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Genndy Tartakovsky on ‘Primal,’ the Evolution of His Animation, and CG’s Homogenizing Effect

TV’s most boundary pushing animator discussed how the wordless challenges of "Primal" deepened with the second-half of Season 1.

"Primal"

“Primal”

Adult Swim

Animation

Roaring through the screen, the first season of Genndy Tartakovsky’s ferocious animated series “Primal,” released in two parts between 2019 and 2020, tracks the prehistoric mishaps of Spear, an early man, and a female Tyrannosaurus known as Fang. Completely devoid of dialogue, the project thrives solely on the shrewdness of its cinematic imagery.

The artfully gruesome concept took shape following the more mature Season 5 of “Samurai Jack,” which was produced for Adult Swim. Overwhelmingly positive reactions to Tartakovsky and his team’s use of sequences propelled not by words but powerfully pointed visuals, got the animation maverick wondering if he could sustain a whole half-hour program with the same narrative constraints.

Enticed by the challenge, he unearthed one of his older ideas centering a boy and a dinosaur, and realized if he aged up the human character it could potentially serve as a gripping vehicle to explore raw violence. 10 initial episodes were developed from Tartakovsky’s ideas, each one increasing the difficulty of the complex themes and situations he would need to convey without words.

“We kept the stories a little bit more simpler in the beginning, but then once we got into the second half we got more complex,” Tartakovsky told Indiewire in a recent interview. “We realized the more we did it, the more confidence we got in that visual storytelling.” Last year the first part earned three individual achievement Emmys, and now Episode 7 “Plague of Madness” is a contender in the 2021 field of Outstanding Animated Program nominees.

Working on the adult programming block of Cartoon Network for the final installment of the “Samurai Jack” opened the door for the artist to dabble into more graphic brutality. But he knew the tone of the show couldn’t change drastically, thus he chose not to make it gratuitous.

“We had free range to do pretty much do whatever we wanted, but we didn’t want violence to be the star,” said Tartakovsky. “We still wanted the characters to shine over the violence, which as hardcore as it gets sometimes, it’s still within the storytelling that we’re doing.”

"Primal"

“Primal”

Adult Swim

Aesthetically, Tartakovsky and art director Scott Will decided to keep the line work visible in “Primal” to differentiate it from their collaboration on “Samurai Jack,” where all marks from the hand-drawn process were rendered out. They were after a gritty 1970s look, influenced in part by the film “Heavy Metal,” one of the few successful R-rated animated features. Testament to the care put into its creation, a film version reformatted from the series’ first four episodes, titled “Primal: Tales of Savagery,” received a limited theatrical released and qualified for the 92nd Academy Awards as Best Animated Feature.

Tartakovsky storyboarded nearly all the episodes himself. He admittedly use to struggle with drawing, but after 30 years of doing these early renditions on his own, his speed and accuracy to communicate the elements of a scene have sharply evolved. For this specific venture, he originated them to preserve his idiosyncrasy.

“It felt like the way the Japanese have their system set up for anime, where the episode director does the storyboard,” said Tartakovsky. “I really liked that because it provides more of a singular vision for the show. With ‘Primal,’ I wanted to try it.”

Thinking back to the first “Hotel Transylvania” movie he directed, Tartakovsky remembers it was difficult for him to work with 3DCG because the extreme detail represented a major distraction. He would instead close his eyes and imagine the scene in 2D. From that more familiar vantage point he could better see the mistakes. Eventually he got more comfortable with the CG process, but his mind still functions with a handcrafted sensibility.

“What’s great about drawings is that they are very personal, among all the people that are animating, everybody animates it a little bit different,” he explained. “We all draw the characters subtly different and that gives it an organic look. It’s not perfect, but it’s very real and crafted. It’s done with somebody’s hands. CG is great work but it homogenizes everything. It makes everything look very the same.”

Tartakovsky prefers works where he can notice how each artist added their personal touch to a charter, one of his favorite examples of such phenomenon are Bugs Bunny cartoons.

"Primal" Season 1, Episode 7 "Plague of Madness"

“Primal” Season 1, Episode 7 “Plague of Madness”

Adult Swim

Curiously, one of the episodes the creator didn’t storyboard himself was “Plague of Madness,” which earned the show its current Emmy nomination. David Krentz, also a paleontology enthusiast with encyclopedic knowledge on dinosaurs, visually conceived this installment of Spear and Fang’s adventure. Aside from the major creative liberty of having a cavemen and dinosaurs interact, Krentz ensured the tale’s historical accuracy.

For “Plague of Madness,” character designer Erika Worthylake – in charge of the massive beasts throughout most of the series – was tasked with creating an Argentinosaurus infected by a virus that turns it rabid and melts its flesh away as it hunts down the protagonists.

“We wanted it to look gross, but somehow still appealing,” said Tartakovsky. “It sounds weird to say, but there’s some kind of a charm in all the disease and grossness. There’s always an artistry to it.” At first glance, the plot works as a 22-minute primitive zombie movie, but underneath the perilous chase the creator sought to embed the chapter with tragic undertones. The dinosaur-turned-monster was innocent and he’s lost control of his behavior, as he inches closer to death with each step.

“For a while, I thought that this was too subtle and that people wouldn’t pick up on it, but it actually really resonated with audiences,” said Tartakovsky. “Out of most of the episodes, this one always came up as a favorite.” Late in the process, once production on the episode had started, he introduced a nightmarish dream sequence, in which Spear believes he and Fang have contracted the disease, providing intellectual gravity to the character’s ordeal.

Given its multiple components, the final showdown between the blameless villain and the leading duo, amid exploding lava pits, required great ingenuity. Tartakovsky recalled that at first the pitch of a decomposing dinosaur running after a caveman and his short-armed companion while dodging the fire sounded like a joke about something impossible to achieve. But the team found their way in, first in Krentz’s drawings and later in the cumulative construction of the production design and the artists animating the action.

Although “Plague of Madness” was ambitions in the magnitude of the confrontations, Tartakovsky noted that it wasn’t the most difficult narratively complicated piece in the first season. Episode 8, “Coven of the Damned,” earned that title as it reveals Spear and Fang’s respective origin stories based on the facial expressions and physical acting of the figures. Such subtly of emotion, without spoken language, entailed a creative feat.

"Primal"

“Primal”

Adult Swim

Looking ahead at Season 2, to be comprised of 10 new episodes, Tartakovsky believed it’s going to “blow people’s minds” because they are trying to push the world, visually and thematically, in a direction that he hasn’t tried before with any of his other undertakings. Fans can rest assured, however, that Spear and Fang will endure the reinvention.

“The thing that I’m the proudest about is that people, while they respond to the violence and to all this stuff that’s on the surface, at the end of the day they really have grown to like these two characters who are kind of an unusual pair,” he concluded.

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