Shannon and Chris Prynoski, co-founders of Titmouse, the animation house behind some of the biggest cult cartoons, catch up with LBB’s Laura Swinton
The Venture Bros, Metalocalypse, Adult Swim, Son of Zorn, Superjail! If those titles are turning your inner cartoon nerd on, then get ready to meet Titmouse, the animation studio behind them all.
Anyone who has been surfing the animation wave over the past few years is likely to have come across Titmouse’s work – it pops up in adult shows, kids series, video game cinematics, idents, title sequences and more. Thanks to the proliferation of platforms and the seemingly endless appetite for smart, funny cartoon content, the Titmouse team are busier than ever and growing into a force to be reckoned with.
The company, founded by Shannon and Chris Prynoski, has studios in Los Angeles, New York and Vancouver, and a huge team split between the three. Their website says the crew is over 400 strong, but Chris tells me at the moment the real number is closer to 500. Which makes it all the more surprising to learn that Titmouse was born out of accident rather than design. “It’s not like we said, ‘let’s start an animation company’. Chris just needed to be paid,” laughs Shannon.
Titmouse was originally created as a side project for Chris to create and sell t-shirts. Despite working full time as an animator at Cartoon Network, Chris found he was getting approached by creators for freelance gigs and Titmouse was a handy pre-existing company name. As word got out, more work followed and Shannon found she was taking on freelancers to keep up with demand and had to convince Chris to quit the day job and commit to Titmouse. “I was hiring people all the time… and I wanted to hire him!” she says.
It was when they were commissioned to create the title sequences for The Osbournes, the highest profile project for the Titmouse at that point, that the work really started to roll in. But it turns out that the real catalyst for Titmouse’s transformation from a small LA-based shop into a major player was not real life rocker Ozzy Osbourne but a motley crew (pun intended) of fictional headbangers. Metalocalypse is the Adult Swim cartoon series about a death metal band called Deathklok.
“That was the first project we did from scratch and entirely through our company. The creators weren’t artists, in that they didn’t design the look of the show, so they really gave us a lot of freedom in how that show worked,” says Chris, of the show that launched in 2006.
The show allowed the team to grow even further, and it was at that point that Creative Director Antonio Canobbio came on board. In 2010 they opened up a studio in New York, which led to work on Superjail! and taking over the production of the epically silly Johnny Quest-inspired The Venture Bros from series five onwards.
Shannon and Chris had known Chris McCulloch, co-creator of The Venture Bros, for years but a bit of bi-coastal logistics meant that it took a while for Titmouse to get involved in the show. “Chris didn’t go to our school but he was always hanging around for some reason so we’ve known him for a good 25 years. We were in LA when they started Venture Brothers – they always wanted us to do Venture Brothers but he didn’t want to move to LA, so he said ‘would you guys open up a studio in New York?’. And he’s just moved to LA a couple of months ago… so we’re making the show in LA now.”
Since then, the volume of work both at Titmouse and in the general animation ecosystem has exploded. “There’s a lot of work right now,” says Chris. “It reminds me of when I came out of school there was a lot of animation being done at the time. MTV and Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network were pushing hard to make lots of new shows. Then it kind of dropped off about ten years ago with the economic troubles the world was going through and now it’s stronger than ever. I think it will continue to be cyclical . I remember when I was a kid the older guys would say, you don’t know how bad it got in the ‘80s. I think it’s good all around. I don’t think it’s tougher. There’s so much work to go around, so we don’t need to compete with all the smaller independent studios we’re friends over jobs. And artists too.”
With such phenomenal growth and pop culture hits under their belts, Titmouse is a far cry from the indie t-shirt design company founded in 1999. But despite its size, it’s still very much a family-run company. Shannon oversees the logistics of steering the ship, while Chris has become the face of the company. They both spend time visiting each studio and are keen to make sure that the independent spirit and friendly culture persists.
“We try and keep the mentality that we are a small studio because each individual office feels small,” explains Shannon. “It’s a case of travelling between them all and also hiring really cool people. We’re really lucky; we have Kevin Gamble in Vancouver, who knows our sensibility and is a really cool guy. New York’s the same way, with Winnie Chaffee. The artists we hire know they can come in and do their work, it’s not about clocking in it’s about getting the job done and having fun.”
Chris explains that it’s also important to take on projects for the right reasons so as to avoid subjecting their artists to ‘assholes’. “We don’t make all our decisions based on money. It helps the culture,” he says.
Another project that helps foster a culture of creativity is Titmouse’s ‘5 Second Day’. Every so often, animators are let loose to create 5 seconds of any sort of animation they like – and at the end of the day everyone gets together to watch a screen. It helps them spot talent. They also help a couple of artists a year to develop their own short, something they can enter into festivals or pitch.
Looking forward, Titmouse has been spreading its wings beyond the TV series that it is renowned for. Last year they released Nerdland, a dark comedy starring Paul Rudd and Patton Oswalt and Chris’s feature directing debut. The film was written by Andrew Kevin Walker, the screenwriter behind Seven, who came to Titmouse with the idea having been a long-time fan of Metalocalypse. Chris has just started work on the next feature, which he expects to be out in 2020.
One other area that’s caught their attention is commercials. Both Chris and Shannon have a background in the area – Chris directing ads before the TV work exploded and Shannon working as a colour stylist and production manager. Titmouse has also serviced commercials on behalf of other production companies too – but now is the time to dive back in.
“We’d like to get back to the thing where we’re dealing directly with the agency again. Although you also inherit a lot more headaches that way too, so there’s a little give and take on that,” says Chris. “The TV work is a lot of fun. The way it works is that the TV work is fun and creatively fulfilling but there are not a lot of resources for TV shows. Commercials generally have more resources, bigger budgets and sometimes you get to experiment with techniques but they are quite specific and rigid in what needs to happen.”
Oh, and then there’s VR. Thanks to a serendipitous personal connection, Chris managed to strike up a friendship with the team behind the 3D virtual painting app, before it was released to the public. Bouncing ideas around, the Titmouse crew were able to suggest tools and functionalities. When Tiltbrush was acquired by Google, Titmouse were invited to be artists in residence and ended up making a music video entirely created in Tiltbrush. 'Show It 2 Me' debuted at SXSW 2017.
Yep, there’s a lot of exciting stuff going on at Titmouse. Chris and Shannon eat sleep and breathe animation – and thanks to their four year old son, they’ve also found themselves bombarded with pre-school cartoons too. But then, animation isn’t something for the half-hearted, as Chris also advises aspiring artists.
“If you don’t do it all the time for fun anyway as your hobby, it’s probably not for you. It’s pretty immersive. I’d liken it to being a professional basketball player and finding it a chore to play basketball…” he says. “I think you really have to love it.”