An Interview with a Duo Behind ‘Doctor Puppet’
Before we talk about the “Doctor Puppet” outright, I think it’s important to discuss your connection to “Doctor Who.” This whole thing is obviously borne out of a deep love and connection to the show, and I’m curious when that commitment to the fandom began for you.
Scott: “Doctor Who” is a bizarre thing. It was officially off the air for a long time, even over here in England, but it never really went away. I happened to be born right in the middle of that time when it wasn’t on TV. There was a channel called UK TV Gold, which was what the channel Dave was before it was called Dave, and UK TV Gold used to have these “Doctor Who” blocks on at 6 or 7 am on Saturday and Sunday mornings. I used to wake up early and catch all these old episodes. They were usually Pertwee or Tom Baker episodes. I also remember having some VHS tapes of the show. Like I said, it was always there, it never went away. It was an entity.
Alisa: For me, I didn’t grow up with it. I mean, I knew it was on, but at the time it only played here on PBS at, like, one in the morning. It’s a shame, really, because I think I would have really liked it as a kid. I wasn’t really aware of the show when it came back in 2005. What really made me tune in, though, was one of the first animation jobs I had, we were making this preschool TV show, and a lot of the other animators were watching it and constantly talking about the show. This was during the middle of the Tennant-era. This one guy especially, who sat two chairs down from me, was always talking about it to the point that people would congregate around his desk. I thought, “I really should start watching this show, too!” I started with Eccleston, and by the time I caught up, it was during that break between David Tennant and Matt Smith. So, Matt Smith was the first Doctor I watched come in, and it was the perfect time for me to come into things. I was getting to witness all the fandom online. I remember when Matt Smith was announced, that was the first time I was really like, “Yeah! I’m excited!” So, he’s sort of a special Doctor for me, and I think that’s what led to the “Doctor Puppet,” because I was there for that, and I wasn’t physically into the fandom when all the other stuff had happened. Being there for Matt Smith’s introduction was important for me, as a fan, and that’s what I think led to me making Matt Smith as the puppet. Plus, he just looks like a puppet.
Everyone likes to say “You never forget your first Doctor,” and it seems yours was Christopher Eccleston, but it’s Matt Smith who made the impression.
Alisa: It was Eccleston, and I had seen Tennant by the time I started watching. I knew of them, but Matt Smith was unknown, so he felt like the first Doctor I got to know as he was being introduced.
Well, first Doctor doesn’t necessarily mean favorite Doctor. So, it’s safe to say Matt Smith is your favorite?
Alisa: I think so, but I’ve been going back and watching classic “Who.” I haven’t seen everything, but going back through, I would have said that Four (Tom Baker) or Five (Peter Davison) are my favorites of the old ones, but as I’ve been watching them, I’ve been really growing on Two (Peter Troughton). The Second Doctor has certainly surpassed for me as my favorite Classic Doctor.
For someone who’s fairly new and still discovering the classic-era, there are certainly a lot of nods and references to old “Doctor Who” in “Doctor Puppet.”
Alisa: Most of those references are Scott’s doing, actually.
Ah! Well then, what about you, Scott? Favorite and first Doctor?
Scott: I suppose if you look at it chronologically, my first Doctor would have to be Paul McGann (Eighth Doctor), who only did the one movie. But, my favorite will always be Tom Baker. He was the man.
So, you’re obviously fans. At what point did you decide to go from being passive viewers to creating your own adventures? Where in this fan enthusiasm does the Doctor Puppet begin?
Alisa: I always joke that the whole thing was an accident, but it definitely was all very organic. Even the origins of making the puppet were organic. I made the puppet for a class I was teaching. I taught this stop-motion class for a couple semesters, and I needed to make an example puppet to show the students. I was a nerd, they were all nerds, and we were talking about “Doctor Who,” and it kind of just clicked. So, I made the Eleventh Doctor. Afterward, I had the puppet for a couple months, and he just lay around my apartment, and was always just there. Whenever I showed him to people, they always reacted really well, and that made me think, “I really should do something with this.”
