The first clip released by Cartoon Network’s AdultSwim showed a Tyrannosaurus rex protecting her babies from larger dinosaurs, tearing snouts off of bodies in bloody fashion and watching as a caveman ally uses rocks to bash bones. In the latest look at this alternative prehistoric setting, envisioning humans and dinosaurs coexisting at the same time, a routine hunting mission turns into a fast-paced action sequence as the caveman stalks his next meal, only to lose the boar to the hungry rex.
It’s not something one might expect from the guy who brought us such kid-friendly fair, including the Hotel Transylvania movies. In fact, the concept for Primal began as a children’s show before evolving into a story about this human and dinosaur living together when both lose their families to more vicious beasts.
“Years ago, it started off as a kids 6-11 show about this little caveman and he has a little dinosaur friend and they have adventures together,” Tartakovsky tells EW. “Then, as my tastes started to grow and I felt like I’m not sure where I’m heading with this, it organically started to develop into something more mature.”
You can almost track this development through his work. After Dexter’s Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls, Tartakovsky went on to The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy, still a kids’ show, but one that dealt with the Grim Reaper. Then came Star Wars: Clone Wars and Sym-Bionic Titan, geared closer to a teen audience. With the comeback of Samurai Jack, which debuted a surprise fifth season after the season 4 finale 12 years prior, Tartakovsky experimented with a “darker” tone that paid off tremendously in unexpected ways. So, when the head of Adult Swim asked, “what’s next?” he started thinking.
“Going as far back as Dexter’s Lab, we’ve always had these sequences with no dialogue. The interesting thing is those sequences got the biggest reactions,” Tartakovsky recalls. “Then, when we did the last season of Jack, we were doing those sequences, but now they were heightened because it was more adult and the story had a lot more drama. Everybody reacted to them even more. When I was developing Primal, that was the exact goal: can we tell a story like this without dialogue, completely visual, and do something not just straight action, but actually do emotions and heart and everything through these non-dialogue, visceral, visual sequences?”
In Samurai Jack‘s fifth season, the namesake hero would wander along a serene, wooded path with the sound of amber leaves delicately falling into a babbling stream. Then, without warning, something would rip through the silence and propel Jack into battle. It’s a clear precursor to some of the scenes in Primal, wherein the caveman will be calmly fishing for food on a rock in the middle of a rushing river before he’s forced to leap out of the way of a gator’s open jaw.
The biggest turning point for Primal, shifting away from that kids concept to what it is today, came when Tartakovsky read Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories, first published in the 1930s.
“They were just pulp novels, but they’re written so well,” Tartakovsky says. “They painted a picture and you just drop in and Conan’s walking in the desert and a monster comes up and he’s got to deal with it. It’s amazing how simplistic a story [that is], but you can get so much character and emotion and adventure out of it.”
This kind of storytelling, he adds, “fits perfectly for animation.” With his new series, it’s not just a return to man’s primal nature, it’s a return to primal emotions and how to explore that without words: rage, vengeance, despair, isolation, friendship, and redemption. Through their connection, man and beast find all of that as they traverse a harsh world.
“We were thinking about the Seven Deadly Sins and can we do all of it?” Tartakovsky explains. “You always want to distill everything down to the core and see if we can build on those initial, simple things. The other big thing was, when you watch a nature show, you see an amazing-looking polar bear. He’s massive and handsome and powerful and you really care for it, and then you see a baby seal and it’s cute and amazing. You love both these characters, but one has to die for the other to live… and I love that juxtaposition and what it does to a story and how you feel about it.”
The show, too, gets to the primal core of Tartakovsky’s animation. Born in Moscow and eventually settling in Chicago, he always believed he would be an animator. Maybe he would do that for 15 years and then find a job as a director, he thought. “Everything went differently, obviously,” Tartakovsky says. Now, 49, he’s always thinking in terms of animation. “Doing simple flip books, I used to get such a kick out of it, just drawings and nothing else.”
Primal relies on his first instinct as a creator: movement. “Movement,” he adds, “is what’s entertaining. That’s the illusion of life.”
At first, there was a cold feet period when Tartakovsky sat down to draw the storyboards for Primal. Would he miss the dialogue? Would they even be able to pull this off? Quickly, he didn’t see this wordless world as a limitation. Knowing your limitations without dialogue made it easier, in a way. He couldn’t just have someone say they’re angry, so he had to show it. “[When] we had [the caveman] yell and grunt, especially when we added the dinosaur noises, her speech, it became a conversation in a very different way,” Tartakovsky notes. “I even started to think of it less as there’s no dialogue, there’s just no English. They speak a different language.”
Tartakovsky’s team of animators are now finished with the first five half-hour-long episodes, which will begin airing on Adult Swim in a five-night event beginning Monday, Oct. 7 at midnight ET/PT. Now, they’re working on five more.
“We have episodes where Standards [and Practices] is raising the red flag and saying, ‘Maybe this is too much,'” the showrunner says of the first run. “Some of those episodes might get TV-Mature. For me, the stuff they show on Adult Swim is pretty crazy and we never curved ourselves.”
Even the violence itself harkens back to the title and the concept. “I’m not a violent person at all,” he adds, “and I don’t want to show violence for violent’s sake. The violence is a sexy thing to sell, but there’s so much more to the show than just violence just because we can do it. When we went into a sequence we always wanted to make sure we were doing it for a reason. That way we become honest with it.”