Titmouse’s new space in Manhattan is more clubhouse than traditional office, packed wall-to-wall with animators producing the wackiest and trippiest cartoons currently running on TV. Chris Prynoski, the company’s co-founder, says his artists don’t follow an official “house style,” but they all seem to operate on the same non-pretentious, casually funny wavelength. The office is lit up by a hundred screens, each of which during Inverse’s visit showed Zorn, the animated hero in Fox’s hybrid sitcom Son of Zorn, in various states of undress, mid-action, or interacting with the real world.
Son of Zorn is just one of Titmouse’s many current projects, including Brad Neely’s Harg Nallin’ Sclopio Peepio, Disney XD’s Kirby Buckets, and Adult Swim’s The Venture Bros. Their work is seemingly everywhere, even if it’s not always so obvious. Remember the animated gaming scenes in Her? That was Titmouse. Did you watch BET’s Black Panther cartoon? Also, partially, a Titmouse production. In fact, you can’t swing a dead animated cat around without hitting a Titmouse toon, which Prynoski says is actually getting to be a problem. “We’re turning down a lot more work than we used to, because there’s a lot of animation being made these days. It’s never cool to turn down a job you really want to do, but we’ve had to manage being really full.”
Son of Zorn is meant to spoof an entire genre of ‘80s cartoons that celebrated blunt, lunkhead masculinity. “He-Man, ThunderCats, Thundarr the Barbarian are the stylistic influences on Son of Zorn,” Prynoski says. “It can’t solely be a parody of one show, so it’s based on a larger genre.”
The animators at Titmouse are charged with the challenge of making Zorn a believable force in a complex visual world. The show, which overlays Zorn and his animated objects onto a live-action sitcom, runs on a complicated production schedule due to Titmouse’s animators having to collaborate with onscreen talent. “Anything from Zorn’s world, on the show, is animated, and any objects that originate in our world are real. So that means if another character holds something from Zorn’s world, it has to be a cartoon, and vice versa,” Prynoski explains. “As a result of these rules in logic, Titmouse often has to embed animated, moving objects into interactions between live actors.
“Barry Kelly, one of our directors, goes to the set every time they shoot,” Prynoski explains. “He works with Eric Appel, one of the executive producers of the show. Appel’s in the L.A. office, working on the editing right now, but long before we edit, we use a combination of different techniques. There’s a really tall dude who works as the stand-in actor. They rehearse with them, and sometimes he’s in some of the shots, but he vacates the frame for most of the actual shots. The actors have a really tough job to do, maintaining the eye-line. They just remember it for some shots, or sometimes if it’s out of frame, they use a tennis ball on a c-stand, or an x on the wall.”
Prynoski remembers a particular shot in the Zorn pilot that caused the studio the most stress. “It was the coffee shot, for sure. Zorn has to pour coffee out of a traditional coffee pot, which is clear, and that’s a tough thing to do in CG. He drinks that coffee out of a chalice [from his world], so we used a real coffee pot, but we made a rig to pour it on set, painted that rig out in post, and rendered a CG cup for the coffee to go into.” Luckily for the folks at Titmouse, Zorn wasn’t the first time they had been asked to animate insane objects in a live-action show.
“We just wrapped a Disney show called Kirby Buckets, that was similar in some ways,” he said. “We did two seasons, and the premise of that show really fit our sensibility. There’s really silly animation, because it’s about a kid who wants to be an animator. His drawings come to life and interact with him, and one of his original characters is called Tri-Butt, because he’s got three butt cheeks. Working on that got us prepared to work on Son of Zorn,” Prynoski says.
He means that the mechanics of the animation between the shows are similar, but there’s obviously another connecting factor between Titmouse’s work: The company creates the silliest possible images with such finesse that they’re difficult to dismiss as juvenile. Like Prynoski says, animation is a booming business for both adult and youth audiences. As fans of animation develop more discerning palettes, companies like Titmouse that making complicated and bizarro cartoons will continue to thrive.