I recently came across an email that I sent to my friend Shelby, who has worked a lot on the “Doctor Puppet” series. I got her into “Doctor Who” around the same time I was getting into it, and we were show buddies. We would watch the finales together and stuff. I had sent her an email about the puppet, and it was this long rambling email, where I was like, “I have this puppet, I should do something with it, etc.” and was bouncing ideas off her. In the e-mail, I mention it’s a stop-motion puppet and that I am an animator, but I dismissed that as being too complicated an idea. So, I said, “Do you think people would mind if I just posted stills?” and she said it was a good idea, and I said, “I hope it goes viral!” It’s crazy, because in that email, I basically predicted everything “Doctor Puppet” would become months before anything happened. I totally forgot about that email, too, until I just dug it up the other day.
I always wanted to do animation with the puppet, but at the time I thought it would be too time consuming. I did the stills, and after six months of that, I went on that trip to the UK. When I got back, I thought, “I can’t really top this, the Doctor Puppet was in New York for six months, and then England.” I wasn’t going on any trips anytime soon, and I realized I couldn’t do anything that was more interesting. It was at that point I realized, “Maybe it’s time to do some animation.” This was in October, and it was two and a half months from Christmas, so I thought, “I could probably make a Christmas special.” I was working full-time, but I figured with nights and weekends I could probably make it happen. I had originally wanted it to be a musical, but I didn’t know any musicians, so I scratched that off immediately. But it’s also why we did a musical for this year’s Christmas special. So, since I couldn’t do a musical, I just decided to do a Rankin & Bass parody, minus the song at the beginning. It was “Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer” in every other way but music. So I made that in my apartment during evenings and weekends. I also got extra time to work on it because the hurricane (Sandy) affected everyone, providing me with a lot of time off. I technically would probably have never finished the Christmas special if it wasn’t for the hurricane. About halfway through, I realized that even though it wasn’t a musical, I still needed a musician. I put an ad up on Tumblr, and that’s how I found Scott! He came in, he did the score for the first Christmas special, and then I stayed up for three days in a row to get it done before Christmas. I put it up on YouTube, and it did well. It went viral.
…and then Chris Hardwick saw it! A few weeks after I posted the video, I got an email from someone at The Nerdist, and they said, “This is cool! Do you want to do more? We’d love for you to be a partner channel!” After that, I certainly received more attention and I was able to get more resources and people to help me, and that’s when I committed fully. I figured if I was going to do more episodes, I needed to go all in, because I can’t half-ass anything. I committed to an eight episode story arc. I wrote the story a year ago, and we’re currently five episodes in, so far.
As you’ve addressed the circumstances of how you and Scott met, I have to ask: Scott, you’re on Tumblr, and you see an ad for a “Doctor Who” fan project. What made you respond? There’s a lot of crazy stuff on Tumblr, what made you say, “This seems like something for me”?
Scott: In truth, I’m not on Tumblr. Never have been, and still am not. I have several friends who are, though. I had never heard of “Doctor Puppet,” but I had heard bizarre rumors and whispers on the wind of the strange world that is Tumblr. I have this friend Katie, who had seen this advert, and without my knowledge, basically sent all my details. She knew I was a huge “Doctor Who” fan, we had done things together, musically I had done somewhat “Doctor Who” related things that she was interested in, and because of that she put my details forward. A week or two later, I got an email from Alisa. She told me all about the project, and I believe she sent me the script.
Alisa: And stills of the puppets and the set!
Scott: Right! I remember looking at it, and thinking, “What is this!?” You see some bizarre things on YouTube, and it’s one of those deals where you hear “YouTube” and “fan made” and you think, “Oh God.” But through the stills, I could really see quality, and I thought, “Okay, this might be interesting.” I also remember thinking, “Well, I’m not doing anything else,” so I told her, “Sure, I’ll do it!” So, by late November, I started seeing snippets of video. Once I saw things in motion, I realized it was very well done. At the time, I didn’t know who Alisa was, I didn’t know she was a professional animator outside of all this stuff, so I wasn’t aware of the quality. All of a sudden, you see it completed, and the quality does hit you. That was it, really. I stepped in and wrote a score. I think I did it in a day and a half. It was rather quick, but that tends to happen when I’m really excited about something. That should have told me I was on to something good.
