AUSTIN, Texas—Chris Prynoski remembers paper (and, no, that sentiment is not as absurd as it seems). The animation veteran has been in the field for more than two decades now with early stuff so beloved (he directed an episode of Daria and sequences of Beavis and Butthead Do America) that it now comes up in reboot conversation. “We usually get a call every couple years about a Daria reboot, and it never happens,” Prynoski tells Ars offstage at the recent RTX Animation festival. “But this time they made an announcement, so perhaps it’s more serious.”
Since then, however, both animation at large and Prynoski’s role specifically have changed. He now leads perhaps the best studio in the business, Titmouse, which Prynoski also co-founded alongside his wife Shannon back in 2000. The company works on seemingly everything: kids’ shows (Niko and the Sword of Light), cult classics (Metalocalypse), high-profile reboots (TMNT), video games, ads, virtual reality, music videos, movies, and generally just the hottest cartoons at any given moment (Netflix’s Big Mouth anyone? Season two starts in October). No one working with him starts with paper these days.
“The fundamentals of animation haven’t changed a lot. When I started, you were drawing on pieces of paper; people were using computers to scan but colored in ink and paint,” Prynoski says. “Before my time, it was the big ol’ Oxberry cameras. But it pretty quickly got taken over by computers. Now, hardly anybody uses pieces of paper… Anything we do starts on [Wacom] Cintiqs, which are basically big computer screens you can draw on. But the main thing is still that artistic skill you have to develop—whether it’s on a piece of paper or computer screen—which has stayed pretty similar.”
Even if the core skill of his industry hasn’t changed, Prynoski readily acknowledges tech has made today a great time to be in animation. For starters, unlike the expensive equipment required to turn pen strokes into full productions in the past, the barriers to entry for young, DIY animators have lowered.
“There [are] no shortcuts for becoming a better writer or better artist, but the tools are a lot cheaper,” he says. “It used to cost tens of thousands to get the gear you need to make a cartoon. But now you can probably use your cell phone or a tablet for everything and spend $500, maybe a little more if you want to be fancy.”
At RTX, Prynoski spoke on a panel with Daniel Baxter of How It Should Have Ended, for instance. Putting together that long-running YouTube series wouldn’t have been possible in a time before Photoshop or Corel Painter became accessible to many, and the success of shows like South Park demonstrate how lo-fi can be an animation aesthetic to strive for.
And speaking of YouTube, the other big shift Prynoski has experienced comes from the explosion of outlets interested in animation. Though Titmouse maintains a strong partnership with Cartoon Network / Adult Swim, animation shows today can target virtually every demographic and appear anywhere across cable, network, streaming, or Web platforms (to say nothing of increased demand in ads, video games, or film, too).
“The first season of Metalocalypse had come out, and the creative director called us to say, ‘I love Metalocalypse; do you want do some Guitar Hero stuff?’ I think ‘Thunder Horse‘ [a show song] was on GH:II even, and GH:I was out before the show was.”
Titmouse took over the cinematics (or animated bits) from there. Given that Prynoski fondly recalls painting demons and stuff on people’s jean’s jackets in high school, it’s no wonder Guitar Hero: Metallica became such a cult classic.
“I think we’re in production for 12 series right now: six are for Netflix and two are for Amazon. The others might end up on those platforms, too. Who knows?” Prynoski tells Ars. “So I really like this [landscape]. We actually did the first animated show that was on Netflix—this kids’ show called Turbo, that launched in 2013. That was the infancy of the streaming process. Now we do Big Mouth and Netflix is a well-oiled machine. It’s a great experience, and they let you do almost anything you want. It’s crazy.” And if you’ve seen either Turbo or Big Mouth, you can immediately tell: 1) Netflix really has expanded its scope quite a bit within even the last five years, and 2) The streaming service happily embraces content that may be too risqué for traditional TV.
But again, as much as things change, they stay the same. For an old-school creative like Prynoski, he may spend more time in meetings than with a sketch pad nowadays, yet he recognizes that things like strong illustrative vision, storytelling, and creative world-building still largely determine success in this new landscape. The studio’s perhaps-most-beloved currently airing project—Adult Swim’s Venture Bros.—illustrates this.
The show predates YouTube and Netflix, consumer tablets as we know ’em, or even serialized TV storytelling for the most part. Diehard Venture Bros. fans may even exist today that were too young for it when the series debuted in 2003 (they’re probably catching up through streaming and on-demand viewing). Yet despite all the changes around the show, both behind the scenes and within the industry at large, Venture Bros. maintains a truly loyal following and reverence from critics (no spoilers: Season 7 so far has been delightful) because it has always mastered the basics. As Prynoski happily admits: there’s a reason the show has a reputation for not coming back too soon after its prior season ends.
“With many other shows, you can start production once the first script is done—’Hey, let’s start storyboarding or animate it.’ But with [creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer], it’s, ‘Oh, we wrote something at the end of the season and we want to plant something at the beginning.’ So they’ll rewrite the show a lot,” Prynoski says.
“A lot of the time is spent getting the scripts right,” he goes on. “The animation process itself isn’t any crazy-longer for a show of that production value. It feels pretty average. But once those scripts are done, they’re funny and tight, and they work. A lot of other shows where I produce or direct, I don’t know how to make this thing work. But the Venture Bros. scripts are locked down.”
Listing image by Adult Swim / Titmouse
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