Felt and Fright - An Interview with the Mad Minds Behind Transylvania TV
Transylvania Television, abbreviated TVTV, takes elements of classic horror, puppeteering, and bawdy, off the wall comedy to tell the story of a band of monsters running the best little TV station in Transylvania. Recently I had the chance to talk to series co-creator Gordon Smuder as well as producers Troy Antoine LaFaye and CJ Stone. What I was hoping for was some insight into the brilliantly warped minds of a series that can only be described as The Muppets with a two drink minimum. What I got was a conversation that I completely lost control of in the best way imaginable. Enjoy.
Dan: Other than Transylvania TV, what work will readers recognize you from?
TROY: Probably not much. I’ve mostly worked on things most people have never heard of, let alone seen. I was a production assistant on a couple of Hollywood feature films when I first got out of college (The Good Son & D2: The Mighty Ducks). I have produced a couple of shorts, one of which (called the Retreat) won a few film festival awards. Michael Heagle [Co-Producer, Head Writer and Co-director on TVTV] and I co-produced (and he wrote and directed) two feature films (Go To Hell and Planetfall). I also directed the limited web series “Vermin”, which was created and produced by our own Gordon Smuder.
CJ Stone: Did you read my article “Computer Parrot Dropping” in Stardate magazine, ca. 1988? No? I think they lied to me about their circulation.
GORDON: I worked for many years in special effects. Mostly commercial stuff. But one of the most high-profile things I ever made was the batman-style grappler gun for Kevin Smith’s character Silent Bob in MALL RATS. Anybody who might have seen Mighty Ducks 3 will have seen the “shattering letterman jackets” I made for that film. I also made a cannon to launch THE GREAT GONZO out of when the Muppets appeared on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
Dan: Why horror and why puppets?
CJ Stone: Horror is rule-breaking. We’re rule breakers. We enjoy seeing someone bend something until it snaps, especially if it snaps back.
GORDON: Two great tastes that taste great together? Seriously...if you want to do monsters, doing them as puppets is a great way to be unfettered by physical considerations. And if you want to do puppets, what better subject than monsters to free up your creative vistas?
I guess in the short of it, most people like monsters and most people like puppets. If they don’t, they probably shouldn’t be reading this!
TROY: People love puppets. In particular, there is not a person who was born after November 1969 whose face does not light up when they see a puppet. Doesn’t matter how old they are - they are instantly a kid again, sitting down in front of the TV after school to watch PBS.
Dan: How did TVTV start? When did you say “I want to make an adult puppet show with monsters?”
GORDON: I worked with Michael Heagle on his indie film “Planetfall”. After that wrapped, Michael was at my house and saw several puppets I had created. He said, “Have you ever considered doing a film with puppets?”
I replied, “Every damned day.”
We based the concept for the show on our mutual love for pop-culture, movies, puppets, and intelligent humor. He has a much deeper knowledge base than I do on the subject of film production, B-movies, Monster Culture and such. I bring the construction, the puppet-skills and the animated cartoon database that is my brain. We work well together because we respect each other’s body of knowledge and skills.
The show is just the best expression of those.
Dan: Tell me about the inspiration for the characters and voices. Furry has a very familiar feel while Leshoc almost gives off a Tim Curry vibe at times.
CJ Stone: Generally, we look at what will make the joke funniest. If there are gillmen in the mountains, they must be hillbillies...gillbillies. It’s funnier if Godzilla is not Japanese but only works in Japan. What’s his funniest accent?
GORDON: The process has been very organic developing the characters. And generally the first blush is what we’ve gone with.
I perform Furry. And his voice is very much modelled on The Muppet’s Dr. Teeth and Rowlf the Dog. He’s a big, gruff-ish character that demanded a big, gruff-ish voice. It was a pretty natural fit.
LeShoc’s baseline was as an homage to Riff-Raff in Rocky Horror Picture Show. But the character has grown quite a bit since our first outing. Charles [Hubbell - puppeteer and voice of Leshoc] has grown the delivery into a more comfortable one...which is critical over time.
I like to give the puppeteers as much room as possible to be comfortable with their characters. Over the years, by a collaboration between the writing and the directing and the performing, each character has developed. These things rarely sprout fully formed.
As for the initial character concepts, we look to pop culture for as much raw material as we can. Batfink is a play on “Ratfink”...a cartoon character created by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. He’s a gear-head and a beatnik. When I was building the puppet, I specifically decided he needed to wear short-sleeved work or hawaiian shirts. And I gave him an unruly mop of black hair and a goatee to mimic the look of Ed Roth.
Our mummy princess Kim-Ho-Tep not only gets her name as a pun on the classic Universal Mummy name “IM-HO-TEP” but she’s heavily inspired by the empress of 1970’s black action movies Pam Grier. When my wife brought Kim-Ho-Tep to visit Pam at a convention, she saw the puppet and cried out “You made a puppet of ME!!”
Pam was delighted.
Dan: What is the average shoot time for a 23 minute episode? How many puppeteers and voices are involved?
TROY: Number of puppeteers/voices: We have around 8 major and minor characters with another handful of “extras” that may appear from time to time. The majority of the voice work is from the puppeteers themselves. Except for logistical/technical reasons, we don’t replace any of the voices if we can help it. We (try) to do as little post audio work as possible. Audio is very hard work, takes a lot of time and requires special skills and equipment. Sometimes due to scheduling, we have to use a different puppeteer to shoot a character, then have the regular puppeteer come in in post to re-record the lines. We also have additional voices to fill-out a scene or as voice over narration for one of our fake commercials. Michael and I have done some of those. I think Michael’s wife, Tricia has done some. We have also had puppeteers or even crew members do voice work. Most recently, we had a Guest Voice Star - MST3K’s Trace Beaulieu reprised a familiar voice for us, as well as voiced an enchanted mirror in another episode. That’s something we’d really like to do more of. Eventually have them actually appear on the show, but in puppet form.
Regarding how long it takes to shoot - On our most recent shoot we produced 3 new episodes for Seeka.tv and we did around 16, 10 hour days of shooting. The episodes were probably 75 to 90% new content, with the remaining being bits and bobbles that didn’t make it into previous episodes.
CJ Stone: Our standard shoot rate is 60:1 for a finished product. 60 minutes of shoot comes out to 1 minute of show. That has been true over the course 10 years of production. For comparison, Jonathan Frakes said it took 10 days to shoot a 1 hr show, which would be ~80:1.