And this is all little over a year ago, right?
Alisa: A year ago, about now, I was coming off the exhaustion of making the Christmas special. Much like now. [Laughs] I started making episode one, “The Red X,” in February.
Scott: On my birthday! I remember the email coming in, telling me that was going to happen.
Alisa: I remember that! I did keep it from you for about a week. I had talked to The Nerdist, and I knew it was definitely going to happen. I had talked to The Nerdist on the phone and I said, “Wow, this is it, we’re definitely making a series.”
It seems like a lot in one year.
Alisa: Yes, and up until the fifth episode, which was just this past October, I was also still working full time on a kid’s show. That ended at an opportune time, because I’m able to spend more time on “Doctor Puppet,” but for the entirety of all five episodes up to that point, it was all nights and weekends for me. But, not just myself…I actually did very little of the stop-motion in those episodes. I did all the stop motion for the first Christmas special, but when I started the series, I enlisted the help of another animator named Rachel Gitlevich. She’s a hand-drawn animator, and had done very little stop-motion, but she cut her teeth on “Doctor Puppet” and did some fantastic work. She did all the animation on the first two episodes, working full time on the show. For the third episode, we both had other jobs, and were working together nights and weekends to put it together. Then this other animator, Matt Christensen, joined the team. And that’s really the only way it gets done. Some people only work nights and weekends, some work during the day. I still do all the puppet making, but I did have to hand over the costume making, because some of the costumes got complicated. I couldn’t make them.
You and Scott seem to have an internet partnership forged in Whovian Heaven. Have you ever actually met in person?
Alisa: No. [Laughs]
Scott: There was a weird moment when Alisa came to England, and we missed each other. I’m currently in the South, but I’m from the North. When she was in the South, I had traveled up home, and when she traveled northwards, and I was back south.
From the “Making of Videos” that are also on your channel, I know you said it can take two-to-three weeks to animate a video, and several more weeks on the upfront, pre-production process. All told, how long does a single episode take to create?
Alisa: It varies from six weeks to nine weeks in range. The fastest episode was the fourth, “Smoke & Mirrors,” because that one had no set. That episode had to have a quick turnaround, because it had a deadline. That was for YouTube Geek Week in July, and we had committed to have it for that event. I had heard of Geek Week before, but when the actual dates were thrown at me, I was like, “Geez! It only leaves us with six weeks!” So we did the no-set thing out of necessity. But it worked out, because I always had this idea of doing a nightmare episode. So, I figured, why not have it be a nightmare, set in this white space where there was nothing. It worked out, but it was also the only way we got it done. The end bit in the park was all green screen. There was no set. The only thing we created for it was a park bench. [Laughs] To be fair, I did spend an enormous amount of time making it look like a legitimate park bench, though. It looks exactly like the park benches in St. James Park in London.
I think the episode that took the longest was actually a tie between episodes three (“The Doctor in the Garden”) and five (“Baker’s Eleven”). Those both took about 10 weeks, because they had ridiculously complicated sets. Episode three was set in a garden, which took forever to make. I kept having to go back to the craft store and buy more fake plants. I would buy a massive assortment, stick it on the set, and there would still be these gaps! I’d have to go back for more. Episode five was set in a bakery, and that was our first interior…and I would not like to do another one, actually. [Laughs] All the baked goods were made by our animator, Rachel. One of her hobbies is making fake baked goods, which is apparently a thing…for dollhouses. I don’t even know how long it took her. I focused my time on the walls and the structure. My friend Shelby Arnold, who I mentioned was my show watching buddy, she’s basically an artistic engineer, she designs pop-up books. She helped me figure out how to make the bakery happen. It took about a month to make.
…and Scott, are you active during this process, too? If it takes six-nine weeks to animate, does this include your post-production work? What’s the process like on your end?
