The Time of Doctor Puppet – Alisa Stern Interviewed

1 behind the scenes

Image Credit: Alisa Stern – All Rights Reserved

Image Description: The First Doctor Puppet being photographed on Set 

Back in Tides #42, James Ashworth talked to the creator of Doctor Puppet – Alisa Stern

In October this year, I, along with many others, was overjoyed to see a bold interpretation of the Doctor hit our screens- of course, I’m talking about the Finale of the Doctor Puppet Saga! The series was created by Alisa Stern, who in April of 2012 started a Tumblr featuring the Doctor in his Eleventh, contemporary, incarnation. Gathering fans, Doctor Puppet began travelling, first to other cities like Philadelphia and London, before a formative leap into the medium of animation, beginning with How the Doctor Puppet Saved Christmas. This has now developed into a full blown 8 part series, featuring puppet versions of all the Doctors up to 12, along with Christmas specials. I managed to get an interview with Alisa to discuss the creation of the show, Jodie Whittaker, and what comes next. 

The first thing I had to ask was, out of all the many animation methods, why did she choose to use puppets? Why didn’t she choose to use a more conventional method, such as the various animations that have been used to recreate missing episodes, most recently Shada? Alisa points out that she loves “all kinds of animation – hand drawn, computer, stop motion puppets.” However, it is the latter that comes out on top, with Alisa having “a special fondness for puppets ever since I saw The Nightmare Before Christmas and Wallace & Gromit. I just love making tiny things, especially characters.” 

Having successfully tracked down the origin of one half of the name, I moved on to the other. What made her interested in Doctor Who? It turns out that the interest in animation itself was key. “I got into Doctor Who through one of my first animation jobs… working on a Nick Jr. show [Wonder Pets] and a lot of coworkers were watching it. They talked about Doctor Who all the time, and that enticed me to watch too.” Society members may remember this method of recruitment from their time with us! Getting back to Alisa, this hook was enough to get her 2009 self “through all the previous series of New Who in anticipation of Matt starting as the Doctor. By the time he did, I was hooked!”

The final step must therefore be their synthesis into Doctor Puppet itself-one could almost say, a hybrid. While perhaps not “destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins”, destiny seems to have had some sort of a role in its creation. Alisa admits that after really getting “into Doctor Who, they just sort of came together by accident. I needed to make a puppet as a demonstration for a stop motion animation class I was teaching, and thought the Eleventh Doctor would be a fun challenge.” 

As anyone with something to be proud of knows, it’s then time to show it to everyone else. “Once I had the puppet, I started taking photos of him and posting them on Tumblr. [This] got me some attention, and I ended up making a short animated Christmas special (How the Doctor Puppet Saved Christmas) for my newfound audience.” A further positive response led to Alisa raising her ambitions, writing the “outline for what would become the 8-part story about the Eleventh Doctor being chased by a mysterious light.” Having made the previous short within her own apartment, it was time to reach out for others, getting “other animators and artists involved to help, because the story got too big for me to make on my own.”

This was also a time before both the Twelfth Doctor and the War Doctor were introduced, and as such the original ending was different to its eventual conclusion. As Alisa points out, it still had The “Doctor’s future self meddling in his past, but for a very simple reason – to gather all eleven Doctors and celebrate Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary together.” In order to do this, The Doctor needed to trick “himself into thinking something malicious [was] happening”, with the appearance of The Master “always meant to be a decoy in the Doctor’s head.” But with delays on Episodes 6 and 7 and with “higher emotional stakes than planned… [it] made the original ending feel like a letdown that was also several years too late. So I decided to throw it out and start over. With help from my collaborators, we turned a sweet and simple ending into the 10-minute epic that is Episode 8. I was even surprised by how well it worked out!”

