Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Los Angeles creator of TheatreVision for blind people celebrates its 10th year

From the Los Angeles Times:

Helen Harris was sitting in a movie theater nearly two decades ago watching "Aladdin" when she felt someone start to kick her chair. Soon, tiny bits of popcorn were flying toward her, and then the sound of angry hissing from audience members asking her to leave the theater.

She understood the patrons' frustration: For the better part of the film, Harris' son had been whispering in her ear, to explain what was going on on-screen. Harris, now 72, has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative and hereditary eye disease that she's lived with for most of her life.

She'd long relied on her family and friends to help her understand the parts of films she could not glean from the dialogue. But like the heated "Aladdin" viewers, even those close to Harris sometimes became irritated with having their movie-going experience interrupted.

"I had a friend who would always tell me what was going on on-screen, but when 'Schindler's List' came out, she said, 'Helen, this movie is so important to me that if I tell you what's going on, I'm going to miss the precious moments of this great film,'" Harris recalled. "When that happened, I decided that was the last time this was going to happen to me."

Harris channeled her determination into developing TheatreVision, a program that allows the visually challenged to go to the movies and more fully understand the films. The process involves creating a special soundtrack that narrates moments of action and silent interactions to run in tandem with the film's dialogue.

Using that program, Harris organized the 10th annual TheatreVision screening of a film on April 3 - this time "Batman Forever" - for more than 200 visually impaired Junior Olympians who had traveled from around the country to Hollywood. After a day of physical events, a busload of kids ages 6 to 18 piled into the lobby of the Harmony Gold Preview House. Many sat cross-legged on the carpet, snacking on sandwiches, clearly excited about the new type of movie-going experience.

"Usually I don't really know what's going on at the movies," said one student, Jonathan Candler, 18, from Arizona. "Seeing a movie like this, it's going to be an experience, you know? It's going to be sweet."

Inside the theater, the audience quickly grew silent as the movie began. Even minutiae - like how the captions faded into a Batman logo - was described aurally. "A man enters - the other side of his face is horribly disfigured," narrator Michael Gough's voice said to explain the appearance of Harvey Dent, played by Tommy Lee Jones.

While most seemed to enjoy the experience, some, like Candler, said they had trouble hearing some of what was going on as narration and dialogue jumbled together. Harris attributed that confusion to the lack of headphones - TheatreVision is usually delivered via a small earpiece that is connected to a receiver, but on Sunday the narration came through the theater's speakers.

Even with the technical discrepancies, 18-year-old Steven Hunsinger, who has attended the event for the last seven years, left the theater smiling. "Even though I have partial vision, the descriptions do help out a lot. You can get more out of the movie - it gives a better meaning and detail to a movie, because it might be those parts that are dark that you might miss."

The technology has been around since 1994, and more than 100 popular films - including "Forrest Gump," "Tarzan" and "Titanic" - now have TheatreVision. Harris helps to create the descriptive narration herself.

"I sit with someone and say, 'What kind of car was that?' 'Her dress must be beautiful. What does it look like?'" she said. "I teach them about the blank spaces that a blind person hears."

She then finds celebrities, such as Samuel L. Jackson for "The Phantom Menace," to lend their voices to the audio tracks. All of the large Hollywood studios, Harris said, have supported the project.

Yet virtually no movie theaters offer the technology because, Harris believes, it's just too expensive. But she's hopeful that the technology will spread.

"Many visually impaired don't watch film or TV because they feel left out. There's an awkwardness in not laughing or crying at the right time," she said. "Lots of kids say they're upset they have to wait another year to see a film, and it just makes me feel so bad. With all of the money in the world, we should allocate some to this, which would bring such joy to teenagers who just want to go out with all their friends to a movie."