Genndy Tartakovsky Shares News of a Primal Sequel and How Unicorn Survived the WB-Discovery PurgePhoto Courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery TV Features Primal
For those who make animation projects, be it in film or television, they live an odd creative existence. Creators and animators toil on projects, isolated from the outside world, for years before they can even share that the thing has been greenlit into existence. On average, two to five years later, they can finally share their finished passion projects with the world. But by then, those same animators are often already existing in the future, deep into the work of continuing the next phase of that story (especially if it’s a TV series), or just onto something new.
Animator/director/artist Genndy Tartakovsky has been living that creation cycle since he started his professional career at Hanna-Barbera as an Art Director on 2 Stupid Dogs. He’s since created five of his own original animation series for Cartoon Network, created and directed three of the Hotel Transylvania films, and even dipped into live action to storyboard sequences for Iron Man and to create the opening sequence of Priest. In 2023, Tartakovsky is juggling multiple projects including directing the upcoming 2024 New Line R-rated animated feature Fixed, finishing post on the first season of his upcoming Adult Swim series Unicorn: Warrior Eternal, and developing the sequel to his recently completed, Emmy-winning Adult Swim series Primal.
As always, he continues to be a man with his nose tilted down towards the digital tablet or at various computer screens as his various projects continue to hover in the past, present, and the future. With Primal Season 2 arriving on Blu-ray this week and Unicorn premiering May 4, Paste Magazine got Tartakovsky to take a Zoom break with us to reflect on what he accomplished with Primal, his experience inside the scary reorganization within Warner Bros., and how Unicorn, his 15-year passion project, just made it out alive.
Note: This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.
Paste Magazine: Primal ended last September to great acclaim, and now it’s coming out on physical media for more people to discover it. You storyboarded most of that series yourself with a small crew, which means you were subsumed into the work of actively making it for years. Now that you have some real distance from it, were you able to accomplish what you hoped with the two seasons?
Genndy Tartakovsky: I definitely follow this rule where I never leave any room for regrets. I work on something 110%, and if it doesn’t turn out right, I can never look back and go, “Oh, I wish I could have done this a little longer.” It would be impossible. There’s literally no time. The first season was great. I was really proud of it. The second season, we were changing the storytelling a little and expanding the world. I was very happy with it. If you compare the two seasons, I think the smaller stories, maybe, I like more? I’m not sure. But, I think it’s everything that we wanted to do. I finished it the way I wanted to finish it. Looking back, it’s a huge undertaking. But I love it. If I was watching TV, that’s the kind of show I would want to watch.
Paste: The finale episode,”Echoes of Eternity,” introduced a time jump and the daughter of Spear and Mira, which felt like a potential sequel series in the making. Did you immediately pin ideas for where to go with that, or have you needed a rest from the world, creatively?
Tartakovsky: The reaction to that was really great. But I’ll tell you the truth, I never intended to continue with his daughter’s stories. But now, I have an idea that I want to do. We’re in a holding pattern right now because, with the studio, the dust hasn’t settled. We’re waiting. But we have a schedule. And we’ve already written an overview of the 10 episodes that we would be doing.
I am beyond excited about what it’s going to be. I think people who like Primal will love it. It’s new and different, but the same in a way. I’m ready to go, creatively. Once I stop storyboarding, everything gets easier because the storyboarding is the most time consuming. And so now, I’m already itching to start. But we’re waiting to make sure we can do it.
Paste: Primal certainly became your proof of concept that visual driven, dialogue minimal animation can attract an audience.
Tartakovsky: It’s funny. It’s something that I’ve done since the days of Dexter’s Laboratory. I used to have wordless episodes sometimes. Granted, they were seven minutes, but still, it’s been in me to do this kind of visual storytelling. Primal was really the culmination of that. And it’s because during Samurai Jack everybody’s feedback was, “I love that silent sequence.” And then it hit me, “Can I do a whole series of just those sequences?” And, that’s what Primal became.
