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Genndy Tartakovsky is an animation genius and the creator of Dexter’s Laboratory, Sym-Bionic Titan and most recently Primal (now streaming on All 4), the tale of a caveman and dinosaur who team up in a world full to the brim with dangers. What do all these series have in common aside from sharing a showrunner? Nothing. Not nothing in the sense of nothing in common but nothing in the sense of minimalism – nothingness within the episode. To better understand how minimalism can fit in animation, we must look at perhaps one of the greatest cinematically shot animated series of all time and another of Tartakovsky’s masterpieces Samurai Jack.
Samurai Jack blends powerful action sequences with beautifully picturesque shots of stylistic scenery. Tartakovsky takes inspiration from older Disney films to create a unique style for the hand painted environments of his world. They are simple yet incorporate a distinct look and feel. A forest looks like a forest. A castle looks like a castle. It doesn’t need to be anything more, never needing high detail to tell the story. Samurai Jack evokes old martial arts and samurai stories, looking like Frank Miller’s comic book Ronin and David Carradine starring TV show Kung-Fu, but then adds something more. The futuristic world it’s set in lends itself to abstract visuals as well as cinematic staging.
Cinematic staging is a film makers dream. Tartakovsky plays with multiple aspects and shots in order to tell his tale. One moment could lead to a split screen and quickly transition into a close-up, drawing our eye to the correct point of the frame and acting as a beautifully brought to life sequence.
There is very little dialogue in Samurai Jack and that is where the simplistic nothingness excels. The series – be it during an action sequence, a moment of tension, or a character just walking through a terrain – prioritises showing over telling. A fight sequence is more close ups of swords and backflips than two characters shouting slurs at each other. Some characters never speak, yet we learn about them through visuals. The setting of Samurai Jack changes so often as our protagonist journeys through the world. We see everything from gangster stories to Viking tales, all of which feel fresh. This is because these settings are never spelt out to the viewer. We are just shown them.
A perfect example of the minimalist approach is in the episode ‘The Three Blind Archers’. During it, the title character takes on three archers who, being blind, use their acute hearing abilities to find their target. Jack eventually learns of this and uses it to his advantage in order to better fight this silent enemy. The sequence plays with sound and the lack of it, visuals, as well as tense music to build suspense.
There is no dialogue during this whole section. Yet, we can see exactly what is going on and feel the scene as if we are stood in the snow with the characters. We learn along with Jack. We gain feelings and thoughts as he does. It’s ground-breaking in terms of minimalism. The scene doesn’t need pointless expository dialogue because it trusts the medium itself to evoke emotions. It breaks animation down to its core principles, focusing on our senses one at a time and developing a world through colour and subtle motion.
The way Tartakovsky shows us Jack’s battles is animation and cinema at its most pure, stripping away unnecessary artifice and trusting the moving image, simple imagery and a well-deployed soundtrack to do what it does best. After all, sometimes less is more and Samurai Jack understands this more than anything.