Scott: In terms of actual composition, it’s never really more than three days. Alisa and I will talk quite a bit beforehand, though. Different episodes will require different sounds. We talked about how sparse episode four was, but musically, it was a huge departure from what came before. I like to be quite involved in the process, and it does tend to happen. As Alisa pointed out, references to classic “Doctor Who” tend to be my doing, and she’ll often ask how a particular Doctor would behave, etc. Also, I had input in the bakery for episode five, as we discussed the differences between what various cakes would be called in the American language as opposed to the English version of English. I like to be involved for as long as possible in the creation of an episode. We talk a lot while it’s still being animated, discussing music and the different sounds that will be needed. Episode four, especially, like I said, is probably the most I’ve had to think about it, even if it was the quickest in terms of writing. That was because I had been building a modular synthesizer for a while, and I thought, “I’ve got to play this on ‘Doctor Puppet’ somehow.” It took me two afternoons to write it, including one afternoon doing the bookends, which were standard orchestral, whereas the middle was that sort of Baroque time piece. Then, on a third afternoon, after I had composed it all, I sent the music to the modulator, and spent a day on the modulator getting the sounds right. It was a three day period, and it was the longest I’ve worked on a particular episode. But, episode five was completely different, because it was so last minute, it was almost terrifying. I was writing the score for episode five the morning it went out. I basically sat up with a Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer, writing and recording it on the fly. I don’t want to ever have to do that again, it was terrifying. I ended up going to bed at eight in the morning that day. [Laughs]
Thus far we have two Christmas specials and five episodes available for viewing. Considering the timeline you laid out, have some of these episodes been shot in tandem, or was it all sequential?
Alisa: The first two were made at the same time, and that was always the plan for them. That was actually the suggestion when I first spoke to The Nerdist. You know, they are pretty hands off with what I do, because I’m a partner of The Nerdist, which isn’t the same as making content directly for them. They usually let me do what I want, but it kind of was their suggestion to do the first two episodes in that fashion. They thought it was really important that we launch with more than one episode, and that was the guidance I was given. Which really, that worked, because I wanted it to have a story arc rather than be episodic. So, I had the idea that the first two episodes would be the same episode from different points of view. I wanted them to tie together. It also allowed me to reuse the set and the puppets. That’s why the first episode is the Eleventh Doctor meeting the Tenth Doctor, and the second one is the Tenth Doctor meeting the Eleventh Doctor. They’re the only two episodes that don’t have an additional character. The second one doesn’t have anyone additional to who we met in the first. They were pretty much shot sequentially. Rachel animated most of it, and I think the only time we moved forward was we did some green screen stuff for the second episode during the making of the first. That’s really one of the only times there’s been overlap.
Scott: There was a little overlap between episode five and the new Christmas special.
Alisa: Yes! I know there was overlap because I started making the Christmas presents early. I had Matt, one of the other animators, working like a crazy person making these tiny presents while I was doing episode five. What’s funny is that all the stuff I did on the first pass for the Christmas special, we ended up remaking. We had all these little presents, but they weren’t very “Doctor Who-y,” so we remade them all.
Scott: That was one of those conversations were I was sort of called into things. You were saying, “What patterns should I use?” I remember time must’ve been running out, because I suggested you make some Sixth Doctor coat wrapping paper, and you were like, “I DON’T HAVE TIME!” [Laughs*]
Alisa: We did make many of the others, though. We had Jelly Babies wrapping paper. Oh, and the pattern from Fifth Doctor’s trousers and Seven’s jumper were all used as patterns. We hid as much in there as we could. But, back to the point, it’s really the most overlap we’ve had, and it’s all because I needed it to be more “Doctor Who” than usual.
Scott: There was also overlap, musically, because the new Christmas special is a musical, and they needed music from me before they could start animating. So, I actually wrote the song on a Thursday night, and delivered it on a Monday morning.
Which you also sing, correct?
Scott: Yes, I sing the first phrase, and then I’m layered up as part of a choir. There were lots of people on that one. I don’t want to attempt that again anytime soon.
