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By Felix Vasquez Jr. | October 18, 2007

Was animation a natural direction for you, or was it just accidental?
I had no idea I could even function as an animator until I got into high school, and started to experiment for my first filmmaking class. Encouraged to give it a try, and knowing that even Ray Harryhausen had to have started somewhere, I got to work making short animated films on Super-8. The first few went pretty well, considering I had no idea 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 doing their own stuff. It became the equivalent of writing other peoples book reports for me only I was making short films for other kids in the class. I knew I was onto something, 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 & movement, and tell a story (the few times I bothered with a story).

These days, I thoroughly enjoy handling the directorial and creative choices of the production as a whole, though I animate a lot less than I once did. I still like to get in a shot here and there, time allowing.

Was it difficult compressing “The Pit and the Pendulum” story into a seven minute timeframe?
It’s a short story, for sure, but we found it really hard to get it in at 7 minutes! Ideally, I was hoping for a final film of approximately 9 minutes, but we faced looming deadlines and a tight budget. All of us on the crew had contractual obligations on other shows coming up right after our scheduled wrap. Switch VFX landed three features back to back, Yowza Digital needed the space supplied for our shooting area, and the animators were off to start another series. Susan and I were going into pre-production on “What It’s Like Being Alone” with Brad Peyton and Fred Fuchs. In the end, we got the shots that we absolutely had to have to tell the story. Ultimately, it’s always wonderful to have the options in editorial to include extra shots, but we got away with what we needed.

What about this story inspired you to take it on; why did it appeal to you?
When I started poring through Poe’s work for the story we’d pursue, I had no idea that it would be “The Pit and the Pendulum.” The story sort of found me. I read it, and came away knowing this is a story of a man wrestling with judgment, condemnation, despair, hope and his own faith in a power greater than himself. Its classic; a person is brought to the lowest place in life, totally powerless to save himself. He’s out of options, and he realizes he’s powerless to save himself. Salvation is ultimately going to come from a power greater than he. After reading the story again after so many years, I felt our short film would be touching on one of the bigger questions of humanity: Is there anyone there for us after we’ve done all we can do? The question really resonated with me, and I wanted to get it across in the story. This guy is suffering horribly at the hands of some self-righteous fiends, and in the end, who does he have to turn to as he’s gotten to the very bottom of his capabilities? The best he can do is stay alive long enough to find out. It’s there we really 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.

You achieved a filmmaker’s dream and garnered Ray Harryhausen’s involvement, how is the man in real life?
Ray Harryhausen is truly a gentleman. Aside from the fact he’s amazingly talented, arguably a genius and the inspiration for millions of folks, he’s a wonderful person. He’s honest, warm, generous and very encouraging. One of the most impressive things about Ray is what makes him stand head and shoulders above many of the other folks I’ve met in the industry is that he doesn’t wear his ego on his sleeve and he doesn’t have a selfish agenda to push. He’s not interested in shameless self-promotion. On the contrary, he’s appreciative of all the attention lauded on him wherever he goes, and I mean everywhere. The guy walks into a video rental store and causes a riot! It goes without saying the man is a legend and yet he’s just so real about the whole thing. He’d just as soon have a hot dog on the street in New York with a fan that recognizes him as sit down for lunch with Steven Spielberg. Which he does, and he still replies to my faxes. Amazing. Now if Mr. Spielberg would follow Ray’s sterling example…

Here’s a story: I had the opportunity to spend the day with Ray in New York City a few years ago, to bring him around town following a meeting at MTV. He hadn’t been in New York in 30 years (this was about two years before he had gone to meet with Fay Wray on the Empire State Building). I got the call that Ray would like to have company for the day while he hung out in the city, so of course I volunteered, and he knew me. So there we were, with my list of places I thought he might like to see, places to eat, blah, blah. Ray stuffed the list in his pocket, and proceeded to show me around the city on a tour of all the places his films had premiered and theatres he’d seen “King Kong;” Bunch of stories. We walked for around the city for hours. Nearly got run over crossing the street, we were so wrapped up in conversation! I came close to making history as the knucklehead that got Ray hit by a cab. Ray didn’t see the guy racing behind us, thankfully. We got back to the hotel safely, had dinner and called it a day. Ray even grabbed the bill. He was just the coolest, and it’s something I’ll always cherish, having spent my day with Ray. I had no idea we would actually get around to doing “The Pit and the Pendulum” several years later.

So, how did he get involved in this production?
The story really starts in 2000, at a surprise birthday bash set up by Tom Atkins, founder of the Visual Effects Society. Tom was throwing the party for Ray’s 80th birthday, and Ray had no idea this was going down. The focal point of the bash was to be a compilation of short ‘video birthday cards’ culled from a truckload of visual effects luminaries; Ken Ralston from Sony Imageworks, James Cameron, Stan Winston, Rick Baker, Jon Landis, Joe Dante, Phil Tippett, the crew at Industrial Light and Magic, Pixar, the list goes on. Tom wanted to add some shorts to be produced by some small outfits of his own choosing. Tom knew Steve Jaworski and I were working at MTV, so he offered us the opportunity to get invovled with a 30 second short for Ray to be screened as part of the all-star compilation of well-wishers. Once I regained my senses, I got Steve into my office and we set to work on an idea.

