Genndy Tartakovsky on ‘Primal’, His Brutal New Adult Swim Event Series

     October 7, 2019

Tonight at midnight on Adult Swim, Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal will emerge from the mists of time to absolutely savage everything you’ve ever held near and/or dear about cartoons. (Yeah and that’s the official title now that Nic Cage has gone and gummed up the works with his similarly named kidnapped jaguar movie.) This five-night epic event series tells the tale of Spear, a prehistoric caveman, and Fang, a lone dinosaur on the brink of extinction. They’re forced into an uneasy partnership in order to work together and survive the kill-or-be-killed world they inhabit, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.

We’ve teased out some of our interview with Genndy Tartakovsky, along with our review on the last episode of our Saturday Mourning Cartoons animation podcast, but we wanted to bring you the full chat below. He talked about the original idea for Primal, telling the story without relying on dialogue, and finding the sound for both of the lead characters and the wild world they inhabit. And while we had an update on Hotel Transylvania 4 from Tartakovsky, it was frequent Collider contributor Rafael Motamayor who got the scoop that Primal actually consists of 10 episodes; the remaining 5 are expected to air next year. Stay tuned.

Check out our full interview with Tartakovsky below and be sure to tune in to Adult Swim tonight at midnight for the premiere of Primal!


Image via Adult Swim

How long has the idea for Primal been on your mind? And how did it all come into being?

Genndy Tartakovsky: Well, I’ve had it for a while. I think, it’s got to be like almost eight or 10 years ago where I started first drawing, actually this little kid with the big hair on a little T-Rex. And the two were kind of just traveling around and trying to survive against different obstacles. And it was like a normal kid show for like 6 to 11, like a Dexter style. And it kind of didn’t click for me. And I always believe in when an idea wants to be made, it’s really going to yell at me and it’ll keep getting better and better that there’s no denying it to come into existence. But at that iteration of it, it just kind of wasn’t, I guess maybe special enough.

So later on I still was doodling with it. And then I started drawing it kind of in almost like a [Osamu] Tezuka-type of Astro Boy style, but more the kid was now a man. And then really things started to change when I started doing the last season of Samurai Jack, for Adult Swim for adults, more mature tones, more sophisticated storytelling, deeper emotions, darkness, all that stuff. And then I thought… And then the reaction to Jack was so strong, and was really strong to the visceral non-dialogue sequences. Right?

And so I thought, can I tell a story in a series with just these sequences? And then I was like, “Right, I’ve got that one idea about the caveman and dinosaur. Cavemen don’t talk.” And then everything started to come together. And then I kind of as an exercise I boarded the first episode as like a pilot. And I was like, “Right. No, this could be something.” And after we finished Jack, my boss Mike Lazzo goes, “What’s next?” And I go, “Well, I’ve got this thing.” And I pitched him the storyboard. And he totally got it. And that was it. And then we were kind of off and running.


Image via Adult Swim

Would you consider Primal experimental? Would you describe it that way?

Tartakovsky: I definitely wouldn’t. No. I am definitely not an experimental film maker. I want the mass audience to watch and like something. I want the biggest success possible. At the same time I want to do something new. I definitely don’t want to just redo something or make something because I feel it’s going to be successful. Or it’s in the like, “Oh, Cowboys are popular now. So let’s do a cowboy show.” I want it to be sincere. And so experimental, I think isn’t the right word. But definitely pushing ourselves, trying to push the boundaries of storytelling, and visuals, and the way we can do something and tell a certain story and surprise people. I think that’s kind of more of the driving factor rather than to do something safe and expected. Because that’s exciting for us too as filmmakers. What if we try these two colors together? What if we try this type of story but end it this way? You always want to surprise the audience because it just makes for better viewing.

You mentioned that you played with the idea of minimal dialogue, letting the imagery and the action tell the story in Samurai Jack. What particular challenges did you face in kind of taking that idea to the max for Primal?

Tartakovsky: Well, it’s interesting because when we started, it sounded like a great idea in the beginning. And then as we started to get the first episode kind of executed, I started to… And this is before sound effects, before music, where it was just picture.

