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This Short Film About Teeth Is Scarier Than the Dentist

In 'teeth,' filmmakers Daniel Gray and Tom Brown take us inside a mouth punished by caramel apples, fist fights, and painful dental visits.

by Jeffrey Bowers
Mar 4 2016, 5:00am

Screenshot from Daniel Gray and Tom Brown's short film, 'teeth'

As I sat in agony at the dentist's office last week getting my teeth cleaned, my dentist explained how dental care had come a long way. Toothpastes, mouthwash, and floss have improved the strength of our enamel so much that our teeth degrade at a much slower rate. How could there be real technical improvements like bionic eyes and robotic arms that send email, but no cure for tooth decay, gum rot, or a better smile (without wearing years of hardware)? I'm reminded of a bad dental joke that clearly illustrates why teeth are annoying, "You don't have to brush all of your teeth, just the ones you want to keep."

Like me, filmmakers Daniel Gray and Tom Brown also have a love/hate relationship with teeth—so much so that they made a haunting and beautifully animated film about it named teeth. However, their protagonist—and also somewhat surreptitiously the antagonist—must not have gotten my dentist's memo because he makes it his life goal to craft the perfect set. From toddler to geezer, Gray and Brown literally place us inside a mouth punished with caramel apples, fistfights, and painful dental visits.

In teeth, Gray and Brown create a visceral world soaked in gloom and menace—an ideal atmosphere for a creepy old man to try some mad-scientist shit in order to improve on what God still clearly hasn't perfected. But we should know that when you try to play God, things rarely go right, and with their award-winning film, the filmmakers prove that there's value in taking care of what you have. The short is scarier than the dentist and is probably the reason I'll go back again in six months. So if you're fed up with caring for your calcium-rich chiclets, give this film a shot and see if you won't cringe a little less at your next appointment. Remember: "Be true to your teeth, and they won't be false to you."

I caught up with Gray and Brown to talk about their new film.

VICE: Do you and Daniel have all of your teeth?
Tom Brown: I don't know about Daniel, but I do. Not even a filling in these bad boys. Mother pumped me full of fluoride as a child and I broke my glass candy jar and then there were no more treats. I also choked on a hardboiled sweet on my sixth birthday and was banned from ever eating one again. I did have some extra canines though—double rows of them like a shark. They were taken from me. In fact, I had eight teeth removed, but technically I have all the teeth I'm meant to have.

Daniel Gray: I had some molars out before they fitted me with a full brace. Four of them, I think? And half of my front tooth is fake after I hit myself in the face trying to lift a plank that was frozen to a pond. So four and a half.

Brown: Oh yeah, my front tooth is chipped too because I was sweeping and didn't know where to put the broom to move my bike, so I put it in my mouth.

Are some of your favorite sounds forks scraping along plates, nails on chalkboards, or any noise at the dentist?
Gray: Those are good, but don't forget hitting your teeth with the edge of a knife, with real conviction.

Brown: My favorite sound is Céline Dion, which I guess for most people is one in the same.

Where did you guys come up with this story? I have to make sure it's not an autobiography.
The story goes, we were stuck on the Eurostar for hours after a bird hit the power lines just sitting somehow in first class waiting for another train to come pick us up. We were joking about a pair of twins only having one pair of dentures between them, and the rest is history, kind of.

Gray: The story is a Holbrooks [their production company] original. We were stuck on a train in France when the main story was written. It was formed from the more interesting aspects of some other ideas we were toying with at the time—plus the guy next to us bit off his tongue with homemade dentures. [This is a joke.]

I absolutely love your animation style. It's dark, haunting, and wonderfully enhances the tension of the story itself. Did the story or style come first? Or how did they influence each other?
Like anyone else, we try and make sure that everything fits and carries its weight toward what we're trying to achieve. There was a story first, but it influenced the visuals as we developed it, and vice versa.

Brown: Style always comes first for me. But we had the short story of teeth and were experimenting with how we wanted it to look. It's really a progression of the style from our first film, t.o.m. We used that as a starting place, but added our experience and techniques we developed with commercials, combined with sheer madness in terms of the amount of shading and detail. It's not a commercial style we could ever use because it took me three years just to color it in.

You guys are listed as co-directors. How does that work on an animation? One day you tell Daniel how to draw and then vice versa? Do you guys stand over each other or pat each other on the back after a good frame?
It's sort of like that, except Dan lives in Budapest and I live in New York. So we don't touch each other, or look at each other, or talk to each other really. It's best that way. We just text each other and share files over Google Drive.

Gray: It's all about pattings-on-the-back with us. We're always choking on bits of whatever is laying about.

Which one of you is a better director? Spill all of the dirt.
Brown: We are animation wives: We both do the housework, and neither of us kiss and tell. And if Dan says he's better than me, I will fight him and then we will find out.

Gray: Holbrooks is better than both of us put together, of course.

What are you two working on now? Anything together, or separate?
Gray: We have a short all written up and being storyboarded as we speak, and pitching for ad work.

Brown: We are always available for commercial work through my partners at Blacklist, who EP'ed the film.

Jeffrey Bowers is a tall mustached guy from Ohio who's seen too many weird movies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, working as a film curator. He's the senior curator for Vimeo's On Demand platform. He has also programmed at Tribeca Film Festival, Rooftop Films, and the Hamptons International Film Festival.