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By Felix Vasquez Jr. | October 18, 2007

Stop-motion is a nearly dead art form. With the advent of computer technology, easily affordable filmmaking techniques and our growing access to different techniques of creating animation with barely a budget, techniques like claymation just isn’t experimented with anymore. And yet, folks like Ray Harryhausen are still relevant even in the face of CGI. Recently Harryhausen, who helped pioneer special effects along with folks like Willis O’Brien, assisted in one of the latest independent stop-motion productions, “The Pit and the Pendulum.”

Director Marc Lougee has a long history in special effects and film production, and he’s created, along with Harryhausen’s help, the short stop-motion Edgar Allan Poe adaptation “The Pit and the Pendulum.” The short is gaining much deserved acclaim with festival audiences everywhere.

“Ray Harryhausen presents: The Pit and the Pendulum” is a gorgeously Gothic adaptation of the famous Edgar Allan Poe short horror story in which we follow the tribulations of an unnamed young man being held prisoner during the Spanish Inquisition as he struggles with his Sanity. “The Pit and the Pendulum” is a wonderful little short film filled with gorgeous visuals and skillful animation that properly pays homage to Harryhausen with a full animated format in clay.

I spoke with Marc to pick his brain on the film, and Mr. Lougee was kind enough to take time out and oblige us on Harryhausen, his animated history, and his plans for the film…

Hi Marc, thanks for agreeing to the interview.
Thanks! No problem.

So, tell us a little about your background in film and special effects, if you will.
I grew up watching Creature Double Features on Saturdays in rural New Hampshire, 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, and of course, anything that had 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, I had no idea there was a bunch of folks making a living doing this stuff. Later, “Star Wars” impacted my world like a meteorite, changing my life forever. I was just blown away… so much so that I rode my bicycle to the nearest drive-in, 20 miles away, a bunch of times to see the spectacle.

Being so removed from New York, or even Boston put me at a bit of a disadvantage, there being no ready access to folks working in the industry, or even interest in how this stuff worked. Enthusiasm saved the day, in that I just started writing letters to folks like Ray Harryhausen, Dick Smith, Rick Baker, Jim Henson, et al. It’s amazing my letters got to any of these guys. Some of them actually wrote back! Dick Smith was especially supportive, and eventually, I got the opportunity to meet with Dick, Ray, Rick Baker and several other folks I looked to as heroes in the industry.

After my stint in the US Army (running border patrols on the now-defunct West German/ Czechoslovakian border), I got into film school in Boston, allowing me access to video equipment, optical printers, and all manner of equipment. I landed a gig in a small animation house in Boston, animating and directing commercials and animated broadcast ID’s for ABC and MTV.

I landed in Los Angeles for awhile working for the Chiodo Brothers on “Land of the Lost” with Justin Kohn and Kim Blanchette. I had some great opportunities to meet folks thru Dick Smith while I was in Los Angeles. I stuck around for awhile, working in various makeup effects shops and on animation gigs, when I could find them. In the early ’90’s, there was a lull in the opportunities in Los Angeles, so I moved back to New York. There, I re-established myself and started supervising animated commercial campaigns thru a large animation house.

During those years, there were some lower-budget features utilizing stop-motion as an alternative to costly optical effects, and ‘Joe’s Apartment’ was one of them. I signed on as one of the stop-motion animators, but before long, MTV decided to pursue Blue Sky Studios to handle all the animation using their CGI capabilities. Of course, this was a really wise choice, as Blue Sky did, and still does, reign supreme in the CGI world as a top production house. Secretly, I was rather thankful, as the idea of animating literally thousands of cockroach models in hugely complex dance numbers would’ve driven me completely over the top. “Joe’s Apartment” did use some of our stop-motion animation, so I stuck around and helped out with that stuff, then went on to working on a few theatre projects.

One of the more notable jobs was designing and building a large scale stage effect for David Copperfield’s touring magic show, “Dreams & Nightmares.” That was a great time. We got to talk with Copperfield about magic and see the show premiere in New York. Copperfield is a very interesting guy, and just absolutely passionate about magic and its history. He recently bought some huge collection o Houdini’s props and tricks, and planned to open a museum for those researching the craft. Cool to meet with him, and get a feel for the type of stuff that goes on behind the scenes.