I started to get worried like, “Oh, I never thought of this. But are people going to miss the dialogue?” Because we’re so used to it. Is it an element you’re going to miss? And I started to really all of a sudden have doubts like, “Did I make a huge mistake?” But then once we started to fill it in with sound effects and music, and then him just screaming and breathing. So there is vocals coming out.

That’s when everything started to come together and that fear started to go away. And I realized it’s not any kind of negative, it’s actually going to be a positive, and it’s what’s going to help us even stand out.


Image via Adult Swim

I love it as a viewer because it’s something different, so it automatically grabs your attention, and because it really forces you, as the creator, to come up with new ways to tell the story and get that message across. I really have to pay attention so I don’t miss anything.

Tartakovsky: Yeah. And that was one thing that I didn’t even really think about. And then when we showed the first or second episode just to internally… I went to Atlanta where Adult Swim is, and I had the second episode. And my boss, Mike Lazzo, was sitting next to me. It was like a lunchtime screening. And he grabbed a piece of pizza, right? And the episode started and he took one bite and then his arms elevated holding the plate with a slice of pizza in it for the whole 22 minutes. And that’s the thing, you can’t turn away. You can’t turn away and just listen to the dialogue and still catch up when you look again. And after the episode was done and he looked at his plate he’s like, “Oh right. I didn’t eat.” Because he was so focused in. And that’s when it really dawned on me that what you’re saying, exactly true. Like when you watch this show you can’t turn away.

That’s great these days with everything vying for your attention, too.

I want to talk about your character of Spear. So previously for Samurai Jack, you’ve referenced a live action martial artist, Eric Chan, for fighting poses and combat style. How did you find the unique look and movement and fighting style for Spear in Primal?

Tartakovsky: Well, it was actually the opposite of all that because we’ve done so much martial arts in all the work that we’ve done. I wanted to do something different. And yeah, how do we do combat? And I’m obviously a fan of specific fighting styles and all that kind of stuff. And so how do we differentiate? And so I started to think like, “Right, he’s got no skills. He’s got no training. It’s just brutal primal force.” And I looked at some ape fighting, monkeys fighting. And we didn’t want to do one cool like superhero punch pose. It was everything was to draw it kind of brutally. And whenever we reverted back to a monkey style sort of thing. It felt right. So the angrier he gets, he gets more hunched over, and more on for using his arms and his legs. And that felt kind of really cool. And it started to really come alive.


Image via Adult Swim

A similar question: How did you find the personality of Fang?

Tartakovsky: Fang is a she, because she was like the mother of the two dinosaurs. And so for her it was the same thing. Yeah, she was definitely more difficult because you’re so used to having creatures emote, because we’ve done a lot of monsters, and cartoony dogs, and all that kind of stuff. But I wanted to challenge us to… Because I have a big St. Bernard. And I could feel everything that she feels, even though she has no change of expression. So it’s with a tilt of a head, a certain pose. And yeah, we kind of definitely opened it up so not there’s a little dog, little cat. Like a little variation of something that’s familiar and animalistic still. We’re truly trying not to do anything humanized. Like I’ve watched a lot of nature shows and it is amazing what animals do, and how far they go with their quote unquote acting or their behavior is sometimes almost human like. But it’s something that’s very accessible and it became kind of our speech and our pattern for her.

You mentioned you watched nature shows and documentaries. How much of that real world experience went into informing the world of Primal?

Tartakovsky: It was a lot. It was a lot. I think we actually didn’t even need to do a lot of research because we were all big fans of those shows. And there’s so many, probably in the last eight years or so with the BBC and all those, Our Planet, Blue Planet, all those shows are so well done. And they’re so amazing to watch that it was part of our language already going in. And we’re all kind of nerds that way. Where we love nature, we love what it can present, the stories that come from it are amazing. And really the biggest thing that we all kind of see is when you’ve got that amazing looking polar bear, right? And it’s beautiful and majestic. And for it to survive, he has to eat the little baby pup seal, who’s furry and cute, but one has to die for the other to exist. And that’s just amazing storytelling. Instead of just having something that’s evil and good, you have something that’s both good and for that Mastodon episode especially, it was so fun to do that story because it’s more unique. It’s stuff that we don’t get to do a lot. Usually we have to kind of, in a way follow formulas. And you’ve got a good guy, you’ve got a bad guy and what happens? And good triumphs over with over evil. And this made everything more interesting. And we want everyone to survive, but that’s not the reality of nature.


