One of the people I follow on Twitter is Marc Lougee (or @luge if you are a Twitter user) who is a director and film producer based in Toronto. I am a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe AND stop motion animation so when I saw that he had created a short film of The Pit and the Pendulum I was intrigued. When it came out on DVD I ordered it immediately and was completely blown away. The stop motion animated short feature itself was completely amazing and the addition of the interviews and the many special features really made this DVD special. I asked Marc on Twitter if I could interview him for my blog and he kindly obliged:
EG: Can you give a brief synopsis of The Pit & the Pendulum (for those who aren’t familiar with the work by Poe) and what inspired you about this story to interpret it into a short film?
ML: In the film, as in the original story, a lone prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition is tried and condemned to a horrible fate, which he can only imagine based on the rumors of the Inquisitor’s particular brand of awful. While he’s locked up in the dark, he wrestles with hope and faith as his captors ratchet up their efforts to unhinge him.
I was inspired to do the film, initially, with a phone call from Ray Harryhausen’s agent! I was literally just wrapping up a series gig, and looking at a break of a few months (over the summer!) so making a short wasn’t really on the plan. Until I got “The Call”.
Ray was keen to see a small-scale production of The Fall of the House of Usher (a classic Poe story well worth a film, surely), but Susan Ma (Producer on the Pit & Pendulum, and my lovely wife) and I worked out some numbers and had to break the news to Ray this was just too massive a thing to wrangle with the time and available resources. So, I pitched The Pit and the Pendulum, thinking it’s only a few walls, rats, a large Pit and some flaming fireboxes…what could go wrong? Two plus years later, we finally wrestled the beast onto a DVD with a lot of extras.
EG: That’s amazing that Ray Harryhausen was involved in the production of the film! I grew up loving his movies and being a huge fan of his work. What was it like having him as the producer of The Pit & The Pendulum and how much involvement did he have in your process?
ML: Working with Ray Harryhausen on The Pit and the Pendulum was literally a dream come true. If someone had told me with a degree of seriousness this might be coming down the road, I’d have fallen off my chair laughing. It’s like winning the lottery, for me; and considering I haven’t bought tickets, it’s that much more astounding.
Ray’s involvement was very much on the creative side; he had approval on everything, as one might imagine. If the stuff was lacking, in his eyes, we didn’t move forward until we got his blessing. Susan and I wouldn’t have it any other way, really. Ray cleared the designs, script, even the crew; we sent him bios and demo reels of the folks we were planning to work with on the project, a lot of the folks I’d been working on other series and films with in the past. It was a pretty amazing bunch of folks hooked up for this, so I was totally confident this thing would look and sound great, regardless of how badly I did my job! Ray was definitely hands on, in the sense he had final say over everything we did on the production end.
EG: The animation used in the piece is traditional stop motion animation and your style, set design and color scheme perfectly captured the impending doom that Poe so accurately describes in his story. Why did you choose to utilize this method to tell the story rather than computer animation?
ML: I’m a huge fan of stop motion animation, and the illusion of the human eye that’s inherent in the process- visual trickery is a blast to pull off when done well. I thought the medium, theme; story and style would all play nicely together on this particular project. Thankfully, there are lots of folks that agree (Ray included), and it worked out. As much as I like working on CG projects (and I’ve done a few- series, films, commercial spots, etc, as both animator and director), I see the various techniques as tools, as a method of getting the most important part told, the story. Without a strong story, and strong characters, there really isn’t much that will save the project. Of course one can polish a brick to high degree of shine, but it’ll always be a brick. So, the way we wanted to tell the story and Ray’s involvement, really dictated how we approached the film and the use of stop motion animation. Truth be told, my angle, and part of my pitch to Ray, was to add certain CG elements and cutting-edge digital visual effects techniques to the film, adding a level of mystery, or ‘how did they do that?” to the mix. There are a few elements in the film that are completely CG animated, but produced to be seamless, so to tell the story and not bring attention to technique itself. I feel various techniques and tools, used properly, will enable viewers to forget about the fact they’re watching an animated film and allow them to become invested in the characters and story. Stop motion animation and CG visual effects can work brilliantly together, giving us a huge range of possibilities. Mixing the traditional, old school with the new; that’s where some very cool stuff happens.
EG: I know that the musical score was done almost completely virtually over the internet. How much of the film collaboration was done on site at your studio in Toronto and how much was done virtually using the internet? What was that process like?
ML: Thankfully, we had the great fortune of having an excellent composer, Philip Stanger, who is the bomb. He’s extremely talented, has many years of experience and is the most amazing musician. When I had first met with Philip, I showed him the rough cut of the film, and almost instantly, he had the basic tune. This was before I had even got my coffee cup to my lips! Amazing. He was attuned to what we were looking for, and is a huge fan of Poe and Gothic music already, that it was literally instantaneous for him. Really, the process couldn’t have been easier, from that point on.
Philip, aside from being a brilliant composer, is also extremely tech savvy; so as he was in London scoring The Pit and the Pendulum music sending digital files to Toronto for work by our mixer, John, who then would resend them back to Philip for further work. With the time delay between London & Toronto, they were essentially flip-flopping day to night, so there was no real ‘down time’ in the process. Things went very smoothly with the system, so we had the music quite quickly.
I didn’t get the final files until I was in the final mix session for the film, where I heard everything layered in properly. I was totally blown away. The entire score was produced using digital technology, sampling, etc, as we had a very limited budget, so there was no ‘live performance’ recording. All digital, all the time. Philip just worked magic.
EG: One of the unique things you did for marketing and promoting the film was you were very active on social media networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, etc. How did you utilize some of these social media networking sites for the promotion of The Pit & the Pendulum?
ML: My experience with promoting stuff I’ve worked on was primarily the festival route, or sending a lot of emails to friends and colleagues. This being fairly limited in scope and breadth, I got very interested in seeing what all that I might be able to do with social networking, Web 2.0, etc. I looked around for resources and eventually found filmmakers using the latest online gadgets, tools and techniques to promote their projects. Some of these folks were doing brilliant things, really thinking outside of the box, and I was totally intrigued. I looked at their approaches, modified and adapted them for my own ideas, and went bananas teaching myself how this worked. Dealing with the various tools, sites, gadgets, widgets, etc, I managed to see what was working or not working, and re-prioritized to using just what I thought was getting the most response. Hence, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter, MySpace, et al. Of course these are like saying social networking is ice cream, and the above mentioned venues are like flavors, so I choose to use what I liked, found easy to work with, etc. By focusing on the various sites I can handle technically (and with the shallowest learning curve), I spent more time learning the ins and outs, and how to maximize the potential of each. This might sound abstract, but it really comes down to my finding tools I liked to use, learning how to use them to maximum benefit, and going bananas working them to promote the film. One of the best aspects is they are all free, have huge audience potential, and allow a back & forth between the filmmaker and audience. Sharing, forums, feedback, it’s all there, so it’s quite a cool way to push your film project along to a global audience. One great resource has been Lance Weiler’s workbookproject.com. Lance is a genius with this stuff, and has a track record to prove it. Once he started up the ‘Project, he’s also been attracting other like-minded folks from all over the indie film sphere, all of whom have been using social networking to benefit the promotion of their films. If Web 2.0 is on your mind as a filmmaker: run…don’t walk over there- you’ll be happy you did.
EG: Thanks Marc!