Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Interview With Marc Lougee, director of "The Pit And The Pendulum" Short Film

What always amazes me is how similar we all are, as far as what got us into this whole film mess. The more people I talk to and the more of these interviews we do, the more I see common threads. Generally speaking, growing up, there was probably a particular film that caught our eye. Maybe it was a horror, maybe it was a sci-fi, maybe something else... but something you saw made you think, "How'd they do that?". Then, you bought magazines, you played around with camera's, you got your hands on anything related to that film and your obsession took off. For some, maybe it was the story that blew their mind, maybe it was how it was all put together, maybe it was the effects, but that starting point was the same - "How'd they do that?". Anyone who knows me, knows which film it was for me - it was "Star Wars". I spent hours upon hours in the basement, with my Dad's porta-pack camcorder, creating short stop-motion films, using action figures and hand-made backdrops. And knowing where it all started for me, I was very excited to check out Marc Lougee's stop-motion short, based on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit And The Pendulum".

For horror fans of my generation... and around my generation (I was born in the mid-70's), I think there will always be a soft spot for stop-motion animation. Growing up, it was all there was. I mean, "Star Wars", "Terminator", "Clash of the Titans"... all used stop-motion. However, where it was one of the only ways to create certain effects in the past, now it's a style. "Robot Chicken", the recent 3D film "Coraline", the first few "South Park" cartoons and anything done by Tim Burton all use the technique. There are a few notable artists these days, including Henry Selick ("Coraline", "The Nightmare Before Christmas", "James and the Giant Peach"), Tim Burton himself and Adam Jones (of the band Tool, who does all their videos in stop motion). However, the pioneer of the craft was a guy named Willis O'Brien, who began making short stop-motion films in 1914... he inspired many people, including the afore mentioned artists, as well as Ray Harryhausen, who was actually O'Brien's student. Harryhausen contributed to the art by evolving the technique known as model animation, which took an elaborate puppet through the stop-motion process with the point of striving for a more photo-realistic animation, which could be combined with live-action elements. This is the technique used in Lougee's "The Pit and the Pendulum" and, not only that, this film is released under the "Ray Harryhausen Presents" banner, who was actually involved in bringing this project to light. So, with this film, you've got direct lineage to the pioneers and people who created this whole scene. How about that?

As for the film itself... what can I say? It's incredible. The animation is amazing, the music and narration fit perfectly, it's creepy and it's extremely engaging. This is one of those films that I would highly recommend, if only because of the time, effort and work put into it... knowing that the filmmakers were doing it all for the love of it and not the money. So, do yourself a favor and check out the site, which is mentioned in the interview later. Plus, if you're up for it, buy the DVD and support it. It's a great interview and I hope you like it...

First off, tell us a bit about yourself. What are your influences and what got you into the whole world of filmmaking?

I got into film and filmmaking as a kid, having spent most Saturdays in front of the 'tube, soaking up every Creature Double Feature I could see. In there someplace I got a load of Ray Harryhausen films which proved the ultimate catalyst to push me into the fray. Seeing stop-motion animated creatures and effects, intertwined with live action footage just thrilled me to stupidity. I was hooked for life. Of course, at the time I was just a kid and had no idea whatsoever how any of this stuff was accomplished, but that was part of the intrigue. Living in rural New Hampshire, I had very little access to information regarding film and effects (I'm talking pre-internet/ caveman days), so I was always on the prowl for fanzines, and of course, Forrest Ackerman's Famous Monsters magazine. I one time stumbled on a book at the library with an address for Dick Smith, sent a letter and was forever changed when he wrote back. That proved to be paradigm shifting for me. My mind blown, I embarked on a letter writing spree to various luminaries, including Jim Henson, Stan Winston, Rick Baker, Ray Harryhausen, et al. Most of these folks actually corresponded with yours truly, kindly answering my queries. Seeing these guys were indeed human (albeit icons in the industry), I got the hare-brained idea to pursue finding a place in the industry for my silly self.

You’ve spent the bulk of your career in animation and in make-up and effects, how’d you get into it?

I read everything I could find on films, filmmaking and special effects when I was in high school in an attempt to educate myself on how this stuff worked. I read everything from Lenny Lipton's classic books on filmmaking to Famous Monsters to Don Dohler's classic fan magazine on special effects and animation. Of course, this also included sneaking into the drive-in many times to see films! I saw Star Wars about 20 times when I was 14; the Chess game Phil Tippet animated for the opening scenes blew me away. I was inspired to get out of New Hampshire and head to the city to get involved one way or another, much to the chagrin of my guidance counselor, who couldn't wrap his head around my desire to get into film and television. Working on a construction crew at the local nuke plant or slapping soles on sneakers at a shoe factory seemed more reasonable to him. Fortunately for me, I was naive enough that these options didn't land on my radar.