Image via Adult Swim

It wouldn’t be Primal unless it had that brutal practicality and reality of nature, especially in this environment that you set up where these two opposing characters have to rely on each other just to survive. Whether it’s weather, whether it’s other predators, or whether it’s hunger and starvation, things like that. So that really come through.

Tartakovsky: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, that’s great.

A little bit more on the technical side of things: What was it like for you to direct literally only one actor, with a little bit of Tom Kenny thrown in, of course, in Aaron LaPlante without any dialogue?

Tartakovsky: It was very easy. And the thing is like after doing, fortunate enough to do so much television and experience in a booth, my main key is to get the right actor, an actor who has great timing, who has great voice. So there’s not a lot of hard work to work on the acting. And I’ve been really fortunate to work with people like Phil LaMarr, and Tom Kenny, and a lot of people. And so for this, the origin of it is actually really funny because the guy who does the voice is this guy Aaron LaPlante. And Aaron’s kind of new to the industry. And the way I’ve met him for the first time was actually, he was my scratch actor for Bluto in the Popeye feature we were doing at Sony.

And he was just this guy who the casting agent knew. And he came in and he was like this comedian, and he did Groundling’s and stuff. And he killed it on Bluto, like the funniest Bluto I’ve ever heard. And I really liked him. And I could hear, he’s got a great voice. He was a good actor. He knows timing, he knows comedy. And so when I started, and I felt bad that Popeye fell apart because I thought that was going to be his new vehicle. Thinking I discovered him. And it fell apart and I kind of felt guilty in a way. But then I wanted to work with him to see what else we could do. And then when this role came out I said like, “You want to give this a shot?” And it was great. And there’s always grunting on purpose, there’s screaming, there is subtlety to it. But that part of it is the easiest. And the one big change that we do is we actually animate it first where before on everything else that I’ve done, we always record the dialogue first, and then we animate to the dialogue. But with this, I wanted always the visuals, the timing of the animation to drive it. And so then Aaron comes in after the show is done and then he lays in the vocals, ADR to the picture.


Image via Adult Swim

And I guess that’s a little easier when you don’t have to match mouth flaps; he can just come in and do his guttural performance.

Tartakovsky: Yeah, exactly. It’s just more about timing.

So you’ve got some of your teammates that you’ve worked with before: Stephen DeStefano, Scott Wills, Christian Schellewald for the art and the look of this. How did that shorthand that you have among your team members help to ease the production of this series?

Tartakovsky: It’s everything. It’s the number one thing you learn. You want to surround yourself with people that are better than you and that are really good at what they do. And as soon as I met Scott for Samurai Jack, back before we started, that was it. I’ve never seen somebody paint like that and have that kind of color, and lighting, and control of mood with color and lighting. And so you attach yourself to these people. I saw Stephen DeStefano’s work when he did the Dexter comic. I was like, “Wow, this guy’s amazing.” And tried to work with him as much as I could. Same thing with Christian. I met Christian through actually Hotel Transylvania 3, and as soon as I saw his drawings I’m like, “Oh my God. I got to work with this guy.”

And it’s always been the number one thing that I try to look for. I am a fan of these people, and really sometimes I’ll design a story just because I want to see how they’re going to interpret it. So it’s like if you ask one of your heroes to give you a drawing or something, it’s that same feeling that I get. So whenever we do an episode, I can’t wait to see what Scott comes up with. And I never say I never go like, “Oh yeah, I want this type of sky.” Or anything like that. We always talk about mood and tone. And Christian is, he’s more newer to our team and working with Hotel 3, it was just amazing. Like he’s one of those guys who kind of draws in this more illustrative, almost Moebius-y type style. And it’s very different for us. And it was great. It was because he brought something very new and it made Scott paint differently, it made me think about composition differently. And so that part of it is just amazing.