Alisa: Yes, he said he only works a couple days on an episode, but not that one. I don’t know how much time was spent on that episode.
Scott: No, that one was a big one. Recording-wise, it was about a week. It was hours and hours of work. I wrote it pretty much in one night, and then I sent it off to Phil, who did our orchestration. He did the orchestration in two hours, but that orchestration made all the difference. I think from that Sunday through to the following Sunday, we were in the recording studio. Six hours recording brass, an hour & a half doing percussion, four hours doing strings and clarinets, two hours doing female choir, an hour on male choir, and an hour filling in all the other vocal stuff, where all the Doctors talk at the end. That was a long one. Then there are about twenty different versions of the closing credits that weren’t used. Next time!
The Christmas special we’re talking about, “A Timelord Christmas” is definitely an amazing display of Scott’s musical talent. It’s simply brilliant. The other thing that happens is the introduction of the Peter Capaldi puppet, which quite well coincides with his introduction on “Doctor Who” itself. Does that mean the Twelfth Doctor is going to be entering the current storyline that is unfolding? Or do we have to wait for a new adventure of his own?
Alisa: New adventure. I wrote the story arc a year ago, so at the time I didn’t know. Also, I kind of assumed I’d get this arc done sooner than I did.
Scott: The initial plan was to have it finished by the 50th, wasn’t it?
Alisa: Yes, that was the plan, but I realized halfway through that it was impossible. But, that’s okay…we didn’t want to compromise and make the story rushed. So, it’s fine that the story is going into this year, and it always involved the Eleventh Doctor. Just like Big Finish does the Eighth Doctor stories, it’s the same principle. I’m not going to conform to what’s going on in the series. I have changed things as we’ve gone on, much like the inclusion of Clara. I molded her to fit her persona better, because when I first introduced her on “Doctor Puppet,” we didn’t know who she was on the show. I basically took a stab in the dark. Luckily, it worked with her character, to have another version of her somewhere randomly on the planet. I’ve been treating the Twelfth Doctor much like I treated the Eleventh Doctor in the beginning: I’ve been taking him around doing photos on Tumblr. Going around New York, though it kind of sucks because its winter, it’s not the perfect time of year to be wandering. But, he’s pretty much going to have his side adventures on Tumblr, and I’m excited for him. Whenever we do find out the official costume, I’ll update his look, but for now he’s got the frock. I think that’s the plan for him, though, the Tumblr photos. The Eleventh Doctor needs a break anyway. He’s sort of a really worn out puppet.
You’ve talked about your connection to The Nerdist, and Chris Hardwick is obviously a powerful voice in the fan community. I imagine that’s done a great deal for getting “Doctor Puppet” out in front of people. I’m curious, have you had any official reaction from the BBC or the “Doctor Who” team?
Alisa: Over Twitter, BBC America has been very involved. They’re cool with it. When it was just pictures on Tumblr, I didn’t really worry about it, but when we started making the videos, I got a little nervous, I didn’t want them to have any issues. And, it’s fine, really…it’s parody, we’re not using their footage, we’re not even using their music, it’s all original. But, I still wanted it to be something they were okay with, content-wise…and they are. I’ve gotten an “unofficial” official thumbs up, so it’s cool. The Nerdist is quite involved with BBC America, as well, so they’re very aware of the project.
Scott: Also, didn’t you run into Nick Briggs at Dragon*Con?
Alisa: It was at New York Comic Con. Yes, Nick Briggs, the creative director and boss at Big Finish…
…and the voice of the Daleks!
Alisa: …yes! He was there with Colin Baker (Sixth Doctor), and I got to speak with both of them. Colin Baker was cool. As for Nick Briggs, I had tweeted him beforehand, telling him I was going to be there and I said he should check out my videos. I ran into him, and he had watched the first couple episodes! He told me they were cool. I gave him some of the postcards, and I hope he handed one of them off to (Steven) Moffat. [Laughs] But, yeah, any reaction I’ve had through any of the official channels has been a nice, big thumbs up.
