Titmouse Founder Chris Prynoski on the Animation Industry, the Effects of Streaming, & Landing “Big Mouth”
Interview by Mike O’Donnell / Editor of the WNW Magazine
I visited Titmouse’s headquarters in downtown Hollywood to talk to founder Chris Prynoski about his animation company’s origins and milestones working on hit shows like Big Mouth and Metalocalypse. Chris also shared a ton of insights into Titmouse’s approach in a changing industry and what up-and-coming artists need to know to prepare themselves for a career in animation.
All photography by WNW Member Ethan Scott
The Origins of Titmouse
Mike: What led you to start Titmouse?
Chris: I was working in animation, directing and running shows for studios and networks. Then I was like, “I’ll make t-shirts on the side. That’s fun.” The first one I did was called Titmouse. I did the trademark and copyright and website. It wasn't as easy back then in 2000 to just sell shit on the internet. You had to get a merchant account and get people to program a storefront; there wasn’t Squarespace. I did all that, and luckily went through the whole process of setting up a business just so I could sell shirts on the internet. The designing is fun, and the wearing, that’s always fun. Then everything else is a real shitty job.
Meanwhile, I kept getting freelance animation work. Shannon, my wife, started producing the freelance work. Eventually, we got a gig with 20th Century Fox where we were animating a little sequence in a movie. They asked, "What's your production company?" I was like, "I don't have a production company, I'm just a dude." There was silence on the other end of the phone. They asked, "Do you have production insurance?" I was like, "I have a company, Titmouse. We got a bank account and everything.” We ran that animation job through the t-shirt company. That was the beginning of the studio. It basically grew out of me being too dumb to turn down freelance work.
Mike: How did you get your start as a professional animator?
Chris: I went to the School of Visual Arts in New York. I graduated in the mid-'90s and was lucky that they needed people on TV, and jumped onto the 4th season of Beavis and Butthead. By that time, it was already a hit. Then I got to direct a little bit on Beavis, and I got to direct on Daria. I made a show on MTV that nobody knows about, which won a bunch of awards. Then they were like, "You could go back to directing on Daria." But I felt like I hit the ceiling of what I could do in the animation industry and in New York. My wife Shannon would come to MTV and be like, "Looks like you guys have fun." I was like, "We do. We make cartoons. You should quit your job." She did, and then my show got canceled. We were like, "I guess we'll move to L.A. We have no jobs and no house." So we moved to L.A.
Mike: How was the switch from animating and directing to opening up your own production company? What were some of the things you felt prepared for or where you felt like “we did not think this through?”
Chris: I think this is true with life in general: when you don't know a lot about certain things, you make decisions that you wouldn't make if you did know more. I feel like it was good that I didn't know because I wouldn't have taken as crazy risks as I had. We were in a storefront at one point in West Hollywood that used to be a TV repair shop. We would try to get these animated series jobs but we never got them. People would come by, and see seven people in a storefront and they don't think that they could do a series. Obviously, we just rent space if we get it. But I was like, "No one's ever going to believe that ... " You have to have this perception of success, right?
I didn't know anything about business because I was an artist. I started reading these business books for dummies. They're these Robert Kiyosaki books. It's like Rich Dad, Poor Dad. Cashflow Quadrant. Cashflow Quadrant was the one that made me understand a little bit about how economics work. It’d be like, "This is an asset, and this is a liability.” "If we buy a house to live in, that's a liability, because there's nobody paying rent. But if we buy a building and run our business out of it, then that's an asset, because it'll grow. That's what this book says.” We bought a building. Our accountant was like, "You can't afford to buy that building. You're setting yourselves up for failure. I can't advise you to do this." I was like, "Okay, but if we buy this building, people will get more work because it looks like we're a real studio now." We only had enough money in the bank for three months of the mortgage, and that was it, in our entire life. We would've been down to zero.
But it was good. We just got in there and hustled for work, and got the work. People eventually came. We threw a party and invited a bunch of clients. "Look at this. We're a successful studio." Then got a series within a few months. That’s a bad plan. Kids out there reading this, don't do that. It probably won't work. Now when I think about it, I was like, "That was so reckless." But I’m also glad that I didn't know how stupid it was.
