How Genndy Tartakovsky Pioneered Animation

In 2019, a show without traditional language premiered on Cartoon Network’s programming block Adult Swim, pushing the boundaries of how stories can be told through animation. Going into the late 2010s and 2020s, Cartoon Network’s content as a whole, as well as Adult Swim, have largely been defined by humor, with the occasional disruptive piece of animation like some of Tartakovsky’s other works such as Samurai Jack (2001-2004, 2017) or Adult Swim’s anime programming. The series titled Primal focuses on the relationship between a caveman and a T-Rex who have bonded through their shared struggle through a highly dangerous and haunting prehistorical world. Humor is the main selling point of Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, and consequently the animation and story have taken a back seat with some notable exceptions such as Adventure Time (2010-2018) and Steven Universe (2013-2019)—but Primal challenges this status quo. Instead of animation taking the backseat, Primal presents a meticulously crafted world characterized by visionary animation and aesthetics, and all are used to create a truly terrifying world where communication ad humor appear to be impossible.

Series creator Genndy Tartakovsky is no stranger to pushing the limits of animation to tell unconventional stories. In addition to directing the first three Hotel Transylvania films, he either created, directed, wrote, did storyboard art, or sometimes all of the above for a wide range of animated shows. His most notable work that could be interpreted as a precursor for Primal is Samurai Jack.

Samurai Jack’s Legacy

Samurai Jack followed a samurai prince given the nickname “Jack” trying to return home after being sent into the future by an eldritchian cosmic evil known as Aku. The animation in this series got back to the basics of animation as visual storytelling and transcended the labels of “kids show” and “cartoons.” The status quo of animation has carefully crafted scenes that are backgrounds for characters talking and gesturing, with the occasional interrupt of something dynamic. This can be seen in kids shows such as SpongeBob SquarePants (1999-) as well as adult animation like Family Guy (1999-). In contrast to this, Tartakovsky employs a more minimalist design where the different characters’ movements were focused on, and the different animation techniques used in the series emphasized this through rapid cuts and frames split into smaller bits of action showcasing multiple perspectives. In an interview, Tartakovsky discussed how he was heavily inspired by the films of Akira Kurosawa, which makes sense as the honorable Jack could very easily fit into any of his films. Furthermore, Tartakovsky also said that he was trying to evoke many cinematographic elements from classical Hollywood films like Ben-Hur (1959) and Spartacus (1960) to achieve the visual storytelling he envisioned, something that can be seen in the many moments from Samurai Jack that are grand in scale but are told in increasingly personal, almost claustrophobic detail.

The original series was episodic and at the end of each episode Jack was nowhere closer to returning to his own time period. Instead of focusing on this grand narrative, the series’ focus was on the stylized visuals and action. Samurai Jacki would be cancelled in 2004. After a decade of fans wanting a conclusion to Jack’s story though, the series would be revived in 2017 for a final season that was grittier and would prove Tartakovsky’s talent to the world. Instead of airing on Cartoon Network, the final season of Samurai Jack was released on Adult Swim. This shift allowed the series to explore many of the more darker and bloodier elements of the story that have been creatively worked out of the original story. Additionally, Tartakovsky played around with silence more here than in first seasons, getting closer to Hitchcock’s imagined “pure cinema” where stories are conveyed purely through visuals. Oftentimes it can recall the tradition of silent films where filmmakers needed to creatively find ways to convey plot and emotion in visually explicit ways.

The End & Beginning

This final season of Samurai Jack was greatly successful commercial and critically, and this success would help set the stage for Primal where Tartakovsky would employ many of the same animation and storytelling techniques that earned him his reputation. After his long career leading up to this point, Tartakovsky had seen what elements resonated with his audience the most, and he chose to experiment with them in Primal, particularly his use of slow movement and his lack of dialogue. Much like Samurai Jack, the narrative at the core of the series is not an actual progression towards a goal with character arcs, but instead the narrative is the fruitless struggle that these characters brutally endure. Primal is a series that follows what Tartakovsky described as “a caveman at the dawn of evolution…[and a] dinosaur on the brink of extinction,” and each episode makes sure to not shy away from the grim reality that their world is a constant battle of survival. The first episode tells the story of how Spear, the caveman, and Fang, the dinosaur, are both unified in their fight against the other dinosaurs that have eaten their families. They struggle violently to achieve revenge, and leave together unsure of their future. Like the last season of Samurai Jack, Primal would win multiple awards professing the multiple artistic achievements of the series. Even if the series does not continue following a confirmed second season, it will have still cemented itself as a part of animation’s canon. The animation is able to show the duality of man and beast, highlighting both the fluidity and rigidity of their movement while also showing the pure primal rage as well as emotional depth they are capable of.

The Art of Silence

Perhaps drawing inspiration from some of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, Tartakovsky spends a lot of time in Primal just having the viewer sit with the characters. It is in these mundane and quiet moments that viewers are encouraged to slowly get closer to the characters and world of the story, only to eventually have that peace disrupted by high intensity moments of conflict which feel so much more severe following the tranquil moments. The dynamic between stillness and active movement and conflict greatly characterizes the animation of the series, but what makes it so much more impactful is the lack of dialogue. Like the series’ name, there is some primal connection that the viewer can feel with the characters when everything is stripped bare of language and ideas and emotions are visually simple. The baggage of the characters’ feelings are removed, and they are shown in their purest forms: anger, excitement, love, grief. All of these emotions are showcased in vivid and thoughtful color, and these transparent feelings and ideas help the series circumvent the potentially alienating effect that dialogue in animation can have where it creeps in and out of the uncanny valley. Tartakovsky removes linguistic filler, and instead has the movement and rhythm of his images guide the viewer to the connection and understanding of his characters and their horrific circumstance.