Genndy Tartakovsky is an animator’s animator. Over the course of 30 years, the Russian-American animator and director has amassed a career of enviable accolades and creative success, from working on such shows as The Powerpuff Girls and Batman: The Animated Series to his immensely popular original series in the case of Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, and Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
His latest series Primal is arguably his most audacious yet. In the pulp adventure, a mute caveman known as “Spear” forms an unlikely bond with a Tyrannosaurus known as “Fang” while surviving in a fantastical prehistoric world filled with deadly creatures. Season 1, which wrapped last November, earned Tartakovsky a nomination for the 2021 Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program.
Ahead of this year’s Emmy Awards voting, which ends on Monday Aug. 30, Polygon spoke with Tartakovsky on his inspirations for creating Primal and what he hopes to achieve through the series’ forthcoming second season.
[Ed. note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
The first season of Primal feels like a big experiment; it’s 10 episodes of predominantly non-dialogue-driven action and character development. What did you learn from the creation of season 1, and how are you going harder or changing things up in season 2?
For us, the first 10 episodes are what we think of as one season. But the second five episodes, once we got through the first five and we were seeing the episodes come to life, we started to realize we could do stories that were more complex. When you’re doing episodes with no dialogue you’re like, How much can we really get across story-wise? And then we realized there was a lot that we could do. So for the second five, we started to really mess around with more complex stories, especially in the “Coven of the Damned” episode, where we have the flashbacks to everyone’s origins and this really complex emotional thing of the babies and the loss and the death. It was really fun to tell stories that way. We never intended for the show to be a “Monster of the Week”-type show.
You’ve said Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian series and the paintings of Frank Frazetta were key inspirations for the look and feel of Primal’s first season. What art and stories are inspiring the series’ second season?
The second season is … I don’t know if it’s a departure, but it is an evolution of what we did in the first season. It feels the same, I think, but it’s completely different in a way where there’s just more emotion, more complex storytelling, but still very simple in that there’s still either no dialogue or very sparse dialogue like we had in the first season.
What I got from Robert Howard’s Conan books and his other writing is, he was a pulp writer in the ’20s. Those were always short stories; he trimmed the fat, there’s no novel-like exposition of things. They usually start with Conan, he’s in the desert with some girl, and they come upon a creature and they have to fight their way out. Those stories really connected with me because we make cartoons, right? So usually they’re short. Reading Howard’s work really connected with me because of his terse approach to storytelling because this is so much of what we do as animators, but with an emphasis on visuals and no dialogue.
So for the second season, we wanted more; we want it to evolve. We didn’t want to just do 10 more minor variations on the first season. This genre has been done so much. I wanted to do something different and push the genre out of the clichés associated with it as much as we could. And the second season is pushing out of the cliché. It’s really exciting because I haven’t really done anything like this. I’m not going to give anything away, because the more of a surprise it is, the more fun it’s going to be to watch. But we pushed ourselves story-wise to be more unconventional.
What sort of clichés do you see season 2 of Primal explicitly pushing against?
It’s gonna be a little hard without giving anything away [laughter]. But let’s see … if we were to elevate Primal into a barbarian adventure, or a sword-and-sorcery-type story, it could live in that world but still get away from clichés, I think. Whenever you think of Stargate or 10,000 BC, the stories often gravitate to some kind of overlord scenario, some villain with thousands of slaves and that type of thing. I think in my very, very first development of the story of Primal, I had something like that. With a Pharaoh type of situation, but I quickly got away from it. It’s sort of like, you take everything from this genre and we had a tendency to go there, because it feels natural. But then you start to think about all the things that have been done in this genre, and you’re like No, we’re just rehashing and doing it in our way, we have to come up with something more unique. That’s as much as I can say at the moment though, it’s really hard to say anything more without giving everything away.
Based on what happens at the end of season 1 and where you’re going in season 2, what do you hope to say through the story of Primal? What are the overarching themes you want to convey to the audience?
I think it’s always been survival and evolution. The surviving part is easy, right? You just want to live. But the evolution part is complex. And even more so without dialogue, without pontificating in a scene where Spear is sitting down and just saying, “What is my place in the world?”
How do you do that visually? That was the thing we most wanted to do. It’s always been about that to a degree, Spear’s evolution as a character. That’s what we’re focusing on and that’s what I wanted to say. At the end of the day, you have these 20 episodes, and what you see there is an evolution.
Primal season 1 is available to stream on HBO Max.