The Changes in the Industry & Titmouse’s Approach
Mike: Fast forwarding to now. How many shows do you work on at a given time?
Chris: I think we have 16 series in production now, which is crazy. That's the most we've ever had. That's between the three cities. We've got studios in L.A., New York, and Vancouver. Vancouver's a lot of animation production with some pre-production. Whereas New York and L.A. focus mainly on the pre-production, but do some animation production.
Mike: I should read “Animation Industry for Dummies.” But what's the general process for how Titmouse gets involved with a show like Big Mouth. Does Netflix reach out?
Chris: Every show's different in how it comes about. Big Mouth was already greenlit by Netflix by the time we got on board, but we knew some of the players involved beforehand. Like a lot of industries, a lot of animation is relationships. You of course have to be able to then follow through and do the work, but I directed this movie that was written by Andy Kevin Walker, who wrote Seven and a bunch of cool movies. He's friends with Mark and Jen, who are two of the Big Mouth creators. I think that's largely why it came over here. Also, my college roommate, Anthony Lioi, is the supervising director on that show. He had worked with Andrew Goldberg, one of the creators. Anthony was like, "You should do it over here at Titmouse. I'm already here. We got it set up. They know how to do it." We didn't pitch that show, but I think we were well-positioned through relationships to get it, and then we didn't fuck it up.
Mike: Is it hard to navigate the industry without those relationships?
The weird thing now is we're about to enter very new territory. The world is so different in many ways because of the internet. It used to be that there were these gatekeepers of Hollywood, and if you didn't have relationships with them, there was no way you could ever get a cartoon financed. That's pretty much the reality that we've been operating under, until this year when we did a Kickstarter for an animated show. We raised enough money to make this show entirely through Kickstarter crowdsourcing. It's crazy. That was one where I was nervous.
It's a Dungeons and Dragons playing stream called Critical Role. We've been developing this show for a couple years. They're all animation voice actors, and one guy is a voice director that works with us all the time. He was like, "Hey, do you think we can do a Kickstarter?" I was like, "I tell everybody no when they ask me that, but you guys have such a popular stream and such a strong fanbase, I think we could do it." We set the Kickstarter at $750,000, which I'm like, "Man, that's a lot of money to ask fans for." They might be like, "Why do you need that money? You're a real studio. Can't you just pay for it?" Or, "How come a cartoon costs that much?" Or, "How come it takes so long?" I was afraid of all this backlash. Then the fans dug in. Within an hour, it hit that goal. It was a 45-day campaign, and we raised $11.3 million. We're making 10 episodes.
Mike: That's incredible. What other ways have you seen the animation industry change? It's probably changing right now while you’re here doing this interview.
Chris: Streaming has changed everything. I think the speed at which people want to get shows on the air is faster, and you can speed up processes with computers, and that sort of stuff. But it's very hard to speed up the creative process, like the writing, storyboarding, and thinking. What makes a show funny is generally how much time you can think about and put the work into making it funny. That you can't really speed up.
You used to always spend a year or so making the pilot. Then they focus group it, and make a bunch of decisions. Then, eventually, they greenlight the series. Then it takes another year and a half before your show's on the air. Now, most of these streaming services and even some of the other broadcasters will just greenlight you straight to series. They'll be like, "We just want it as soon as you can possibly make it," and that cuts a year-plus out of the process. Which is cool and fun creatively, but also it's a little bit by the seat of your pants, a little bit of putting the train tracks down in front of you. Because with a pilot, at least you figure out what worked and where you messed up. When you go straight to series, you just have to figure that out while you're actually doing it. That's harder.
Mike: Given that they expect a faster turnaround, how do you even attempt to solve for that? Is it bringing on a bigger creative staff?
Chris: We can't crunch that very much. We crunch it a little bit, but we generally try to protect that as much as possible. Big Mouth was a good example. Initially, Netflix was like, "We want it very fast." We talked with the creators, and talked with everybody at the network. We're like, "We really don't advise making it that way.” We could do the middle-ground version, but we can't make the super-fast version. Because then you're going to have a show that's not funny, and who needs that?