Following my “Joe’s Apartment” experience of man versus machine, I relented and got more involved in computers and computer-driven effects and animation. In those days, that amounted to building miniature rigs with motion-controlled actuation, some computer-aided design, and at the time, very little character animation. I supervised the rigging effects on “Langoliers.” You can see why I should have gotten more involved in CG, if you’ve seen the film…

Why the discontent with the finished product?
The project looked OK (I’m not suggesting anyone run out to rent it), but it was my start in the CG arena, dealing with the integration of these toothy CG balls that were depicted as destroying the entire world in the movie. I think the effect was interesting, despite the creature design. We all learned what worked and what might not in combining the technologies on that one. One of the highlights was being interviewed on “Entertainment Tonight!”.

What have you done recently?
I’ve been directing on CGI and stop-motion based TV shows, including MTV’s “Celebrity Deathmatch,” BBC’s “Ace Lightning,” the CBC’s “What It’s Like Being Alone” and the BBC / Discovery co-pro “Dinosapien.” Most of what I brought to these shows was my experience in combining action and animation, especially character interaction between these disparate elements. When the opportunity to direct second Unit/ VFX on “Dinosapien” presented itself, I jumped at the chance. Since I was directing the “Dinosapien” animation, I’d be responsible for integrating the animation and live action plates. It was a dream job in that sense, something I love to do, dropping CG creatures into “real” environments seamlessly, from a directorial standpoint.

We shot the Dinosapiens moving plates with HD cameras and used DSLR’s for plates we could stitch together to create super-wide vistas for background plates. These ‘stitched’ plates allowed us to pan, zoom, and truck around within the parameters of the frame, giving us tremendous freedom to create new shots by increasing our camera movement during post production. This way we could get subtle camera movement dictated by the animation, versus the animation being dictated by the location shoot This process has been used quite a bit in features, of course, but Steve Jaworski and I were working out those techniques on “Celebrity Deathmatch,” to get the camera’s ‘unlocked’, to gain freedom to track characters around the set and into the air. We used many of the tricks developed on “Celebrity Deathmatch” in the stop-motion animated show, “What It’s Like Being Alone.” Between “What It’s Like Being Alone” and “Dinosapien,” we went into production of “The Pit and the Pendulum” short film.

How long were you on “Celebrity Deathmatch”?
I got on the show in 1998, and stuck around for 52 X 22 minute episodes as Animation Director. While working at MTV, I met Visual Effects Supervisor Steve Jaworski, and we got along from day one. Both of us had strong ideas as to how we could help the show grow and improve. We had a great time working together, as were on the same wavelength from the start.

We constantly tweaked and tuned things to increase the production value in the animation and visual effects, and in response the other departments helped accommodate the effort. A cool thing about the show was we were shooting digitally with some high end 3-chip digital cameras. These came with some nice zoom lenses, which gave us just incredibly sharp picture. That was a boon, as we started messing with some new techniques to motion-track characters, fly props and puppets and create camera movement without the benefit of motion-control or camera moving rigs that proved to be cost prohibitive.

And what was that experience like?
The show became a testing ground for us, with the results showing up in the show each episode. Using the digital technology freed us up in many ways to get some crazy camera movement. Of course this new latitude meant we were now expected to shoot even more zany antics on the show. Much of what we were getting away with digitally would have been just nightmarish to shoot with a large, heavy tank of a camera, like a Mitchell. Instead, we’d put together camera rigs with gobo arms, bungee cords and a tripod in minutes, shoot a shot, send it to composite, and have a test ready in a few minutes. We’d have a look, tweak some stuff and do the shot for keeps; real ‘rubber band and chewing gum’ style. Folks on the crew were just blown away by how much we got away with, and the minimal amount of gear to do it. The big push was to be as creative as possible while solving problems out of sheer manic necessity. I drank way too much coffee while I was there.

Read the rest of the interview in Part Two of Into the Pit: Interview with Director Marc Lougee>>>

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