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.
GORDON: Puppets are a much different subject to shoot than regular actors. With puppets, every shot is a set-up. You have to give consideration to just about everything. Most actors can simply pick up an object and move it about on command. Puppets typically can’t. So if a character needs to “pick up” an object and move it about, you NEED to figure out how to SIMULATE that action for the camera. And that happens for every shot.
A puppet can’t just sit down in a chair, because there’s a large puppeteer sprouting from his underside that needs to occupy real space. So you need to make chairs with no seats and shoot them from the waist up.
It's often more about what the audience DOESN’T see than what it does. And that takes time.
Dan: I've seen some behind the scenes clips on YouTube. What can you tell me about the sets? Is it easier to do green screen for a show like this or do physical sets help the performers and puppets reaction on screen?
TROY: We have REALLY cool practical sets. We think that’s part of what makes the show stand out. It’s a skill set we possess and we try to lean on that as much as we can. We try to limit VFX shots to things that are not possible or too complicated to pull off practically. Michael does the majority of our VFX and he’s awesome at it (MFA in Visual Effects, you know), but the more VFX we have, the more Michael has to do and he already has TOO MUCH to do, so we try to limit the VFX as much as we can. I also think there is something to be said about good old fashioned real sets. They look better on screen and they make the experience more fun for the performers. Gordon, Jennifer and Michael are great set dressers as well - a lot of what makes the show what is, is in the stuff hanging on the walls and on the shelves. Wouldn’t be the same if it didn’t have the texture of real stuff.
CJ Stone: We have two very talented prop and set guys. Gordon has said of them, “They come with their own tools, I tell them what to do, they do it, and I don’t have to supervise them.”
GORDON: We usually try to get as much “in camera” as possible to lighten the post-production load. There’s also something wonderful about having a real set to work with as opposed to doing nothing but green-screen. Plus, we invested early on in a really nice set that is made to be modular and rearrangeable. It would be silly not to use it! Besides...we gotta give our lighting guy SOMETHING to keep him busy! And he does a great job bringing atmosphere to the show through his lighting setups.
Dan: IMDB says there are roughly 54 episodes of the series. Amazon says 6. That's a huge gap. Are there “lost” episodes that fans should be looking for?
TROY: Pay no attention to the show behind the IMDB curtain!!!
This is a long story that we get asked about all the time (understandably so). If you REALLY want to know, grab some milk and cookies and a blanket, and we’ll tell you the story of the Little Monster Puppet Show That Could. :D
We are in the process of trying to make this more clear on IMDB, but the ability to edit IMDB is rather archaic and arcane. Like Sperry-Univac punch-card, 8” floppy disc, BBS, .alt archaic.
This all depends on how you define an “episode” and a “season” and let’s just say that IMDB is not as nuanced as our show has turned out to be when it comes to that definition.
Officially there are now 8 “broadcast” half-hour episodes and 1 “broadcast” one-hour Halloween Special. (The 3 newest episodes are currently exclusive to Seeka.tv). Many of the sketches in those 8 episodes (or versions of them) were stand-alone clips on the YouTube once-upon-a-time.
We do have some additional cool stuff on our YouTube channel, like the behind the scenes clips you mentioned, as well as our “LiveScreamed” shows and more. We occasionally open up the crypt and show some of the older and “lost” stuff as well.
LeShoc likes to surprise the Minions with little treats now and then. It keeps them compliant.
CJ Stone: YES. There are 48 LOST EPISODES!! And fans should be writing their everyone, demanding to have the Russians Wikileak her emails about them until a major studio signs us to do the biopic! TWEET THE TRUTH!!!
TROY: Pay no attention to that man either!!!
GORDON: We used to call our web sketches “episodes”. And there were A LOT of web sketches.
When we actually assembled our half-hours, the term “episode” took on a different meaning.
Dan: There are a lot of horror-puppet web series and even a horror-puppet feature going on now and in the works. Do you think Transylvania TV has helped to inspire some of this felt revival?
TROY: That’s a good question. No one has ever said anything to us as far as I know, so I am not aware of anyone that has specifically been inspired by us.
If anything I think the rise of similar shows is just representative of the current zeitgeist. I have no research to back this up, but this stuff seems to be a common interests for later Boomers; all Gen-Xers and Xennials; and early (at least) Millennials. It just kind comes out of the ether and I think we were very much from that random, imaginary movement. Our show is basically a product of the pop culture we cgrew up with and I’m guessing that’s no different from the rest of the shows. Although that would be pretty cool if we inspired some people. We’d like to hear from them if there are any.
