Ray Harryhausen Presents "The Pit and the Pendulum": Interview with Producer Marc Lougee

This blog explores a variety of facets related to the celebration, enjoyment, and a deeper examination of the genres of the "fantastic," including horror, science fiction, and fantasy. As my readers may recall from a previous post on The Sci Fi Boys documentary, one of the most influential and moving forces in my childhood in this area was Ray Harryhausen, the great stop-motion animation and special effects wizard who thrilled a generation with his creatures and stories of fantasy. Ray has had a huge influence on any number of directors, special effects technicians, and of course, other animators of whatever type. Ray's work also continues to spawn new creations produced by this new generation of storytellers, and one such filmmaker is Marc Lougee. I recently became aware of his work through an advertisement in Rue Morgue Magazine which featured a short film introduced as Ray Harryhausen Presents Edgar Allen Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum. Marc's film debuted in 2006 and has been shown at over 65 international film festivals, and has won several awards as a result. You can read more about this film and its success not only at the official website for the film linked to above, but also on its blog. And a short trailer can be viewed here. Marc graciously agreed to answer a few questions about this interesting project.

TheoFantastique: Marc, thanks again for your willingness to talk with us about this project. While stop-motion animation was once one of the major forms of special effects for bringing the fantastic elements of stories to the screen, with the advent of computer generated animation and effects it has largely gone the way of the dinosaurs that Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen used to animate in their early days, with the exception, of course, of its use in commercials, children's programs, or the all too infrequent animated treat by Tim Burton. I experimented with my own stop-motion animation as a teenager in the 1970s, even as the technology was being developed that would eventually replace it, and sadly, I gave up this dream for a career path. Thankfully, you pressed on. To begin, how did you get interested and involved in stop-motion, and what kind of influence was Ray Harryhausen in this process?

Marc Lougee: I grew up watching Creature Double Features. I was a huge fan of creature and special effects-oriented films from the 50's to the 70's. King Kong, War of the Worlds, Forbidden Planet, were all favorites. Everything with Ray Harryhausen's name on it was a must-see, regardless of killer bees, my older brother or nuclear attack. Watching those films really gripped me, and while I sat there with my eyes glued to the tube, with no idea there was a bunch of folks making a living doing this.

It wasn't until I got into high school that I found I could even function as an animator. That was a real revelation, to know enough about the process to see how little one needs to start with the very basics. Encouraged, and knowing just enough to make me dangerous around cameras, I started to experiment for my first filmmaking class. I figured even even Ray Harryhausen had to have started somewhere, so I got to work making short animated films on Super-8 using GI Joes, Micronaut figures and clay creature as puppets. The first few attempts went pretty well, considering I really little idea of what I was doing, but I plowed on and had fun. Soon enough the other kids in the class were more interested in what I was up to than their own stuff. I wound up shooting some shorts for other kids in the class, the equivalent of writing book reports for people, only I was making short films. I had found my calling. I especially enjoyed the total hands-on approach of stop-motion. It was a really immersive experience to build everything, work out the camera placement and movement, and tell a story (the few times I bothered with a story in those days).

TheoFantastique: How did Ray's name come to be associated with this project?

Marc Lougee: In early 2005 Ray's producer, Arnold Kunert got in touch to see about firing up The Fall of the House of Usher as a stop-motion short film, which Ray would helm as Executive Producer. Susan Ma, producer on The Pit and the Pendulum and I were just floored this opportunity had presented itself, so we got to work on checking the viability of the project within a time frame we could manage. We were both contracted to start shows inside of two months, but really wanted to do a film with Ray and Arnold. We concluded we couldn't do the story justice with the resources we had available, which was a bit of a disappointment all around. Knowing Ray had his heart set on Fall of the House of Usher, and Susan and I being eager to keep the embers glowing meant we needed to find another story everyone would be happy with, so we pitched another perennial favorite, The Pit and the Pendulum in place of Fall of the House of Usher. Ray and Arnold were receptive to the idea and the reasoning behind our decision. The Pit and the Pendulum was then slated as the first film produced under the Ray Harryhausen Presents banner. Needless to say, were excited, enthusiastic, and really thrilled to see this amazing turn of events.

TheoFantastique: Poe's work, particularly in The Pit and the Pendulum, has been the focus of various cinematic treatments before. What made you decide to approach this material again, and in such a fresh way?

