Behind the ivy-covered walls of a large contemporary building near West Hollywood, there’s a statue of Big Foot and one of the most edgy and prolific animation studios in town, known as Titmouse.
The company named for a sweet little bird was once just all about making t-shirts until co-founders (and husband and wife) Chris and Shannon Prynoski realized they could make bank and have fun creating animation. Nearly two decades later, their business has grown to include offices in New York, Vancouver and Los Angeles. These days, more than 400 animators, compositors, storyboard artists, writers and editors work in-house for the studio.
If you stop by their website, you’ll see a simple statement: “We make cartoons.” But the type of work and style of animation show a company doing that and so much more. The work covers a wide range—from edgy shows like The Venture Bros. and Son of Zorn to Disney’s Kirby Buckets. Khang Le, an art director with the company, just received an Emmy for Individual Achievement in Animation for work on the Amazon show Little Big Awesome. The studio’s first animated feature, Nerdland, which features the voices of Paul Rudd and Patton Oswalt, is now on Netflix.
This past summer, Titmouse also produced a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Summer Short and completed character animation on a JAY-Z video. Meanwhile, the team’s stunning third-season trailer for Rick and Morty (“Exquisite Corpse”) has already racked up more than 4.9 million views on YouTube. Among other recent credits are children’s shows such as Disney’s Goldie & Bear and Amazon’s Niko and the Sword of Light. The studio is also expanding into virtual reality projects that incorporate Google’s Tilt Brush audio reactive brushes.
“I think it was definitely word of mouth, because I started out doing a lot of stuff individually, and I worked with MTV doing more adult animation,” says Chris Prynoski. “From there you have a lot of stuff that shows a certain kind of animation so you tend to get more of that work.”
As the company grew and Prynoski started pitching more kids’ shows, that became a larger part of what Titmouse focused on. But they didn’t drop their signature approach even when moving away from adult animation for other projects.
“I think we have more of a house sensibility than a house style, based on the feedback we get on social media,” says Prynoski. “There’s a little something in our humor or the way we do things that’s different, somehow.”
“When I was in high school, my best friend and I would shoot little movies and things. He decided he was going to NYU to go to film school and that made me think that the drawing I was doing and the movies I was making could be a job,” Prynoski recalls. “So, when I was a senior I started making little animated movies and I got into the School of Visual Arts in New York.”
Beavis and Butt-Head Open Doors
After Prynoski graduated in 1994, the industry was going through an adult animation boom, so he found work on projects such as Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, Freddy Got Fingered and Liquid Television. The time he spent with director Mike Judge while working on Beavis and Butt-Head gave him a glimpse into running animated productions and where he’d like to take his skills later. He says he discovered early on that it wasn’t his diploma from art school that would take him places. He would need to use his skills as an animator, producer and creator to build a career and a business.
As the business has grown, Prynoski and the management team have had to accept that they can’t always be the ones to directly work on each and every project. They’ve grown the company in a way that makes it possible to have skilled artists on each show.
“These guys are so key to the running of the studio and to me, they became indispensable,” says Prynoski. “With somebody like Antonio Canobbio (VP and creative director for Titmouse) and the rest of our officers, we have a group that can handle anything that comes our way, and we’re better with the input of all these artists.”
The studio continues to create shows that reflect its beginnings. Its work on Netflix’s new series Big Mouth—co-created by comedian/actor Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg (Family Guy) and writer/directors Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin (Little Manhattan)—relies on a more simple style of animation.
“To make the sincere and serious moments feel genuine, we designed Big Mouth‘s universe to feel real and relatable,” says Otto Tang, art director for Titmouse and the show. “The backgrounds are drawn with a bit more maturity and sophistication, compared to the exaggerated proportion of our character designs. This gives a lot more space for the writing to jump between absurd comedy and serious heartfelt subject matter. The art direction for this show isn’t something audiences will pay attention to. But it will be felt beneath, sort of like the bass line of a song.”
Goldberg has been thrilled with Titmouse’s work on the show. “Titmouse really has a way of doing things that supports artists exploring how they create a show,” says Goldberg. “You see how much they want to be just right for what you’re trying to do, so you always have a feeling that they’re giving everything.”
Prynoski sees the current adult animation boom as part of his Beavis and Butt-Head fans getting older but still having a taste for the renegade humor that made that show such a big part of pop culture in the 1990s. The audience may be aging, but their sensibilities still leave them craving similar shows. With more streaming services hungry for animated content these days, the demand for what Titmouse can bring to these projects has also multiplied.
“It’s a great time for animation and for us to be in the animation business because there’s definitely an audience for the kind of work we do,” says Prynoski. “It’s great to be part of making the shows we want to watch.”
For more info about the studio, visit www.titmouse.net.
This story originally appeared in the November issue of Animation Magazine, No. 274.