Animation & VFX on The Pit and the Pendulum

(Article originally released in full on
In the spirit of “Steven Spielberg Presents”, Ray Harryhausen had envisioned a way to help talented artists make a name in the industry. Where Spielberg spotlighted discoveries such as Robert Zemeckis, Joe Dante, and Chris Columbus in the 1980’s, “Ray Harryhausen Presents”  found a similar way to showcase talent through projects under his name and approval. Thus the stop motion short “The Pit and the Pendulum” was created, falling under the umbrella of “Ray Harryhausen Presents”, which includes Harryhausen’s launch of comic books, movies, video games, trading cards and his official website.

Under Marc Lougee’s direction, The Pit and the Pendulum production team began to take form. Lougee pitched the project to Jon Campfens, Co -founder and VFX Supervisor at Switch VFX in Toronto, Canada, during the preliminary development stage. Campfens was impressed when he heard what Lougee intended to do. “We felt we really had to be part of this film. I am a big fan of stop motion animation and with the recent resurgence of this art form I knew that Marc would be able to bring a real visual style and be faithful to the poem”. Jon was brought on board as the VFX Supervisor and to help with technical requirements that might be needed in shooting the film.

Lougee also sought out Fred Fuchs, known for producing the films “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and “Godfather III” while President of Francis Ford Coppolla’s Zoetrope Studio. “I was asked to come on board as Executive Producer,” Fuchs explained. “I was to help with overall creative and also financing and distribution. My company was producing a stop motion television series so had lots of interest in the medium. We were able to help by providing equipment and technology at no cost”.

Fuchs’s involvement and the Canadian programs that support this sort of work made the production feasible. Lougee credits Judy Gladstone at Bravo!Fact, an organization through CHUM Network, and Michael Fukushima at the National FIlm Board of Canada for their generous support in the form of grants from Bravo!Fact in Canada, as well as the NFB in Montreal. The short was partially financed independently by Marc Lougee and Susan Ma, and a shoot studio was provided by Pete Denomme, Laurie Thompson and Jon Campfens of Switch VFX, Toronto. Fuchs supplied editing facilities, and Urban Post Productions helped with deals to post.Harryhausen had script approval, striving to maintain faithfulness to Poe’s story. He also consulted and confirmed visuals were impressive and reflected his style of animation. Since Harryhausen lives in London, updates were handled via email and FTP file transfers.

Sets were designed with CG augmentation in mind, and were built on four by four foot tabletops, creating a challenge by the sheer limitation of space. Lens choice was key, to extend the set as far as possible. The practical sets would then be shot on green screen and extended with CG mattes.

Greenscreen on the small shooting stage (Left) before, and after CGI and VFX work completed in the final shot (Right).

The actual shoot was only about four-and-a-half weeks, but animators Mike Weiss and Ryan Fairley worked with Lougee from 9 AM til 2 AM, six to seven days a week. “We all had series gigs to jump into at the end of the shoot, so we went full on to get the film ready for post, while ramping up for the next job,” Lougee said. “Mike and Ryan pulled it off. They are a couple of heroes.”

With the digital assets in hand, Lougee turned to Jon Campfens at Switch VFX. The biggest sequence for Switch consisted of walls that close in on the main character. They shot the puppet against a green screen and then created the walls and fire in CG. “Scale was always a big issue. We needed to create a threatening environment, but stay true to the confines of the actual room, which wasn’t very big.” They managed this by practically lighting the set as though there was one light source from the small window far above. Set extensions were done with 3D matte paintings, and atmospherics were handled in CG using Maya software. Senior Visual Effects artist Gudrun Heinze helped create some of the set extension using Photoshop to create her blend of textures shot from the practical set. Gudrun and Visual Effects Artist David Alexander used Digital Fusion to handle the compositing.

Switch VFX Senior Visual Effects Artist Gudren Heinze breaks down a set extension;

The team worked closely together. Susan Ma was a Co-Producer, but acted as a Line Producer as well, handling resource and post production. “That meant I had to be ‘really creative by Tuesday’ she laughed. She got into stop motion since the principles are the same as a film shoot, only smaller. “It’s tactile. It’s like shooting miniatures.”

The puppets utilized a silicone skin for the head, and cast silicone eyelids for the blinks to match the facial skin. The eye blinks and facial expressions were all in camera. “We were thinking of going with CG eyes and lids, but I felt this might appear too mechanical” Lougee commented. They preferred to maintain a handmade feel overall, as far as the puppets were concerned, as a homage to Ray Harryhausen’s work. CG was primarily used to flesh out the set, a decision that was a good one, Campfens agreed. “We didn’t have to do anything with the puppet because it was so well animated it didn’t need any assistance from our end. The expressions speak for themselves.” The only digital character was a CG bird trapped in with the prisoner. This was also the only fully realized CG shot in the film. “I was very happy with the final results of the bird, as well as the digital set David Alexander built and textured”, said Lougee. “I was thrilled to see how closely Switch managed to match the set.” Yowza Digital animator Grant Harris also assisted with the bird’s animation.

The lighting was handled in camera by Dean Holmes. “The lighting I feel is one of the real beautiful parts of the film”, Campfens commented. “It’s lit very simply but conveys a real sense of suspense”. Switch utilized the light fall off into darkness leaving only a hint of what lies beyond. It implied what could be huge room or a very small one, giving a feeling of being trapped in a vast empty hopelessness.

The atmospheric effects were done entirely post; haze, smoke, dust elements all added in compositing. They lit to accommodate the effects, keeping in sight the final affect and feel of each room. Lougee wanted “The Pit” to feel dense, dark, and claustrophobic, despite it’s overwhelming size.

Nearly every shot of the film was augmented with CG in some way. Roughly a third to a half of the shots were effects heavy, about 50 visual effect shots in all. Switch used elements of fire, smoke and atmosphere that were shot practically. Campfens, not a big fan of CG elements, believes you can’t compete with the real thing. The pendulum was created digitally after Lougee looked at the footage and felt that the movement wasn’t convincing enough and he couldn’t get the angle he wanted, so Switch created the walls and the pendulum at the angle that Lougee preferred.

Marc Lougee’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” was a terrific start to the Ray Harryhausen Presents project, and Jon Campfens from Switch VFX agrees. “I think this is a great little film and it was wonderful to work with Marc and Ray Harryhausen. It shows the perseverance and passion that Marc had to get it down. I hope more films are made like this”. Harryhausen saw the completed short until a screening in Austin, Texas hosted by Ain’t It Cool founder Harry Knowles. It was a joy to see the finished product, and they were very pleased with what they saw.

But perhaps Marc Lougee put it best. “Ray Harryhausen and Fred Fuchs were Executive Producers on my short film. I still have a hard time grasping that. The amount of work we had to do was daunting, but the folks involved were absolutely amazing. I was indeed blessed with a wonderful bunch of friends who all went overboard in helping to see this through. Susan and I are eternally thankful. The fact we got to do this with Ray was astounding, a dream come true.”

Visit the Official site, Ray Harryhausen Presents; The Pit and the Pendulum -HERE-

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