Welcome back to the series where I post the behind-the-scenes details of our Just Scare Me Horror Shorts.
Mother’s Milk was an all-out success for Erica and me. We had many goals to meet under our criteria: To shoot a shorter and much cheaper short, but I also wanted to use it to further strengthen my writing skills. Mission Accomplished. Except, the Just Scare Me “Machine” keeps on moving and with this next short, I wanted to make something that had never been made before. And I found the perfect inspiration for our next short: my old roommate, Alex.
“Accessibility” was a new term for me. While we non-disabled folks might only see the term as a setting on our phone that we never use, accessibility is defined as “the quality of being easy to approach, reach, enter, speak with, use, or understand.” In media (and in phone usage), it is a blanket term to describe how people with disabilities can access the same technology and devices by using workarounds for abilities we may take for granted, like sight and hearing. Your YouTube and Vimeo videos have built-in Closed Captioning (or subtitles), but a lesser-known tool I hadn’t discovered until my legally blind former roommate, Alex, showed me in our old apartment, was something called Audio Description.
Audio Description – colloquially referred to by its acronym -“AD” – is the verbal description of any action on-screen that is not dialogue. So for example, if someone quietly picks up a knife and sneaks toward an unsuspecting victim, without the description of the action, the intentionally quiet scene would be lost on someone with low vision like Alex.
I was enthralled by the service, because, as a writer, it is a beautifully written document that accompanies films and television shows (that provide it), and helps those who have low vision to understand what’s happening on-screen.
In fact, Alex now has a podcast called The Dark Room Film Cast, “where two blind cinephiles illuminate the sighted” with fellow low-vision cinephile, Lee. On the show, they discuss not only the standard film-lover fare like Most Anticipated films or interviews with others in the film industry but also, recurring discourse regarding audio description in films and television. It’s one of my new favorite podcasts. Find it on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever else you get your podcasts.
So let’s talk about the actual making of Ax-essibility. And yes, I should mention how INaccessible the name is considering it’s a portmanteau of the words “Ax” and “accessibility.” While the name may not be accessible, the short is 100% ready for audiences of all abilities.
This is probably the only piece of media thus far – whether it be short or feature – that was written with the audio description in mind. I built in space for the audio description to the point where the audio description was a character in the film.
**FULL SPOILERS BELOW** for Ax-essibility, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, please watch it on YouTube or Vimeo.
I wanted to take the idea of AD and turn it on its head, while ALSO being effective in describing the action on-screen. So I came up with the idea of an AD track that is being infiltrated by an “Alternative AD” track where it lies about what’s happening in the short. My wife, Erica, recorded the AD track, and I played the Alt AD, which is revealed to be the killer (also played by me), who is rewatching footage of his murder. So, one fourth wall break. Then, at the end of the short, when it’s revealed that the killer is scrubbing through the edit of the short itself, he lunges at the camera to attack the Audio Description performer. …And another fourth wall break or as Deadpool put it: “That’s like sixteen walls!“
After I finished the script, Erica & I began the search for our crew. Meanwhile, I was still building out my “filmmaking kit” as we made this short, but I knew I wanted it to be shot with a better camera than what we used for our very first short, Sir Stirs. The Child’s Play parody was shot on my old iPhone to match the hours of footage I had already shot with our cat, Buddy. But we needed a Director of Photography (or DP for short), and I knew exactly who to ask.
Autoslay and Mother’s Milk were both shot by our friend, Jonathan Lewis Louis with his Blackmagic camera. But for Ax-essibility, we asked the DP of Sir Stirs, our friend, and the incomparable, Celeste Cassidy, to once again take the reins behind the camera to shoot this short. She had expressed her experience with being a Cinematographer before, and I wanted to give her the platform to exercise those muscles. After all, that was what Just Scare Me was made for! To get better at your crafts through doing low-stakes projects (although, I never looked at these shorts as “low stakes”). She graciously accepted, and I asked her what camera she wanted to use. Perhaps, she might want to use my iPhone again, but she excitedly announced, “I have a Sony F35!” And with that, Celeste was on the case!
