There is no better place for the worlds of art and real life to collide than at San Diego Comic-Con. This past summer ForeverGeek met up with the founder of Titmouse Animation on the streets of San Diego in the back of a rented RV. We learned how to accidentally start an animation studio while simultaneously wrapping a large vehicle in giant day-glo stickers.
The RV trundled to a creaky stop along a seemingly abandoned highway. I didn’t realize how much time had passed, but it couldn’t have been long. The skies were still sunny and blue and I could still see the tallest buildings from what still looked like downtown San Diego in the distance.
“I-Is this where you’re dumping my body?”, I asked sheepishly. I had honestly just met Chris P (full name Chris Prynoski) and his cohorts mere minutes ago, glancing at the time on my phone. This wasn’t turning out exactly as I had hoped.
“Oh, we’re definitely coming here to kill you.”, the bearded stranger across from me chuckled.
When I got the invite to meet with the creator of the Titmouse animation studio, I jumped at the chance. Not just because I’m a fan of many of the animated series they’re known for, but because it wasn’t just another soulless Comic-Con roundtable in a hotel conference room. They offered up a chance to roam around the beautiful city of San Diego while chatting about cartoons with the people who are responsible for some of the weirdest, most progressive yet retro-looking animated series on television today: Venture Bros, Metalocalypse, Black Dynamite, Super Jail, and the new series Son of Zorn, premiering on Fox this month.
Soon after beginning the on-the-road interview, we pulled over to the side of the road on the outskirts of the city, far from the costumed, clamoring crowds filling the convention center for the week. It was only Thursday morning, and already the week had taken a weird turn, even for Comic-Con.
Turns out Chris P isn’t a serial killer. It didn’t take him long to put my mind at ease… and put my body to work. Much like the origins of Titmouse, their presence at San Diego Comic-Con is a low key, DIY endeavor without the flash and splash of the big production companies that take over the city every July. Cartoon Network and Adult Swim might have a monolithic presence inside the convention center and Fox might have a giant Son of Zorn banner draped across the Hilton Bayfront parking garage (see below), but it doesn’t mean everyone needs to shell out the big bucks for primo space. Sometimes you just have to rent a recreational vehicle and take your show on the road. And since I was their first victim, err… interviewer of the week, it just happened to coincide with some other work that had to get done to get their name out there.
The interview was put on hold for a bit as I got the chance to help Chris P and his team wrap the rented RV in giant adhesive vinyl banners bearing the Titmouse logo and a giant pink cat head. Besides, how often do you get to help to set up a roving neon art installation and Uber-esque party mobile with the people who have given you so many hours of animated goodness over more than the past decade? It was the least I could do as a fan, not just a member of the media.
FOREVERGEEK: We’re at San Diego Comic-Con, home of the highest concentration of your fans anywhere in the universe. Is this your kind of place as well or a necessary evil?
CHRIS P: I used to come as a fan, but over the years, it’s more about supporting my friends.
This guy I know has a booth, this person has a panel, so it’s just going and catching up with people I’ve worked with over the years. It’s like a reunion or summer camp or something. I don’t do any of the big event panels anymore. I don’t camp out for Hall H.
FOREVERGEEK: So what’s the point of the RV… beyond taking interviews on the road?
CHRIS P: Honestly, we’re going to be playing D&D here. And we are kind of like an Uber service for our friends. I never get to see everybody I want at Comic-Con. It’s totally selfish. If I have this RV, people come to me and just hang out with me as I drive from party to party or whatever panel they have to be on. So I get to see a bunch of people.
FOREVERGEEK: Beyond being responsible for the animation on a number of iconic fan-favorite Adult Swim series on Cartoon Network, such as Venture Bros, Metalocalypse, Super Jail, and Black Dynamite, you’ve got a lot of other projects in the works, most notably the new quasi-animated series Son of Zorn on Fox. There’s a big trend to make almost all animated films in a digital 3D style. Why is it that you use traditional 2D animation for a majority of your projects, especially the new Son of Zorn, which mixes classic animation with live action?
