Rat Race

“Vermin” web series enlists fan aid and star power

Image 2_courtesy of Vermin

Courtesy of Vermin

Rats. They don’t typically get a lot of love, despite doing some of the dirtiest jobs in society—namely, testing the chemical and behavioral stimuli to which we expose ourselves daily. Now, a new online series called “Vermin” is giving the rodents their time to shine.

“Vermin” is a workplace comedy about lab rats under the influence of everything from television to cosmetics. The masterminds behind the show are producer Gordon Smuder of “The Puppet Forge” and head writer Tim Wick of Fearless Comedy Productions (which is behind much of the Twin Cities’ improv and live comedy, including “Big Time Radio Funtime” and “Vilification Tennis”).

According to John Jennings, the multitalented puppeteer and operator of the show’s puppet protagonist, “Vermin” began as an idea some two years ago. When Mystery Science Theater 3000 actor Trace Beaulieu became attached to the project, it was time to use the celebrity boost as a springboard to let fans know how they could make it a reality.

After one Kickstarter campaign failed to reach its goal and a more recent one significantly exceeded it (thanks in no small part to an “angel donation” from a local comic shop), production is well underway and the first four episodes are ready to hit screens everywhere. Currently, three seasons of seven episodes apiece are on the docket, though it’s up to community support to see it through to the end.

The Wake got a chance to speak with Jennings about what goes into the process of the show, from the writers’ room to a handful of felt.

Image 3_courtsey of Vermin

Courtesy of Vermin

The Wake: The Kickstarter page mentions that if the $30,000 goal was pledged, the creators would commit to producing the first three episodes. Then, thanks to Source Comics and Games’ donation, the fourth became a certainty. How confident are you that all seven episodes in the series will end up being shot?

Jennings: I feel pretty good about it. Once we edit what we’ve got so far, which should take maybe three or four months, we can start putting the episodes online and showing people, you know, “this is what we did with the Kickstarter money, do you want to see more?” And I think that’ll really help because you’ll see the under-arcing layer of the story start to develop and be curious to find out where it goes. Right now we have three seasons planned at seven episodes a season, and the arc ends at the end of season three.

The Wake: What goes into the manufacture of the puppets?

Jennings: Usually builders ask for about two weeks to construct a puppet. As far as cost, it mostly depends on experience of the builder and the materials used. A puppet maker working for Disney or Jim Henson might charge $1,500 as a baseline, which honestly doesn’t break down to all that much—like $15 an hour.

A puppet maker working for Disney or Jim Henson might charge $1,500 as a baseline, which honestly doesn’t break down to all that much—like $15 an hour.

The Wake: What are some of the challenges of acting for the camera with a puppet?

Jennings: Well, I have a background in acting and theater. I did a lot of voice work and commercials and stuff for TV, and I’d say that, with puppets, everything has to be way more orchestrated. You’ve got to consider how the puppet moves and obeys the laws of physics, how to use both arms of the puppet in a realistic way to pick things up or play air guitar, for example. Puppetry, like ballet, which I trained in for many years, is all about movement through the wrist. You’ve also got to position yourself and the camera to stay out of the shot but have the puppet where it needs to be. This means a lot of the time you’re kind of all over the other actors in the scene, physically, just piled on top of them. There’s a saying in puppetry: “If you’re comfortable, then you’re doing it wrong.”

The Wake: The campaign video also mentions that this series will be aimed at a general audience as opposed to the more mature demographic that the creators are used to writing for. What differences do you have to keep in mind content-wise this time around?

Illustrator: Katelyn Heywood

Illustrator: Katelyn Heywood

Jennings: Language, mostly, and subject matter. Some of the outtakes will definitely just be for us. [Laughs]. We try to stay true to what they were doing in the ‘90s with cartoons, where there were some jokes for the parents that went over the kids’ heads.

The Wake: Before you go, I have to at least try to find out: Why does everyone keep offering Ralph bagels?

Jennings: [Laughs]. That I can’t tell you. It’s revealed along the arc, that’s all I can say.

The Wake: Thanks, John.