Mike: Just looking at the things that Titmouse has been involved with, the styles are so disparate. You’re a little bit of everything, it seems, from “The Story of O.J.” to Metalocalypse.
Chris: We don't try to have a house style. But we try to have a house sensibility of what we dig. We hear a lot that people can tell if we've done a show, regardless of what the visual style is, because of the vibe. We just try to find something that we really like about a project, and dig into it. I think our CCO Antonio and I have developed this philosophy of authenticity with whatever we're trying to do. To try and really find out what that thing is and what it's about and make it authentic. Then you don't end up with a shallow parody; you end up with the deep cut. Before Metalocalypse came out, people in the hardcore metal community were critical of it, thinking that it would be making fun of their scene. But because it was made out of a respect and love for that genre, they were ultimately like, "No wait, this is like a love letter to our culture.” “The Story of O.J.” was similar, where that could've been received very poorly if it wasn't super authentic.
Mike: To serve that authenticity, do you try to find a wide mix of different artistic styles in terms of the people you bring on?
Chris: I think it's always best to cast people to something that is in their wheelhouse. Some people are good at everything, but it's rare to find someone who can execute in any style. A lot of times it's like, "Okay, this gig's coming up. Let's bring this person in." Especially the ones we're developing and selling. Let's say we team up with a writer or a comedian, someone who's not a visual artist, and we want to design something for their concept. We'll usually talk to a few different artists and find the one where their natural style fits the project. Rather than be like, "Look at The Simpsons, and look at Family Guy, and look at Rick and Morty, and do something that's one third of each of those." That never ends up being cool.
Mike: How does your approach change if it's a bigger show like Big Mouth that you help concept versus something you are providing a smaller part of like the video game sequence in Her?
Chris: A TV show versus a sequence in a movie is so different. But there's usually a creative lead. Sometimes there's an original concept that has a show creator, and it's their vision. Or if it's an existing property and it has a showrunner that has to interpret it, it's their vision. Or if it's a movie, it's the director of the movie. Like with Her, it was a combo. David O'Reilly was the director of that sequence, who you should look up if you haven't seen his work. He's awesome. He's bringing the visual style and the storytelling style, but then it's also under the director of the film, Spike Jonze. Some of that is Spike casting it, saying, "Hey, I like that studio. I like this director. Let's give them some trust and have them do what they do,” and he was amazing. That was a great project as far as having flexibility. It was tons of fun. You work on that movie, you get that one chunk, and you don't know what the rest of the movie is. You have a general sense. "A guy falls in love with an AI." That was all we knew about it. You're doing just that sequence and you don't know until you go to the premier whether it will be a good movie. I'm always like, "That turned out good. I'm glad we were in that movie."
Mike: Do you trust the creative lead to give you all of the context that you would need for something like that? Do you make sure you're asking certain kinds of questions?
Chris: That's a really good question, because it depends on their experience level, their confidence, and their vision. Some people come to us purely to execute, where they're like, "I got this. I understand exactly what I want it to be. I'm coming to you guys to really just make it." Then some people are like, "I don't know how any of this works." Then those are ones where we take a heavier approach, and we're like, "We're going to put you with a director that really can take the reins of this and be a partner with you to get it to the screen."
Mike: Running an animation studio, I’d imagine you have to have a constant grasp on the latest technology.
Chris: The tools evolve. This may sound like a bullshit answer, but the most important technology is talented artists or creative in general. Funny writers, good designers, talented animators. That's what makes the shows good. You could have the fanciest computer with the fanciest software, and if you have somebody who's not funny working it, it's not going to be funny. Conversely, you could be working with dated software and have somebody really funny use it.
In terms of game-changing hardware, the Cintiq is the thing, man. Being able to draw directly on the screen. Before, it was either you drew on a piece of paper and scanned it, or you would be looking at a screen and drawing on a tablet that's separate. There's a disconnect. When we first started, we established relationships with the vendors. "We'll test out your stuff. Give it to us to test out, and we'll figure it out." We do like to be on the forefront of the tech.
