Filming the Deadly Progress of the Pendulum
The most famous image from Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story “The Pit and the Pendulum” is of the sword swinging back and forth, coming down ever closer over the hapless protagonist tied to a platform below. The titular pendulum, in other words. I tease a few glimpses of the pendulum as envisioned in my musical adaptation “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre” in the trailer for the short film:
At top and right above I’ve included two screenshots from the trailer showing the protagonist being menaced by the pendulum from high above and at close clothes cutting distance. I wrote about shooting my performance as the victim on the platform in the previous shooting diary entry P&P – Day 4(&5) – On the Rack. When we shot those set-ups we had to imagine the actual pendulum blade. It wasn’t on the set. It was a miniature set piece to be added later into each shot where it appears in life size dimensions in the frame. And while I on the rack was being filmed in one corner of our set on day 5 of our shoot, the pendulum miniature was being filmed by our second unit in another corner of the set.
Below you can see the miniature pendulum on the track that was built for it to swing past the camera. Production designer Mariana Soares da Silva is putting some finishing touches on the blade.
You might notice that in our version of “The Pit and the Pendulum” the sword looks like a cello bow, except rather than having bow hair running parallel to the wood like for a typical bow, here there is a blade running perpendicular.
The pendulum not only looks like a cello bow, it also sounds like three cellos moving towards each other and then moving away in an eerie glissando, like a pendulum arc, modifying the cello chord to get musically closer in harmony with every approach as the blade gets closer and closer to the victim’s torso. In other words the pendulum’s action is revealed musically as well as visually, as you can see from this excerpt of the score. The music is as important to telling the story as the images. The film is a “musicabre” after all.
Assistant D.P. Jennifer Liu was promoted to 2nd Unit D.P. for the days the pendulum miniature shots were filmed. In this shot the miniature is angled in such a way towards the camera that it will appear to the audience like they are looking up at the blade as it swoops by.
Each pendulum shot was filmed in slow motion. This would allow us later to adjust the speed of the film perfectly to match the timing of the music describing the progress of the pendulum.
In the shot below the pendulum is swinging by even closer to the camera/audience’s point of view.
The string was used to smoothly pull the pendulum back and forth on the track.
The green screen cloth was used for shots where the pendulum was to pass in front of the protagonist on the screen. Here Henry is placing himself where I would end up in the frame while Jennifer and VFX specialist Jimmy McCoy and Assistant Director Charlotte Purser make sure the angles all line up before shooting. Jimmy was able to show us already that day on set how the pendulum shots would combine with the shots of me on the rack.
Below is one version of this shot with the pendulum passing by in the top of the frame, as seen in the trailer. There are later versions of this shot where the pendulum, having gotten lower, passes by in front of my face from this angle. (A storyboard picture for this shot can be seen in P&P Day 4(&5) – On the Rack.)
In the picture above you see the protagonist before the pendulum gets in cutting range. But from the blood coating the bottom of the blade in the second screenshot at top you can tell that contact with cloth and skin will be made – just wait till you hear the sounds the cellos make then!
Video and more pics of Jennifer and the second unit at work. The pendulum’s progress is shown from many angles in the film. The miniature unit had to set up and shoot multiple passes of each one:
This shot will show the blade coming right at and then past the camera.