That took about two minutes, and we got going on storyboarding that night. Tom had given us about a month to pull something together. At the time, we were both going full on with “Celebrity Deathmatch,” and we were also handling the production of a ten minute pilot, in house. We produced a 2 and half minute short called “Ray’s Big Day” (or “Time Traveller”). Arnold Kunert produced the actual video greeting, and managed to get our little film into the screening. The presentation was fantastic, and the video was a real hit. Ray got a kick out of our animated short at his party, so Steve and I boldly pitched the idea of producing another short with Ray’s participation. We had no storyline in mind, just the idea of doing something with Ray in the producer’s seat. Ray was interested in developing the idea, and left it to us to find something with which he’d like to participate. This being no small feat, we couldn’t get it off the ground quickly. Eventually, our respective schedules kept us all too busy to pursue the idea further, and the project fell by the wayside, until Arnold Kunert revived it in 2005.

Where did the idea for this short film arise?
In the early spring 2005, Ray’s producer, Arnold Kunert, called to see about firing up “The Fall of the House of Usher” as a stop-motion short film. Thrilled to be offered the opportunity, Susan Ma, (producer of “The Pit and the Pendulum” short), got started delving into the scheduling and logistical concerns of the endeavor. We realized we would not be able to do the story justice with the resources we had available, “Fall of the House of Usher” being a visually complex piece. Knowing Ray had his heart set on “Fall of the House of Usher,” Susan and I sought another E.A. Poe story we would all agree with. We opted to pitch 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 from there “The Pit and the Pendulum” became the first film to be in production under the Ray Harryhausen Presents banner. It was a very exciting time for us.

What was the full impact of his involvement? And did he lend a hand in the animation?
Ray Harryhausen served as Executive Producer alongside Fred Fuchs (former President of Zoetrope Studio). We discussed the creative aspects of the production with Ray and Arnold from the outset, they’re having approvals of the character designs, script, and overall aesthetic. Ray had a vision for the aesthetic direction, which was actually in close alignment with our initial designs. The Giaccommetti inspired character design was of particular interest for Ray. Ray didn’t have a chance to even visit the set while we were shooting the animation, being so busy with his book tour and numerous festival appearances.

We worked around his availability issues by sending stuff to Arnold online for approvals and feedback. When they had a date come up in Montreal, I got a meeting set up to do an impromptu screening for Ray and Arnold in their hotel. No pressure! I was a wreck, actually, having gotten this far and not yet sat with Ray with any of the animation. First thing I did entering his suite at the hotel was look for a window I could fit thru, should things go south… fortunately the guys were cool with everything and we had a great time talking over the project. We even did a little interview with Ray for the blog, which I’ll post sometime this year on the blog. So, the windows remained intact and I could breath easy. Arnold even took pictures of Ray with the puppet while I sat there smiling like a Coney Island clown.

Were there any CGI or computer effects integrated within the final film?
Switch VFX did a lot of great CGI -based visual effects work on the film. Working with Switch VFX Visual Effects Supervisor Jon Campfens, vfx artists Gudrun Heinze and Dave Alexander were responsible for the set extensions, atmospheric effects and compositing and CG modeling. Dave and Gudrun did a masterful job of modeling, texturing, painting and assembling all the disparate elements from the shoot, match the set and miniatures and CG stuff seamlessly. Actually, the shot with the bird struggling to escape thru the barred window is a totally 3D-CG shot. We didn’t have a window constructed, nor a bird, Switch’s artists modeled the wall, window and bird, and lit the shot to match the rest of the film perfectly. Gudrun handled the composite & rotoscope work, set extensions, and atmospheric effects. She is a master compositor and VFX artist, tying together all these bits and pieces of stop-motion and CG elements, while making the film look completely integrated. Just wonderful work. Susan and I were totally pleased.

How long did it take to film this?
The shoot itself was about 6 weeks total, with VFX and post production running on and off for about 8 months. We shot at Yowza Digital with the generous support of Yowza Digital’s executive producer, Pete Denomme. Pete supplied us with a great set up to maximize the efforts of our stop-motion animators, Mike Weiss and Ryan Fairley. His help in allowing us to shoot at their facility and tie into the Switch VFX pipeline was crucial, and made life much easier for us. Pete and Jon are both big fans of Ray’s work, as well, and were equally happy about the chance to be part of the project. Susan, having been a VFX and animation producer for years in Toronto, used her unequalled access to nearly anything we needed for equipment, post-production, etc. She was just fantastic. We were really blessed to have such a solid group of folks helping out with this thing. Cinematographer Dean Holmes worked with me on working out the cameras and lighting nailed in just a couple of days, jumping between jobs to accommodate our tight schedule. He was really fast, and his lighting was just fantastic.

