Legendary Director Genndy Tartakovsky On ‘Primal’ & His Success
“For whatever reason, we all liked cartoons as a kid,” says Genndy Tartakovsky, “I never grew out of it”. Genndy, the man behind the all-time greats in the cartoon world— like Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack has now created his most emotive work yet, Primal.
The show is not for his regular audience, and in chatting to Men’s Health, the 50-year-old opens up to why he has always wanted to create the pulpy, enthralling animated adult series, which is now on Showmax.
Genndy says it’s an emotional story of a man and a dinosaur trying to survive: but there’s one aspect that makes it rise above the rest – there’s no dialogue.
“To tell the story visually you have to have a very clear idea of what you’re trying to say,” he says on the challenges to rely solely on animation and music. “The great advantage of the show is that it is for adults and so we don’t have to be in black and white. When we were doing Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack you have to be very clear,” he adds.
“You have to be very clear for the audience so that they understand everything, because they’re children and— even though I believe they have a very sophisticated level of viewing and they do understand— there is a certain level of clarity that’s needed. With Primal, we can be grey; not so black and white and you can leave some of it for the audience.”
Primal brings a slower tone, one that does away with the noisiness of modern day animation. The irony is, that by allowing less words, there is a lot more for the mind to take in; and when focusing on the visuals, the half-hour episodes seem to fly by. “It takes its time, the timing is very slow, very purposeful; what it needs to be,” he says.
“The biggest reaction I get from the show is ‘wow that was like five minutes long’ – even though it’s 30 minutes. Somehow you get enthralled in it, you get sucked into it because there’s no dialogue, you can’t turn away and listen to it like a radio show; you have to really figure out sequence to sequence where it’s going. And I think that makes it really fun to watch and enthralling and engaging.”
Genndy’s success comes from hard work and dedication to his craft, and it shows in the hours he’s put in. It’s no secret that his work has changed the game. In 2004, he took home the Primetime Emmy Award for ‘Outstanding Animated Program’ with Samurai Jack, and in the same year also bagged the Emmy for ‘Outstanding Animated Program (for Programming One Hour or More)’ for Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
He has since gained legendary status amongst fans of animation, but even now his work ethic is that of someone trying to break into the industry. “It’s a lot of work,” the director says.
Genndy describes himself as a morning person and keeps strict routine: waking up at 5am, he makes a cup of coffee before heading to his home office downstairs where he works for 2-3 hours before dropping his kids at school. He then heads to work, “which encompasses going over editorial, storyboards, post-production, everything,” he adds. “Then I’d come home, have dinner, take a little break and then once everyone goes to sleep, I’ll go back to my office and put in another hour or two; when I was younger, I would put in four hours but now not so much.”
The coronavirus pandemic has allowed him an earlier night’s rest. “I now work till 9pm, I’ll exercise for an hour and have a break, have dinner with the family. And I haven’t been working as much at night because I’ve been putting in fuller days at home.”
With all that work, what keeps him motivated? The drive to tell stories that haven’t been told (and seen) before, he says. “I love the illusion that you can create movement through drawings. That was really what I fell in love with. I started out as an animator and I would have probably been pretty happy all my life if I could just animate, [but] then I realised I have this knack for storytelling. And so, that was the drive: what kind of stories have I not seen?
“It’s not like I go ‘cavemen and dinosaurs are popular right now, let me make a show about that,” he says on Primal. “It was something that was very personal to me. So my drive is really to create and give birth to these characters. Creating Dexter and Bibi is one of the most proud things I’ve done, because how many shows have come and gone that nobody talks about anymore? Dexter is still surviving after 20 years.”
But even the greats have bad days. Genndy, like many, experiences creative blocks from time to time. His advice? Just turn everything off, go for a walk and make sure you work well in advance. “You go through it all the time, some days I can’t draw and then I just stop, I don’t try force myself or sometimes I have no ideas. And usually, I just turn everything off, I’ll go exercise or go for a walk. Try not to focus on what’s happening that day, try to get over that day and get back to it.
“Sometimes I can’t do that because there are deadlines and you do struggle and it’s quite a fight to do that. But I try not to leave things for the last minute anymore – I used to do that all the time – but now I’m trying to really pace myself better, to avoid those kinds of situations.
“Creativity is not something you can turn on and off. Most of the time it’s there, sometimes you’re just not feeling it and the best thing is to avoid it and do something else like exercise and come back to it.”
Exercise? Tell us more! He laughs, “I’ve been doing a lot of peloton right now. I used to play basketball as much as I could, I haven’t been playing lately. A lot of walking hiking, but the peloton has been my main exercise.”
In three words, Genndy describes Primal as ‘brutal, beautiful, full-and-emotional’ and the most emotive animation he’s created. “It focuses on the nuances and because there is no dialogue you have to completely rely on the facial expressions, the poses and the non-verbal acting to get across the feelings. Somehow it’s more helpful because you’re relying on music and expression to relay the emotion rather than some words.”
In short, Primal is always what Genndy has wanted to do in animation. “Doing it and showing its gradual rise and success just gives me hope to do something different and keep pushing myself to try something new.”
So can we expect many seasons ahead, like that of Samurai Jack? “I have no idea. Season by season, it’s how successful it becomes verses demand. So now we’re focusing on the first 10 episodes and we’ll see what happens.”
As Genndy’s phone call comes to a close, he shares what he’s learnt most over the years. “Always try push yourself to do something different,” he says. “I think to do something we’ve seen before is the easiest thing. To try and push yourself to be original is extremely difficult and hard. Sometimes I’m unsuccessful and then when it works it really works, and so you always strive to do something new and something different.”