Behind the scenes, each puppet itself is a miniature work of art. How is it that they are created? As you might expect, it’s quite an involved process. Alisa explains:

“First, I do some sketches to figure out the puppet’s likeness… try[ing] to keep it as simple as possible.” She then uses these to “sculpt the head from polymer clay and hand paint it. The mouth is a sticker and the only thing on the face that actually moves. When we animate, we swap out the stickers to change the expression.” I was quite surprised that nothing else moved, given how expressive the puppets can be, but it just goes to show how far body language can go! To complete the head, the final thing left is the wig. It’s “made of artificial (or sometimes human) hair I buy from a beauty supply shop. I style the wig with hair spray just like a full size wig.”

Next up comes the body. “The armature (basically, the skeleton) is made of twisted aluminium wire covered with foam and medical tape to give the body shape. The hands are wire dipped in latex rubber to make them look like skin.” “The hands themselves are particularly fiddly”, and on “the earlier puppets – the hands are big and lumpy!” While the “process hasn’t changed much over time”, she has got “much better at making the hands.” 

Finally, The Doctor’s friend Shakespeare said that “clothes maketh the man”. In this case, the clothes are handsewn by either Alisa or her “talented” friend, Amanda, capping off the process to give a particularly intricate result. In all, this takes around a week. After all the many times she has gone through the process to create her army of puppets, is there a favourite? She admits, like selecting a favourite child, that “it’s tough to choose…”, yet there is a winner. This honour goes to the puppet of the Twelfth Doctor, not just because she’s “very pleased with how he came out”, but “more importantly though, we’ve had the most adventures together! We’ve been to England, Wales, France, Canada, California… and all over New York City of course.” It was also “really special” when “Peter Capaldi voiced the puppet for a clip [for] Earth Conquest, the Series 8 promotional tour and documentary. She’s hopeful for the future as well. “In a few years, I hope to feel the same way about my Thirteenth Doctor!”

The other special part of Doctor Puppet is the music. “Through a serendipitous post on Tumblr,” Alisa found composer Scott Ampleford,” all the way “back when [she] was working on How the Doctor Puppet Saved Christmas.” From then on, “he’s been a integral part of the production”. Scott “also happens to actually be from England, so I made him the narrator as well.” One of the lovely features of Doctor Puppet is the way that the music of each episode is in tune with eras of the Doctors within it, and this was one of Scott’s ideas, something that has also led to multiple versions of the Doctor Puppet theme. Starting as orchestral, the soundtrack becomes noticeably more 80s in Baker’s Eleven, featuring the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors as well as including original songs such as the delightfully named Shada by The Pharos Project. By episode 7, Scott had assembled the Doctor Puppet Radiophonic Workshop in tribute to the eras of the First and Second Doctor. “For Episode 8, Scott wanted the score to be the biggest yet, and recorded with as many live players as possible. I flew to England to watch the recording sessions, done over two days, in Newcastle and Wells-next-the-sea in Norfolk.” Together, the Doctor Puppet Ad-Hoc Orchestra bring a triumphant conclusion to the series. Alisa is “so proud of the music Scott’s made for Doctor Puppet”, and thinks that “it elevates the series.”

Having looked at the past and present, we move to the future. What’s next for Doctor Puppet? It seems that it’s Survival again, at least for now. “The Doctor Puppet Finale is the last animated episode we have planned. It just takes too long to make them, and this feels like the right place to stop. However, Doctor Puppet isn’t completely done. I’ll use some of my extra time to take photos of the Thirteenth Doctor puppet, like I used to do with the Eleventh Doctor originally. Expect to see a lot of those on my social media accounts in the coming month!” Alisa is also “really excited” about one of her “puppet photo[s appearing] as one of the variant covers of the Thirteenth Doctor’s first comic”.

Having achieved so much over the past six years, I asked Alisa what had been her favourite, and worst, moments of Doctor Puppet. As always, it’s the people who make moments special, especially “meeting fans in person.” Having just got back from New York Comic Con, where she “spent the weekend walking around while holding a puppet”, it means “so much when someone came up to me because they recognized the puppet. Doctor Puppet is mostly made by myself (or one of my collaborators) working alone in a dark room, so going somewhere else and discovering we have fans is just the best feeling in the world.”

