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‘Primal’: Genndy Tartakovsky Made a Fresh New Adventure Story That Sounds as Stunning as It Looks

Indian elephants, Bruce Lee movies, and the director's own lost "Popeye" movie all led to the sensory elements that make this one of the year's best animated stories.

Primal Adult Swim

Adult Swim

The characters in Genndy Tartakovsky’s latest animated series “Primal” don’t have dialogue. But as the creator and director explains, there’s something else missing from “Primal” that sets it apart.

“We definitely didn’t want to do a main villain. In this subject matter, it goes cliche super fast,” Tartakovsky told IndieWire. “In my first, early iteration, I thought, ‘Well, maybe halfway through the season when you need to introduce something besides just nature or normal world danger.’ And so I had this Pharaoh character. But it was like instantly ‘10,000 BC’ or ‘Stargate’ or you can name five movies that have done stuff like that. I really tried to go against the grain as far as what’s been done in this genre, and try to find original takes on it.”

So instead, “Primal” takes the traditional antagonist role and spreads it out over all that nature has to offer. The series’ two main characters — a human named Spear and a dinosaur named Fang — learn to not only coexist in this harsh prehistoric world, but to use their respective skills to help each other overcome all the challenges that nature puts in their way.

That process also creates something of a viewer-centered conflict, too. Although some of the creatures that Spear and Fang encounter in their travels feel like predators sent from an adjacent dimension, there’s a significant portion of others that could be the heroes of their own show. Episode 3 of the series also follows a herd of mammoths who face their own mortality.

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Primal Trailer Genndy Tartakovsky

“When you watch a nature show, that’s the hardest thing for people to watch. You’ve got an amazing, beautiful polar bear and then you have a baby seal and for one to survive the other must die. And that’s the best storytelling, better than a villain. Better than somebody to root for. You have to root for both. And it’s tragic. I’ve never really done anything like that to a degree, and it was exciting to try to tell that type of story,” Tartakovsky said.

There’s also something exciting about the idea of putting a man and a dinosaur together, a fantastical premise that could get comical really quickly. Tartakovsky said that he and the storyboarding teams worked together to make sure that this relationship stayed equal, without resorting to more cartoonish conventions.

“I didn’t want the man to dominate the beast cause in this case they’re almost kind of both beasts,” Tartakovsky said. “The number one task was to develop the language for Fang. You have to feel what she’s saying, but not go Scooby-Doo on it. Keep it in a very semi-realistic execution. Animals don’t emote clearly, and we give her the subtlest of expressions, but it was really hard not to give her more.”

To fill in some of those dialogue gaps, much of what makes that relationship feel level and grounded comes just as much from what the audience hears as it is what it sees. The lone series regular voice cast member is Aaron LaPlante, who turns Spear’s basic verbal communication into something incredibly expressive. When Tartakovsky was developing an animated feature film version of “Popeye,” LaPlante had worked on providing reference tracks for the Bluto character. Even though the full project never came to fruition, Tartakovsky was so taken with LaPlante’s work on that project that he went to the actor for a new recording process.

“Usually on ‘Samurai Jack’ or ‘Dexter’s [Laboratory],’ we’d record the voices first and then animate to the voices. In this case, I truly wanted it to be silent and I wanted all the timing and everything to come from the drawings. After we finished the episode, I’d bring Aaron in and then he’d do ADR over the picture that’s already finished. He matches our lip sync that we’ve come up with for the grunts or the breathing or the screaming,” Tartakovsky said.

Finding that same depth for the series’ animal creatures — friendly and otherwise — meant approaching that task in a similar, unconventional way. Joel Valentine, the sound designer on “Primal,” worked to create a a tapestry of animal sounds that mixed together the real world and something more distinctly heightened.

Primal Adult Swim Fang

“I’ve worked with Joel since the days of ‘Dexter.’ He’s got an amazing library and he knows how to blend sounds together to make them something very unique,” Tartakovsky said. “For the fourth episode he went outside the norm and he found these vocal monster libraries that were done in the ’60s or something in Germany. He was able to buy the license and use horrific, shriek-y screams. Even for the mastodon episode, he found this library where some guy started a Kickstarter and then went to India to record elephant sounds for a year. He bought that library, and was able to use it. So all the mastodon sounds are so much more than what’s out there that a lot of people are using. I think we’re taking the extra effort for everything to make it sound unique and specific.”

With as much violence and ruthlessness in the DNA of “Primal,” the natural product of that fighting is plenty of bloodshed. Tartakovsky’s style is one that frequently takes liberties with movement, size, and color, so finding the right shade to make the viewer feel the impact of that blood, while still present it in an artistic way, was its own distinct challenge.

“In the ink and paint stage, the colors are filled in over the background for us to get our first glance to make sure everything’s working. The blood was just colored a generic red, but it was almost fluorescent in its raw state. Scott Wills, our production designer, looked at each other and said, ‘Yeah, maybe this is too much, but maybe we do need to make a statement,'” Tartakovsky said. “It’s nice, because this is pulp and there’s something fantastical about it. It’s to give credit to ’70s cinema or the old martial arts films or the samurai movies I used to watch. That’s how blood used to be. Even in the old Bruce Lee movies, the blood was brighter than ketchup. So it makes such a statement that we picked a very nice, strong red and went for it.”

Though “Primal” may have taken slightly different storytelling approaches, Tartakovsky sees this as a continuation of a thematic throughline in a lot of his work. Last month, Adult Swim screened “Primal” at the Downtown Independent in Los Angeles, making it Oscar-eligible. Regardless of awards prospects, Tartakovsky seems like he’s ready to forge a new trail in his career.

“There may be more episodes of ‘Primal.’ We’ll see how the reaction is. We want to make sure we finish everything we want to say. After we finish, I have to find something different, because, like even with ‘[Samurai] Jack,’ there’s a certain ‘Conan the Barbarian’ quality to everything, right? Drifting through strange lands and fighting strange creatures. I feel like I’ve kind of done enough of this period, whatever you want to call this. So I think whatever’s next, I gotta jump ahead somewhere to some other time period,” Tartakovsky said. “I’ve always loved gangsters and stuff, so maybe there’s something in that. I don’t know. I always say I feel like my career is just starting in a way.”

“Primal” airs through Friday on Adult Swim. 

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