There was little by way of film schooling a the time outside of a college environment, so I was on my own. In the end, I left home at 15 to get closer to Boston to find more resources and meet other folks in the business. I did a stint in the US Army to pay for film school and miraculously, got into the Massachusetts College of Art film department. With access to film gear, I made a ton of shorts, all animated (which I found to be easier than trying to recruit friends to help out- I did everything). I managed to talk my way into an internship at a local post production facility as a green screen studio technician, so I learned alot from the tech guys about green screen compositing, ADO and of course, the secrets of painting studios green, fast. Later, I got a shot at interning with a small stop-motion studio in Boston (now defunct), where I got my first directing gig on ABC's Saturday Morning ID's, including the classic 'Cowboy and Horse' spots. Bloated with minor-league success, I split for New York, snagging a key spot on the Budweiser BudBowl half-time spots in 1989. I wound up working with Broadcast Arts for years before heading for Los Angeles to work on series stuff, starting with Land of the Lost in the early '90's. Been busy since!

One of your first credited jobs is as a prosthetics technician on “Basket Case 3: The Progeny”. I’m a bit of a Frank Henenlotter fan, myself. Loved the “Basket Case” trilogy and I wanted to include it in a question… so, talk about being in the make-up and effects department on bigger productions.

Who isn't a Frank Hennenlotter fan? I was lucky enough to have done some special effects work (including miniatures, models, and make-up prosthetics) in New York and New Jersey, which got me an introduction to Gabe Bartalos, who led the crew for the work on Basket Case. Gabe was awesome, and after caving (I begged for a couple of weeks), he took me on as a prosthetic tech. I whipped off to Atlanta to get going with the crew of folks from LA. That was a blast, and a real eye opener; serious stuff, every day. Throw on your headphones and don't stop until the day is done. We didn't even talk much as we threw molds together, poured foam latex, sculpted, etc. That was an excursion for me, as I was leading large crews already on commercial gigs, and the days were pretty much a laugh-fest as we kicked out the work. Totally different vibe. In the end, I opted to do less feature film work, as I enjoyed the East Coast vibe a bit more, as it fit with my personality. I like to have fun on the job, while kicking my ass to get things done. Takes the edge off when things get hardcore serious. But that's me.

Being on Gabe's crew was a blast. We had a great time all around, and I learned a tremendous amount from the guys on board. A couple of these folks were fresh of Jurassic Park, and were letting me work on some (then) cutting-edge animatronic techniques that I still find pretty mind-blowing.

Film School: Yes or No?

I don't feel film school is an imperative. There are many, many options available now, from weekend courses to one year to 4 year programs, but it really is up to you as to what you want from the experience. No matter how you slice it, it's nuts in the business, so the more you know, the better off you'll be. You still have to work your ass off to get in the game. Film school can be useful if it will help you learn a useful skill (one that will help keep you fed while pursuing lofty goals in the industry), and may get one access to some very cool gear, professional instructors and experienced film folks who may be keen to act as a mentor. Just showing up at NYU of USC ain't gonna make you a director, producer, etc. It's up to you as a film person to build a portfolio of your work, skills, and experience. That will get you in the door over having a degree.

Film school is a big yes if there are several variables in place. I bailed in my third year but, it's never stopped me, either. I've not yet been turned away for lack of a film degree. I feel it's totally dependent on your ability to work hard and one's threshold for pain. I have heard school is great for meeting other folks, developing your network for career pursuits, etc, but I tend to lean toward just getting out there, learning on the job, interning and meeting folks who are already working. Be useful, pleasant, and have fun. Do a good job, whatever job you can land in the business, and keep your focus on what it is you want to do. It'll open doors, in time. Save the tuition money to make your short films to show producers you want to work with. IMHO, of course.

Where did you get the idea to do “The Pit and the Pendulum” and did you always want to do it as a stop-motion animation?