Before we wrap up, I wanted to talk a little bit about both of you and what you do outside of this world of “Doctor Puppet.” You’re both very prolific people, and have many wonderful skills. Tell me about your other projects.
Alisa: I’m a professional animator, I’ve been working for the last five years. Mostly, I’ve worked on preschool-oriented animation. I worked on two Nickelodeon shows, “The Wonder Pets” and “Team Umizoomi.” I just wrapped up on “Team Umizoomi” a couple months ago. Since then, I’ve just been working on “Doctor Puppet” and freelancing. I’ve also been looking for that next project, whatever it may be. The success of “Doctor Puppet” has shown me that I enjoy being in charge. [Laughs] It also proved I can make a project happen from my living room, and that it might be cool to tackle something in the future. Looking ahead, in addition to “Doctor Puppet,” I’m exploring some new ideas, and open to potential new projects. I’m looking to get involved with more content. I really like online distribution, and it’s been a really great way to do things. I love the instant feedback and the interaction with fans. I love things like Cartoon Hangover, in addition to The Nerdist channel, of course. I love these cartoon channels on YouTube, there’s so much great content, so I’m exploring more ideas to pitch for that medium. That’s the plan!
Great! And you, Scott? Are you a musician by trade, or is this just a hobby you hope leads to something more?
Scott: It’s certainly what I’m wanting to do. “Doctor Puppet” is the first “out there” thing that I’ve done. I tend to do a lot of short, student, and internet films…those obscure ones no one tends to see. I try to do as much as I can in my free time. Going through the education system in the way I have, I know a lot of people who are still studying to get film and media degrees, and they’ll occasionally pop up and ask for music for their projects, and I’m usually more than willing if I’ve got nothing else to do. I’m also part of a team called Fuzzy Beard Productions, and we’re sort of a composition house. Work comes in, gets divided up, and I write music occasionally for that. It’s nothing really glamorous, but I do what comes in, you know?
Though, you’re doing what you love, and that’s important.
Scott: Absolutely. The idea of being the composer who is also a mad “Doctor Who” fan…and now I get to write “Doctor Who” music is pretty cool. Actually, one of the nicest compliments I’ve gotten came from someone, I think during episode four, who said that my version of the “Doctor Who” theme song was their favorite ever, which was so cool.
Final question, same question I ask everyone at the end of an interview: With everything you’ve achieved and the success of your project, one has to wonder what’s next? What are your hopes for what is ahead?
Alisa: Well, as I said before, I hope to use the notoriety and fanbase we’ve amassed to launch other projects. “Doctor Puppet” is amazing, but as awesome as it is, I know I have to owe an enormous amount of the success of it to the fact that it’s derivative. So, I’m interested in more original content, and that’s my goal. “Doctor Puppet” has been a proving ground for all of us, and I’ve amassed this amazing group, Scott, the animators I’ve mentioned, my engineer Shelby, and some amazing storyboard artists. Oh, and Isam Prado, who does all the background stuff. Like, all the things that aren’t sets, that are greenscreen, Isam has drawn those. Rachel has done a few, too. They are just ridiculously amazing illustrators. The postcard that gets everywhere, that’s an Isam illustration. But yes, I have these amazing people, and I really want to put them to use. That’s the goal for the year: We’re going to explore some other projects. “Doctor Puppet” is wrapping up, at least this story, anyway. I would totally be willing to do another season, possibly with the Twelfth Doctor, but I can’t say yet…we’ll just have to see where it goes!
Scott: I certainly want to continue to work with Alisa. I think one of the major things I would like to happen is to meet Alisa. There are hugs and handshakes in order all around. I owe so much to Alisa not only for bringing me onboard, but for having my input and involvement in a project that I’ve genuinely loved doing. So, further collaborations with such a wonderful team are my hope for the future.Tags: Alisa Stern, BBC, chris hardwick, Creator Profile, Doctor Puppet, Dr. Who, nerdist, Scott Ampleford, Steven Moffat, youtube