A scene from Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole
[Updated 10/29 12:25 AM: In the original publication, the show's puppet designer was mis-identified as Chris Calvi, when Chris Rabilwongse is the designer Mr. Stamatopoulos was describing.]
This weekend, Cartoon Network is giving us all a Halloween treat with a mini-marathon of the stop-motion, time-traveling neurotic monster comedy, Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole. The show’s creator is, Dino Stamatopoulos, who was also responsible for religion-skewering Moral Orel, and who you might recognize as the shifty Star-burns on NBC’s Community. The series features a droll, immortal Dr. Victor Frankenstein who tinkers in his lab which is situated conveniently near the time portal—the titular Frankenhole—where each week a visitor from history might pop out with a request for the good doctor’s assistance.
With a second season of Frankenhole on the way in December, we thought we’d talk to the show’s creator about building his stop-motion world, retooling the show for season two, the secret history of the cancellation of Moral Orel, and the boozy process behind coming up with some of the storylines for the show.
MTV Geek: So, are you a big Halloween guy?
Dino Stamatopoulos: I am. I’ve actually been buying a ridiculous amount of animatronic monsters from Spirit stores this year. I put aside a little bit of money every week to buy one, and I’ve got like six or seven right now. And I don’t even have a backyard, it’s just by the street and I don’t know what I’m going to do.
Geek: So you just have a home cluttered with Halloween stuff at this point?
Stamatopoulos: Yeah, and I’m kind of in the back of a coach house, so I put all of my Halloween stuff outside. And it’s just for like, two neighbors.
Geek: I love that the show focuses on a lot of classic monsters. Was that always a big thing for you as a kid? All those Universal monsters?
Stamatopoulos: Yeah, definitely. Every since I was a kid, my parents didn’t let me watch those movies, and I was fascinated by them. I finally saw them, but I only saw them after they were already legends.
Geek: How did the idea for the show come about? And how did you go about pitching it to Cartoon Network and Adult Swim?
Stamatopoulos: Well, after Moral Orel, I was hungry, and my daughter was hungrier. And the thing was this was actually one of the ideas I was a little embarrassed by, because it was just kind of a nerdy obsession of mine. I didn’t really pitch it full force, I had a couple of other ideas, but [the Adult Swim execs] didn’t really respond. They said “Well, there’s this one about Victor Frankenstein, and people from all over time and space come to him for crazy reasons and then they get bitten by werewolves and vampires. Oh yeah, that’s great, we love it!”
So we did it, we did the first season, and everyone decided “Well, uh, we like the characters, but we’re not sure about the premise.” It [felt] more like an anthology where new characters are being introduced, and maybe we could concentrate more on the family core. That’s what we’re doing for season two.
Geek: What kind of thoughts did you have in terms of expanding upon the family dynamic? Victor essentially has a messed-up relationship with everyone in the house.
Stamatopoulos: Yeah, he does. I really liked the Creature [Dr. Frankenstein’s erudite creation with incredibly low self-esteem], and we introduced for a closing credits sequence a vampire hunter, and Adult Swim really liked him. You know, I think the guys from Turner are from the South, and when they hear that Southern twang, they get stars in their eyes. But I really liked that character too.
The guy who does him [Joe Unger] goes to my local bar, the Drawing Room, and we just sit and drink. And I knew he was an actor—this is a guy probably in his 60’s, and he’s just a good ole boy. And I asked him one day—because I [had] a character that I wanted to be this kind of normal, Southern hunter guy, but he’s also a vampire hunter—“Hey Joe, do you still have your SAG card?” And he looked at me really angrily and he just launched into “Man, that’s a god*** insult, mother******. I’ve had a SAG card since you were f******* chewin’ on your god*** thumb!” And he just went into this long tirade, and afterwards, he just stared at me, like “Hey, what do you think of that?”
And I said, “This is exactly why I want you to do my show.” And he goes, “Oh! Yessir!”
Geek: Are drunken arguments usually the source of characters and stories for the show?
Stamatopoulos: Actually, yeah. When I had Joe come in, we were sitting around, doing voiceovers, mostly drinking at the same time. And as we’re taking him back to the bar, we’re just talking a little bit, and I say, “Who are your heroes?” And he says, “I’ll tell you who my heroes are: the colonial founding fathers. George Washington, I love ‘em all!” And I said that would be a great story, where they turn into vampires and you’d have to kill them. And he said, “No, don’t you do that to me, you god*** Greek tragedian! I hate ya!”
And I actually did an episode like that for season two.
Geek: One of the things I love most about the show is—well, two things. One is the wonderful character designs, and the voice acting. And there’s always a funny disconnect between the way the characters look and the way they sound. You’ve got your Southern vampire hunter or Andy Dick as Jesus.
