Pit Pony

Gemini Award for Best Production Design.

PIT PONY. This CBC television movie is based on Joyce Barkhouse’s historical children’s novel by the same name. Set in the 1910 coal mining community of Glace Bay, Cape Breton, it centres on 10 year old Willie McClean, who due to tragic family circumstances is required to work deep in the coal mines that run for miles out and under the Atlantic Ocean. In the mines he develops a close relationship with Gem, one of the many wild Sable Island ponies brought to work in the mines because of their strength and small stature.

Veteran Director Eric Till took a sensitive but unsentimental approach for the film, clear that portraying it as an unrelentingly tough situation was important and truthful. He, DOP Nick Evdemon and myself collaborated intently to realize this vision.

Designing Pit Pony necessitated a deep level of research into the specifics of turn-of-the-century coal-mining techniques, and the socio-economic culture that existed as part and parcel with the industry. We received extensive and generous assistance in terms of tours, archival information and materials from the Springhill Mining Museum and the Glace Bay Coal Miners Museum, using the latter’s restored community of miners’ homes as an exterior location. We shot at several locations in and around Glace Bay for both domestic exteriors and mine exteriors, adding roadways of crushed coal and rake-tracks, and retrofitting period rake sheds over contemporary mine access points.

The interior mine was an extensive set built in a Dartmouth studio for which we devised a sloped entry point for the rake arrival, and laid extensive runs of track along which Gem and other horses pulled carts laden with coal. The coal walls were simulated using a vacu-formed tree bark mould, the supporting framework made with sawn timbers from the plentiful Nova Scotia forest. Coalmines typically have low ceilings and it was agreed by all to create this reality despite the physical inconvenience posed. Willy’s interior home—derived from plans of an actual mining company issue—was also built in the studio, while a slate of other set locations were situated in and around Halifax-Dartmouth.