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Introducing “Doctor Puppet” and Animator Alisa Stern

Well, now, Who do we have here? Meet Doctor Puppet, a time-traveler in bow tie and floppy hair who… Who… well, watch Episode One above and climb aboard (it’s bigger on the inside, of course) for the mystery of The Red X. And then go right over and watch Episode Two at the Doctor Puppet YouTube channel page, www.youtube.com/user/HelloDoctorPuppet. You’ll be hooked right away.

The show is the creation of animator Alisa Stern, and our own Kyle Anderson had the opportunity to talk to Alisa about making Doctor Puppet and stop-motion animation:

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NERDIST: Which came first for you, the love of Doctor Who or the love of stop-motion animation?

ALISA STERN: Stop motion. But stop motion – well, animation in general, led to Doctor Who because I got introduced to Doctor Who working at an animation studio where everyone was into it and talked about it. I don’t think I’d have found the show when I did if it wasn’t for animation people.

N: How long have you been doing animation?

AS: Professionally, five or six years.

N: Have you done all types of disciplines, not just stop-motion?

AS: Yeah, I’ve done mostly digital, like cutout animation. That’s my day job, actually. Not a lot of stop-motion animation work’s being done in New York; mostly digital. I did a little stop-motion work when I used to live in Oregon. There’s more of that happening out on the West Coast.

N: From your first short, How the Doctor Puppet Saved Christmas, it’s clear that you were a fan of the old Rankin/Bass Christmas specials; is that correct?

AS: Yes, the Rankin/Bass stuff and not the actual Doctor Who Christmas special, which, coincidentally, was also about a snowman… [laughs] made of tiny aliens. It was a total coincidence. I based my snowman on the Rankin-Bass specials way before I found out that the real Doctor Who Christmas special was about snowmen, too.

N: Yeah! You must have started on yours well before you’d heard about the actual Christmas special.

AS: I did; well before. I started end of September, beginning of October.

N: That’s a very weird coincidence.

AS: I was absolutely shocked. After having just worked really hard to finish up my Christmas special a couple days before the real special aired, and I sit down to watch it and the opening shot of the actual special is snowflakes falling from space to Earth and I have a shot like that in my film, too. So weird!

N: How long a process is one of these shorts, from conception to end?

AS: About six weeks. The two that air on Friday were made simultaneously, so it’d probably take about a month to make one. I don’t do all the work; I have a team of people helping me, so, about a month with a small team of people working on it. It’s quite a process.

N: Sounds like it. What are the figures made out of?

AS: Well, they’re wire armature-style stop-motion puppets and the skeletons are made of aluminum wire, so that’s how they can be posed. Then there’s foam wrapped around them, and it’s just upholstery foam I bought at an upholstery store. All the clothes are hand-sewn and the heads are made of sculpting clay with tinfoil inside to make them lightweight. Their feet have holes in them because that’s how they stand; you have to actually drill a hole in the set and thread a screw up through the bottom of the set into their foot. And all their body parts are also removable because with this style of wire armature puppet, the wire snaps after, visually, about a minute of animation. So, I build mine so that all the pieces can be snapped in and out of place. Like, last week, the Doctor broke his back so I had to pop his spine out and pop a new one in. [laughs] Quite a process.

N: They really only last for a minute of screen footage?!

AS: About a minute to two minutes. The fingers break really easily, the shoulders break, and depending on how much it’s being bent, it lasts like a minute. Two minutes tops, pretty much. Once you hit the two minute mark, all the body parts start breaking down at the same time.

N: How many heads would you say you go through?

AS: Ha! Well, the heads can get reused but they have to keep getting repainted because they just get smudged from touching them. The Eleventh Doctor’s head’s been repainted twice I think, and I think he’s on his third set of arms, second set of legs, third spine, second neck; I joke that it’s like he regenerates because I have to keep replacing body parts.

N: Ha! That’s really funny.

AS: Yeah, but the clothes and everything I can reuse. I can take them off and take him apartment and replace what’s broken and put it all back in place.

N: Getting back to those Rankin/Bass specials, I love those and grew up on them, and especially Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which your film is the closest to. Did you have the same feeling toward them, and is Rudolph your favorite as well?

AS: I’m very familiar with it because one of the first animation jobs I ever had was working at a studio in Oregon was to make replicas of all the characters for an Aflac commercial four or five Christmases ago. I didn’t actually watch it that much growing up. Occasionally, but I didn’t know those specials by heart until I worked on that and I watched Rudolph a bunch of times.

N: Onto Doctor Who: you’re a fan of the show. At what point did you jump on?

AS: It was towards the end of Tennant’s run. He hadn’t left yet, it was probably somewhere in the fourth season. I started from the beginning, but I remember the first time watching an episode live as it premiered was right around when he left. Everyone at the studio I worked at was like, “Oh my God, have you seen the new promo image from Doctor Who,” and I just had to find out what everyone was so excited about.

N: Have you gone back and watched any of the Classic stuff?

AS: Yeah, I have. I’ve watched most of what’s on Netflix. They have a decent amount. I like the Fifth Doctor a lot. The Fourth and Fifth are my favorites of the old ones.

N: So, what it seems like from the storyline set up in the two episodes of “The Red X,” the past Doctors will probably be making an appearance in later episodes, yes?

AS: That’s the plan.

N: Did you come up with a big story arc or are you going episode by episode?

AS: I have a long story arc and I have an ending. I’m not sure how many episodes I’ll take to get there, because it kind of depends on how much time I can give up to make these. I’ll be figuring that out in the next couple of weeks. I would love to make an episode for every single Doctor, but that’s probably not realistic between now and when the 50th Anniversary. There are a lot of factors, so some of the older ones I might have to double up. We’ll see.

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  8. Don Carlson says:

    With regard to fingers breaking- there is a new non-hardening clay called Craft Smart that is very flexibly and might be useful for hands. It is stretchy, as well. No idea what’s in it… But it’s a little cheaper than Van Aken (although it does not come in as many colors).

    -Don

  9. Rob B says:

    I love how in the Youtube comments people are poking holes in the Doctor Puppet story…

  10. bob says:

    To say that Ms. Stern’s work is simply lovely and charming might be enough, but the story is already delightful. Nicely done.

    And also, MOAR!

  11. Jeremy says:

    SUPER interesting little Easter Egg there. If you have a QR Code reader, pause the video when he goes to point his Sonic Screwdriver at it and scan the code. =D