It's hard out there for a puppeteer. Unless you're the Muppets or in Avenue Q, there aren't a whole lot of opportunities for those practicing the art of puppetry. So there comes a time when you have to create your own work.
That's essentially what Gordon Smuder was trying to do when he thought up the concept for his web series Vermin. The project is currently making a second attempt at crowd-funding its first three episodes.
“I had lots of different ideas to go with,” Smuder says. “I chose Vermin because it seemed like a relevant property, and it also seemed like something that was achievable in the mid-to-low budget range.”
The series centers on a rat in a testing lab, Ralph, whose intelligence has been artificially boosted. He's too smart to participate in the experiments, so he gets promoted to middle management where he oversees the other rats in their various tasks. Eventually, he becomes suspicious as to what is really going on in the lab.
“It's comedy,” says head writer Tim Wick. “It's silly. It's full of rats doing weird things, rats running mazes, and eating too much food.”
“There's a lot of workplace comedy,” says Smuder, but adds that there's more to the plot than that. There are also plans to look into Ralph's home life, but the first seven episodes are set in the lab.
They also have some star power in the form of Mystery Science Theater 3000 writer Trace Beaulieu, who played mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester and voiced Crow T. Robot on the program. They met when Beaulieu was asked to do some live introductions for screenings of the Transylvania Television Halloween Special. He ended up liking it so much that he watched it twice.
“After that he made the mistake of saying, 'If you ever want to do something together, let me know,'” recalls Smuder. “And when I came up with Vermin as a concept, I think almost right away I was like, 'I need to have a human in this.'”
Smuder assumed Beaulieu would come on the show for a cameo or something small so that he wouldn't have to commit too much time. But it turned out he was very much into being a part of the show.
“We actually decided to write him in as a continuing character,” says Smuder.
In order to raise enough money to make the show happen they turned to Kickstarter, which Smuder says was really the only way they could've made a show like Vermin happen. Thankfully, he learned a lot from from doing Transylvania Television in terms of what it cost to put a production like this together.
“My wife and I pretty much footed the bill for the entire Transylvania Television,” says Smuder. “So it was important to us that we didn't end up having to sell our house and live in the streets in a box.”
They went through the budget of Transylvania Television to figure out how much it would ultimately cost to make the same kind of web series. They ended up with $30,000. The first campaign they launched missed the goal by a few thousand dollars. Afterward, they went back to the drawing board to figure out their mistakes, and relaunched the Kickstarter at CONvergence at the beginning of the month. They're already a little over a quarter of the way to their goal with 25 days to go.
Wick says the key is to get the first three episodes made, which is what the $30,000 goes toward. If they have something to show, others may be more inclined to invest money so they can continue.
“After a certain amount of success, that's when people start coming up and saying, 'Oh! This is a thing. And I could actually possibly become involved with this, and share in the success. I'm gonna try that',” says Smuder.
Wick also says they feel safer with Vermin, as it's easier to explain the concept.
“We're doing a series about puppet rats with Trace Beaulieu,” he says. “It's way easier to sell.”