Shaun Clark Adapts Edgar Allen Poe for His Uncanny Gothic Animation ‘The Beholder’

Adapting the unique language of any author can be a tricky process, particularly that of a 19th Century literary icon. Shaun Clark’s The Beholder, however, embraces Poe’s words with a flair that draws out the gothic author’s stranger side. It’s a brisk and wonderfully baffling short animation that is bound to have the audience at FrightFest asking for more. We spoke with Clark below to talk all things Poe, as well as the extensive production process behind creating his uncanny visuals.

What inspired you to adapt this text by Edgar Allen Poe?
I have always been drawn to Edgar Allan Poe’s work because his stories are easy to inhabit as a reader and they are really imaginative, I find animation to be a perfect medium to bring his worlds to life.

A lot of my films explore fears and Poe’s The Tell-Tale-Heart allowed me to explore this subject, as the narrator’s anxieties are at the core of the text. In this case, I decided to externalise his internal perception, to give us some understanding of his emotional journey.
The visual style was really dark and striking, how did you develop it? What did you draw upon?
The main inspiration was EAP’s text; he sets the mood and atmosphere with his descriptions of the locations and the characters’ feelings and perceptions so vividly. So I took this source material as the starting point to inform the visual approach.
In the story we have two central characters, which are the narrator and the old man. I used two different techniques to create a contrast between the narrator and his subjective perception of the other character. The narrator is conflicted by his feelings towards the old man; he recognises his fragility and warmth, but still he’s scared of him. As I wanted to externalise these inner thoughts, I chose to animate the old man using a form of cut-out animation to portray the innocence and fragility of his body whilst his head is a vulture. In contrast the protagonist is filmed using an animation technique called pixilation, as I wanted this character to retain more realism and normality than the old man, while at the same time hinting that the protagonist is unnerved which is achieved through using pixilation. 
For the world the characters inhabit, I chose to use real photographs of sets to create the background, as I intended the space to be as believable as possible to ground the story. The photos were then placed behind the characters and a layer of texture was composited on top of everything to merge the styles together and light the scenes.

How long a process is it to make an animation like this? Could you walk us through some of the key stages?
The full production from initial idea to completion was around two months. I started the film by shooting a number of live action plates in response to the mood and atmosphere of the story. I wanted to capture the visceral feeling of Poe’s words and I used the footage to create a moving moodboard. In tandem with this I also began to photograph images, which captured the description of the room and the old man as a vulture. Once I had this material I created the old man using a series of photographs and animated him using Adobe After Effects rocking backwards and forwards on his creaking old chair.
The narrator was animated using a pixilation technique against a green screen and keyed and composited in After Effects. The narrator was also treated with textures and graded to match the style and lighting of the photographed sets. During the production process I recorded a scratch audio track of the narration and Editor Ariadna Fatjo-Vilas cut the rendered shots to this audio track. We edited during the shooting and animation period, which allowed me to re-shoot any performances that were not quite right for the emotional journey of the protagonist during the production stage.  
Composer Adam Price wrote the music for the film drawing inspiration from the textured visual style to write a tango inspired track, which reflected the emotional arc of the film. The juxtaposition between the light tone of the music and the darkness of the subject emphasizes the shocking absurdity of the reasoning behind the narrator’s journey that has such tragic conclusion.
Voice artist Melvyn Ternan also re-recorded the scratch track of the narration to work in harmony with the actor’s performance on screen. Both the narration track and music track where placed onto the film and Ariadna recut scenes to match any new audio timings and give space and pace to the film. Lastly we picture locked and David Pringle created the sound design and mixed the audio for the film.

Do you see yourself returning to tell more dark and strange tales?

I have recently shot a pixilated animated film called Peep that is based on the novella The Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The film again has a dark underbelly and is currently in the compositing stages at the moment.
And, are you working on anything else?
Peep should be ready for the start of next year along with a short film called La Vaca Cega (The Blind Cow) based on a Catalan poem by Joan Maragall.

Guest is part of our spotlight on the 2020 edition of FrightFest. You can find the rest of our festival coverage here.

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