Could you talk a bit about some of the voice talent you’ve got onboard for season two?
Stamatopoulos: One of the newest additions is Dan Harmon, who created Community. He’s a really funny, spontaneous voiceover actor. And he’s going to be playing Dr. Jekyll, and it’s this really great relationship he has with Victor, because he looks up to Victor, and wants to introduce him to new ideas, and Victor just thinks he’s a moron because he’s his own monster. He’s like, “No one wants to be their own monster, you idiot!” And every time Jekyll gets angry or humiliated, he turns into Hyde. It’s actually a fun relationship between those two that I might expand more in season three if there is one.
Geek: Were there other classic monsters you wanted to get onto the show?
Stamatopoulos: We got Godzilla—a Godzilla-esque monster, played by Ken Jeong (Community’s Chang). Japan is afraid of this monster more than any before it because this one, besides being dangerous and smashing buildings, he’s also doing a very racist, Asian character. So they want to get rid of him and they send him through the Frankenhole. Then the people in the Frankenhole have to deal with this really cheap-looking monster.
It’s actually the first time that we married live-action—because it’s actually Ken Jeong in a suit—with our stop-motion puppets.
Geek: What made you stick with stop-motion between Moral Orel and Frankenhole? It’s beautiful to look at, but notoriously time-consuming and difficult to execute.
Stamatopoulos: First of all, I love miniatures. I’ve always loved models, and on a selfish level I like to have them around. Really, on every level I do this on a selfish level. I just love the art form; it’s just beautiful to me. I love the idea that we’re getting emotions out of these inanimate objects that are animated by these artists called stop-motion animators.
By season three of Moral Orel, I was just hypnotized by them, and I think that’s why season three got a little more serious. I just wanted to see how far we could go—could these characters make us cry? That’s what happened there, that’s what basically got Moral Orel cancelled. It’s my fascination with stop-motion.
Geek: Well, as a big nerd for that kind of thing, is there any plan for toys or figures based on characters from Frankenhole?
Stamatopoulos: As soon as anyone cares about this show, then you will see some toys. But my shows have kept a low profile over the years. And the fans of the shows are pretty loyal, but it feels like they don’t buy DVDs and toys too much. Definitely an older fanbase.
Geek: I ask because looking at the miniatures, they’re very textured and you just want to touch them. Who was responsible for the designs of the characters?
Stamatopoulos: With the first season, there was the problem of “How are we going to sculpt these famous people?” It was the first time we had to draw from real life. And it gets very expensive to have sculptors come in and really get those likenesses down. So I had an idea to just have sort of generic puppet faces, and put pictures of famous people over them—you know, photographs, or a painting of George Washington or something like that.
And a puppet designer, Chris Rabilwongse—he’s really a genius when it comes to this—he created this beautiful sort of origami that you lay over the faces and the jaw of the character and have different noses, and it’s really amazing. The design is like no other show I’ve ever seen.
Geek: They’re absolutely beautiful. How does it take for you to animate an episode?
Stamatopoulos: It takes a little over a week. It should take a week, but it always goes over. And if you’re ever in L.A., you’ve got to come by the studio. It’s like a wonderland; there are usually 12 stages up—12 huge miniature stages—and 12 animators working at the same time on different scenes, or maybe the same scene at a different angle on each stage. And it’s really a lot of fun to walk around and see the work. You can actually see the animation instantly on video, as they’re doing it.
I opened up my own studio with Dan Harmon and two other guys, and it’s in a castle in Burbank. Like, literally—well, I guess it’s not literally a castle, but it’s a Hollywood castle. The façade of a castle. We moved in there to do the Community Christmas special, and then the second season of Frankenhole.
And we’re going to be doing other stop-motion. We’ve already done part of the opening credit sequence for the Rum Diaries and stuff like that, and we’ll be doing live-action, and Flash animation, and hopefully some cel animation too.
Geek: What would be your big pitch for those people out there not watching Frankenhole now?
Stamatopoulos: Well, the second season is going to focus on Victor Frankenstein, who’s going to be a lot more domesticated, a little more vulnerable, with exactly the same amount of narcissism coursing through his immortal veins. The same with Elizabeth and their “adopted” son, the Creature, as he likes to be called, and a bunch of other idiots. They tackle very mortal problems, like “Who’s better, a man or a woman?” And “Who are your biological parents when you’re stitched together from cadavers?” Or “How can you destroy vampires when there’s a bunch of undead rights activists protecting them?” We’re doing a lot more sitcom-y stories, but in the crazy world of Frankenhole.
The Halloween Frankenhole mini-marathon will run on October 31 from 12:30 AM to 1:30 AM on Adult Swim. Season two will make its debut on December 11.