Prynoskis are drawn to their passion
Sep 26, 2017 08:22AM ● Published by Samantha Sciarrotta
At the end of 1999, Chris Prynoski was at a crossroads.
The Bordentown native was an animator for MTV in New York City at the time, and the show he was working on didn’t get renewed. His landlord was putting the home he and his then-girlfriend Shannon rented in Williamsburg up for sale, so the couple would be forced to move. Shannon, also an artist, had recently quit her waitressing job to work on coloring a short film for one of their friends so she could learn how to use Adobe Photoshop and Flash.
The couple had toyed with moving to Los Angeles—the animation industry hub, Prynoski says—and they figured so much had changed, they might as well do it. So they bought a truck and drove to California, pulling up in L.A. just as the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve.
Once they got out there, they started a T-shirt company, Titmouse, as a side gig. What they never foresaw was what the company would become.
Titmouse evolved into an animation studio with locations in Los Angeles, New York and Vancouver. Prynoski and Shannon, now married, have overseen projects like Metalocalpyse and The Venture Bros. on Cartoon Network, and the studio released its first feature-length film, Nerdland starring Paul Rudd and Patton Oswalt, in 2016.
Prynoski grew up near the end of Farnsworth Avenue in Bordentown City.
“I mostly played on the train tracks down there, where that little yacht club was,” he said. “We would climb up and run around on the docks, in the woods there and go over the bridge to the weird island where teenagers would be doing bonfires and getting stoned or whatever they did back then.”
His dad, Jack, taught at Clara Barton (which Prynoski attended), and his mom, Vicky Burke, worked at the former Johnstone Training and Research Center in town. Prynoski went to Notre Dame High School and says he was always liked drawing and comic books. He was interested in Marvel heroes like X-Men and the Hulk, and he and his friend, Andrew, often worked on their own books and characters, though they never finished one. Initially, Prynoski thought he wanted to create comics for a living.
That changed when he went to the School of Visual Arts in New York.
“That was a good place for being around other people who were interested in doing the same thing,” he said. “I think that was the most important thing with college. Your degree, as far as animation goes, doesn’t mean anything. It’s only what you learned and who you end up meeting.”
One summer between semesters, Prynoski stayed in the city to find animation jobs instead of coming home to work at an Exxon in Bordentown. That ended up yielding the results he wanted—he found an internship animating shorts for Liquid TV, an experimental show on MTV at the time, and he also worked with one of his teachers on a video she was making.
The experience he gained that summer was a good stepping stone, he said.
“Many people who come from these high schools, if you’re not in a big city like New York or something, you’re one of, if not the only, art person,” he said. “Then you go to school, and everybody’s the art person. They were all the best artist in their high school. They were all good. You can just learn from each other and work on each other’s film and stuff.”
Prynoski graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 1994 and was hired soon after by Ralph Bakshi (known for his 1978 animated Lord of the Rings, among many others) to work on a film. He also took what was supposed to be a two-week gig at MTV while waiting for the Bakshi job to start, but the film fell through, and he ended up staying at MTV.
While there he worked on favorites like Beavis and Butt-Head, Daria and The Head. Other projects included his own original pilots and Downtown, which ran for a season. Working on both his own shows and shows created by other people gave him experience executing the needs of someone else’s show, as well as writing his own scripts and making his own designs.
He even worked on the Beavis and Butt-Head Do America movie—he directed a psychedelic sequence where the two characters take peyote, his first time directing at MTV.
He also met Shannon, a Hastings-on-Hudson, New York native, around the time. She also attended the School of Visual Arts (though she and Prynoski didn’t know each other at the time). The two met through mutual friends.
“I really wanted to be in filmmaking and make a difference in the world when I was in college,” she said. “Then, I got out and realized making films was really hard. We were just friends first for about a year. I would go to MTV and see how much fun he had in animation and I thought, ‘That’s a cool job.’ I liked what he was doing, but I didn’t think I could ever do it.”