How Titmouse Hires + Advice for Artists
Mike: A lot of animators and illustrators on Working Not Working view Titmouse as a top destination. Can you give a little insight into what you look for in a potential hire. Is it looking at their reel? At their references?
Chris: Hiring is the weirdest thing. It goes back to relationships. Entertainment and animation is often a collaborative thing. If you're working on your own short, it's different. But if you're working on the process of a TV show, there are so many people involved. There’s the writing, the acting, the storyboarding, the designs, the animation, and this and that. Any one scene is generally a collaboration of a bunch of different people's work. If you've never worked with someone or don't know them, you don't know if they had a director who was holding their hand, or if they had really good people backing them up? Who knows what. An art director who was heavily noting them?
The work has to be good, obviously, but what we really rely on are referrals. Because if it's like, "I worked with her in another job. She was awesome. She was a pleasure to work with, and got her work done on time," then that is a huge factor in deciding to hire someone. Because there are a lot of people with really good work, but then it's like, "That background painting took you three weeks to paint? That's not going to work in a production schedule.” Or, to be frank, some people just don't work well with others, for one reason or another. "You're an amazingly talented person, but also an asshole." That's not good. We try to meet people in some manner before we work with them, just to get that vibe. I think a lot of businesses have that "no assholes" policy. I don't feel like we have any assholes working for us right now.
Mike: What are ways you find and test out new talent both local and international?
Chris: Operating in three different cities, we have some people who've moved around. A good number of people have moved to Vancouver. Maybe four, maybe five people have moved from L.A. up to the Vancouver studio permanently. Some of that coincided with our presidential election. The way we started our Vancouver studio was through freelancing to Canadian animators. To get super high-quality 2D animation in the States, it’s really hard to staff up big and fast because most of that work gets outsourced. Most of your high-drawing-count animation gets outsourced to Korea or India. Canada is also a big country for that because of the tax credits. We had maybe about 20 Canadian freelancers in rotation. Then our producer said, "Hey, if we set up a studio there, we could get tax credits and it might be a good business move." We did. Now we just moved into this giant building. We have 300 employees only in Canada now, just at that one studio. We also still freelance to a bunch of people around Canada.
France is another big country for freelance. In France, they train their animators well. Actually, our chief creative officer, Antonio Canobbio, is from Paris. He got his job the opposite of what I'm talking about with referrals. This was when I was at MTV, and I needed really good background layout people for this show that I was making. It was '97 or ’98 and I saw these drawings in a fax machine. I was walking down the hallway, like, "What are these faxes? Who is this?" It was a guy wanting a job, just cold faxing drawings to MTV's fax number. And, weirdly, the fax machine was just in the hallway for some reason. I was like, "We should hire this guy." Never met him, never talked to him. Sent him an offer. Paid for his visa. He came over, and luckily he worked out really, really well. He eventually landed at Cartoon Network. Then when Metalocalypse happened, I was like, "Hey, come away from Cartoon. Work at my company again." That's an example of a way that no one will ever get a job, but he did.
Mike: Aside from firing up an old fax machine that’s conveniently located in a studio hallway, what are some of the more common steps to getting on the radar of a place like Titmouse?
Chris: It's the obvious ways: do good work and put it out there. Editing your own work is a good thing to know. Having the most work is not as good as having a small but really strong portfolio. I would pick somebody with five really good pieces over five good pieces and fifteen okay pieces. You don't want to give a potential employer any reason to say no, or give them pause. If every piece is really, really good, then it's like, "There's nothing crappy in there." Be harsh.
If you don't think you can edit your own work, find some trustworthy, honest friends or coworkers to critique your stuff. The internet's there too. If you're an animator, you can put stuff on YouTube or Vimeo. If you're an artist, put it up on Instagram. Everybody's got that. And on Instagram, follow all the artists that you like. Because some of them might follow you back. Then you might create referrals not solely dependent on physical proximity. Helping people is another good way if you're starting out. If somebody's making an independent film, and you've got a little bit of time, help them. You ever have friends that move? Always help people move. Then you'll have a bunch of people to help you move. That can work out for a film or a job too.
