Genndy Tartakovsky’s “Primal” is arguably one of the very best (and certainly bloodiest) shows on television. Now, it’s finally back.
The wordless animated saga of a caveman (dubbed Spear) and a dinosaur (dubbed Fang), traversing through a stylized, hyper-violent primordial world is arresting and emotionally gripping. (It also picked up five Emmys after a single season, including Outstanding Animated Program.) In Season 2, the show becomes more complicated and more involving, picking up right where the first season left off, with Spear looking for other humans and Fang dealing with complicated emotions.
TheWrap spoke to Tartakovsky, whose credits include “Powerpuff Girls” and “Samurai Jack,” about this new season, his upcoming series “Unicorn: Warriors Eternal” and what he plans to do with his lucrative new agreement with Warner Bros. (He also has an R-rated, traditionally animated comedy feature at Sony.)
What went into the decision to make Season 2 more serialized? What were some of the other goals you had for this second batch of episodes?
The second batch, I think, started out as avoiding the cliché, basically. We know because of Mira and of her introduction at the end of the first season [that] there’s more to this world than it seems, right? Then, you obviously go into a “10,000 B.C.” or “Stargate” or any of those overlord type situations, like with the Pharaoh and all that kind of stuff. I went there first, and then I just hated it. It broke apart what the core of the show was. We restarted and broke the story down into something that’s completely unexpected, that’s super emotional, a lot more heady.
And because of the success of episodes like “Coven of the Damned” with the witches, it’s much more complicated. It’s not just survival. It’s about loss and family and all this stuff.
We decided to make things more complex and sometimes a little bit headier, still in the same style and execution that we’ve been doing. But we felt that the audience can get there. We changed the story and made it just more epic. And it’s episodic because now we’re telling this whole story from start to finish, and where it goes, the ups and downs are insane. The second episode is one of my favorites because it’s this love triangle. I was so excited about that idea because it’s without dialogue, and it’s between creatures and a human. There was a lot of stuff in there. I think we’re going deeper into all the characters; that’s what made it more exciting.
At the end of Episode 2, they’re together still, but there has been a rift between the dinosaur and the caveman. Is that going to reverberate onward throughout the season?
Well, I think after the second episode, it’s not so much a rift, but Fang suffers a loss. She obviously connected with – we called him Red. She connected with him and she had to pick, either this one survives or Spear, this caveman that she’s been with for awhile now, survives.
Was there any pressure after the success of the first season?
I really try hard to stay in my own head. Because of course now we read the stuff that is said and we read people’s comments, and I enjoy that. I read it, I process it and then I put it away. Because as soon as I start to think about, “Oh, well, a lot of people responded to this. I should do more of this,” it’s something that’s not natural for me.
One of the things that was successful about the first season is all the creatures. And I knew the second season, the monsters are going to be the humans, which are kind of worse in a way because it’s more conscious. I thought, “Oh, all the dinosaur lovers, maybe they’re not going to be as happy.”
I started to think about that. I’m like, “What am I doing? No, no, no. This is what I feel instinctively is right. And everybody is with me and we’re just going to go for it.” I try to really not think about the success. I dealt with that [pressure] in the biggest way with “Clone Wars,” doing that for a gigantic fan base. Same thing with the return of “Samurai Jack,” when we did the last season, it was like the first time I’m doing something and there’s an expectation. It was like, is your version of Jack different than my version of Jack? You can go literally insane just thinking about it.
Every time we talk, toys come up. You’d think after five Emmys, there’d be some “Primal” figures or something. What’s going on? Do I have to 3D print my own dinosaurs at this point?
Yes, you do, unfortunately. It’s a different world. It’s not like the old days where if you get an action show, it’s almost guaranteed a toy line. I think those old days are gone and everything’s changed. Now you can do action shows with no toys, even though you’d want some.
You have this giant new deal with Warner Bros., which we’ll talk about in a minute. But how do you maintain or ensure that it is still your vision for “Primal” – that you are in every frame of this thing while you’re doing so many other projects?
It’s what I love to do. It’s pretty simple once I have the trust of the executives in the studio. And by this point, if people don’t trust me, then I shouldn’t be working with you. After doing so much, I think I’ve earned their trust and respect. It’s the most hands-off they’ve ever been and supportive, and there’s a trust and understanding between us. And it’s everybody that I’ve worked with for awhile, even the newer people coming in. The good thing about being in the industry so long, you’ve worked with almost everybody to a point.
