By Megan Fowler
“The Women of Titmouse Animation.” Directed by Chrissy Guest, Armadillo Rose Productions, 2019.
Stemming from professor and filmmaker Chrissy Guest’s research on the role of women in animation, the short film “The Women of Titmouse Animation” provides an in-depth look at the diverse group of women—including animators, producers, and co-owner and vice president Shannon Prynoski—working at the independent animation production company Titmouse. The short film is part of a larger project, acting as the pilot for Guest’s docuseries Beyond Ink & Paint: The Women of Animation. With interviews from nearly 60 prominent women working across the field including Yvette Kaplan, Jennifer Yuh Nelson, and Jinko Gotoh, the docuseries seeks to spotlight past and present female pioneers in the animation field, showcasing women’s accomplishments in animation while simultaneously illustrating the many obstacles female animators have overcome and continue to face in the male-dominated industry (“Chrissy Guest”; Beyond Ink & Paint). “The Women of Titmouse Animation” short film has had invitational screenings at the Breaking the Glass Frame Symposium and Los Angeles Animation Festival, been an official selection at the Women of Wonders Film Festival and the Berlin Short Film Festival, and received an Award of Excellence at the BEA Festival of Media Arts.
In “The Women of Titmouse Animation,” Shannon Prynowski, vice president, supervising producer, and co-owner of Titmouse, provides background on the animation studio’s history. Titmouse, Inc., began as a t-shirt company in 2000 before eventually shifting focus to film and television animation production. Prynowski explains that one of the studio’s earliest projects was working on a pilot for MTV. After contracting Titmouse to complete the first episode, MTV insisted that their studio space—at the time a former TV repair shop—was too small to produce a full show. By the time Titmouse had relocated, MTV had moved on to another studio. After shopping around for other projects to fill in their new space, Adult Swim greenlit 20 episodes of Metalocalypse at Titmouse, which started the company’s true shift to animation production. Titmouse has since expanded into locations in Los Angeles, New York, and Vancouver, employing 700 people in the animation industry (Titmouse). Prynowski breaks down the company’s demographics as 25% overhead, including producers, accountants, coordinators, and 75% artists. The studio’s animated productions include Metalocalypse, Big Mouth, Black Dynamite, and Harg Nallin’ Sclopio Peepio (Titmouse).
In addition to explaining the studio’s history, Prynowski recounts her time in school for the visual arts. This initial clip establishes the style of subsequent interviews throughout the film, with the female creatives in Beyond Ink & Paint sharing their personal experiences in the field of animation. Prynowski notes that while the contributions of women to the film industry were emphasized and she received support intellectually from faculty and financially through grants, all of her professors were male. Additional pressure was placed upon female students, she adds, with the women in her class expected to complete higher quality work than their male counterparts. Similar anecdotes emerge throughout the short film as women recount the trajectory of their careers in animation. For example, storyboard artist Sakari Singh discusses the sexism she encountered at the Kansas City Art Institute as part of their then newly emerging animation program, describing the general attitude from older male professors as, “Oh, you’re a female artist, there’s more of those these days.”
The documentary reinforces these women’s experiences of inequality with statistics, including citations such as “60% of animation & art school students are women, yet only 20% of the creative jobs in animation are held by women” and “women hold 21% of the art/design roles and 23% of the animation roles.” The combination of these anecdotes alongside statistical evidence effectively demonstrates one of the Beyond Ink & Paint: The Women of Animation series’ central goals: to expose the inequality and sexism that persists within the animation industry. This element of the project makes Beyond Ink & Paint an invaluable feminist critique of the animation disciplines, both carefully recording the obstacles faced by women in the industry while also uplifting women’s voices to tell their stories of accomplishment and community within the field.
Alongside their experiences of inequality, however, the women interviewed share stories of change and support, particularly narratives of women uplifting other women in the field. While describing the pressure placed upon her fellow female filmmakers in art school, Prynowski also mentions that 10 women in her class formed close knit bonds and aided each other in completing their projects. Titmouse line producer Jennifer Ray describes Prynowski as carrying that same ethic into her work at the studio, stating that the vice president prioritizes promoting and working with women in the studio. Heather Alexander, a background artist on Brad Neely’s Harg Nallin’ Sclopio Peepio, attributes her success in the field in part to Wendy Grieb, a storyboard artist who taught a class Alexander attended. Grieb encouraged Alexander to pursue a career in storyboarding after using Alexander’s storyboards in a teaching portfolio to secure her position. Alexander also confirms Ray’s sentiments about the work environment at Titmouse, stating that, “At Titmouse, it feels more equal. I’ve never felt [like]…I’m a woman, and this is a man’s world.”
The atmosphere at Titmouse demonstrates the importance women in leadership positions play in shifting the working animation culture in spite of the fact that the film notes only 10% of women hold such roles in the animation industry. The women in Beyond Ink & Paint also offer hope for larger shifts in the industry. When discussing her education, Singh notes the radical changes in demographics that occurred during her time at the Kansas Art Institute. The animation class above her was all men, her class was a near 50-50 split between men and women, and the class below her was predominantly women. Ray states she is simultaneously seeing more women step into producer type positions as the entire field of animation grows due to more accessibility via digital production. As a result, more women are expressing interest in careers in animation and starting to showcase their work online. These changes have helped transform both the workplace environment and the content being produced, with new narratives emerging as female perspectives become more prominent. Tracing these slow transformations in the field serves as another vital component of the feminist work being done by the docuseries. “The Women of Titmouse Animation” not only addresses the sexist undercurrents in many animation disciplines, but also demonstrates the strides being made to challenge those conditions.
Interspersed throughout the film are clips of women working in the Titmouse studio. Singh walks viewers through the initial process of sketching storyboards for Big Mouth. Footage shows episodic director Kim Arndt describing a sequence to another creator. Alexander discusses the different tasks she completes as a background designer for Harg Nallin’ Sclopio Peepio, including animating storyboards, populating backgrounds, and completing line art and coloring. The inclusion of these moments offers insight into the work these women complete as animators, giving audiences a broader perspective on the many potential roles within an animation studio and what each role entails. A somewhat unexpected inclusion is line producer Jennifer Ray, whose position involves overseeing the budget, putting together a crew, and allocating funds to help creative teams feel supported in completing their projects. Ray relays that she discovered her passion for the production side of the industry during an internship in college, becoming so enamored with the work that she completed two additional internships beyond the single one required. Careers in areas such as line production are often overlooked as a component of the animation industry, and the decision to include women from this particular area helps uncover erased labor and ignored contributions of women to animation as a field.
“The Women of Titmouse Animation” offers an in-depth and thoughtful look at the contemporary female animators and producers working at the Titmouse animation studio. Through a combination of personal anecdotes, live footage, and concrete statistics, the short film delivers a vital feminist critique of the animation industry while simultaneously showcasing the significant contributions of women to the field. The interview-style of the documentary also allows female creators to recount their experiences in their own words, uplifting women in animation by providing a platform for their voices to be heard. Guest’s project is in direct dialogue with academic discourse around animation as a discipline, including works such as Mindy Johnson’s Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation. Beyond Ink & Paint expands upon previous monographs to fill in important gaps in the body of feminist research on animation, and “The Women of Titmouse Animation” serves as an excellent pilot that provides a glimpse into the worthwhile research being conducted by the docuseries. The creators have also confirmed that while not every clip and interview can be included in the final version of the series, all footage will be archived for future use (Beyond Ink & Paint). The docuseries thus serves as a significant contribution to the larger archive on women in animation, unearthing previously untold stories and preserving significant herstory for present and future researchers and animators alike.
Beyond Ink & Paint: The Women of Animation. Armadillo Rose Productions, LLC., https://www.beyondinkandpaint.com/. Accessed 15 Mar. 2021.
“Chrissy Guest.” Ithaca College, https://www.ithaca.edu/faculty/cguest. Accessed 15 Mar. 2021.
Titmouse. Titmouse, Inc., https://titmouse.net/. Accessed 15 Mar. 2021.