Marc Lougee: The story sort of found me, actually. After reading the The Pit and the Pendulum, I saw this as a story of judgment, condemnation, despair, hope and a man's faith in a power greater than himself. It's classic; this guy, a prisoner, is brought to the lowest place in his life, totally powerless to save himself. It's there he concludes he's run out of options, and seeing he can't save himself, realizes salvation is ultimately going to come from a power greater than he.

I felt our short film would be touching on one of the bigger questions of humanity: Is there anyone there to save us after we've done all we can do? Is it possible to maintain hope, or even faith in something, when all seems lost? These questions really resonated with me, and I wanted to get this across in the story. This prisoner is suffering horribly at the hands of self-righteous fiends, and in the end, who does he have to turn to? He's at the very bottom of his capabilities, with two choices; dive into the pit, and succumb to the Inquisitor's whims, or stay alive, in hope he'll be saved. I feel it's in those moments we find what we're made of, what we really believe. The film has proven an interesting starting point to open up dialogue concerning the questions raised in the story itself. The aspects we sought to steer clear of was to "re-imagine" Poe's tale, as I felt with the proper handling, it would still be powerful. It didn't need to be altered to horrify, it's already there.

TheoFantastique: Why did you choose to tell this story using stop-motion, and how do you combine this with computer graphics and other effects?

Marc Lougee: Stop-motion animation is like watching a continuous magic trick, an illusion. The illusion is life. Like sculpture or photography, animation depicts moments in time, only incrementally. I just love the idea, that with incremental positioning of a puppet one can create this illusion. The magic trick is the life-like qualities the animator can lend to the performance, the subtleties, expressions, mannerisms. Like acting in slow motion. I feel it's a wonderful way to transport an audience to a fantastic place, where folks can leave expectations of realism at the door. By virtue of the fact an audience is watching puppets "acting," it frames a story in a completely different way than say, live action. It's a wonderful story-telling device, setting folks up to use their imagination freely. In the case of The Pit and the Pendulum, I felt the material could be really horrifying, and maybe too heavy for a wide audience. I wanted kids to have access to the story, so they could see a visual interpretation of Poe's literature without being freaked out, or horrified. Stop-motion ,being this fun, whacky technique associated with a youthful audience, was a perfect medium for us to present the story, as it could still be creepy and scary, while keeping the integrity of the tale intact without being too heavy.

Switch VFX Visual Effects Supervisor Jon Campfens, VFX artists Gudren Heinze and Dave Alexander were responsible for all the CG-based visual effects. Dave and Gudren did a masterful job of modelling, texturing, painting and assembling all the disparate elements from the shoot, matching the set, miniatures and CG stuff seamlessly. One shot of note was of the bird struggling to escape through the barred window. Switch produced this as a totally 3D-CG shot. We didn't have a window constructed, nor a bird, so Dave modeled the wall, window and bird, and lit the shot to match the rest of the film perfectly. Gudren handled the composite & rotoscope work, set extensions, and atmospheric effects, while Yowza Digital dealt with the bird animation. Just wonderful work. Susan and I were totally pleased.

TheoFantastique: What has been the reaction to this film, on the part of the general public, film critics, and the horror and animation subcultures?

Marc Lougee: The response has been just fantastic! Susan and I have attended a few festivals as our schedules allow. I was recently in New York attending our screening at the Museum of the Moving Picture, preceding Lance Weiler's HEAD TRAUMA ARG show (The Pit and the Pendulum is currently touring with Lance's show across North America and Europe). The crowd burst into applause a couple of times. That was pretty cool. We also got to the Williamstown Film Festival, and met up with Brad Silberling ( Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events). He had heard of the film though the festival programmer and asked for a copy to bring back with him to LA! He was very cool and very interested in seeing our film. That made our weekend.

TheoFantastique: Do you have any future productions in the planning stages?

Marc Lougee: We're currently working on a couple other projects in the outline stage. One of the stories is a classic Washington Irving tale, another is a short story by Mark Twain. There are several other Victorian stories I'm interested in pursuing, as well. The atmosphere, textures, furniture and clothing of the period lend themselves beautifully to stop-motion. I would love to get the Edgar Allan Poe's Fall of the House of Usher into production to fully explore what we could do with the aesthetic.

TheoFantastique: Marc, thanks again for sharing with us, and for telling us a great old story in new ways that thrills young and old alike.

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