Making the Pit& the Pendulum

Pre-production, shooting: 2018 | post-production: 2019

One of the greatest sources for horror can be our own imagination — things unseen, noises or flashes at the periphery of your vision, stress caused as we piece together worst-case-scenarios in our minds. Taking advantage of those moments fueled this project.

J Aldric Gaudet is a local writer, story editor, and director. He brought me on board to help execute a screenplay he’d had in the works for years. As many productions go, there were interested parties along the way, and many false starts, so he decided to do it small scale and in-house. With a small budget, small cast and crew, and us wearing many hats simultaneously, we’ve been able to bring his story based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum to life in a new way.

My roles in the production so far: cinematographer, set design and construction, lighting and production design, storyboards, post-production soundtrack and design, visual effects, as well as graphic design for branding and web. Suffice it to say, this production has brought all of my skill sets into one singular package. It has been quite a journey, but a rewarding and intriguing one every step of the way. 

Let’s start at the beginning.

PART ONE: pre-production, storyboards, set and prop design

The first third of the journey focused on dissecting his screenplay line by line, and converting that into shot focussed storyboards with direction and technical information for camera moves and lighting. This was particularly important due to the nature of how dark and light was being used on set. Since nearly the entirety of the film takes place in blackout, the lighting and framing must be careful to illuminate for the viewer a sense of plot and space. The actor at times wanders aimlessly through the darkness, but we don’t want to lose the viewer there as well. 

Pages from storyboarding the script. We broke down all the details for camera movements and what we’d need for lighting and set design here first.

The size of the budget and the way Joe and I have worked together in the past led naturally to us building and creating as much of all elements as possible ourselves. If a particular piece of film gear needed was going to be prohibitively expensive then we found ways to build it from scratch or bring it together piecemeal. One example was purchasing LED flood lights, used for exterior lighting or security purposes, and turning them into proper film set lighting with barn doors, diffusion, and mobile grid work. 

PART TWO: set pieces

With the script and storyboards locked into place, crucial details for lightings and setups ironed out, talent and location scouted and confirmed, I could work on the final preparations for the physical set pieces. The goal for the project was to actually show as little as possible, so the set had to be dark and based on form and hints of details. I wanted the items to show only aspects of their shape and not actually reveal everything right away. Texture became my go-to for this stage of pre-production. 

The platform that the prisoner wakes on, and later must free herself from, was created using 40 year old garden slabs of wood unearthed from the dirt. Previously used as edging between lawn and a garden for planting, the interior of the wood had a beautiful aging that would be hard to mimick.  Eaten away by time and the elements, all we needed to do was chop, clean, make it safe for acting, and reveal the texture hidden underneath the surface. I wanted this piece to show and reflect the captor’s continual activities of imprisonment (during the Inquisition in Poe’s story); it wasn’t a clean and sterilized chamber, but one of age and decay from their continued vile activities.   

The other main set piece was the pit itself. Again we wanted to be careful to only show what was crucially necessary, but we also had to keep in mind size and the ability to transport the physical beast. I built one half of the pit in section that could be disassembled and reassembled as needed. Additionally, the structure itself was made with bare minimum support and thickness so that it was light to carry, but imposing looking. With buckets of sand, dirt, paint, wax and caulking, the edge of the pit grew to life. Made for closeups and interaction very near the camera. 

PART THREE: finding the look

We aimed to show without showing, to tell a story without giving away too many details. To see and to leave things unseen simultaneously was the unique angle. Lighting the project was a particularly interesting challenge. We needed it to feel dark, and show what we needed to show to carry the plot, but leave out all the aspects that we wanted the viewer to create in their minds. That active viewer participation was the priority. 

During pre-production and shoot planning we researched precisely what pitch-black settings feel like inside. I quickly realized that in a near-zero light situation, the eyes lose a tremendous amount of perception for colour, above all else. What remained of perceivable surroundings were just hints at edges and shapes of objects. The brightness of a given scene isn’t simply turned down in these scenarios, the way your eyes and mind work together to figure out your surroundings changes to adapt. 

We wanted to get as close to this idea visually as possible while still maintaining the understanding of the key points of the story. Past cinematic techniques for achieving visual darkness simply do not get close enough; frequently a scene is lit the same way as usual, but a few lights are turned off or moved. The characters in the scene act like it’s dark, and the audience follows along. We wanted to push this idea much further. 

One light and colour test from act 3 as the prisoner realizes new horrors.

PART FOUR: Editing, sound, and next steps

We are nearing the final third of this journey and my main role will be shifting from visuals to sound effects and soundscapes. That will be a whole new joy to work on and share in detail as it happens. More to come and lots work to be done. 

Evan 03-30-19