Part of the deal with the Sony F35 is that it doesn’t record a scratch audio track natively. A scratch track is used for syncing automated dialogue replacement (or ADR), later in post-production, and is meant as a reference only. But since that wasn’t an option here (and I was still building my gear collection and didn’t have any audio-capturing devices), I decided to create ALL of the sounds of the short in post. That meant, when we recorded, not only did we not have the sound effects or music in place (which is standard), but we didn’t even have a rough recording of our actor performing her lines. Which meant we’d have to re-record everything.
Speaking of actors, we enjoyed working with Mary O’Neil so much on Mother’s Milk, that we asked her to once again grace the screen with her magnanimous presence. Thankfully, she’s one of Erica’s best friends, and a SAINT, so she agreed.
The short’s location was inspired by our friend (and fellow actor of Mother’s Milk), Angela. She had toured our apartment before we moved in (for herself), and joked that the laundromat in the parking garage is a “murder den.” Thankfully, she declined to live here, so Erica and I moved in, but Angela was right about one thing: the laundromat was creepy. So it was a PERFECT location for this short! We had really enjoyed the ease of shooting in our apartment for Sir Stirs and part of Autoslay, so we were happy to shoot in another part of our building that we could return to in the case of much-needed nat sound (the naturally occurring background noises of a location) or foley (creating sound to mimic the actions on screen).
The great thing about the freedom to use whatever sound you want is that you can hide some fun Easter Eggs into the mix. For example, the man who cackles in the background is a sampled voiceover from Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund. He was, after all, my first love in horror film villain royalty.
Celeste came over early, and we began assessing the lighting in the dull, overhead-lit parking garage. We used a generous amount of blackwrap/cinefoil and diffusion to shape the light as much as possible given our limited options.
Erica had purchased the costume: a shirt that said “avogato” and showed an avocado-shaped cat (talk about portmanteaus!) and some silky pajama pants and fully slippers. We had a blast shooting this short, and after it was done, all I had to do now was edit the entire short and create every single sound ever.
After about two weeks of semi-consistent work, I finally had the edit (and most of the audio) finished so Celeste could color-grade the short while I finished the foley for the short. I had to go into the parking garage about a dozen times to get the sounds of the slippers, the washer & dryer, and everything else to make this short work. But the biggest thing missing was the star of the show, the audio description!
Once I locked the edit, I watched it to add the AD track. I had already scripted the ALT AD’s interference in the short via the screenplay, so I typed out the description of what we really saw on-screen and added the ALT AD where applicable. The experience was fun. I loved being able to write out what we were seeing, and realized that most of the AD track was the scene description in the screenplay – which is rare considering most AD track producers don’t have the script to use for this purpose. Here’s a snippet of the AD script I wrote:
A title appears on screen: Ax-essibility spelled with an a-x.
Katy carries a laundry basket on her hip as she cautiously walks through a sketchy parking garage. Her eyes watch each corner as she heads toward the laundry room.
A cat cries in the distance jumping Katy. A car lock BEEPS, jumping Katy yet again.
And there you have it! The story behind the scenes of our Just Scare Me #12, Ax-essibility. I loved this short so much – and creating the audio description for it – that I decided to make 100% accessible versions of all of our Just Scare Me shorts with both subtitles and audio description. Erica will read the AD for any short in which she doesn’t appear – which, luckily, is most of them.
Had you ever heard of Audio Description before this post? If not, try putting one on for your favorite show or movie the next time you turn on a streaming service. Just click on the Languages tab, and it should give you an option for English – Audio Description” or “English – Descriptive Audio.” If it doesn’t have it, well then, that’s what Alex and Lee are trying to change! AD for all! Listen to their podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts.
“Ax-essibility” – Just Scare Me # 12 – 04/24/22
Starring: Mary O’Neil as “Katy”
Erica Vitullo as “AD”
Jamie Gagnon as “The Killer/Alt AD”
Written & Directed by: Jamie Gagnon
Produced by: Erica Vitullo
Cinematographer & Color: Celeste Cassidy
Sound/ Sound Effects: Jamie Gagnon & Pond 5 (via paid license)
Music: Pond 5 License
Special Thanks: Buz Wallick & Just Scare Me