CHRIS P: I like old-timey aesthetics. It’s comforting to me. I watched Saturday morning cartoons as a kid. We like to emulate a lot of stuff like that. Son of Zorn for Fox has a Filmation and Hanna Barbera feel to it. A little bit Thundarr the Barbarian, a little bit He-Man, a little bit Herculoids, a little bit Thundercats. All that stuff. 2D cartoons are a bit of a throwback to what we love.
FOREVERGEEK: So you’re a lover of classic cartoons. When you started Titmouse, were you just trying to make cartoons of your own or were you looking to animate projects for others? What was the goal?
CHRIS P: I had no goal. No intention of starting a studio. In the mid 90s, I graduated college and then worked on Beavis and Butthead, Daria, created a show with MTV and it got cancelled. And then I said I’m going to move out to California from New York. New York is a bit scrappier. It’s not as consistent with work. So when you get freelance jobs, you take them.
I came out with that New York attitude and I got representation, which got me work as a commercials director while I was working on TV shows during the day. I started getting these jobs and wouldn’t say no to any of them. So I had to hire my friends to help me because I’d get in a bind.
In the meantime, I started this online t-shirt company called Titmouse. But they were not related. Eventually I did this job for a movie at 20th century fox. A real movie company. They asked me “what your production company for the paperwork?” I was like I don’t have a production company, I’m just a dude. They said, “A dude? We can’t hire a dude. This is like a real movie. Do you have production insurance?”
I was like I have this company Titmouse and we can run it through that. It checked out and it was way better than me cutting personal checks to my friends. And then that became a thing. Then I convinced my wife to quit her job. She was working in celebrity photography, which is a whole crazy industry. She used to visit me at work at animation studios and she’d say “it looks like you guys have fun!” And I said, “We do! Animation’s fun. You should do that.”
So then she started producing the freelance work and then she became the main producer of Titmouse. Now we have a lot of producers. But that’s how it came together. Total accident. No design. It happened through just doing work. I think if I had tried to do a studio, it would have failed. It was good that we had this slow build.
FOREVERGEEK: Out of all the work you’ve done over the years, do you have a certain project that holds a special place in your heart?
CHRIS P: I really liked working on the first season of Metalocalypse. That was our first series that we did. I was directing on that. I wasn’t too busy to spread thin to actually do stuff. I felt I had a lot of influence on making that what it was. That was fun. We were a pretty small studio back then. We had between 30 to 40 people back then.
FOREVERGEEK: I know that it’s been said that Dethklok will probably never take the animated stage again (brutally sad!), so I won’t bother begging you to bring it back. However, you have another show with even more of a devoted cult following that almost seems like it’s been cancelled due to the big gaps of time between seasons. Who should we nudge so we can get more episodes sooner?
CHRIS P: Chris and Doc write all the scripts when they’re in post on the previous season and they don’t start writing until the current season is over. The writing is what takes so long. The animation takes a long time too, but the reason is that other shows can have a pass because the writing is happening simultaneously as the show is being made. With Venture Bros, everything gets written AND THEN we start animating. It’s also why I think you’ve got to pay attention with that show, it’s so cross-referential. It’s like they go back when they write the season, to rewrite shit to all tie it together.
FOREVERGEEK: However it happens, it results in one of the greatest animated series of all time. Where else can fans find your handiwork on television or elsewhere?
CHRIS P: We’re currently doing Brad Neely’s Harg Nallin’ Sclopio Peepio on Adult Swim. A new series called Big Mouth will be coming to Netflix next year. Son of Zorn is coming in September on Fox. Niko and the Sword of Light is a kids’ show we’re doing for Amazon. We’re doing Kirby Buckets and Future-Worm! for Disney XD. We’ve got a 2D animated version of the movie Home coming to Netflix. The next season of Venture Bros isn’t on the schedule yet. And I’ve got an animated feature film that I directed called Nerdland starring the voices of Paul Rudd and Patton Oswalt.
From the looks of that list, Titmouse doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon. So it makes sense to keep everything low key and relax in the back of an RV and play a little D&D with friends in the middle of the most intensely nerdy week of the year.
Catch Son of Zorn on Fox starting September 25th. (correction: Seems like the first episode snuck out early on September 11th. Catch up on Fox.com or on Hulu.com if you missed it.)