Translating the Experience of Asperger's Syndrome into a Short Film

Translating the Experience of Asperger's Syndrome into a Short Film

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FILMMAKER: Nicholas Bayfield

STORY: Life with Asperger's Syndrome, and Translating the Experience into a Short Film

Asperger’s syndrome is something that I was diagnosed with at a very young age. It’s basically a mild autism where you may struggle with social interaction, social communication and have issues with the 5 senses (sound, taste, touch, sight and smell). You may also see the world differently from the way others view it.

It affected me from a young age. I didn’t make friends easily, was late in learning to talk, and was a very fussy eater. In school, I needed special needs assistance, and I struggled with bullying at school and at college. It can also be difficult to be around crowds of people and noisy areas, as I find it intense, and it causes me anxiety.

However, Asperger’s has also offered me great advantages, too. People on the spectrum may have good attention to detail, a tenacity to do well, they can be very reliable, and they can also be perfectionists. So in that respect I think it has helped me with my education. 

I would say the main challenges with Asperger’s syndrome when it comes to filmmaking is flexibility, as I’m not used to working flexible hours, even though that’s part of the industry. I remember the timetable for film school had suddenly changed, as we originally started from 9.30am and finished at 4pm. Suddenly for one day per week, that changed from 1.30pm to 8.30pm, which really threw me.

Film networking is another area that I’ve wrestled with because of social interaction. I remember one networking event that I was at and although I was able to speak to some people, I struggled to have the courage to speak to as many as I would have liked to. 

Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock were suspected of having it, and perhaps that benefited their work and the way that they worked, e.g. perfectionism and attention to detail.

I would probably say this is very difficult to share my condition and the problems that I have to overcome, especially wondering if I can achieve my aims and ambitions and seeing if I can work in the film & TV industry. 

Designing the film for cheap and efficient production

My experimental short ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ was something that I wanted to make for my graduation short as a way to express myself in a semi-autobiographical way, and also depict Asperger’s as a whole for what other people on the spectrum might be going through. 

In order to ensure that I did not overextend myself, the film was shot mainly in my house, which was cheap and simple, in the same way British director Ben Wheatley approached his first feature Down Terrace

Other short film ideas that I had in mind for my final year were more ambitious and they needed more prep and planning. It would also have meant that I have to ask students or seek out people outside my class/film school to work on the film as my crew. 

This was a concern for me because it might have been difficult to explain my ideas and vision to people that I may not have felt comfortable with. And if no one in my class or at the film school was interested in getting involved with my other short film ideas, I would have been forced to put crew ads on Facebook groups. Plus, I would have had to pay them, which would have meant creating a crowd funding campaign to raise money. 

I wanted to make ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ as a way to express myself in a semi-autobiographical way, and also depict Asperger’s as a whole.

In the end, I decided on a two man crew. One of my classmates, Nick Corpe, was really interested in my idea and wanted to get involved in it by being an editor, and I was happy to go with that. 

I was also advised to get a Director of Photography on board as opposed to doing it myself. Originally there was one person in my class who it was suggested I ask, but again, social interaction was a barrier. In the end, my editor agreed to work as the DoP also, which worked well.

The advantage we had as a two man crew was working efficiently. If we had more crew involved, it would have taken more time, especially as we had lots of shots planned. We were also using mainly my equipment and available lights, which saved a lot of time in terms of set up, allowing us to film very quickly. 

We managed to record sound without having a sound crew using an Olympus Digital Voice Recorder (although we also used the Rode VideoMic Pro), which recorded really clean sound.  

Translating Asperger's into film

When translating Asperger’s syndrome into film language, I wanted to present the piece like a computer because autistic people are often described as being programmed like machines.

It was also important for the audience to sense of feeling overloaded with information, as autistic people may experience those types of feelings. To accomplish that, I decided to make the film a montage piece, which starts off slow and then becomes fast and chaotic.

I also wanted the piece to be presented in black and white to communicate the black and white way people with Asperger's see the world.  

In terms of the narrative structure, I was mainly inspired by an experimental short someone made at my film school called All Work No Play, which has that similar structure of starting slow and then becoming fast pace. 

I was also aiming for the editing style of the title sequence and trailer to Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State, as it’s a film that uses fast pace and jump cutting due to the film dealing with surveillance.