Image via Adult Swim

Joel Valentine’s work on this is amazing to have to fill in all these crazy creature effects and the background sounds in a world that’s not super busy or populated; it’s very far from like an urban city or anything like that. And then you’ve also got Tyler Bates and Joanne Higginbottom doing the composition for the score, which is amazing. So how did you and the sound team find the unique sound for Primal?

Tartakovsky: Well, for Joel, and I’ve worked with Joel since Dexter, he’s been with me on every single show except Clone Wars. And Joe is great. He’s got an amazing library. And it is like you were saying, that kind of shorthand. When I go up pow, he knows exactly what I’m talking about and that makes things a lot easier, number one. Number two, he’s also about the craft. He wants to do things different. He wants to make it sound unique and just not use all the same that we’ve done in the past. And so for this we had a big kind of theoretical discussion before we started. And I talked about like you want real animal sounds, but at the same time it is pulpy and it is science fiction. And so he wanted to monsterfy it, you want to make it more pulpy, somehow caricature it so it sounds more…

Whether it’s horror or more Godzilla or more fantastical. And that was kind of his challenge. And what’s great about Joel is he’s totally self motivated to go outside of what’s available just in the states and whatever, and he found these crazy elephant libraries that this guy went to India and recorded elephants for months. And he found these, like I think some vocal library from the 70s in Germany of these people that were doing monster sounds. And so it makes it all very unique. And that’s the thing, just as much time as we spend with trying to make the visuals look specific. Everybody’s got a follow up. And the music was the same thing. Music was a gigantic challenge. And probably, I think I wouldn’t say struggle is the word, but finding its voice. Especially when you’re starting on a new show.

I’m a big fan of music and everything that I do, I want it to be very specific and unique for this show, for whatever show that I’m doing. And to find the musical voice of the show was difficult. Because you want it to be primal, and at the same time, like at first I started, “Well, maybe it should all be organic.” Because organic instruments is where it all started from. But then it totally lost any kind of energy. And so we then brought electrical in, and messing around with the organic sounds. And then all of a sudden you start to develop a sound. And then you hear one cue like, “Oh, there it is. That feels right.” And then it becomes easier after that.

Do you have plans for more Primal in the future? Or was this always kind of conceived of as a limited series?

Tartakovsky: No, no. We talked about doing more. We talk about doing more. And the big question is, are people going to like it? And going to respond? And so you got to… It’s TBD with my schedule. I think Adult Swim has been super responsive to all these episodes. They’ve been amazingly supportive. And I think they want more. And so now it’s, I do want it to come out and see how people react. And then see how everything falls into my schedule, because a lot of times like in Hollywood you got to have kind of seven things going, and then hopefully one of those seven is going to go through. And so right now, it’s on the flight. And now we’re going to have to figure out how everything’s going to fall in line with everything else.


Image via Sony Pictures

Well speaking of everything else that you currently have going on, a little off topic, but do you have any updates on Sony’s Hotel Transylvania 4 that you could talk about?

Tartakovsky: Nope. They’re in the writing process and I’m not directing it. So we hired a director and everything. And so it’s moving slowly forward.

Fair enough. And my last question for you today, what is up next for you other than waiting to unleash Primal on all the viewers out there?

Tartakovsky: Well, we’re actually still finishing up episodes. And so that’s still going to be a continuous process. And I have my two movies that are getting a little bit more speed at a Sony Pictures Animation. So that’s kind of the plate right now.

Well, thank you so much for your time. As a fan of yours from a very young age. It’s been an honor and a pleasure to talk to you and Primal‘s absolutely amazing. I can’t wait to see the fifth episode. And I can’t wait for all your fans out there to check it out as well. So thanks again.

Tartakovsky:  Awesome. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Primal premieres tonight at midnight on Adult Swim and continues each night at midnight until Friday’s finale.