Mike: Are there certain community events that you go to, or take part in, that you'd recommend up-and-coming animators check out to build that community, as well?
Chris: Man, the best thing is animation festivals. I wish there was a good community thing going. There's not really. Animation is weird because we’re adjacent to the entertainment industry and Hollywood, but we're not really in that. We're the weird stepchildren of that that they keep in a closet. You get to go to take part in it a little, but even then I feel like animators are much more likely to be introverted people who would rather be drawing in their sketchbook than putting on a tuxedo or gown. That world doesn't really apply to most of us. Every once in a while somebody navigates it. I try my best but I'm probably not the best at it.
Then there are festivals, which are fun because that's centered around the filmmaking. Especially if you're a student, if you can go to some of those, it's great. The best one, if you can get there, is Annecy, which is in the French Alps. That is an awesome festival. It's the biggest one. It's the biggest international festival. Then I'd probably say Ottawa. There are a bunch of other smaller animation festivals like GLAS, and the different ones that are peppered about. South by Southwest has animation. There are the Annies, which is an animation award show. All the film festivals have animation now.
Mike: What does it take to succeed at Titmouse?
Chris: Really, it's “be good at whatever your craft is.” If you're a designer or painter, just be as good as possible at that. If you're an animator, be good at that. Don’t get bored. Continue to try and challenge yourself, and keep up. Do a lot of work. "How do I start? How do I do this?" Are you drawing all the time? Are you making your own films all the time because you have to and because you're passionate about it? If not, this might not be for you. It's an all-in thing.
I find people are getting better way younger, too, because you have all this information at your fingertips. You can see people's processes. You can watch YouTube videos. You could read articles online. You can go to forums and communicate with people. You can put your work out there and have it critiqued by people. You can even contact people. I think the animation community is especially accessible.
Mike: What’s the company and office culture like at Titmouse?
Chris: The spirit of the name of your company, Working Not Working, is a philosophy we try to have. Figuring out how to emphasize the fun part of work. We're making cartoons. Smash Party is something that we've been doing for years, where we build this cage and smash items in the cage. It started small, and now it's a big party where over 2000 people come to it. It's a private party, just the animation industry, but we have bands play, and have food trucks. That's a fun time.
At San Diego Comic-Con, we rent an RV and skin it with just a weird concept every year. Then we drive around and pick people up. It's not a for-the-public thing, but we do all our press on it, which is great. We pick up the person wherever they are. They come in. Air conditioned. "You want cold water? You want a beer?" You're in, essentially, an isolation booth to record audio, take some pictures. It's worked out great for that. Then clients, friends, or artists come on and we just drive them around. We operate as a private Uber/party on wheels. It's also so hard to get a hotel there that we realized we could just rent this RV, and then rent space in an RV park, and sleep on the RV. Although, this past year, we had to extend our operation to glamping because the RV got a little crowded.
5 Second Day is another thing that we do, which is where we let people film whatever they want. We thought a five-second film was probably about what people could achieve in a day. Now they make these epic ones. They team up. Some of them are like 20-person teams, and they think about it all year long. They make these crazy films that we screen in all three cities. We do the Egyptian here. It always sells out. We do the SVA Theater in New York, and then I think the Rio in Vancouver. That's another cultural thing that Shannon just started for fun. She's like, "People are burnt out. Let's just let them do whatever they want for a day," and it's become a fun thing.
Mike: What steps does Titmouse take towards building a more diverse and inclusive team?
Chris: Artists are all different kinds of people. The animation industry used to be a white-male dominated industry. It's rapidly changing, especially the female side of it. We’re finding a lot more female animation students. The scale is tipping. I know Women in Animation wants to get to a 50/50 on creative by 2025. Our Vancouver studio's already more than 50% women, whereas the other studios have a bit to go. Shannon’s been very involved with Women in Animation and was in this documentary recently about women in the industry. They did a 20-minute doc just about the women of Titmouse that they're using as a stepping stone to do a feature-length documentary about all the women across the entire industry. But we like opening our doors to these kinds of conversations and changes.
All photography by WNW Member Ethan Scott