Genndy Tartakovsky's 'Primal' Was Inspired By Spaghetti Westerns and Bugs Bunny
And, obviously, Conan the Barbarian.
When you're watching a Genndy Tartakovsky joint, you know. The animator and director's trademark bold, angular, exaggerated style lends an instantly recognizable look and feel to anything he touches, from Dexter's Laboratory and Samurai Jack (both of which he created), to Star Wars: Clone Wars, the Hotel Transylvania movie series, and even The Powerpuff Girls. If you're of a certain age and watched a lot of cartoons as a kid, you probably spent your formative years immersed in Tartakovsky's work, in the same way he immersed himself in the cartoons of American animation's golden age.
His newest creation, the adult animation series Primal, begins its highly anticipated second season on Adult Swim this week, and it continues to surprise and break the boundaries of both animation and storytelling. The show follows Spear, a brutish Neanderthal caveman, and his comrade and friend Fang, a giant blue Tyrannosaurus rex, as they navigate the harsh, deadly world of prehistory, traveling to new lands and fighting off ancient creatures in every episode. The show is mostly wordless, any dialogue spoken in grunts and screams and animal roars—an idea that stemmed from the mesmerizing silent sequences in Samurai Jack and the types of stories Tartakovsky loved as a child. Ahead of Primal's paradigm-shifting second season, Tartakovsky spoke with Thrillist about everything that has influenced his work and this show, from Sergio Leone movies to nature documentaries.
A lot of Tartakovsky's most beloved work can be described as riffs on the western: strangers in strange lands, outlaws, slingers of various cool weapons, battles between good guys and bad guys. It's this sort of thing that made him a perfect candidate for the Clone Wars animated series, as George Lucas cribbed liberally from the westerns of his adolescence for Star Wars. It should come as no surprise, then, that Tartakovsky cites cowboy- and cowboy-adjacent cinema as one of his main influences, in particular the European remixes of what had been, until the 1970s, a wholly American genre.
It's funny, because I've been inspired by a few things that have, I think, translated into almost everything that I do to a degree. I'm a kid of the '70s, and so, Sergio Leone and just all the cinema of the '70s really started it for me. We emigrated from Russia in '77, and we had to live in Italy for a little while before we got to America, and my dad took me to see an Italian spaghetti western with Clint Eastwood, right in Italy, in Italian. I think it was A Fistful of Dollars, and it was just amazing. It just had an effect on me. I don't remember much of it from back then, but certainly the love of that type of storytelling and filmmaking is all over everything that I do.
In our current era of overwhelmingly same-y adult animation, stumbling upon an animated show that has a distinct sense of style feels novel. Tartakovsky's 2D work is instantly recognizable, taking cues from the exaggerated, colorful, angular and elastic work of American animation's golden age, from Tex Avery to Hanna-Barbera. Primal is a throwback in more ways than one, honoring an era when animation was a lot more scrappier and inventive.
I fell in love with it like any kid, but then never outgrew it. When I reflect on my career, it is the combination of this raw, cinematic, more visceral type of storytelling and viewing that those '70s films had, with animation. For Primal, we were trying to do a story that's visually told, because we don't have a lot of dialogue, and, artistically, it's not clean. It's raw, it's very handcrafted. We want it to feel old, we don't want it to feel digital at all. That was a big deal to us, even though it's all done on the computer, even though we're drawing on tablets and repainting on tablets. We still wanted it to feel like it was hand-painted, hand-drawn with pencil. It's got its own kind of energy.
Conan the Barbarian and pulp genre fiction
Yes, obviously the show about the caveman and the dinosaur is heavily influenced by the pulp science fiction and fantasy of the '70s and '80s, particularly serialized adventure stories like Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian and illustrated magazines like Heavy Metal, whose bite-sized glimpses into fantastical worlds Tartakovsky feels are a perfect fit for animated storytelling.
I started with the movie. I was a teen, and especially the first 30 minutes really affected me. Like, yeah, this is some amazing storytelling, right? There's a feeling and an energy to it. I've been trying to duplicate that feeling. I bought a Conan book—I'd never read the stories—and then once I started reading it, I'm like, "Oh my God, there's so much more to Conan than what the movie was." These short stories were incredible. I read all the short stories, and then I realized, these are perfect for animation, that idea of, we just drop in and these horrible things happen, and you love the character and your journey with the character. Stuff like that, like Heavy Metal—the stuff that was adult and comic book-y.
When I started to develop Primal, even though it started from something very different, I'm like, this is a perfect vehicle to do these types of stories. I came up with a different idea, with no dialogue, to try to do this very visceral visual storytelling with a lot of emotion and character relationships.
Though not exactly scientifically accurate when it comes to its mishmash of time periods (humans and dinosaurs never hung out, sorry), Primal is notably accurate when it comes to representing the prehistoric creatures featured in each episode. For this, Tartakovsky credits paleoartist and animator David Krentz, who is "as close as you get without being an official paleontologist." When asked whether he has a favorite creature on the show, Tartakovsky mentions the serpent-necked Argentinosaurs of Episode 7, "Plague of Madness," and the wooly mammoths from Episode 3, "A Cold Death."
Mammoths and elephants are magical. There's such a spirituality to them and such a presence, and to tell this super-tragic tale where one has to be killed so others can live, which is just nature, right? There's always the seal puppy and the polar bear. One has to survive and one has to die. And that's tragic, and I hate watching it, but it's live action, and I love that complex feeling: Look at the polar bear! He's so cute and massive and amazing! Not the baby seal! No, you can't eat that! We wanted that feeling, and we're after that realism of what survival is like.
Any pet-owner watching Primal will know immediately that it was made by someone who spends a lot of time interacting with animals. For Tartakovsky, the draw of the stylistic animation and the promise of visceral violence was only part of what makes the show special—the other part is the central friendship between his two main characters, whose relationship is repeatedly tested throughout the course of the series.
What I realized was, I have to sell the relationship. I didn't want it to be just all about the violence. Can I connect the characters? I've had big dogs for the last 10 years or so—I had an English Mastiff and I have a Saint Bernard. And big dogs have a bigger-than-life personality because they fill up a lot of space. My dogs are neurotic, and they have all these human traits. So, it was a new relationship to communicate, and I was really excited about that. I'm going to do this man and beast relationship, and when you're telling these kinds of stories, they have to be accessible. I have to key on an emotion that you have. "Oh, I'm familiar with this feeling, I've done this with a cat or dog or whatever." That became the window in, and after the show premiered, that was probably the best thing that happened: People talked about the relationship between Spear and Fang.