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Human voice is key to unlocking movie magic for the blind

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Sarita Kimble holds an audio description device at the Ritz Five movie theater in Philadelphia. (Paige Pfleger/WHYY)

Sarita Kimble holds an audio description device at the Ritz Five movie theater in Philadelphia. (Paige Pfleger/WHYY)

There’s a movement underway to make movies Oscar-worthy for people who can’t see.

I met up with Sarita Kimble in the lobby of a small movie theater in Philadelphia. She has short-cropped curly hair, deep brown eyes, and a spate of freckles across the bridge of her nose.

“I was getting nervous,” she says, extending her hand to shake mine, referring to my tardiness. She strikes me as the kind of person who likes to watch the previews.

Kimble is a self-admitted movie junky — she was at this theater less than a month ago. She likes dramas and comedies best, she tells me. Despite all that, Kimble is someone you might not think would go to the movies at all. That’s because she’s legally blind.

“We’re like anyone else. We enjoy entertainment. So get over it!” Kimble says, laughing.

We get our tickets — we’re seeing “Florence Foster Jenkins”, that movie where Meryl Streep is a bad singer. We walk up to the refreshment counter and I get a small popcorn. We ask for something called an audio description device — it’s a small plastic black square with a couple of buttons on it. It comes with a set of headphones that look kind of like the ones I used in the 90s with my portable CD player.

Kimble leads the way to theater 4 and picks out seats in a middle row. She puts the headphones on her ears and I follow suit.

When the movie starts, a woman’s voice starts narrating the action on the screen. She reads the names of the actors, the name of the movie, and even starts describing how an abstract geometric design somehow turns into a view of New York’s skyline.

When the characters start interacting on screen, the woman’s voice interjects description in between the dialogue.

The device is synched with the movie audio so that the people in the audience who are blind or visually impaired can have the same experience as any sighted person.

Sound beginnings

The idea for audio description for the blind began here in the United States back in the 1980s. It was originally for performing arts, not movies.

“It was only shortly there after in 1985 when we were contacted by WGBH in Boston who thought, ‘This ought to be something that could accompany television programs,'” explained Joel Snyder. He’s the director of the American Council of the Blind’s audio description project.

After television description came movie description, and “we were off to the races,” Snyder says.

Snyder is pretty famous in the audio description business — he is one of the founding fathers of audio description but that’s not the only reason. One of his audio description colleagues described him as the Brad Pitt of audio description. He has provided description for movie classics such as “Aladdin”, “Saving Private Ryan”, “Mrs. Doubtfire”, a few of the Star Wars movies and more.

“I don’t know about Brad Pitt, but I think basically what it comes down to is I’m old. Maybe I’m the Morgan Freeman? I don’t know!” Snyder laughs.

Regardless of what movie star makes the most apt comparison, Snyder is proud of how far audio description has come over the last few decades.

“Just about every feature film that is released in the movie theaters has an audio description track,” he says, “and we’ve come a long way to get to that point.”

ADP has a website that is basically an encyclopedia of audio described movies.

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An audio description device. (Paige Pfleger/WHYY)

Oscar-worthy audio description

At a production studio north of Los Angeles, a company called Audio Eyes has become a one-stop shop for audio description. They have audio describers, audio engineers, accessibility experts, plus more than a quarter of their staff is blind.

“I think having blind people involved in the production process makes a huge difference in the quality of the final product,” says Rick Boggs, the founder and manager of Audio Eyes. He’s blind, and the engineer he grabbed to record our interview was also blind.

There are certain things about audio description that sighted people might not even think about. A big one, Boggs tells me, is patronizing descriptions.

“If your audio description script starts telling me the story of the plot rather than describing what’s on the screen, you’re insulting me. You’re going to ignore the fact that I’ve watched media without description my whole life,” he explains.

Boggs tells me that while making sure that audio description is available for every movie is important, it’s only part of the battle. Quality is key.

“I know many, many blind people that will turn it off. Forget it, I’ll watch it without description rather than be talked down to,” Boggs says.

Audio Eyes has recorded over 1,000 hours of audio description for movies like Beauty and the Beast, Toy Story, Austin Powers, Cabin in the Woods and more.

Coming soon to a theater near you

Both Rick Boggs and Joel Snyder are in agreement that the pervasiveness of audio description is on the rise.

“Right now we are at what I would call an explosion phase in this industry where every year the amount of described programs is multiplying exponentially,” Boggs says.

Sarita Kimble has seen that explosion first hand.

“It’s made such a significant difference in my life because I’ve been legally blind for 35 years and one of the things that I enjoyed as a sighted person was movies. And for many years I haven’t been able to do that,” she says.

The audio description to the movie that we saw wasn’t perfect — sometimes the volume would be too quiet and I couldn’t hear it over the movie’s soundtrack. Once it cut out altogether.

To Kimble, those are just small inconveniences. She mostly thinks about how grateful she is for something a lot of sighted people take for granted.

“I have choices. I didn’t have to come here just to see that movie, I could have chosen a different movie. And that’s what it’s about. That gives me access when I can make a choice,” she says.

Her experience may not be exactly the same as it used to be, she admits. But with the help of audio description, she feels like she still has her own slice of that good old movie magic.

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