Interview with Alisa Stern, The Doctor Puppet Master

If you are at all interested in Doctor Who specifically or the lovably geeky worlds that converge across the civilized world during various conventions devoted to science fiction and fantasy fiction, then you are doubtlessly already familiar with Alisa Stern and the Doctor Puppet. If not: get ready, because you will be.

I met you at DragonCon 2012 because my two sons were so excited. You were the only person they recognized as being famous. For those who have no idea what the Doctor Puppet is all about and how it makes you famous, clue them in.

Alisa Stern: If I was the most famous person you met, I’m sorry. I hope you can run into Felicia Day or John Barrowman next year! Well, it’s a Tumblr blog I started back in May starring a puppet I created in the likeness of the 11th Doctor, Matt Smith. He travels to interesting locations and blogs about his adventures. He is the Doctor, but at the same time he’s also aware that he’s a tiny puppet and that his travels are limited as a result. Otherwise he’d have to go to extremely cool places like on the show (Mars for example,) which I won’t even try to compete with. A few weeks after I started it, the blog went viral in the nerdy blog-o-sphere and Facebook, as well as on Twitter and Reddit to a lesser extent. Right now it gets most of its attention from within the Tumblr network of blogs. Tumblr is a great place for Doctor Who fans because there are hundreds of bloggers creating original content, and even an official Doctor Who Tumblr Blog.

Why Matt Smith? David Tennant has that whole facial shape-shifting thing going on. Then there’s Tom Baker who looks more puppet than human. What is it about Matt Smith that drives you to puppetry?

Alisa Stern: Matt Smith is the current Doctor, and I like to parallel the show a little bit, so it made sense to go with him. Tennant does have a fun face, and Baker’s got the best hair, but I think Smith is the easiest to caricature actually. He’s got a massive jaw and barely any eyebrows, plus he’s all gangly. No offense to Matt, but his likeness lent itself very naturally to being a puppet.

Why a puppet? Have you always been interested in puppets? And why not a marionette? Or a Duppet? (You know…a Dr. Who Puppet?)

Alisa Stern: Yeah, I’ve always loved puppets, especially the stop-motion kind. I was one of those kids who was mesmerized the first time I saw “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Eventually I decided to actually pursue puppet making and animation as a career, so I went to art school to study it. I was lucky enough to get a job at a stop-motion animation studio a few months after I graduated. At that studio I mostly worked on puppets for commercials and music videos, especially Christmas stuff. Eventually I moved on and now work as a digital animator for a kid’s show, but I do puppet projects on the side. I made a marionette puppet music video a few years ago, but haven’t touched them sense. Marionettes are cool, but they’re very different from animated puppets. Marionettes are part of live theater, so you have to perform the shot in one take. Stop-motion animation is a frame by frame process, so you have hours to review your shot and make decisions as you’re going. I prefer the stop-motion process, probably because I’m a bit crazy. Also, Duppet is good! I might use that.

There is a video on your web site in which the puppet is animated in a style reminiscent of the old Rankin-Bass Christmas specials. What do you suppose are the odds that we can expect a half-hour animated special featuring the Doctor Puppet?

Alisa Stern: Yes, I’m very influenced by the Rankin and Bass style and it shows. Theirs are some of my favorite puppet designs. That animation clip actually precedes the blog by a few months. After I made the puppet I wasn’t sure what to do with it, so I animated it a bit before I had the photo idea. An all-animation blog would’ve been very cool, but I didn’t think I’d have time for it unfortunately. However, it’s funny that you bring up the idea of a Christmas special, because I actually am working on one now! 30 minutes is a bit ambitious, so I’m only aiming for two. The set is taking up half my living room right now and there will be two original characters as well as the Doctor Puppet in it. I expect it to be done the week before Christmas, and I’ll have more info up on my blog in late November most likely.

That famous Doctor Puppet Tumblr page is mostly devoted to images of the Doctor visiting sites around the world. First, where did you get the idea for focusing on a puppet as a world traveler and where would you most like the Doctor Puppet to visit that he has yet to get to?

Alisa Stern: Thanks! I think he’s cooler too, though he’s not quite a world traveler yet since he’s only been to the US and UK so far. Only 3 states in the US too, but hopefully I can expand on that eventually. Originally I wanted to create little animated clips for the blog, but I knew that would take too long. I decided that still photos would be faster, and since I live in New York City there’s no lack of famous and cool places to visit that are really close by. The first two places he went to were Sunset Park and Coney Island in Brooklyn. I think the coolest place was probably Arthur’s Seat in Scotland, which is an extinct volcano. Or maybe it was the Season 7 Premiere we attended in Manhattan! I’d love to go to more places in the US with the Doctor Puppet, especially out West because I’ve never been. The Grand Canyon, the Rockies, Yellowstone, places like that. Some really amazing American landscapes would suit him well, plus I could make him a little Stetson for the occasion!

The Doctor Puppet seems unusually expressive and supple. Can you share some mechanical secrets about your puppetry magic?

Alisa Stern: The Doctor Puppet is a very typical stop-motion puppet. He has an armature (or skeleton) made of aluminum wire that is very light and flexible. Over that there is some soft foam to give him shape and then he’s dressed in clothes I sewed by hand. His head is made of polymer clay and his hair I bought at a beauty salon (don’t worry, it’s fake!) then glued on in little pieces. To create his mouth, I originally used paper stickers that I would change out for different expressions. I kept losing them outside though, so I found it was easier to just add the mouth later using Photoshop. The Doctor Puppet will usually stand on his own for a photo-shoot because his feet are really big. If I’m animating him, I want him to be secured to the set so there are bolts in his feet that allow me to screw his feet down so he won’t move at all.

One final query: Tyler Durden invites the Doctor Puppet and Howdy Doody to an evening at Fight Club. Who wins?

Alisa Stern: Definitely the Doctor Puppet. He may be smaller than Howdy Doody, but he doesn’t have strings holding him up. One well-placed Karate chop from the Doctor and it would all be over for Howdy Doody. That’s another reason I prefer stop-motion puppet over marionettes – those darn strings!