Making Vox pop

Making Vox pop

By Michael Pickard
April 22, 2024

In production

Titmouse founder Chris Prynoski takes DQ inside the animation studio to discuss the evolution of adult animated series and how he partnered with a group of voice actors to bring to life The Legend of Vox Machina.

More than 20 years ago, Titmouse began life as a company selling T-shirts. Today, it still sells T-shirts – but it’s also one of North America’s leading animation studios, responsible for series such as Big Mouth, The Venture Bros, Mike Judge’s Beavis & Butt-Head revival and Star Trek: Lower Decks.

Founder Chris Prynoski had already built a career directing and creating shows for MTV, such as Beavis & Butt-Head, Daria and MTV Downtown, for which he was nominated for an Emmy. Then when he and his wife Shannon moved from New York to LA in 2000, they launched Titmouse.

The animations they used to sell T-shirts soon became bigger business than the T-shirts themselves, and Titmouse was restructured as a place to nurture talented artists and produce high-end animated series.

“I had already worked as a director and then showrunner on shows for networks, but never for myself, never for my own company,” Prynoski tells DQ. “But I thought it’d be fun to sell T-shirts on the internet. Then I just kept getting freelance work, and it ended up becoming an animation studio, because that was what I was good at.”

Chris Prynoski (DQ suspects this picture might have been edited)

Most recently, Titmouse has partnered with co-creators Mike McMahan (Star Trek: Lower Decks) and Joe Chandler for an animated series based on the classic Golden Axe arcade game, telling a story about a group of veteran warriors who battle to save the land of Yuria from the evil giant Death Adder.

When the show is released – “Cartoons take a long time,” Prynoski observes – Golden Axe will become the latest adult animated series to launch as part of seemingly unstoppable boom period for the genre.

Looking back over the last two decades in the business, Prynoski says that though animation itself hasn’t changed too significantly, “there’s a just a lot more of it.” He continues: “There are a lot more outlets and there’s a lot more desire for it. I also think because now we’re talking about a generation or multiple generations that grew up watching adult cartoons, it’s a thing now. It is here to stay. In 1990, you could watch The Simpsons; now, you can still watch The Simpsons but you can watch 100 other shows.”

While Titmouse might broadly be associated with comedies, it also has several animated dramas on its books, namely Scavengers Reign on Max and Pantheon on AMC. But Prynoski notes that the only difference in working across both genres is the people he works with.

“They have different directors, different board artists – it’s a different sensibility,” he says. “You generally don’t cast the super-funny, cartoony voice actors in the drama stuff or put your really silly directors on the drama stuff, or board artists or even designers. So other than the technical process, the people you involve could be very different. There are some people who can shift gears, but there are some who are really good at their chosen lane of the craft.”

As an executive producer on many of Titmouse’s titles, Prynoski is sometimes involved from the beginning of the project – such as Scavengers Reign, the story of the crew of a space freighter stranded on a beautiful but dangerous planet. Then there are others where he’s less involved, and will just check in on their progression from time to time.

But one project with which he maintains a particularly close relationship is The Legend of Vox Machina, a Prime Video series that launched in 2022 and is currently in production its third season. Uniquely, the fantasy-adventure series comes from a partnership between Titmouse and Critical Role, the company launched by a group of voice actors who found new fame by broadcasting their epic tabletop role-playing games (aka RPGs, such as Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder) on live-streaming service Twitch.

Prynoski is an executive producer on Max animated series Scavengers Reign

Prynoski was familiar with many of the Critical Role cast members, including Laura Bailey (The Last of Us: Part II), Taliesin Jaffe (Final Fantasy XIV), Ashley Johnson (The Last of Us), Liam O’Brien (Star Wars: The Bad Batch), Matthew Mercer (Overwatch), Marisha Ray (Final Fantasy XV), Sam Riegel (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and Travis Willingham (Marvel’s Avengers). Then as Critical Role’s popularity took off, Riegel approached Prynoski about the potential for an animated series based on Critical Role’s live-streaming adventures.

“He knew I was a big RPG guy and I was like, ‘Yeah, I bet we could develop that,’” Prynoski remembers. “We developed it and pitched it out, but it was tough for network executives to see how a very popular Twitch stream translated to a television audience. We had faith in it, we didn’t have a big offer and they were right to turn down what existed.”

Critical Role and Titmouse then decided to create a Kickstarter campaign to produce an animated special based on the characters and adventures of Critical Role’s Vox Machina – one that not only inspired fans of the Twitch stream but also proved to commissioners that there was audience support for the project. Amazon Studios then picked up the show for Prime Video, initially ordering a 10-episode season before extending it to 24 episodes across two seasons.

“That [Kickstarter] allowed the buyers who had passed on it to all come back to the table and say, ‘What are you doing with that?’” Prynoski says. “We ended up going with Amazon, but clearly Amazon is not looking at our Kickstarter as like, ‘Wow, now we can use their Kickstarter money to make a show.’ They were just happy that it proved the audience were into this show beyond just watching them play RPGs on a stream. They want to see it so bad that they all donated their hard-earned money towards it. That was really the driver.”