As for the other side of things, anyone who has ever tried stop motion animation will know it can at times be a tedious, frustrating process. Alisa herself says that she loves “stop motion, but it is a constant struggle against things breaking and malfunctioning.” Like Murphy’s law, and perhaps a certain time and space machine, everything that can go wrong will go wrong. “The worst moment is every time something went wrong on set, because I am terrible at dealing with stressful situations.” Therefore, “every time a light bulb broke, a puppet armature snapped, a tripod leg gave out, my camera overheated under the set lights, or a tie down wouldn’t screw into a puppet’s foot would tie for that terrible honor” of the worst moment.

I also asked her to look back on the Doctor Puppet finale, which was crowdfunded via Indiegogo and I myself was one of 392 who contributed a total of $11,581 towards it. What did she think of it as a model for funding creative projects? “I think crowdfunding is a great model for many types of projects.” It’s “wonderful that it enables fans to connect directly and support something they really want to see get made”, and “especially useful for filmmakers who already have a small audience from a previous project. Of course, it does have its downsides. As a creator, I found it stressful knowing I was on the hook and needed to deliver. Unfortunately, the Doctor Puppet Finale took longer to make than originally planned”, with it originally being pencilled in for an Autumn 2016 release. “I felt awful having to tell my backers I wouldn’t hit the estimated delivery date. I was honest, and they were mostly very supportive and understanding of how time consuming Doctor Puppet is to make. To make up for the extra wait, I sent out a special in-progress video for backers to watch. In the end, I think everyone was pleased.” If it’s any consolation to Alisa, I certainly think it was worth the wait!

Moving away from Doctor Puppet, I asked what plans were afoot for future projects. It seems she already has quite a few ideas to be getting on with! “First, I really want to make a short stop motion music video with Scott Ampleford, the Doctor Puppet composer [and narrator]. I adore his non-Doctor Puppet music, and am excited to collaborate on something fresh together.”

“Also, I’ve always been into zoology. I nearly went to university to study it, before I took a hard turn into art school.”  As someone who studies it, I can confidently say that a passion for zoology is hard to lose, and it’s the same for Alisa, with many of her ideas for original films still “grounded in science.” One such project is an “outline for a stop motion wildlife mockumentary that predates Doctor Puppet by several years, as well as a very rough draft of a horror short about an entomologist. That’s about the furthest from Doctor Puppet I can get!”

Of course, the other bold interpretation of The Doctor that arrived this October was of course Jodie Whittaker and the Thirteenth Doctor. Speaking after the original broadcast of The Ghost Machine, Alisa said that “Doctor Who is fundamentally about change and reinvention, but this is an especially big shift in the show. And I am here for it! Everything I’ve seen of Jodie so far is downright delightful; [she’s] a ray of sunshine… and I’m really enjoying the dynamics of her three friends.”

As for Chris Chibnall? He “really proved himself with Broadchurch”, though she “was quite disappointed when Chibnall said the episodes would be stand-alone and there would be no series arc, as she’s a big fan of that method of story-telling. But as River Song says, “The Doctor lies”, and Alisa hopes this is the case with our new showrunner as well, especially after the recent “strong hint at a larger arc. Chibnall’s already surprised me, and I’m now even more excited for what’s to come.”

So there you have it. While Doctor Puppet may be on hiatus for the foreseeable future, Alisa Stern has no plans of stopping yet! With a new series of Doctor Who and a newly freed up schedule, Alisa has got plenty to look forward to, and we at Tides wish her the best of luck with her future plans!

Doctor Puppet can be found on Facebook, Twitter (@TheDoctorPuppet), Instagram (@DoctorPuppet), and YouTube.

Tides 42 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

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