Ray and I had spoken of working on a short film with his involvement several times since 2000, but schedules and whatnot stymied any efforts to see anything gel. Eventually, Ray's agent got in touch with me to propose our producing a short based on one of Edgar Allan Poe's classic short stories (Ray is a huge Poe fan). Ray was interested in developing some projects under his 'Ray Harryhausen Presents' umbrella as executive producer. I thought the idea to do something of Poe's in stop motion animation would be very cool, so we talked it over at length, finally resting on The Pit and the Pendulum. Of course I was blown away at the mere idea of working with Ray on anything, so I jumped onboard and the rest is now on DVD.

To be honest, I have no idea on how much it would cost to do a stop-motion animated film. What was the budget and how did you go about securing financing?

We did'nt have any funding coming from 'Ray Harryhausen Presents', so we had to go about finding our own funding to pull this thing together. In the end, we got generous funding from Bravo!FACT grants and post-production grants from the National Film Board of Canada. Once we exhausted the grant route, we finished of the cash flow with personal savings. Anything we couldn't scratch up money to pay for was generously deferred by friends and folks interested in seeing this thing thru. With Ray's involvement, we managed to get really talented folks to get on board. I would pitch the idea, the direction I wanted to go with the film, and we got a brilliant crew assembled. The actual budget would have been over 70K if we had to pay for everything. I was keen to see some of our investment coming back, so I worked out a marketing plan during pre-production to include a DVD release as well as online marketing and promotional efforts to help with our plan to self -distribute the film on disc.

Switch VFX handled the VFX for us, while they were pounding out shots for SAW IV. Our drop-dead delivery date was flexible, so inbetween shots on SAW, the crew at Switch would hammer some stuff down for us keeping our costs down as our project filled in gaps in their schedule. Urban Post Production in Toronto handled our foley work and 5.1 surround mix, which was awesome. Thankfully, they had alot of interest in supporting us as filmmakers, too, and were supremely helpful in helping us achieve the most production value for the money we did have.

Another aspect of producing an animated short film is the viability of creating a really wonderful, high quality short for less money than a live action film of equal production value. Animation can be done with a minimal crew, as opposed to gathering a ton of gear, locations, vehicles, insurance, et al. Certainly one option when the budget proves to be the deal breaker, preventing the film from being made at all.

Talk about the process of making a stop-motion animated film.

Traditionally, stop motion animation is progressive in single frame increments, so you have a lot of inherent control over every aspect of the production.

I like to follow the route of script to storyboards to shoot and then post-production. Pretty standard in the broad sense, but the devil is in the details. With this much control comes a huge amount of finagling the little things on every phase of the film. We don't usually have the budgets where 'we'll fix it in post' is feasible, so we need to approach every shot, camera move and character action with clarity of vision for the end result. There's usually not lots of extra material to edit, the process being labour-intensive & hence potentially very costly, so we need to mind the edits from the front end. To achieve this, I scan the storyboards, do a rough audio track from the script and cut together a 'Leica reel' or 'animatic'. Essentially, it's the film edit using storyboards and artwork in place of animated scenes with a voice read for timing. The animatic 'proves' what works/ isn't working before I commit anything to camera. This takes a lot of the guess work out of the production, and saves many a headache.

As a director, I like to mixed up traditional methods with new, computer-generated imagery and effects to augment our story and visuals. We approached our short in the same spirit that Ray would with his stuff; use whatever you can to make a cool, visually interesting story. Essentially, we shot using concepts Ray had developed, only now evolved as to be done with new technology.We used lots of green screen backgrounds, 3D VFX, crazy theatrical sound design, silicone skins for the puppets, and camera placement/ lenses to mimic a live action approach to shooting. We also shot with micro computers and DSLR's for high resolution images at low cost and with minimal equipment.

I thought that the narration made the film, definitely a highlight. Talk about casting an animated film.

Casting is a huge part of the foundational aspects for an animated film. Fortunately for us, having access to brilliant talent was a real boon. Pete Cugno, the narrator of The Pit and the Pendulum, was a friend we had worked with on the CBC show 'What It's Like Being Alone". I had the opportunity to direct a bunch of episodes with Pete. I felt he would bring a real sensitivity to the role of the Prisoner, both in the story and as the voice over artist. Thankfully, Pete felt the same way and showered the project with his particular brand of brilliance.

Talk about distributing “The Pit and the Pendulum”.

