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“We want to push the possibilities of accessible cinema”

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James Spinney, Peter Middleton • Directors


- As the industry searches for ways to increase attendance rates, James Spinney and Peter Middleton demonstrate in Notes on Blindness that there might be one option they’re overlooking

James Spinney, Peter Middleton • Directors
(© Roberta Matis)

Notes on Blindness [+see also:
film review
interview: James Spinney, Peter Middle…
film profile
is arguably one of the standout British projects of 2016. Partly that’s because of its incredibly heartfelt tribute to John Hull, who revolutionised blind culture by increasing the variety of audio books that were available, though this film is also stirring thanks to its bold attempt to convey a partially sighted experience (also through a companion VR piece). Particularly exciting, however, is the opportunity this film represents to create more accessible films in exciting new ways.

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Cineuropa: It seems like you have been very invested in trying to make your film more accessible.
James Spinney: Absolutely; I think making the film a rewarding experience for blind people has been one of our key ambitions. I mean, there are some quite worrying statistics about how blind and partially sighted people experience cinema and how rewarding it is for them. I think that lies in the fact that making a film accessible to them is not usually incorporated into the creative process.

In fact, one of the things we’re working on at the moment is trying to go beyond the ordinary standards of audio description. We’d like to do multiple soundtracks, where you’d have a conventional audio description track as just one of the options.

What other options will there be?
One alternative might be to create audio introductions, which would arm the audience with key information so that then they wouldn’t need to have an external narrator’s interjections. In some people’s opinion, this would break the film’s mood less.

Then another thing we’d love to explore is the idea of using heightened sound design to tell more of the story. There’s research being done on this by Anglia Ruskin University, and we’d love to see whether it might be another alternative. Essentially, this would mean – rather than a narrator explaining that John gets up and goes to the door – using sound effects to suggest him getting up, walking to the door and opening it before listening to the rain.

We’d basically be trying to ensure that that story was understandable purely through sound. It would make sense, too, because sequences like the rainfall scene are all about sound and John’s heightened awareness of it. So a voice layered over that might well be counterintuitive.

Peter Middleton: Another option might be to fold in more of John’s narration. That might be one way to enrich the experience for people who can’t see. So yes, we want to push the possibilities of accessible cinema and make it as rewarding as possible. That would be for people right across the spectrum of sight-loss conditions, too, because blindness isn’t just binary. There are lots of different kinds of impairments that could be catered to. So this range of tracks is something we hope to have ready for the film’s UK release this June.

Will these options be expensive to create?
Not necessarily. Essentially, you’re working with your sound mix to create additional mixes of the film. I think one of the only reasons audio description is currently seen as problematic is because it’s often done as an afterthought. It isn’t something that’s done collaboratively with the film’s creators.So it’s more that if you leave the audio-descriptive elements right to the latter stages of post-production, the budget probably will already be close to being blown. We’ve found it important to factor in these considerations from the beginning. But there is also diversity and accessibility funding out there for this very reason, and I think with that kind of support there’s no reason why audio description can’t be creative.

It sounds like it’s a frontier of cinema you’re very excited about.
Absolutely! We’re really keen to create new approaches to accessible cinema. It’s about establishing a template and proving that it can work and be inexpensive if you actually just build making a film accessible into the process of doing the sound mix in the first place. So we’re hoping our film will act as a template.

We’ll also be looking at the different kinds of delivery systems available. We’re hoping to create an app that will allow you to select which stream you want, and then that would sync up with the picture. So we’re fairly confident our film will deliver a more creative audio-descriptive experience, but it may still have lots of room for improvement.

The point will be proving the system can work and providing a template that others can take forward. Hopefully, that will allow our film to leave something of a creative legacy; one that could be used in television and VoD, too.

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