GORDON: Absolutely. And they all owe us money. (right?) LOL!
TROY: Pay no attention to that ma...nevermind.
Dan: With the ongoing popularity of puppets, the devotion of horror fans, and the growing wave of hipsterism dredging up all things “retro” do you think there's a chance of more TVTV in the future? What would it take for fans to bring you guys back?
GORDON: If we can help it, there will be PLENTY more TVTV in the future.
TROY: THAT (those?), our astute friend, is the $64,000 question! You really hit the nail on the head. The retro/nostalgia bug (while not planned for this reason) is exactly what we have been hoping people will really dig. We put that stuff in the show because it’s the stuff WE grew up with. It’s what we enjoy and what we think is funny. Our audience, hopefully, is attracted to it for the same reasons.
That said, this factor has not yet created the buzz needed to make the show self-sustaining, and thus, for us to continue to create new content (at least of the nature and caliber that we have so far) without outside help. All of us have been volunteering our time and talents for the past 10 years (going on 11) to get where we are now and unfortunately that’s about 9 and a half years beyond when we should be expecting people to work on the show without appropriate compensation. We all LOVE working on the show and with each other, but we all also have rent or mortgages, kids, “real” jobs - adulty stuff. As much as we’d love to keep playing with these toys (which are expensive in and of themselves) it’s just no longer practical to do so.
In order for us to continue making shows we need to raise significant funds from either a major studio/network deal, a large sponsorship from an advertiser or several, and/or a very large (for us anyway) crowdfunding campaign.
We are in the process of entering the show in film festivals (we will be screening at the 2018 Vancouver Web Fest in April!), as well is putting together a package to pitch to the powers that be in Hollywood. Our hope being that a major network or producer will pick us up - not only to get us greater distribution (with the backing of promotion) but most importantly so we can make future seasons of the show. One of the problems with accomplishing that is, right now by industry standards, our viewership is just a drop of rain in the ocean. In the 1,000s of views per episode. There are kids recording themselves playing video games with zero overhead or cool sets and awesome characters that blow those numbers out of the water.
Most of the reason for that (we hope) is the vast majority of the world has no idea that the show even exists. In order to reach a critical mass to earn enough on our own or to organically attract an advertiser or a network, we’d need to be in the millions of viewers.
This is all a numbers game. Right now, for example, we have just over 4,000 likes on our FB fan page - a tiny amount by industry standards - but if every one of those people were to get just 10 people to follow the steps - that’s 40,000, then 400,000, then 4,000,000. It can grow pretty fast, but only if people participate - which is not easy when there are a million other things in competition for their attention. So we could get there, we just aren’t. We’d really like to change that.
Ironically, the most frequent comment we get from our fans is “Why aren’t there more episodes?! When are you going to make more?” They’re like an angry mob of villagers with pitchforks and torches banging on the castle door shouting: “We Want More!” Which is AWESOME, and we’d LOVE to bring everyone more, but that fervor would best help us get to that point if directed in a different way.
Here’s what fans can do to help take the show to the next level: Help us grow our audience and let the media gatekeepers know you like us and want more of us. Those are the most important things we can do and it is 100% within the control of our existing audience.
Dan: Are there any new projects that you're working on at the moment that you'd like to mention?
CJ Stone: We are talking about another crowdfund, but the bloom is off that rose (we know how hard it is). Michael had a great idea for what I’m calling “The Real Meaning of Halloween Xmas Show”. We also want to engage fans while we are being pre-cancelled by everyone we contact, so we have talked about Furry doing a podcast and about doing a podcast version of the show (which would let us introduce characters w/o having to build puppets for them; we could build puppets for the more popular ones when we get back in production).
GORDON: There are always good and bad ideas floating around in our heads. Some of them are TVTV related, some not.
But our main focus right now is to push TVTV as hard and as far as possible. Even if that means getting turned down by every network and on-demand service extant, then that’s the plan.
However, I think our show is good enough to get picked up. And I think it's good enough to gain and hold an audience. Call me an unmitigated romantic, but I believe we can snag a “rich and famous” contract just like those “other famous television puppets” currently owned by a mouse in short pants.
TROY: DO pay attention to THOSE men.
Dan: Finally, if you could offer any advice to new creators getting ready to take a chance on film or stage, what would you say?
TROY: Find a nice, secure, safe job - like computer programming or financial advising. Seriously though - I think the most important thing to remember is that being a creator in the entertainment industry is not a “job” or even a “career”. It’s a lifestyle. It is all consuming. It is grueling, exhausting, often humiliating work that could eat up years - neigh - decades of your life and never re