With a resume that includes the likes of Dexter’s Lab, Samurai Jack, Symbionic Titan, and Hotel Transylvania, Genndy Tartakovsky has built a career out of animation that has defined several childhoods. An animator with a distinct style of pacing and storytelling, Tartakovsky’s latest project Primal is a more brutal experience that combines everything that has come before, into a dialogue-free experience that is emotionally complex.
Plus it has a savage caveman beating the snot out of prehistoric dangers with a trusty theropod ally by his side. Primal is bloody, unrelenting, and merciless content, but at the same time it’s one of the most beautiful animated series ever created, a masterstroke of incredible timing, edge of your seat action sequences and prehistoric tourism.
New episodes are on the way, and if you’ve got a Showmax subscription, boy are you in for a treat! I got the chance to pop a few questions to Tartakovsky about the series. Here’s what he had to say.
How much more complex is it to tell a story on an almost purely visual level, when every line or even the subtle use of certain colours will have a massive impact on the narrative? I’m imagining countless nights just so that you could get a scene just right.
It’s funny because we’ve been doing this for a while. We’ve always had more visceral and visual scenes, some on Samurai Jack, some on Clone Wars, and this is an extension of it. So I was very comfortable doing it, but you have to trust yourself and trust the audience that they’re going to understand. At the end of the day, it’s all very abstract. What we tried to do is be clear, but at the same time because it is for adults, there is a layer of grey.
When we doing the kids shows, we had to be black and white about everything. With this, you can linger on Spear’s expressions, the subtlety becomes heightened.
Going from shaping 90s kids entertainment to the R-rated Primal today, Is there a difference to how you approach things within animation lately?
When I was younger and doing Dexter, I really didn’t know what I was doing! We were all young, we were all going at it and you know that you were making a show for kids, teens or adults so you have to do it for the appropriate audience. Besides the subject matter, I really try not to think about who the Primal audience is, because I don’t really know.
I don’t know what you like, and as soon as I start shaping the stories that I do for a certain type of person, I feel like it loses the sincerity of what I’m trying to say. I’ve been really fortunate with the stuff that I’ve been doing has been working with different audiences. I’m just making entertainment, and if it’s funny, dramatic or emotional, I try to do it as sincerely and as truthful as possible because it comes from the heart because it’s the stories that I want to tell.
During the development of Primal, did you toy around with different art styles before settling on the final look and feel of the series? It has a more traditional look to it, but did you ever consider going for a full CG approach like your work on Hotel Transylvania?
It was always going to be drawings. As much fun as the stuff we were doing with Hotel Transylvania was, in my heart I love drawing. I love 2D animation, I love how it looks and feels. We definitely messed around with the art style, but in the 3D medium. Computer animation for TV is really expensive to make it look good like a feature film. I didn’t want to do a cheap version of that.
We did play around with different aesthetics for 2D, and we were more cartoony at first. And slowly as it became more R-rated, we realised we needed a little bit more of a sophisticated look and so the story and the feel started to shape the language of the design.
How do you and your team craft the more energetic sequences? They have a tremendous amount of energy to them, but at the same time there’s such a thrilling flow and cadence at play here with multiple elements. Both visually and on the audio side. How is such an idea developed?
So what I’ll do first is write down some ideas, see where I’m going, what I want to do, what I want to feature. As I start composing it, very quickly and almost in real time with these very scratchy doodles, it’s like I’m writing music. I keep sketching it and pitching it back in real-time until I develop the right rhythm. Once I have it, I’ll start drawing it more for real. That’s my approach for it.
One of the things I really enjoyed about Primal, was how it takes its time with its story, and allows the viewer to really soak in all the beautiful visuals that have been created. It’s something that cartoon series rarely do and I often feel like all this fantastic artwork produced along the way is seen for a second and then we’re on to the next scene. Was it an early decision during the production of Primal, to create these slower-paced segments, and allow the storytelling to unfold at this pace?
It’s a lesson I’ve been learning through the years, which started on Samurai Jack, Dexter’s Lab, and Powerpuff Girls. We were trying to do snappy-snap quick and tight work, as quick as we could do it. When we started Samurai Jack, I hired this artist, Scott Wills, who did all the painting and colour. His artwork was so beautiful, that in a way I felt guilty moving off of it so fast.
The tone and the feel for Samurai Jack started to shift, and I realised “Why am I in a hurry?”. I want to enjoy this artwork, I want to create a mood. When I watch a lot of 70s cinema, they really linger, they really let the story unfold at a slower pace that’s really interesting to look at. As long as the visuals we are creating are interesting, I feel like people will really be sucked in more and they can appreciate the art.
Primal is the next extension of that.
You can catch Primal (and its new block of episodes soon!) on Showmax right now.
Last Updated: October 15, 2020