In preparation for my next book, I read Writing Fight Scenes by Rayne Hall. I figured I should make sure I know how to write action. I recently watched Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal and was struck by the minimalist storytelling. For those of you who are not familiar with Mr. Tartakovsky’s work, he is a master animator. I highly recommend watching his weird and wonderful series Samurai Jack, which recently finished with a final season after a long but deceptively temporary cancellation.

Primal differs in that it has zero discernible dialogue. The voice actors grunt and roar, but the story is told with zero language. It is pure storytelling through action. So, I wanted to break down the fifth episode of the first season, Rage of the Ape-men.

Spoiler warning: if you have not watched Primal, stop reading this and go watch it now. You will not regret it. As of this writing, only five episodes have been released. After watching the fifth one, come back and read this article. And once you're done that, go watch the rest of Mr. Tarkovsky's work.

Phase One - Suspense

The Suspense phase is by far the longest. Mr. Tartakovsky shows skill, not by having unrelenting action, but by showing the calm before the storm. The two protagonists, Spear, a caveman, and his partner, Fang, a female Tyrannosaurus Rex, find a utopian waterfall. This episode starts off quite differently from the rest of the episodes. In earlier episodes, the tension is high, however, this waterfall is an oasis in a world of threats. Fang plays with a cloud of butterflies, the sunlight is warm, and the fish in the pool aren’t even afraid of spears hand. At one point, Fang eats the pile of fish that Spear is collecting, but what would’ve been a point of conflict between the two characters becomes little more than an amusement.

The only hint of tension is when Fang finds a worm in the sand and is triggered by her memory of the snakes from episode two. The lack of tension becomes tension. The juxtaposition of relaxation evokes dread in the viewers since they know this is an action TV series. Mr. Tarkovsky lulls the viewer into a false narrative of safety, but the viewers understand he would not be telling the story if there was no conflict. Thus, the suspense builds.

Fang decides to take a nap on a rock, and Spear tries to sneak up on her by swimming under the water. The suspense is ramped up when he sees shadows when he is under the water. When he emerges, Fang is gone. When he follows a trail in the sand into the jungle, Spear is knocked out by an unknown assailant.

The second part of the suspense phase starts when Spear wakes tied up in vines. Fang is suspended beside him, also bound.

Those of you familiar with Jackie Chan movies know that the layout of the location of the action is shown to the audience before the action starts—in the good ones, that is. The same happens here. In the center of the arena is an ape-man dressed in priest-like robes. Around the top of the arena are smaller ape-men with white fur, shrieking.

Down below are five large gorilla-men, including this episode’s antagonist, Big Gorilla. The shaman draws a circle with his staff. They gather around the circle and close their eyes. It is not unlike the ritualized opening of a sumo match with the throwing salt and bowing. The shaman climbs his pillar, raises his staff, and uses a pregnant pause to further build up suspense. He brings it down, and the five gorilla-men attack each other. The other four are quickly injured or killed by Big Gorilla.

Funnily enough, Big Gorilla isn’t the biggest gorilla. He’s the second biggest, but he’s the smartest fighter.

I would argue that this is still the suspense phase. While there is certainly action, the scene serves to build the threat.

As a reward, the shaman takes a small amount of an oily drug and pours it down a winding shoot down the side of his pillar. Big gorilla drinks the oil. His muscles get larger, eyes turn red, and explodes in a berserker rage.

All of this is setup for what’s to come.

Phase Two - Start

Fang is lowered into the arena and is immediately hit so hard she is on the precipice of unconsciousness. This does not bode well for our two protagonists. Together they are unbeatable, but apart they are vulnerable. While Fang recovers from the devastating blow, Big Gorilla dons a Triceratops skull. His glowing red eyes show through the eyeholes.

Phase Three - Action

Fang dishes out some aggression, but Big Gorilla returns it threefold. Big gorilla takes out Fang with one blow to her leg. She falls to the ground unconscious. Spear chews through his bindings to defend his reptilian friend, lands a single blow to Big Gorilla’s eye, but suffers an overwhelming blow. He knows he’s overpowered and outclassed.

Surprisingly, the action phase is quite short. In Writing Fight Scenes, Rayne Hall explains the spectrum between gritty and entertaining fight scenes. I had thought Primal was squarely on the entertaining side of the spectrum, but gritty scenes tend to have shorter action. Perhaps Primal is more on the gritty side.

Phase Four - Surprise

Spear has to find a way to level the playing field. In previous episodes, this was done by finding a new aspect of his partnership with Fang. That’s not an option here. Instead of fighting Big Gorilla one-on-one, he climbs up the pillar and quickly dispatches the shaman. He then downs every last bit of the oil in the pan.

All of the smaller, white-furred ape-men drop onto spear and rain down their fists. A small amount of the oily drug age made Big Gorilla a bit bigger. The effect is amplified in large doses. Spear emerges from the melee in a de-evolved state: he has a bulging forehead, is twice as tall, twice as wide, and grey.

Phase Five - Climax

Big Gorilla lands a few blows. Hulk-Spear knocks the Triceratops skull off with one hit.

After Hulk-Spear tears off Big Gorilla’s arms and beats him to death with them, the rest of the white-furred ape-men look down in horror.

They all attack. He decapitates and obliterates their flesh with each blow, all in high frame rate gore.

As the ape-men retreat, Hulk-Spear chases them down and swats them like flies.

Phase Five - Aftermath

A bloodsoaked, non-Hulk-Spear emerges from a pile of twisted eight-man body parts. He finds fang still on the ground, potentially unconscious or dead. He pushes on her snout to wake her up.

Fade to credits.

 

 

Your Humble Scribe,

Brock T.I. Penner

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