Animation is an anarchic medium. Anything can happen. In the hit Netflix show Big Mouth, hormone monsters haunt pubescent teens, characters surf waves of their own menstrual blood and the class clown forms a bisexual romantic attachment 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 recalled 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 the traditional work do, where people take turns to enter a cage and obliterate appliances. Then there was the time an artist brought a giant samurai sword into the office for reference, only for it to be taken outside and used to slice watermelons mid-air. Another time – before the studio was a multi-location, Netflix-affiliated, cartoon-making behemoth with an HR department and more than 400 on the payroll – Chris was driving through Hollywood and spotted 20 toilets dumped outside a building site. He was so excited he got a couple of the animators to bring them back to the parking lot so they could, well, smash them later. “And we did!” he says. “And then a guy got his hand cut. We had to bring him to the emergency room … I would not make a decision like that today.”
Now, Titmouse is at the heart of a renaissance for adult animation. As well as the Emmy-award winning Big Mouth, it is the studio behind another cult Netflix show, The Midnight Gospel, a psychedelic jaunt 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 down-and-out family, is in production. Then there is The Legend of Vox Machina, an animated show based on Critical Role, the Dungeon & Dragons role-playing web series, which is due to stream on Amazon Prime. In January 2020, Titmouse signed a multi-year deal with Netflix to produce more adult animated series, but it is only just dawning on Chris and Shannon that the studio may actually be “big”. “We used to shoot from the hip,” says Chris. “Now we have to be slightly more adult with our decision making.”
Chris and Shannon are holed up in Austin, Texas, in their “cabin-in-the-woods” escape from LA, as we speak over Zoom. In true animator fashion, Chris sits in a darkened room (his art studio) with a black hoodie pulled over his head, a departure from his signature patterned bucket hat. The wall behind him is lined with graphic prints and illuminated by a UV light that causes the colours on the posters to pop DayGlo green and pink. One features an illustration of Frankenstein and reads: “Get hip, drop out”. Shannon connects from the living room. Her hair is dyed purple-pink and she is joined intermittently by their pet dog and eight-year-old son, who waves from behind a blanket.
The pair, who shirk their Hollywood-exec status in both attitude and demeanour, never intended to start an animation studio. They met at the School of Visual Arts in New York and graduated in the mid-90s amid the last animation boom. Cartoon Network had just been founded, The Simpsons was at its peak and Chris worked on shows for MTV such as Beavis and Butt-Head, and directed on Daria – both cult classics from the era – while Shannon worked as photo editor and colourist before moving into production.
Titmouse (named after the songbird) started as an online T-shirt business to make cash on the side while Chris freelanced, but the work snowballed when they moved to LA. They went to the bank with a business plan that could be summarised as: “We make cool cartoons and we hope people will pay us to make more of them.” With a few pointers, they got a loan. In true slacker fashion, one of the company’s first animation jobs was an animated segment for the famously awful film 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 its Adult Swim shows Metalocalypse and Venture Bros.
While US cable TV played a big role in the last animation boom, now, says Chris, it is streaming services and “the unlimited real estate they provide”. We may be seeing the peak of that boom, he thinks, “but animation runs on long schedules so that’s going to go on for a couple more years. And if shows are successful …” The audience for adult animation is growing, too: the 90s nurtured a generation that has retained a connection to the genre. “It’s become more of a 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 were put on ice, the animation industry – the ultimate in WFH film-making – whirred into action. Titmouse even managed to run its smash party virtually: it constructed a digital version of its studio parking lot in the game Second Life. Two thousand people attended. It is tempting to see this adaptability as more fuel for the current boom – but it’s too early to tell. Commercials and music videos were quick to switch – Titmouse did the character animation for a Dua Lipa video that was produced entirely by remote working – but TV and film less so. “We would get into talks,” says Chris. “And we’d be like: ‘Yeah, sure, you can have it by January 2023.’ And they’d say: ‘Well we can shoot stuff 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 reason for its growing appeal be an appreciation for the unique way it can challenge and provoke us? “I think animation always has [done this] to some degree,” says Chris. “But our world, socially and politically, has become so much more extreme and in-your-face that now, the animation is rising to that level to address it.”
Big Mouth – now on its fourth series – is a case in point. The show is gross, but it has heart. A bouquet of cartoon penises, talking vulvas and perverted ghosts, it demystifies the graphic reality of puberty – and, crucially, removes the shame that can surround it – in a way that would be impossible to do with live action. “I think that’s where it’s struck,” says Chris. “In a live-action show, it might just be too disturbing to watch. And some of these sexual jokes, you know, it allows you to laugh at them more easily when it’s depicted through the gauze of animation … so it’s not like, oh, a realistic closeup of a teenager’s genitals …”
Titmouse has so far evaded a house style. While Big Mouth has a fairly familiar aesthetic, Tigtone, a fantasy-quest satire for Adult Swim, uses motion-capture suits to outrageous, melodramatic effect. “Chris never says no to projects,” says Shannon, “and also he takes risks.” This attitude – and a willingness to embrace nonconformity – comes from the studio’s origins as a scrappy artist-run enterprise. It shapes its internal culture, too. “5 Second Day” is an annual event where Titmouse artists are given time to create a five-second short. One concept from the day, Mao Mao: Heroes of Pure Heart, an adventure series about a daring cat, went on to become a Cartoon Network series. But really it is about the fun of creating. “That was always my favourite thing in art school,” says Shannon. “To watch your little films with everybody else and no judgment. Just, you know, laughing.”
Titmouse is live streaming 5 Second Day on Friday, 5 March 5 at 6:30 pm PT/9:30 pm ET