To communicate the fascination of a subject or topic that people with Asperger's syndrome feel, I had the main character give random facts about films. I also used intense flashing and bright colors to make the audience feel the same sensory overload people with autism experience.

A few people who have watched the film have found that irritating, but I take that as a compliment, because it helps them understand the world of Asperger’s syndrome better. 

Another idea I had was flexibility, as I have one scene where my character gets a phone call saying that his one-on-one support has changed from Wednesday to Friday, which messes up his routine. This is followed by a chaotic, fast pace montage, as if my character’s blood is rushing through his body. 

I also had the character do things like hand flapping, tiptoe walking, and other forms of OCD that autistic people may display. 

The story for the film was simply to look at a day in the life of someone with Asperger's syndrome, and how they get through their normal routines. 

Finding the right person for the role

Casting proved to be a real hurdle for this film. When trying to find actors on the Mandy Network, I had ten options but none of them were able to do it either because they were unreliable, or because they weren’t able to travel for an audition. 

I should have put up a casting ad on local Facebook groups, as well as getting in touch with acting schools, which might have given me more options.  

I used intense flashing and bright colors to make the audience feel the same sensory overload people with autism experience. A few people who have watched the film have found that irritating, but I take that as a compliment, because it helps them understand the world of Asperger’s syndrome better.

There was one actor I had in mind that I was able to cast. I discovered them by coming across their StarNow Page before starting this project, and I knew from the start that they were the best choice for the role. From watching their YouTube videos, I felt they were similar to me and thought that they might be autistic, which could help to bring their personal experiences to the film. 

Unfortunately things went downhill when I received an email from the actor in late January, stating that they had injured their arm. This was a disappointing setback and Nick suggested postponing our filming dates until the actor's arm got better. Because this was an experimental piece and we were working on another short film that would be filming in late March, Nick would need as much time from February to June to experiment and play around with the edit.   

We could have put an urgent casting ad on Facebook, but because of the few weeks we had left to audition and do rehearsals, we decided to cast myself in the role. I’m not an actor, but as this was about my condition, it would hopefully fit with the piece very well.

A change of plans in post-production

The other area that was a problem was post-production. Nick had problems editing it, as we didn’t use a clapperboard during filming and that made it difficult for him to find the right sound and video files. Plus because of that, he decided to do a rough edit without synching the clips first.

My first impression of his rough edit was that it was too long and overall not up to the standard I was hoping for.  

As we were coming into April, I was starting to become concerned about where the edit was going as Nick still hadn’t synched the clips. Also he was editing three other shorts, meaning that there was the risk of the film being compromised. 

So I decided to synch the sound and video files for myself and do my own edit. I didn’t feel overly pressured when doing it, as I felt this would give Nick a better idea of what I wanted from him. 

Later on I showed a rough edit to my major project mentor and Nick and they were both impressed with what I had achieved. Because of their reaction, I took over editing duties, but Nick would still grade and sound mix the final edit, as well as providing feedback as I continue to improve the film.

On June 10th, the final edit was then screened at the Film School’s Graduation Exhibition and the feedback I’ve been receiving has been really positive, especially from the actor I originally casted. Because of this, I’m now taking the film to festivals and using that as my calling card.

What I also learned from an indie filmmaker with post-production is being able to do post yourself is the best thing you can have as an independent filmmaker. I also think trying to get somebody else, especially when you’ve got no money, to have that level of enthusiasm is difficult. You care about your project in a way that no one else can.

Overall, I think the problems with casting and editing were both happy accidents in the end, as having someone with the condition edit the film perhaps benefited the piece. Furthermore, casting myself in the main role made it more personal and it was ideal to have someone like me who has the condition to feature in it.    

Sharing a message that matters

I hope that by making this film, it will help people to understand the condition a little better, but also, despite the challenges of Asperger’s syndrome itself, I wanted to express a message at the end of the film, which is that “you are different, but unique,” as celebrities/historical figures who may have had it changed the way we see the world because of their suspected condition. 

Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock were suspected of having it and perhaps that benefited their work and the way that they worked e.g. perfectionism and attention to detail. So without Asperger’s syndrome, filmmaking may not have been where it is today.

I think Asperger’s syndrome shouldn’t be seen as something to be ashamed of, but something to be proud of and something that people will hopefully appreciate and better understand. 

You can learn more about Nicholas and his short 'Asperger's Syndrome' on the film's Facebook page.

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