My short film “Tooth” came out of nowhere. For me, the COVID years were full of heaviness, and not for the reason you’d think. I’m a documentary film editor and I focus on social issue films; most of my time is spent watching hundreds of hours of footage of people’s trauma and crafting shortened stories of their lives. It’s emotionally exhausting. Many articles have been written about how detrimental documentary filmmaking can be to mental health.
So, when my mom handed me a jar of my baby teeth, it felt like a creative call to action.
I’ve had the teeth falling out dream for as long as I can remember, and I knew there must be a story in there, but I just couldn’t crack it on my own.
“What would happen if I was brushing my teeth and they all fell out?” I asked my screenwriter friend Katie Gault.
“They’d come to life and murder you, of course.”
A week later, Katie had written a script, but now I had to make these teeth come to life. I’ve always been obsessed with the blending of practical and CG effects that Steven Spielberg used in Jurassic Park, and I wanted to follow his lead.
My best friend and production designer, Monique Dias, was up to the challenge. We spent hours gluing wires to my teeth to turn them into puppets and shot tests on our iPhones, trying to find different ways to make them “walk.”
And then there was the scene that kept me up for months! Dubbed the “Indiana Jones Scene,” it features incisors descending from the kitchen sink on ropes of floss while molars march into frame with a tube of toothpaste and squirt it into their victim’s eyes.
I wasn’t sure how to solve it, but trusted that I’d find a way.
For the special effects, my years as an assistant editor roughing out comps and watching Flame artists work proved to be invaluable. When I arrived on set, I knew exactly the kind of coverage we would need to seamlessly blend both practical and CG teeth.
The “set” was my parents’ bathroom, and if my mom knew what she was in for when she handed me those teeth, she probably wouldn’t have done it. Our crew of eight invaded their house for three days, employing them as craft services. It was long, but we pushed through and were having a lot of fun.
Until Day 3.
When our actress, Janine Peck, wasn’t fighting teeth, she was battling cancer. Protecting her was my top priority, so I quarantined for two weeks leading up to the shoot and required everyone to be vaccinated and test negative for COVID before coming to the set.
On the morning of day 3, I tested positive for COVID.
Suddenly, this magical film felt like a disaster.
When I called Janine and her wife to let them know, I couldn’t get the words out. I handed the phone to my mom to deliver the news that I was too ashamed to admit through thinly veiled sobs.
“We have to reschedule,” I thought.
I’d funded the film with my savings account, and the costs had included flying out several members of the crew. It would take a year to save up enough to get everyone back here. Not to mention Janine had postponed her double knee replacement for this shoot!
I felt doomed on so many levels.
Then, a ray of hope emerged when my producer and good friend, Vincent DeLuca, told me the crew had come up with a plan for us to finish the final day.
We’d finish the shoot with me quarantined in a closet directing the action on a monitor via Zoom.
Vincent carried the weight of the shoot that day and was able to wrap Janine early. As she left the house in full costume and a floss pick sticking out of her head, we prepared for the climactic “Indiana Jones Scene.”
The months of sleepless nights I’d spent figuring out how to shoot this shot all came down to this.
Monique and I had fastened an empty bottle of toothpaste on top of a U-shaped wire with four teeth glued underneath. Our make-up artist, Jim Ojala, rigged a wire tube through the toothpaste bottle, which allowed us to squirt his white concoction at a piece of plexiglass covering the camera.
The team puppeteered the bottle into frame, and when the opening was pointed directly at the camera, we took our shot.
It looked great.
We did a few takes, and each time the team burst into laughter loud enough to rattle the closet door. I stared at it, wanting more than anything to be on the other side with them.
Luckily, only one other person came down with COVID (sorry, Vincent), and by the time we’d both recovered, post was underway.
The final film has 27 VFX shots, all expertly crafted by Jared Potter, a wonderful 3D artist and friend. While Jared brought the teeth to life, our 2D animator, Tom Smith, gave them personalities by drawing wicked faces. Once that was done, our colorist Gabe Sanchez made sure the blood popped onscreen, and Steve Bucino, the sound designer, developed a tooth “language.” Finally, our maestro, Sherri Chung, composed a fun and cinematic score that does, in fact, use tooth sounds.
“Tooth” premiered on the frigid streets of Park City at the Slamdance Film Festival in January. It was a dream come true.
As of now, it has played more than 20 festivals, recently winning “Best Horror” from the Cordillera Film Festival.
The film may be absurd, but it was also a refreshing change from documentary filmmaking that reconnected me with the little girl who loved X-Files and Jurassic Park. As I look ahead, the allure of stranger stories beckons.
Main image: Tooth, directed by Jillian Corsie. Image by cinematographer TinNgai Chan.