What the animation company behind Metalocalypse, The Venture Bros., and much more is up to now.
No matter how you choose to spend your time at San Diego Comic-Con--whether you're waiting hours in line for a panel, or braving the show floor in search of a Spider-Man fidget spinner--you're almost always going to be overheated, exhausted, and malnourished. The Titmouse RV is a traveling oasis for overworked journalists, where you can crack open a beer or two with Chris Prynoski, the ubiquitous animation company's co-founder, and shoot the breeze about cartoons for an hour.
"We might go to this area that looks like we're going to kill you and dump you on the railroad tracks," Prynoski says, as the RV begins to lumber away from the convention center. "It's because we can't park anywhere around Comic-Con. So we found this weird deserted dirt road near the train tracks. It's the standard murder-yard."
So what's new with Titmouse? "We just keep trying to make these cartoons," he says.
Founded in 2000 by Prynoski and his wife Shannon as a t-shirt printing company, Titmouse has animated some of the most influential shows of the last two decades, like Metalocalypse, Superjail!, and The Venture Bros. Their most recent projects include Amazon's Niko and the Sword of Light (which won an Emmy for Outstanding Children's Animated Program), various virtual reality music videos, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles short film, character animations for a Jay Z music video, and that bonkers Rick and Morty season 3 "exquisite corpse" trailer that had everyone talking a couple of weeks ago.
The one thing that's consistent among all Titmouse's work is the quality, while everything else is up in the air on each new project. Take the Rick and Morty trailer. That show's creators, Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, told GameSpot recently that they felt guilty they were getting credit for it. In reality, it was all Titmouse.
"That was so fun," Prynoski says. "Justin [Roiland] was mostly involved in a couple, like, vague ideas at the beginning, then bringing him in to do voices. And the animators wrote all the dialogue."
The concept--the "exquisite corpse"--came from a French style where multiple artists contribute to a whole piece without seeing one another's work. "It was like a parlour game, when you're like, drinking absinthe in a French cafe, smoking and getting a b****** from a hooker, if you're like, [French artist] Toulouse Lautrec or something," Prynoski says. At Titmouse, they have the freedom to experiment.
Prynoski's look--unkempt hair, graying beard, goofy Budweiser bucket hat--is distinctive. In the air-conditioned, dimly lit RV, he offers two types of beer: Fancy, or not fancy. He cracks a couple of Buds.
"It's a weird thing that happens when you become a business, that in order to keep it going you have to keep taking jobs to keep doing more, which makes you have to make more," he says. He's not complaining. "It's like a never-ending cycle, which is cool and fun, because we like making cartoons."
That also means expanding. "When we were making Metalocalypse, we were maybe like 40 people, and it was mostly, you know, we'd be doing one series and then maybe one or two small projects, like working on the Guitar Hero cutscenes or something," Prynoski says. Titmouse now has offices in LA, New York, and Vancouver, and around 500 employees. And people are coming to them for bigger and bigger projects, like the Jay Z music video for "The Story of O.J."
"They didn't tell us who it was, and they were like, it's super high pressure because it has to be high quality, it has a very fast schedule, and we were like, 'I dunno if we can do it,'" Prynoski says. "And then Ben [Kalina, Titmouse's COO] pressed 'em on the creative, and we found out who it was for, and kind of saw the creative and like, alright, we'll do this one. This is cool."
"That one was in super lockdown when we were in production on it," Prynoski explains. "Not only because it's Jay Z, but because if one of those images leaked out of context, man, that would not be good."
"We couldn't even have the song on our server. We got like, chunks of it," Kalina, sitting across the RV, adds.
The Emmy for Niko and the Sword of Light was a nice surprise. Kalina said they get nominated regularly, but rarely win anything: "You kind of just get used to like, OK, this is the part where I'm going to pack my bag, and finish my drink, and we'll lose, and we'll just go."
"It's way more fun to win," Prynoski says.
Cartoons have changed a lot in the past few decades. Prynoski reminisced about compromising with the Standards and Practices (S&P) department to push the envelope as much as possible on shows like Metalocalypse, which portrayed a metal band so big they made up a large chunk of the world's economy, and whose wealth and popularity was matched only by their depravity.
"I don't know if you remember this one, where they're all trying to learn how to suck their own d***s, and it was like, we were really trying to figure out how to stage that and still get it past S&P," Prynoski says. "You had to do these like, side views where you can't see anything, but it's just all implied."
Titmouse's repertoire definitely includes plenty of cartoons for people of all ages, but their reputation has also limited them occasionally. Potential clients tell them they want to do a show like Metalocalypse, but Prynoski can often tell when they don't really know what they're asking for.
"I was like, 'We did an episode of Metalocalypse where they're all trying to learn how to suck their own d***s. Would you do an episode like that?'" he recalls of one specific instance. "And there was silence on the other line, and they just said, 'No.' And we never did another phone call with them after that. But clearly, I think we got to the 'no' faster that way. Because we could have worked with them for six months, and then figured out they don't want anything like this."
Prynoski got his start working on MTV shows like Daria, Celebrity Deathmatch, Beavis and Butthead, and The Head. "It felt like how Adult Swim feels, and it didn't last that long. That only really lasted like, six years, seven years, and it was over," he says. "Adult Swim really started to kick into gear in like the mid to early 2000s, like 2004, 2005, 2006, you know. It was like, oh, this is becoming something big. And it's f***ing not dipped since then. It just continues to be cool."
Titmouse's continued success feels inevitable to anyone paying attention to animation today. Prynoski says he wants to slow the expansion down for now. He's just happy he gets to keep making cartoons. "I'm kind of encouraged by how long this has lasted," he says.
Anyone who's ever enjoyed an episode of Metalocalypse or The Venture Bros.--who's currently binging Niko and the Sword of Light, who wants to watch music videos in virtual reality, who marveled recently at "The Story of O.J." or the Rick and Morty exquisite corpse trailer, or who's enjoyed an hour in a roving oasis during Comic-Con--would no doubt say the same.