Michael Heagle compared the new “Transylvania Television” episode he directed, “The VHS of Death,” to a snack size package of Halloween candy corn.
“There is a lot of orange,” he said, referring to one of the main characters, Furry Ackermonster, an orange yeti. “It’s sweet. It’s not very good for you. It’s all a trick but also sometimes a treat.”
Heagle, a University of Wisconsin-Stout assistant professor in time-based media, is the co-creator, director and writer of “Transylvania Television,” which started in 2007.
The show is 100 percent puppet cast, designed very much in the style of Jim Henson’s Muppets, but they are adult characters in an adult world. The show’s humor is described in the book “The Story Behind ‘Transylvania Television’” as somewhere between ‘South Park’ and ‘The Simpsons’ – not too raunchy but not for children.
The storyline for the show is 900-year-old vampire Le Shoc running a beat-down television station in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania. With the help of the Beatnik minion Batfink, they enlist college graduate Furry Ackermonster to be the station’s new manager. Furry is assisted by the smartly stupid Dwayne Frankenstein, a puppet looking much like Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” whom Heagle brings to life. The VHS of Death! is an excerpt from a 22-minute series episode where the castle crew fights a feisty, cursed video rental.
“It’s a tribute to the era of video rental stores and junky horror pictures in particular,” Heagle said.
The short will be shown on Thursday, Oct. 18, as part of the Twin Cities Film Festival Laugh till You Die Shorts Block.
Heagle, who started teaching at UW-Stout this fall, has been making movies since he was in fifth grade, using a Super 8 camera. He recalled the days of begging film developing money from his parents, getting the film developed at the local Kmart and screening them with a bedsheet as the screen.
The ability to create other worlds in film appeals to Heagle. As the first generation of children to watch “Sesame Street,” Heagle also enjoys puppets and how they look visually on film. “I enjoy the ability to completely create the frame, which is an invented reality, and having the characters come to life,” Heagle said. “They just happen to be fleece and fur. It’s like animation or stop-motion but comes out in real time.”
Joshua Seaver, a UW-Stout assistant professor of game art, has watched all the episodes available on Amazon Prime. He started watching the show to learn more about Heagle’s creative work. However, he enjoyed the show so much he watched all the episodes.
“I wanted to watch more episodes when I got to the end. I find it to be very irreverent and entertaining,” Seaver said. “As someone who grew up with the muppets but has enjoyed all manner of monsters in popular culture, it’s really refreshing to see the Transylvania TVs monsters in mashup doing all these mildly shocking, grown-up things. The joke-writing is delightfully nerdy and well-paced.”
Seaver said he could see the progression of characters and looks forward to seeing more of “Transylvania Television” from Heagle. “He definitely is good at his craft, good at storytelling and using a low budget to his advantage. The aesthetic works very well for the show,” Seaver said.
Heagle and Gordon Smuder created Transylvania Television, which evolved out of the puppet Furry. They decided to use the idea of having the show based at a television station, so they could do movie and show parodies and backstage hijinks. “I have a penchant for dumb comedies and fantasy movies, so it’s a blend of those,” Heagle said.
“I like some pretty bad things, cult stuff and low-brow stuff. I like that surreal nonsequitur comedy like you get with Alex Cox’s movies (Repo Man) and all the Python stuff. We try to parody things we were into that are still pop culture icons. We want to do things that last.”
Heagle never really did any puppetry until the show. “The challenge with doing it for the camera is what you are performing is reversed on the monitor,” Heagle said. “The other thing with puppets is you take for granted they look at each other and make eye contact. The lip syncing is not straightforward. You have to decide what syllables to keep and to throw away. You can’t do every syllable, or they look like they are vibrating.”
Also, making sure the humans operating the puppets do not appear in the shot can be challenging, Heagle said.
“Transylvanian Television” is meant to be pure entertainment and fun, Heagle said.
“We are a distraction,” he said. “We are meant to help you forget your troubles for a time. If we can distract someone for an hour, our efforts are worth it.”
Episodes of “Transylvanian Television” can be seen on a variety of streaming platforms including Amazon Prime and the all-new, all-independent streaming network Seeka.tv, which funded three new 20-minute segments, Heagle said. In 2012 a Halloween special was created entitled the “Real Meanin’ of Halloween Special as Furry and Batfink Head on a Quest to Find the True Meaning of Halloween.”
UW-Stout offers a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Entertainment Design as well as a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Game Design and Development.
UW-Stout is Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University, with a focus on applied learning, collaboration with business and industry, and career outcomes.
Dwayne Frankenstein in The VHS of Death!, an excerpt short where the cast battles a feisty, cursed video rental.
Furry Ackermonster, an orange yeti, is the station manager at "Transylvania Television.”