The first season introduces Vox Machina, a band of misfits with a fondness for boozing and brawling. In a desperate attempt to pay off their mounting bar tab, these unlikely heroes end up on a quest to save the realm of Exandria from dark magical forces. From a sinister necromancer to a powerful curse, the group confront a variety of obstacles that test not only their skills, but also the strength of their bond.

The Legend of Vox Machina has its origins in a popular Twitch stream

Season two, which debuted in January 2023, picked up the story as Vox Machina are faced with saving the world once again — this time, from a sinister group of dragons known as the Chroma Conclave.

Reflecting on the critical acclaim the show has achieved, Prynoski puts the magic of the series down to the natural friendships between the Critical Role team and the input they have had in bringing the series to the screen.

“People have tried to replicate it, but it’s friends in real life coming together,” he says. “They’re all professional actors who are great at their craft and great at improv, while Matt Mercer is an incredible DM [dungeon master, who leads the adventure]. It’s about him building this incredible world, and them playing at a table that wasn’t streamed for a good long time before they decided to stream it.”

Titmouse worked directly with Riegel and Willingham, while Mercer would always provide a “world gut-check” to ensure the project wasn’t drifting too far from the original game. Now as the series heads towards the launch of its third season, “a lot of them are more involved,” Prynoski says. “They’re all involved in different ways. It’s a really a collective and the entire group is a real creative force. They all had a lot of agency in their own characters and, even in the character design, everyone got to have some input, which is another thing that never happens unless you’re doing a show about a celebrity and you might get with them to design their likeness.

“It was a unique process, but every show’s different. There’s never a pipeline that works for every show and it’s just interchangeable. Every show is like starting over and you figure out the way to do it and make it right for that particular show and its own creative needs.”

The show’s second season saw the Vox Machina group face off against dragons

With the rare occurrence that all the cast signed up to voice their characters in the show, the exec notes how easy it was to set up the animation team behind The Legend of Vox Machina, with many of those on board already aware of Critical Role. “Arthur Loftis, the art director, was a huge fan of the show, and that was incredibly helpful. It wasn’t like he had to do a bunch of homework to get up to speed.

“Now, conversely, Sun Jin Ahn, who’s our supervising director, was totally unfamiliar with the show. But he could look at it from a different perspective. One of the dangers with all of us being too inside would be like that we just made a show for us and the fans of the show, and anybody who hadn’t seen the stream could have been left out. There is definitely a real desire to make it appeal to a broader audience, which it has. I’m stoked about that.”

While animated series aren’t confined by real locations or other elements that might make live-action series prohibitively expensive or simply impossible, there are still other factors Prynoski and his team had to consider when making The Legend of Vox Machina. Some of those decisions related to character design, when something as small as an extra button on a tunic might add up to hours of additional work for the artists and animators.

Other challenges relate to the fact the show centres on a large ensemble of main characters. “One thing we learned from season one to two was not to shoot it where seven characters are in frame at one time, because it’s a lot more drawing to do,” Prynoski says. “In the writing, we learned that maybe we could split the party up and do an A and B story, and have half the party and then cut back and half the party’s doing something else.”

As technology advances, Prynoski recognises the improved production values between seasons of Vox Machina. But that doesn’t mean making the show gets any easier.

The Legend of Vox Machina came from a partnership between Titmouse and Critical Role

“There’s the technical stuff, where you might be delivering a show in 4K instead of a standard-definition resolution, and that requires more backgrounds to be painted at a higher resolution, which takes more time,” he says. “The technical stuff could be sped up, but it’s really hard to speed up the creative process. You can spend less time on a script, in the editing room, on a storyboard or punching up jokes, but the more time you can spend on that, generally the better it gets.”

And as the global television business grapples with advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and how it might be used to create content, not least animation, Prynoski says Titmouse hasn’t used AI in its own work and doesn’t intend to use it in any “major” way.

“I guess we’ll see what happens. My hope that they’re just like other digital tools,” he says. “Technology has improved but it has mostly opened it up for us to do more ambitious shots, more ambitious stories, a bigger scope, a better production value, a better execution. My hope would be that if and when AI evolves as a tool for creatives to use, artists will not be displaced by that, just their roles will change.

“Who knows what AI will bring, but my hope is that artists will change their roles to focus on just making things more specific and using their creative talents so that if AI does anything, it takes away some of the less creative aspects of the role and allows people to make a more ambitious show without displacing a huge number of artists. That’s my hope. But who can know?”

Though the future of AI in television production is unclear, one thing is certain – adult animation is now a firm fixture on television, and on Titmouse’s slate, which includes new series such as The Second Best Hospital in the Galaxy, Among Us and Jentry Chau vs The Underworld.

“It’s here to stay for a while,” Prynoski adds. “Peak streaming happened in the pandemic during lockdown. There’s a tail on that where there’s a lot and there’ll be a little bit less [coming along], but it’ll still be a lot. It’ll be less than it was three years ago, but more than it was six years ago.”

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