The Titmouse That Roared
Chris Prynoski on Venture Bros., tech, and more
By Richard Whittaker,
8:00AM, Sun. Aug. 12, 2018
You'll know the name if you've ever been blasting through channels late on cable, and ricocheted into Adult Swim. You've seen their distinctive chirping bird logo at the end of Metalocalypse, The Venture Bros. (which returned last week), Superjail!, Black Dynamite, and their new show Ballmastrz: 9009. Subversive, cerebral, scatological, like the best of zine life brought to life.
But next time you're watching some daytime and prime time shows, or streaming something more kid-friendly, keep an eye out for that bird. They've worked with Disney XD, BET, Fox, and dozens more. When TV shows like Community or Bobcat Goldthwait's Misfits & Monsters want a distinctive animated episode or insert, they turn to the Titmouse. Think about it for a second: Who else would you turn to for The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants?
So while keeping up their reputation as one of the coolest American animation studios, a true bastion of counter-culture, as owner and CEO (and an artist himself) Prynoski has taken the LA-based production house mainstream - a rare balancing act. At the same time, they've always kept that edge, and occasionally slipped a sly nods (look for the Buffalo Bill references in the "Tur-Bros" episode of Netflix's kid-friendly speeding snail series Turbo, or the Sharky's Machine-homaging Venture Bros. shirt) to keep audiences on their toes.
In the bar of the JW Marriott, killing time before his Titmouse panel at RTX Austin 2018 last weekend, Prynoski seems a little surprised that his small studio, which began doing service work for other studios, has become such a recognizable brand. "We're in a great position now," he said, "because we're established, and the machine's rolling, and we've got our location in LA, and one in New York, and one in Vancouver, and in the Fall we're going to tip over 600 employees, so it's definitely not anything I planned."
Chris Prynoski: And it's not even the animation. It's the writing. That show is so layered, and so self-referential, not only to previous seasons, but even within the season itself. And the writing process, [how creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer] write every script, so they want to be able to go back. If they have something that they've figured out for the tail of the season, they want to be able to plant stuff in the beginning. It's very interconnected, and certainly not getting any less so as it matures.
A lot of other shows have writers' rooms, with multiple writers or teams of writers, and they can bang out the scripts faster. But Venture Bros. happens at its own pace, and I think that's why it works. The super-granular level that they do wouldn't be the same tone. And they do voices, and [Jackson] is very involved in the episodes - early on he was directing all the episodes, and even now he's super-on top of it. He's not like, "Go off and direct it." He's involved in every decision.
AC: The story of animation in the last few years has been the increasing use of technology. But while it's been easier to start, it's also easier to do really bad animation.
CP: It's good if you have a good fundamental skill set. We started by accident, because I was working in animation studios for networks or for studios, like MTV or Disney or Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, pitching shows, running shows - good gigs, eventually, but not when I started. On the side, I had a computer, and I could do my own little shorts, and I'm like, man, I can do this stuff soup to nuts. Why aren't we doing this in the big studio system? Now that I run a big studio, I know it's super-hard to implement big, structural change across a giant company, which I why I'm glad we started small and grew gradually.What happened was, I started a small online T-shirt company on the side, which was called Titmouse.
CP: No shit. That [Venture Bros.] shirt club does well. So anyway, I'd do cartoons to go along with the designs on the T-shirts. Because no one had worked out how to make money online with cartoons, so I was like, OK, the T-shirt will be the thing, and the cartoon will be a bonus. I incorporated under something that was broad enough, like graphic arts, and then I also moved from New York to LA.
What I also did was I got repped as a commercials director. In New York, there wasn't as much work as LA. It's kind of like Austin - it has animation studios, but the it's not the city's main industry. I was unprepared for the amount of work there is in LA, but I had the New York sensibility that if you get a job, you take it, and I just took too many jobs. I was just like, 'How am I going to do this many jobs? I'm screwed.' You can't just book a commercial and bail on it - well, you can, but not if you want to direct a commercial again.
