MST3K’s Trace Beaulieu Teams Up with Transylvania Television and More MN Talent for a New Project—and Did We Mention Puppets?

Kickstarter has been around long enough now that there are several successful imitators and innovators. Crowdfunding isn’t an experiment anymore—it’s a fact of creative life. What might not be so widely known is that one of the projects selected for the beta rollout of Kickstarter was none other than the local not-for-kids puppet TV show Transylvania Television, better known as TVTV, of course.

Now Gordon Smuder and some of the other creatives behind TVTV have launched another Kickstarter campaign in support of a new puppet project. This time around, the show will be more targeted toward an all-ages audience, but the same happy bend toward the weird will continue, as it revolves around the escapades of mutant lab rats and the doctor who “works” with them. The show is called Vermin.

The mad doctor is played a man well known for the role of another medical professional: Trace Beaulieu, of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fame, will don the smocks to become Sam Lodgepole. I asked him how he’d compare Lodgepole to Clayton Forrester. “Forrester was an inept evil scientist bent on ruling the world,” Beaulieu said. “I think Sam just wants to make it through his day. He might be a pretty good scientist, but he is more than likely a bit burned out and tired of the lab. Unless someone brings in bagels.”

The rats “welcome” Trace Beaulieu to Vermin.

The rats “welcome” Trace Beaulieu to Vermin

Beaulieu was at the premiere of Transylvania Television’s Halloween special and appreciated the “crazy, funhouse“ form of TV production that was TVTV. This energy reminded him of the early days of MST3K, and he became interested in the new project from the show’s team. Smuder says the TVTV production was a learning experience in some ways, and for Vermin he wants to maintain the energy of that show but also organize things a bit more. To this end, they’ve got seven episodes already written and ready to move into production once they’re funded. Those episodes were written by local geek personality Tim Wick, who might be best known for his part in the not-very-all-ages Vilification Tennis.

(Transylvania Television) TVTV

Transylvania Television

Tim had a few things to say about the difference between writing for two very different audiences. “I’ve written several ‘family-friendly’ scripts over the years, and I don’t find it all that challenging,” he explained. “Primarily, you want to think about using clean language. You can still talk about complex things because kids are quite smart. I don’t think you should ever write ‘down’ to your audience. If you are going to write about complicated adult stuff, just keep the language PG and figure the kids will understand what they understand. The important thing is to write jokes that will appeal to adults and situations that will appeal to everyone. Aside from aged pop-culture references, kids will actually understand a lot more of the humor than you might expect.”

Tim Wick and Gordon Smuder

Tim Wick (writer) and Gordon Smuder (producer)—improperly labeled

The heart of Vermin will be the puppets, of course, created by Gordon Smuder and a group of talented puppet builders and performers. Writers and builders have both worked to bring the cast of felt rats to life, and once the Kickstarter is funded, they will be ready to shoot. Smuder explained how puppet production can be much more complicated than a shoot with strictly human actors: “People will snicker at the statement, but puppet production takes three times the effort to make than just shooting humans. Everything has to be planned around what a puppet can actually do. Which, when you boil it down, isn’t an awful lot. Mobility is always an issue. And your shots are always limited to what you can get while successfully cropping puppeteers out of the frame. So it not only takes a lot of pre-planning but also a working knowledge of ‘puppet visual vocabulary’ to inform your planned shots.”

Unlike TVTV, Vermin will be built from the ground up to be a web series. Smuder explained that the episodes will be half as long as a program you might see on cable TV, which will appeal to a web audience. Additionally, a web series can work well with Kickstarter as a way to reach fans directly without a distribution middleman. If the program does get picked up for broadcast distribution, Smuder suggested they’d have to retool most of the program for television and that would be outside the scope of this startup Kickstarter.

Vermin has massive amounts of talent behind it and is certainly worthy of funds to match those talents. Local rah-rah boosterism will only go so far, but I can imagine puppet fans everywhere enjoying this scrappy and ambitious program. It’s a great idea no matter where you live.

The Vermin Kickstarter campaign is in the home stretch and will end on Wednesday, April 22, 2015. I hope to see Placeholder Labs fully operational soon after that.

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