We've decided to self-distribute after looking over the options available to us and felt we would always be left wanting more, or anything at all. We had to be mindful of some legal parameters as well. The distro deals offered to us included hacking the film up into bits and lending authority to disassemble the work in any way that might prove beneficial to the distributor. The distro company would be able to do what they would with the attached names, images, and film itself. This of course had potentially problematic outcomes, with minimal fiscal return (if any) for us as producers of the film, so we opted to handle the DVD release on our own. So far, I couldn't be happier with our decision, as we have complete control over how the DVD is promoted and screened. Our handling the distribution also allows us ready access to the fans. We've gotten some great feedback.

Is there any money in making animated short films?

I haven't found that end of the short film rainbow where a pot of gold surely awaits, just yet.

By way of The Pit and the Pendulum, we've done alright in as much as the debt we generated producing the film is slowly dropping away, thanks to decent monthly sales (thanks, Mom).

Making money with short films is a huge discussion, falling on the left and right, so I'll say only that we've made enough to help pay some of the debt we accrued in the production of the film, but as far as an hourly rate of return for time spent to dollars it's in the sub-negative numbers. I feel short films are a labour of love, best produced for serving a higher purpose than creating cash flow. I personally don't know any short producers making mortgage payments with shorts, exclusively. There are exceptions, of course, and my hat goes off to those folks- but for the most part, I wouldn't head to Vegas on projected earnings from a short film...

I’m assuming that entering festivals is a big part of the process for you. Talk about the festival circuit and do you have any insight to how the festival circuit works, that you could pass on to other filmmakers?

Animated short films are wonderful fodder for festivals. A cool short can be leveraged to create your identity as a filmmaker, help promote your work and can be easily shared around the globe (and beyond) with online technologies. (With some great trailers and the right approach, your short might even go 'viral'). We produce shorts to help with our promotional efforts for other projects we have on the go, as well as raising awareness for the type of stuff I do as a director and creative producer. Shorts allow me to exercise my creative muscles by making films I can afford within shorter timeframes, as well.

Looking to screen your stuff in a festival? Do your due diligence and research film festivals. Find the festivals that fit with your film; style, medium, story, etc. Hook up online with the various festival entry outlets (like Withoutabox.com, or Reelport.com), hit the library for film festival books, search online for feedback for the various fests you're thinking of applying to. I tend to go for European film fests, as there is no application fee. Know your audience; find matching festivals. Not doing your homework will likely prove to be expensive and ultimately frustrating. Do yourself a tremendous favour and assemble a press kit, synopsis, etc. Follow the rules and regulations to the letter. Be careful to fill out the forms exactly as they require; anything not 'right' may get your app (and film) retired to the rejection pile. Film Festivals in the US get a lot of submissions (and gladly take your money for applications), but if you're stuff ain't up to snuff, you may have bought a rejection letter due to a poorly packaged application versus the attention your film warrants.

If I’m a filmmaker, interested in making a film like this, what kind of advice would you pass on?

Have a plan! Assemble the best crew you can, beg borrow and steal anything you need to FINISH THE FILM. Commitment is key; once you get started, be sure you have the desire to see the project thru to the end, and complete the thing. Millions of films get started, dozens get finished. Complete films get screened. Get it out into the world for an audience to see. Be sure you have enough cash to do the job, and stick to the proposed schedule!

Where can people find out more about “The Pit and the Pendulum” or, better yet, buy a copy?

You can get a heaping helping of info, trailer, crew bios, etc at the official site for the film!

Check it out here: ThePitAndThePendulumShortFilm.com

The DVD is available directly thru the site, too! Support our next short- buy a DVD. Better yet, order a comic, too. We even have t-shirts for sale! All proceeds from the sale of stuf goes toward our next project (and we'll be forever grateful for your support).

Talk about the indie horror scene... Where do you feel it is now and where do you see it going?

Geez, where do I start....?

What’s next for you? Do you have any projects in the works?

Got a few things on the burners, including a feature script for a stop motion film, a new short screening on Bravo!FACT May 17 entitled "How to Get Rich In Television Without Really Trying", and some super-secret ARG gaming stuff and more comic book ties-in's thru Bluewater Comics for their Vincent Price Presents line. I'm also developing another Poe short, the second of our proposed trilogy, based on Edgar Allan Poe's 'Hop Frog'. We plan to produce this as a stop motion project as well. In June, we'll be screening in Toronto's LUMINATO Festival with several other Edgar All an Poe shorts as well as the Kalamazoo International Animation Festival in Michigan. The Pit and the Pendulum comic book is also still available in limited quantities and will be included in Bluewater Productions graphic hardcover collection of stories from their Vincent Price Presents comic series later in the year.

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