So my wife at the time was producing companies for a different company freelance, and she said, "Well, I just stop producing these commercials, and I'll produce your freelance work, and we'll hire a couple of your friends that we know are good, and we'll rent this room that's about 10 foot by 15 foot, and we'll have a couple of computers in there." That's when we started getting Cintiq (interactive displays) and we had our own little digital studio. And basically over a couple of years, that blew up, and we started having to rent more space, and getting more employees. At the time, they weren't even employees. They were freelancers that we kept in regular rotation until we went, "Man, you've been freelancing for us for three years. I guess you're our employee now."
We had guys who could write code, I was talking to one of them and I said, "Man, I wish our software did this for the animation pipeline," and he wrote a script, and went, "Now it can do that." So now we have regular guys, freelancers, who write scripts for us any time we think of something that our software doesn't do out of the box, or there's a process that can be automated that now we can have a PA or an intern do.
We have some great scripts for production that used to be mind-numbing, low on the totem pole, make a folder, set up a folder hierarchy, drag this file in here, put this template in there, export this scene, call the folder the scene number and the shot. Now we just have scripts in Premier that will analyze the animatic, pull out every scene, go on the server, make a folder for that show, make all the scene folders, export all the animatic clips for those scenes, set up the Flash files, set up the Photoshop files. That used to be a week of somebody's work. Computers. They're awesome!
AC: Until they go wrong.
CP: Exactly. We made a decision about a decade ago that we really needed to invest in the digital infrastructure. Because we're doing jobs for big clients, we have to make sure this shit works, so we invested in really expensive servers, and really expensive rooms running all the right electrical, all the right air conditioning, all the right [power supplies], all this stuff, all the right back-up systems.
A couple of times it's saved our ass. In LA, a car ran into a telegraph pole that had a transformer on it, and zapped the entire block. Light bulbs exploded in our studio, even some of the surge protectors melted, but our servers all survived, our computers all survived.
OK, we've gotta go to the tape back-up system. It's a pain in the ass to do it, but we go to the tape. Well, the tape back-up failed halfway through, so it only had half.
Well, we've got our off-site data. It may be a week old, but it's up in Seattle, we'll go and get it. The guy looks, and it hadn't been writing to that server for months.
We're like, shit, we're fucked. And the only thing that saved us was that artists don't follow instructions. Even though you're supposed to work off the server, everyone pulls their files and works local. So we told everyone, don't delete your files, and we recovered 98% of the show from people's local drives on the desktop.
Now we have crazy redundancy. With our three locations, every server backs up to the other two locations, so there's three way double redundancy, and we have off-site. So I think we're good, unless something hits New York, LA, and Vancouver all at once, and then we're probably fucked anyway.
AC: You have your original work, and your partnered projects, and also the service side of the business: what's the split between those sides of the business these days?
CP: Our ratio is way, way weighted on service. It's probably 80% service to 20% our own shows. We have 12 series in production now, we're working on a movie, short films, commercials, not even including pilots and things. A lot of the service stuff, it doesn't get the attention, so we don't push it as much, because it doesn't resonate with the same crowd. We've done a couple of Disney pre-school shows, but the Venture Bros. fans aren't going to be fans of Goldie and Bear. They're high quality shows, but they're totally different audiences.
I hardly ever draw. I go to a lot of meetings, both internal and external, and a lot of pitches. We partner up on pitches a lot. We've sold two shows recently that are our own projects that we developed internally, but more often we sell with partners, because it's hard to have the time to devote to developing stuff.
If you have a partner, it also makes you accountable. When you're internal, you can go, meh, we'll get to it, and it takes three years to develop. Whereas if you're working with a writer or comedian or comic artist or whatever outside entity, or even another production company, then you push each other to get it done a little faster.
Venture Bros. season 7 continues Sunday on Adult Swim at 11pm Central.