How many animators were involved?
We had just two animators, Mike Weiss and Ryan Fairley, both really top notch animators I had the pleasure of working with on the series “What It’s Like Being Alone.” I thought I might jump in for some late night mayhem to fill in the gaps, but these fellows were so on top of things I didn’t need to get in to animate myself. Though the schedule was grueling, Mike and Ryan stayed focused and pulled it through to the end. I was happy for that as I found myself inundated with visual effects preparations and editorial issues. Having animated myself for many years, I was happy to see their response to having such important roles in the production, despite the crazy hours, cold pizza, and industrial coffee. We actually finished a day ahead of our intended drop-dead date, thanks to these guys.

Were there any other influences to “Pit and the Pendulum” beyond Harryhausen?
I read many of Poe’s other stories to re-acquaint myself with his work, to start. I also read Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” to round things out a bit. Several films were of great value as reference, including “The Name of the Rose,” “The Count of Monte Cristo,” “The Man in the Iron Mask” and the more recent “Angels of the Apocalypse,” a French thriller with fantastic production design. These films were best for referencing textures, aesthetics, and the feel of cold, dark castles, dungeons, mood, set design, et al. Who knew that “dark, dreary, wet and stinking of decay’ might require so much? It was a wonderful way of spending a lot of time watching some classic film favorites… all for the sake of art, of course.

How did Harryhausen feel about the finished product?
Ray was really happy with the final result. Ray and Arnold screened the finished film with Harry Knowles in Austin with a new print of Willis O’Brien’s KING KONG. Apparently, Rodriquez, Tarantino and Randy Cook were there as well. Arnold spoke with me immediately following the screening (via cell phone), and told me how well the short went over with the packed house… Ray had leaned over (to Arnold) during the film, saying “This turned out really well. The animation’s really good.” Arnold’s enthusiasm carried over the phone. We’re still kicking ourselves for missing the event, but I’ve been sleeping a whole lot better since.

Has the Harryhausen endorsement hurt or helped the film’s clout?
Most folks are thrilled he’s doing anything with current projects, it’s been so long since his last film. Ray’s fans are interested in what this thing is about, and inquiring minds want to know, so we get quite a bit of positive responses to the film once they’ve seen the trailer, film, website and blog. Occasionally we do get a raised brow, but 99.9% of the response has been people happy to know that Ray was in this for real. He and Arnold wouldn’t have it any other way. We produced the film as one we collectively would like to see ourselves. It was a labor of love, and after all, it’s a short film. I can’t think of anyone that’s bought a house on the net return of a seven minute film, unless they haven’t paid their credit card bill.

How has the feedback been in film festivals?
Folks at the festivals have been very enthusiastic. The film has garnered several awards, including an Art Direction Award, Best Adaptation, and a Storyteller award, as well as several nominations for Best Short Film, and Best Animated Film. I was recently in New York at the Museum of the Moving Picture, attending 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 Pit and the Pendulum” opened the show to applause as Ray’s name appears on the screen. We were also in Wiliiamstown, Mass. for 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! Brad was very cool, and very interested in seeing our film. That made our weekend.

If you could adapt another author’s work for a short format, which author would you tackle?
One of the stories is we’re currently developing is a classic Washington Irving tale, another is a short story by Mark Twain. Joseph Conrad is another, as is Jules Verne. I think it would be cool to see an animated film of a Jack London short story. There are several Victorian stories from I’m interested in pursuing as well. The atmosphere, textures, furniture and clothing of the times lend themselves beautifully to stop-motion. I would love to get the Edgar Allan Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” to really explore the possibilities.

Which of Poe’s other stories do you feel would make for a visually stunning animated film?
Susan and I feel strongly about producing E.A. Poe’s “The Raven” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” My dream is to finish a trilogy of Poe stories, to create a compilation that’d be useful in getting kids interested in literature through visual interpretations of the stories. Short films are a great way to get to younger audiences, so we hope to create interest in series that will enable us to continue producing the films. In adapting these classic stories, we’re staying as true to the originals as we can, within cinematic boundaries. It certainly ratchets up the difficulty with the scripts, but we feel it’s worth the effort.

Is “The Pit and Pendulum” slated for DVD release, or are you seeking distribution?
We’ve decided to self-distribute online for the time being. The DVD is slated for an October 2007 release, a little late for the expected Halloween / Edgar Allan Poe crowd, but just in time for Christmas! News on the release dates and where to get the DVD will be posted on the blog. We plan to have a store set up on the official website as well.

So, what can audiences expect from you in film next?
We have a short web-based pilot we’re working on called “How to Get Rich in Television Without Really Trying,” which should be ready to go for the festival circuit this Fall. We’re also developing a CG animated kid’s show and I’m working on the script for a stop-motion animated feature film. Another short is in the works. We’ve also got a comic book project we’re developing with Blue Water Comics, based on “The Pit and the Pendulum” short film.

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