And then I think 5 more will be next year sometime. Then I've got a couple movies in development with Sony that are slowly developing, and we'll see what happens.

Last but not least, what advice would you give to someone hoping to break into the animation industry?

Tartakovsky: Nowadays, there's so much being made, that it kind of depends. If you're a storyteller and you have stories to tell, then really try to find your voice and present your ideas where it can clearly communicate what you wanna do and what you have to say. Otherwise, the advice I would give is you gotta learn how to draw and get really good and comfortable with it. Not just draw the way you draw, but try to see if you can draw in other styles. Because most of the time, you'll get hired to draw a show, and so you wanna be adaptable a bit.

When I was coming up, we still had do to it on paper and shoot on film and all that stuff, and it was inaccessible. Nowadays, there's tons of programs on the computer — a lot of them for free, even, especially if you're younger — to do your own animation. So if I was like 14 or 15 or 16, I would be drawing like crazy and animating. Animate little, stupid short films, and who knows. My student film became Dexter's Laboratory, which I never planned it to be. I wasn't planning for it to become a series when I was doing it, I was just doing it to animate a girl dancing, really. [laughs] So right now the advice is to just make stuff, and you never know what's gonna happen.

Primal airs October 7th-11th at midnight on Adult Swim.

You May Also Like