You’ve said that “Primal” is closer to feature animation. How do you accomplish that?
I tried explaining it without getting too nerdy in the weeds of it all is basically in the old TV version, like the “Dexter’s Lab” version or even “Samurai Jack” in the beginning, we do the storyboard, we do the designs, we make a blueprint, and we put it in a box, and we send it to Korea in those days. Then the next time we see it, it’s finished, in color as a work print. You’re like, “Oh my God, they misunderstood this,” or “This turned out good and this is terrible.” It’s all over the map. And I had the best of that studio, but there was still episodes and sequences that were nowhere near what I really imagined them.
In this scenario for “Primal,” I have a smaller studio, Studio La Cachette in Paris. The way we do it is every Friday, I get a delivery of layouts, animation, color, composition – of all the elements together. I get to open up the files. It’s all using this one program. I can make corrections and save up the file and send it back. I can redo stuff, plus expressions. I can get more subtle with some animation. And that’s features. Features is you are involved every day on everything. And in TV, it disappears for six months. In this version of TV, we are involved.
Now that we’re into this episodic format, do you know when it’s going to be over? Do you have an endgame in mind?
I was going to keep it secret, but then I kind of started talking about it because I’m so excited about the idea. I want to make “Primal” basically a brand. What I mean by that is that it could be “Primal” with a completely different story, but it’s still called “Primal,” and it still represents this more visceral, raw, almost no dialogue, visual storytelling. The next series, if we do one, it could be in World War II, or it could be aliens, or it could be something completely different – but still exploring this emotional, violent surviving-type of idea.
Is this the end of the dinosaur era, this season?
I can’t give that away. These 10 episodes are probably the most exciting and fun in storytelling I’ve ever done. Because of the ups and downs, the surprises, the shocks, where it goes, where it ends – it is all an immensely entertaining ride.
You have this amazing new deal with Warner Bros. And very pointedly in the press release, they mentioned that you can go and do whatever you want from the library. Have you started thinking about that stuff?
Well, no. The thing is that the library is great…. Some of the reasons why I got into animation is Bugs Bunny and all those characters. But right now, I’ve gotten to this level because of my originals. You know what I mean? So I hope we all agreed on the same deal. I want to do more originals, and then if the right project comes along, of course I’ll do it. But after doing “Star Wars,” I feel like that’s as big as it gets to a degree. And with the success of “Primal,” and I’ve got “Unicorn” and a rated-R feature, all original – it’s hard to want to do the next thing that isn’t original.
What can you say about “Unicorn: Warriors Eternal?”
Well, it’s a completely different show than “Primal.” I feel like, where “Primal” is the next generation of everything that I’ve been trying to do as far as action and visual storytelling and pushing timing and feel, “Unicorn” is the same, where I’m doing characters and comedy and complex story and world-building action, but all in more of a cartoony way. And the stakes are real. There’s real drama and real emotion.
The best thing that I refer it to is that scene in “Snow White,” where Snow White’s dead, and all the dwarves are around her and they’re crying, but they’re these cartoony characters with the giant bulbous noses. And you still buy into it so much. It is that idea taken to the next level where there’s amazing action, there’s really great character development, there’s some good humor. It’s a gigantic adventure, epic mystery, very episodic. Fom “Dexter,” through “Powerpuff Girls,” through “Samurai,” through “Titan” has been a training ground to get it to this level.
And “Fixed” is actually happening.
Yeah. It’s pretty amazing that I’ve got “Unicorn,” which is probably 20 years since I first started to come up with the idea, and then “Fixed” is 12 years [ago that] I first brought it to Sony.
Is “Black Knight” still coming or is that too much to ask?
It’s all lined up and I don’t know where it’s going to go. But “Fixed” is the 2D, rated-R movie. It’s handcrafted. It’s so unique because it’s well-animated, very raunchy. There’s a lot of character humor, and you hopefully like the characters and then everything becomes even funnier.
“Primal” premieres on [adult swim] on Cartoon Network on Thursday at midnight and Friday on HBO Max.