At the time, Shannon worked as a photo editor retouching celebrity pictures and found the work—and dealing with agents and celebrities—unfulfilling. An artist herself (she works primarily in found objects and recently made a 2-D portrait of Bert and Ernie out of Starburst wrappers), she was interested in Prynoski’s work—animating, storyboarding, working with other artists. Plus, she’d always liked animation, especially watching Scooby Doo and Tom and Jerry. She just never knew what she could do with it.
And that’s when Prynoski convinced her to quit her job and work with him and his friends and, eventually, to move to Los Angeles.
“I was pretty confident about it,” he said. “It was a good situation to move. I’d already had a show on TV. I was able to get showrunning and directing jobs pretty easily when I came out because I had worked on some shows that were popular and had run a show before. It wasn’t like coming here right out of school. New York was good training for coming out to LA.”
Prynoski quickly found work at Cartoon Network and was represented by KlaskyCsupo working on commercials and other shorts on the side. Shannon often helped manage, color, scan and edit those projects and ultimately found herself drawn to the production side of things.
Meanwhile, Titmouse started to receive more animation offers than T-shirt orders. In a pre-Etsy era, it was hard to market themselves, Shannon said, but the animation side of the business continued to grow. Clients and studios approached them but wanted to run work through a company rather than individual freelancers.
“I think I’m the one who kind of said to him, ‘No, I think it is a serious job, let’s go for it,’” she said. “‘I could always waitress, or you could direct at Disney,’ or wherever he was going to go. If we didn’t have each other, I don’t think we would have Titmouse. We had to do it together.”
So they made the switch, and Shannon took on a managerial role. She found that she was more interested in making sure her business was being run the right way, and she didn’t want to hire outside contractors, so she learned accounting, payroll, cost reports and more entirely on her own.
“I realize that when you own a business, only you really care about it,” she said. “Only you know what it really is. I knew I would do a better job than someone I’d hire because this is not their baby. Titmouse was my child, and I wanted to make sure it’s raised really well.”
Metalocalypse was Titmouse’s first series, and Prynoski was heavily involved with the creative aspects of the show. He says he did a lot more animation when Titmouse was first established, but the switch to production and ownership has been smooth.
“It happens pretty gradually,” he said. “I don’t even think I realized it. You just keep going into more and more meetings and more and more pitches and things that are creative in ways, but not like drawing. Going to edit sessions or mixes or storyboard handouts where you’re telling people to draw on a Post-It and you say, like, ‘Make sure it looks like this.’”
Day to day, he’s out at different studios or networks, or developing and pitching projects in-house, while Shannon handles big-picture HR things, hiring, insurance and analyzing and developing agreements with clients. For most of the studio’s projects, the writing and various levels of production are done at Titmouse depending on the needs of the show. Sometimes they contract others to animate, and other times everything is done in-house.
Virtual reality programming has been a focus for a couple of years (like the game Smash Party, where players use a baseball bat to smash TVs and other things), and the animated series Niko and the Sword of Light, which is based on a comic book of the same name and can be seen on Amazon Video, is another favorite.
Shannon says watching shows like Niko that Titmouse is responsible for has become more enjoyable and less a reminder of work since their son, Conan, 5, started taking an interest in cartoons. He’s also recently starting drawing.
“I’m so curious what he’s going to do,” she said. “We watch cartoons all the time. We just finished the show Niko and the Sword of Light, and it’s been really nice to sit back and watch it and see him look at it and like it. It’s different having him in our lives because you see stuff differently through him.”
Shannon says she and Prynoski still feel like the company is small—they never imagined it would turn into a massive studio. They still find themselves learning and feeling new experiences out. But that’s exactly what they love about Titmouse.
“I did make a lot of mistakes [at first], but at the same time, I invented a wheel that works for us,” she said. “There’s a lot of animation studios that went down, and we didn’t. So I feel pretty good. Chris and I, we learned that you go with your gut. You go with what your heart feels. When you make a mistake, you just learn from it. You do get upset, but the next day, you say, ‘What can we learn from this?’ Take a rest, breathe and keep going.”