TOAnimation is an anarchic medium. Anything can happen. On the hit Netflix show Big MouthHormonal monsters chase pubescent teens, characters surf waves of their own menstrual blood, and the class clown forms a bisexual romantic bond with a pair of anthropomorphic pillows.
Behind the scenes at Titmouse, the animation studio that brought Big Mouth to life, things can get pretty anarchic too.
Fondly remembered anecdotes from Chris and Shannon Prynoski, the husband and wife duo who founded Titmouse in 2000, include the studio’s infamous “smash party” – a punk alternative to traditional work, where people take turns entering a cage and annihilate accessories. Then there was the moment when an artist brought a giant samurai sword into the office for reference, only to take it outside and use it to slice watermelons in midair. On another occasion, before the studio was a Netflix-affiliated cartoon-making giant with a human resources department and more than 400 on the payroll, Chris was driving through Hollywood and saw 20 toilets dumped outside of a movie site. construction. He was so excited that he got a couple of entertainers to bring them back to the parking lot so they could, well, smash them later. “And we did it!” he says. “And then a guy’s hand was cut off. We had to take him to the ER … he wouldn’t make a decision like that today. “
Now, Titmouse is at the heart of a renaissance in adult animation. In addition to the Emmy award winner Big Mouth, it is the studio behind another Netflix cult show, The midnight gospel, a psychedelic excursion based on the Duncan Trussell Family Hour podcast. For CBS All Access, Titmouse has produced Star Trek: Lower Decks; Another show for the network, The Harper House, about a family in ruins, is in production. Then there’s The Legend of Vox Machina, an animated show based on Critical Role, the Dungeon & Dragons web role-playing game series, which will air on Amazon Prime. In January 2020, Titmouse signed a multi-year deal with Netflix to produce more adult animated series, but Chris and Shannon are just realizing that the studio can really be “big.” “We used to shoot from the hip,” says Chris. “Now we have to be a little more adult with our decision making.”
Chris and Shannon are in hiding in Austin, Texas, on their “cabin in the woods” escape from Los Angeles, as we speak on Zoom. In the manner of a true animator, Chris sits in a dark room (his art studio) with a black hoodie pulled over his head, a departure from his trademark patterned bucket hat. The wall behind him is lined with graphic prints and illuminated by ultraviolet light that makes the poster colors pop in DayGlo green and pink. One presents an illustration of Frankenstein and says, “Get cool, quit.” Shannon connects from the living room. Her hair is dyed pink purple and she is intermittently joined by her pet dog and eight-year-old son, who waves from behind a blanket.
The couple, who evade their status as Hollywood executives in both attitude and behavior, never intended to start an animation studio. They met at the School of Visual Arts in New York and graduated in the mid-1990s in the midst of the latest animation boom. Cartoon Network had just been founded, The Simpsons was in full swing and Chris worked on MTV shows like Beavis and Butt-Head, directing Daria, both cult classics of the time, while Shannon worked as a photo editor and colorist before. to move out. in production.
Titmouse (named for the songbird) started out as an online t-shirt business to earn cash while Chris was freelancing, but the job skyrocketed when they moved to Los Angeles. They went to the bank with a business plan that could be summed up as: “We do great cartoons and hope that people will pay us to do more.” With some advice, they got a loan. In true lazy fashion, one of the company’s early animation jobs was an animated segment for the famous gruesome movie Freddy Got Fingered. Titmouse was boosted by the arrival of Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s late-night adult animation segment, which launched a year later. Until Big Mouth, Titmouse was best known for his shows Adult Swim Metalocalypse and Venture Bros.
While US cable TV played a big role in the latest animation boom, now, Chris says, it’s all about streaming services and “the unlimited space they provide.” We may be seeing the peak of that boom, he thinks, “but the animation runs on long hours, so it will continue for a couple more years. And if the shows are successful … ”The audience for adult animation is also growing: the 1990s nurtured a generation that has retained a connection to the genre. “It’s become the norm,” says Shannon, “and people want to keep watching it no matter how old they are.”
Then there is the pandemic. When live action projects froze, the animation industry, the latest in filmmaking from the WFH, jumped into action. Titmouse even managed to hold his big party virtually – he built a digital version of his studio parking lot in the Second Life game. Two thousand people attended. It’s tempting to see this adaptability as more fuel for the current boom, but it’s too early to tell. The commercials and music videos changed quickly: Titmouse did the character animation for a Video of Dua Lipa It was produced entirely through remote work, but not so much television and film. “We got into conversations,” says Chris. “And we’d say, ‘Yeah sure, you can have it by January 2023.’ And they said, ‘Well, we can film things by then. So forget it. ‘”
Animation is a medium with its own set of rules and possibilities. It can push us into spaces that may not be palatable, or even possible, in other formats. Could one of the reasons for its growing appeal be an appreciation for the unique way it can challenge and provoke us? “I think animation has always [done this] up to a point, ”says Chris. “But our world, socially and politically, has become much more extreme and direct than now, animation is rising to that level to address it.”
Big Mouth, now in its fourth series, is a good example. The show is gross, but it has heart. A bouquet of cartoon penises, talking vulvas, and perverted ghosts demystifies the graphic reality of puberty and, more importantly, removes the embarrassment that can surround it, in a way that would be impossible to do with live action. “I think that’s where it has caught the eye,” says Chris. “On a live action show, it might be too disturbing to watch. And some of these sexual jokes, you know, allow you to laugh at them more easily when rendered through the gauze of animation … so it’s not like, oh, a realistic close-up of a teenager’s genitalia. .. “
Titmouse has so far evaded the style of a house. While Big Mouth has a fairly familiar aesthetic, Tigtone, a fantasy-seeking satire for Adult Swim, wears motion-capture suits with outrageous, melodramatic effect. “Chris he never says no to projects, “says Shannon,” and he also takes risks. ” This attitude, and the willingness to embrace nonconformity, stems from the studio’s origins as a struggling artist-run enterprise. It also shapes your internal culture. “Five-second day” is an annual event where the Titmouse artists have time to create a five-second short. A concept of the day, Mao Mao: Heroes of Pure Heart, an adventure series about a sassy cat, became a Cartoon Network series. But it really is about the fun of creating. “That was always my favorite thing in art school,” says Shannon. “Watch your little movies with everyone else and without judging yourself. Just, you know, laughing. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism