At Titmouse, Animators Spend One Day a Year Creating Five-Second Films

Storyboard artist Jen Bennett works on her project during 5-Second Day.
Storyboard artist Jen Bennett works on her project during 5-Second Day.

Shortly before 5 p.m. Friday, as L.A.'s office drones flee their cubicles for the holiday weekend, McKenzie "Mac" Kerman is drawing a cartoon at his desk inside Hollywood animation studio Titmouse. He's broadcasting his progress via Livestream, so 34 people in a virtual room watch as a set of pouty lips begin to move on his computer screen. The mouth forms an O shape. Teeth seductively bite the lower lip. Naked bodies suddenly are bathed in lipstick red. Every now and again, a voice purrs, "forbidden love." This goes on for hours.

On Saturday afternoon, Kerman will return to his computer. This time, the bodies onscreen will be joined in ecstasy as a coital mess of snail goo and salt spills from them. "Forbidden Love," a short, animated tale of an affair between a snail and a salt shaker, will be closer to completion.

The Titmouse studio is behind cable cartoon hits including Metalocalypse, The Venture Brothers and Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja. Currently, the studio has nine shows in production, including Turbo FAST, s DreamWorks show that airs on Netflix, as well as pilots, shorts and other projects.

On Friday, however, Titmouse artists who aren't on a pressing deadline are making their own mini-movies. It's called 5-Second Day - one day a year when the team dedicates on-the-job time to personal projects.

Originally, the resulting videos were intended to be five seconds in length - that's 120 frames - and completed within a single day. That rarely happens. These days, a number of them hover around 30 seconds. Others run for several minutes. Some employees spend weeks, maybe even months, working on the cartoons. Plenty will spend President's Day weekend finishing their pieces, which will screen for the public on Feb. 21 at the Egyptian Theatre."You've got to let artists do some fun stuff and blow off some steam," says Chris Prynoski, aka Chris P., who co-owns Titmouse with his wife, Shannon.

Five-Second Day, however, is about more than fun.

Shannon Prynoski conceived of 5-Second Day several years ago. At the time, the company's main focus was Metalocalypse, the Adult Swim series about a metal band. "I wanted to know what the other artists could do other than just draw Metalocalypse," she says.

So it's not just that artists get a creative break - the higher-ups also get an idea of their employees' talents. It gives them an idea of who is ready to direct. It encourages employees to work together. "In animation," Shannon Prynoski says, "you do need help."

Animation is a long and complicated process. It can take between 40 and 50 weeks to produce a single television episode, with 10 to 15 of those weeks spent on animation.

The animators - the people who make characters move - are a small group on Titmouse's Hollywood campus. There are also storyboard artists and designers who focus on characters, props or backgrounds. There are people who select color palettes. There are compositors, who put all of the details together and add effects, as well as clean-up artists, who tidy the work.

Crews fluctuate depending on which shows are currently in production. Right now, there are about 300 people working at Titmouse's three studios. Between 170 and 180 people are at the Hollywood campus. The company also has offices in New York and Vancouver.

Mac Kerman has been at Titmouse for five years and is currently an animator on Turbo FAST. He started there as an intern while studying at California Institute of the Arts. That's when he participated in his first 5-Second Day, animating an exploding head. "I had never seen 5-Second Day before," he says. "When I saw what everyone else did, I was, like, 'Oh man, I need to up my game for next time around.'?"

In 2013's 5-Second Day, Kerman spent three days in the studio and was so exhausted by the end that he fell asleep in a friend's car in the office parking lot. "Hopefully, I planned things out a little better this time," he says.

"There was pressure when we first did it, because we understood that it was sort of a company scouting thing almost," says Jeremy Polgar, an animator and animation director. Last year, he spent "six full work days" on a stunning and emotional minute-long piece called "Internal."

This year, he took on a less intense project. Polgar gives a brief synopsis before summarizing the short in a single sentence: "It's just a penis joke."

Anatomical humor and bodily functions feature heavily in 5-Second Day's history. "One year, we counted how many dick jokes were in it and how many farts," Shannon Prynoski says. "I think it was 15 penises and 10 farts."

Over time, the toilet humor subsided but didn't disappear.

"I'm doing a really short animation of a really adorable kitten letting out a really huge fart," storyboard artist Jean Kang says.

Sharing an office with Kang today are fellow storyboard artists Jen Bennett and Stephanie Gonzaga. The pair is collaborating on a piece about a boy who belch-farts his way into outer space. Bennett explains that, with time constraints, it helps to go for "very easy visual gags." Flatulence is one of those.

All three officemates are new to 5-Second Day; none is an animator. These shorts are pushing them to explore techniques that they don't use day to day.

That's what makes 5-Second Day interesting. You have rooms full of people with different skill sets and varying levels of expertise, all trying to finish a short over a holiday weekend. In another room, an intern takes his first stab at animation. In a private office down the hall, a show creator gives himself a few hours to knock out a clip.

Some work individually. Others work as pairs or small groups. One animator describes herself as a "ringleader," organizing a team to pull together a "love story between the sun and the moon."

Out of the rush to finish before Tuesday, some stars will rise. It's happened in previous years. People name-drop Otto Tang. He's the art director for Randy Cunningham whose touching, black-and-white snippets of a childhood in Hong Kong wowed the bosses. Those films led to his Titmouse-produced short "The Forest of Two Trees," which hit the festival circuit. Tang intends to keep this year's short a surprise but says it's different from his previous efforts.

Then there's Marina Gardner. In 2011, she was a junior animator. That year, her clip about a light bulb's fatal mistake made a big impression. She has since moved up to lead character designer for Turbo FAST. Kerman says her film is an "inspirational legend" among the crew.

Other projects have become pilots or have gone into development.

The chance to tell their own stories on company time is part of 5-Second Day's allure. "Animation is all of our jobs, but it's something that we love to do," Kerman says. "After you do it for eight to 10 hours a day, five days a week, it's hard to pick up and do your own stuff when you get home."

For Kerman, 5-Second Day is reminiscent of his school years, when he spent summer vacations teaching himself to animate. There's a difference between then and now, though. "I don't have three months," he says. "I have four days."

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