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How the late-night TV block Adult Swim’s ‘Primal’ wound up in Oscar contention

The animated ‘Primal’ features a prehistoric man named Spear and a vicious yet perceptive T-Rex-ish dinosaur named Fang.
“Genndy Tartakovsky’s ‘Primal’ — Tales of Savagery,” began as a five-episode dialogue-free series in the Adult Swim late-night block on Cartoon Network. Retooled into a four-chapter film, it was submitted into the Oscars’ animation feature category.
(Adult Swim)

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the 32 films vying for a coveted Oscar nomination in the animated feature category, one film, “Genndy Tartakovsky’s ‘Primal’ — Tales of Savagery,” stood out. Not for its lengthy title but because it’s the first time Adult Swim, the late-night block of programming on Cartoon Network, found one of its programs in the race.

“It was originally pitched as a short inspired by the pulp fiction of Robert E. Howard but [Adult Swim exec] Mike Lazzo said they saw it as a movie and a television show,” says creator-director Genndy Tartakovsky, whose work includes the popular series “Samurai Jack” and the “Hotel Transylvania” franchise, which has grossed over $1 billion at the box office and has a fourth film in the works.

For Tartakovsky, developing “Primal” was a decades-long idea that found its legs in a serendipitous moment. “When I brought ‘Samurai Jack’ back to Adult Swim, there was a strong reaction to the visceral sequences that had no dialogue. I wondered if I could tell a bigger story without using dialogue. Then I remembered this idea I had about a kid riding a dinosaur.”

With a fresh take, the director aged the child into an adult prehistoric man named Spear and paired him with Fang, a vicious yet perceptive T-Rex-ish dinosaur in an emotional allegory that explores loss, friendship and survival without spoken dialect.

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“Primal” saw its five-episode TV premiere in October, but for the Oscars it was packaged into a four-part epic where fans lucky enough got to see it on the big screen at the Downtown Independent theater in downtown L.A.

Each chapter adds to the overall arc of the characters and story — a narrative that wastes no time diving into its subject matter. “We designed the chapters to get the attention of the viewer right away. There’s something about not having any dialogue that lends itself to the straightforward approach but there’s still an emotional complexity to our themes,” says Tartakovsky.

The loss of family is what brings the unlikely duo together. Spear is a strong, spirited man whose eyes tell you how he’s feeling. Fang dons a greenish color with darker stripes while touting an independence about her, though they both are reliant on each other to survive. Connecting emotion to the character was an exploration in concept, sound and animation.

“Initially, we were more on the cartoon end of design but it felt wrong. We went to a more illustrative, comic book feel but not too realistic. We had to find a very particular tone and feel for this story,” explains Tartakovsky.

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For Fang, the challenge was illustrating the right kind of emotion. The team had to create a new kind of language the director hadn’t used before in order to detail different poses or express moments of sadness or happiness. “As we know animals emote so much without the need of facial expressions so we tried to follow that with our ideas. Some of Fang is based on my giant St. Bernard,” says Tartakovsky.

Art direction was headed by longtime collaborator Scott Wills — the two discussing color from an emotional perspective rather than specific hues. “Scott has a unique sensibility with color. In the first chapter we see Spear sitting high atop a ledge contemplating his own life because he just lost his family. Scott created these warm, hot pink colors across the sky that had a certain intensity to them. It was something I never would have thought of to represent that moment,” notes the director. For much of the color creativity their mantra was “no green grass or blue sky” — meaning, that they didn’t want to be limited by the colors of reality.

Without dialogue, selecting the right sound effects and music was critical. Composers Tyler Bates and Joanne Higginbottom and sound designer Joel Valentine had to craft an aural landscape that drove the story but also told viewers what the characters were feeling and thinking. Valentine developed a library of sounds specifically to shape a unique voice for Fang. In scenes where the duo fought off other predators or hunted prey of their own, effects and music were balanced without being overpowering.

The animation was a collaborative effort with Studio La Cachette based in France. “The French have a strong history of graphic novels and my background is more in the realm of Hanna-Barbera,” says Tartakovsky.

“Normally, you don’t get to do a lot of iterations on a small budget but we were able to figure out a pipeline that allowed me to look over shots and adjust the expression or push the animation. We were able to blend our aesthetics to shape an original style. The process was unlike anything I had done before.”


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