I already shared the above picture in a previous blog post about the colors of “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre”, my short film adaptation of the classic Edgar Allan Poe short story. You probably guessed then (and found it confirmed by the trailer) that that close-up is from the scene where the protagonist is tied to a rack above which something very cutting and deadly swings back and forth – the titular pendulum scythe, natch – getting lower and lower to the protagonist’s chest, threatening death by eventual slow but certain slicing in two.
Above is a shot of me on the rack, as seen through the on-set monitor. My wrists are not yet tied to their restraints. Instead I am holding my folder with the script and story boards. So this is clearly a shot taken during set up. We started shooting the “Pendulum” scene in the evening of Day 4, and continued all through Day 5. In this case that meant all the shots of the protagonist reacting to the pendulum as it swings by again and again, getting lower and lower and lower.
The pendulum itself would be shot separately and added later. I’ll get to that in another post…
Above, Mariana Soares da Silva, our production designer, wraps the strips of cloth around my wrists that would then be tied to the metal attachments on the rack.
I would end up spending most of one and a half days tied down to that rack to get shot after shot, angle after angle. My wrists would only be untied when there would be longer breaks between shots.
The protagonist of The Pit and the Pendulum endures many tortures in Poe’s diabolical short story. The director/actor on the set of “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre” would endure his own fair share (far less deadly but still uncomfortable). Yet whereas Poe’s protagonist could point to the monks of the Inquisition for his pains, I had no one but myself to blame.
Charlotte Purser, the assistant director, shows me the relevant script section for whatever moment we were shooting next. The on-set monitor would also have to be put in a position where I could see it from this prone and tied down position. The character may be on his back and in bonds, but the director still has to direct somehow.
Why is director of photography Jason Chua attaching sticky color strips to a pole? Those color strips were placed on two poles placed left and right from the rack, to gave us a visual guide to where the pendulum was swinging at any particular moment. Like I already said, the pendulum itself would be filmed separately and added to the scene via editing and VFX work. But while we shot the protagonist’s reactions we had to know where exactly at any moment in the five minute scene the pendulum was located.
Each swing of the pendulum and whether it was swooping past me right to left or returning left to right was meticulously noted in the script (in red) and in the storyboards. I’ll share details from both:
We used 5 different colors that alternated systematically from top to bottom on the poles. 1, 6, 11, 16 etc. were all red, 2, 7, 12, 17 etc. were all yellow and so forth. The distance between the strips was carefully measured.
Charlotte hands Jason the strips to attach to the pole.
These strips would be a guide for my eyes when I was tied to the rack. The script and storyboards would tell us which number pendulum swing we were shooting at any particular moment and whether the pendulum was coming from the left or the right. The prerecorded music that would be cued up and played back for each take would tell me exactly when the pendulum would appear out of the shadows at the right or the left and how long it would take to swing by. This way for each take my eyes would be able to follow the pendulum’s progress precisely. For example, if we were filming the 5th pendulum arc, I would know that my eyes would be following its progress from the 5th (white) strip on the right pole to the 5th (white) strip on the left pole.
We shot long master takes that covered almost the whole scene and shorter takes of specific moments, depending on the angle of the shot.
Below is a video of me indicating the pendulum’s progress with a tennis ball on a stick, while the soundtrack for the whole scene plays. I did this demonstration less for myself than for the whole crew, so we all could place the pendulum in our mind’s eye when we would later shoot segments without any visual guide other than my eyeline or a string of lights (more on that further down).
Jason would be catching many angles of the protagonist on the rack. This placement of the camera makes for perhaps the most dramatic photographs of his work this day.
You see the string of lights above me in the photo below? These would be placed for certain shots as a guide to where the pendulum was swinging by in that take. Jason would shoot those angles 4 different ways. Twice with the string of lights – once with the focus on me, once with the focus on the string of lights – and twice without the string of lights – once with the focus on me, once with the focus on where the string of lights, i.e. the pendulum, would be. The shots with the string of lights would never make it into the film but serve as guides for the editor and VFX for when the pendulum is later added to a shot using the second set of takes.
Sami Eddy is responsible for wardrobe and make-up. In the above photo you can see her checking her phone for a picture of me she took earlier, monitoring for continuity. Usually this was to make sure the strands of my hair looked consistent from shot to shot. In this instance Sami also appears to have a tube of blood on the ready, making sure my wound is oozing just so.
Oozing just so? Because the pendulum does start cutting through the doublet and the shirt underneath and then the protagonist’s skin. We had two versions of the doublet for me to wear. The uncut one and the cut and bloodied one. There was a third doublet too, which would be worn by a pillow form fitted to double as my torso, for the shots of … well, I’ll get to that another time.