Paste: Let’s circle back to the “dust still settling” at Warner Bros. Discovery, which has instigated a painful reorganization the last year which has seen many ordered series and films get canceled, and finished productions thrown out for tax write-offs. As a creator, you’ve been protected by management at Cartoon Network, but this purge has felt different. Have you felt more vulnerable during this uncertain time?
Tartakovsky: I mean, it’s rough. This is, I think, my fifth [reorg] since I started at Hanna-Barbera. But this is the most hardcore one. Shows are getting pulled before they even air. Usually, I have a thick skin and I’ve done enough where I feel pretty comfortable. And then all of a sudden, there was a point where I heard that we might be on the bad list. You’re in the thick of it—working night and day, full weekends and everything—and then you just get this nauseous feeling like, “Oh, no. Will it never air?” And then you go, “I’m gonna take it to the internet!” But, I have a great relationship with everybody at the studio and Adult Swim and Warner Bros Animation. I was very fortunate that they kind of protected the show. Primal was pretty much done, but Unicorn was really the one in trouble for a while. Luckily, we’re airing and everything’s all good. I really try, as I’m working, to just get that stuff out of my mind. It’s hard enough to make something good, much less be worried about politics and everything. And here we are.
Paste: Primal and Unicorn were overlapping projects. The Primal episode, “The Primal Theory,” is set in 1890, which is when Unicorn: Warrior Eternal is set. There’s also a character in Unicorn that shares a visual similarity to Samurai Jack’s Daughters of Aku. Are audiences meant to think of “shared universes” with your projects?
Tartakovsky: There are no universe sharing things. We used to, just for fun, put Dexter in the The Powerpuff Girls’ class sleeping. We all worked on each other’s shows, so we just put it in for fun. It’s not thought out. And that was pre-Internet, for the most part. It’s just a cute thing to do. And it’s for people who really are paying attention. Like, I put Samurai Jack’s helmet in “The Primal Theory.” It’s just like a little fun thing. But for sure, there is no Primal, Jack, Dexter, Unicorn universe. They are completely separate things. It’s only because I’m telling you stories in my way, there’s a feeling of that. And that’s the goal and the biggest compliment I could ever get. Like, when you watch a Hitchcock film, you know it’s a Hitchcock film. Not that I’m a Hitchcock or anything, but you want your signature on it. That means you have a point of view that you’re communicating and people are feeling. That’s an incredible thing, because then all of a sudden, people will hire you for you. And they know that I’m gonna do it in my way.
Paste: The aesthetics of this series are very different from your recent work. What inspired the look and why?
Tartakovsky: It’s Max Fleischer and Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy) influenced. And Astro Boy is influenced by Fleischer and Disney from the ’40s, so it’s like this incestual pool of beloved characters. Stephen DeStefano (The Venture Bros., The Cuphead Show) is the character designer. This is his forte. He worked on the Popeye movie with me. We wanted this old aesthetic but told in a very contemporary way with contemporary filmmaking. And that was the key.
[The look] kind of began in maybe 2004 when I started writing an Astro Boy script for Sony. I was a fan of Astro Boy but I had never even read the comics. I just kind of knew of it, right? I read all the comics, and it was incredible. The drawing and imagination of Tezuka was crazy and so cool. By doing that script and reading and looking at all those comics, it became part of my influences, like a new addition. And then, it started to come out in Unicorn
But really, the thing that I was trying to do with this is Snow White. What I mean by that is, you know the scene where Snow White is dying and the dwarves are all there crying. They have giant noses and are super cartoony, but everybody is crying and you feel that emotionality? That was it. There’s a dirty word in animation of being “too cartoony.” They say that you can’t feel emotion if it looks too goofy. And that’s bullshit. And so that’s what I really wanted to do is have this very cartoony thing, but the emotions are real. And the drama really is a soap opera almost, it’s so heightened.
Unicorn: Warriors Eternal premieres with two episodes May 4 at midnight on Adult Swim and the next day on HBO Max. New episodes will debut weekly with encores on Adult Swim and Toonami. Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal: The Complete Second Season is available on Blu-ray & DVD April 25.
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios and the newly released The Art of Avatar: The Way of Water. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen.
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