Creating a Film and VR Video About One Man’s Experience Going Blind
November 15, 2016
Both the documentary film Notes on Blindness and its companion virtual reality project were made using audio diaries recorded by a writer and theologian as he came to terms with losing his sight.
Dan Renton Skinner played John Hull, whose audio diaries provide the voiceover for scenes in Notes on Blindness.
When John Hull discovered that the sound of raindrops helped him sense the dimensions of a space, he noted in his diary that he wished it would rain inside his house.
In 1980, doctors told John Hull after a failed operation that no further procedures could halt the loss of his eyesight. He was declared legally blind. Hull was 45, a theologian, professor at the University of Birmingham, recently married with a new baby on the way. Three years later, after the last traces of light disappeared from his vision, he began keeping an audio diary of his experiences. He described his hunger for visual stimulation, the gradual loss of visual memories, his anxiety for his family and, over time, his growing appreciation for non-visual modes of perception.
When filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney first heard Hull’s cassette recordings in 2011, “We were immediately struck by the depths of his insight,” Middleton recalls. Middleton and Spinney’s first feature-length documentary, Notes on Blindness, opening November 16 at New York City’s Film Forum and in Los Angeles on November 25, is based on Hull’s diaries.
Spinney and Middleton chose to edit their audio track before they shot any footage. Sound editor Joakim Sundström created a lush sound design to convey Hull’s growing awareness of auditory experience. Taking the film’s empathetic portrayal further, one of the film’s producers developed a VR adaptation using Hull’s voice and audio clues to explore places Hull visited.
Spinney and Middleton had been introduced to Hull’s memoir, Touching the Rock, while researching a project about blindness. After they met with Hull and his wife, Marilyn, in 2010, he agreed to share his taped diaries. As the filmmakers listened to the tapes, Spinney recalls, “We tried to find what a through line in the diary material might be.” The filmmakers also interviewed the Hulls several times over the course of three years. Then the Hulls found a box of cassettes from the early 1980s: recordings they made at a christening, at parties, while putting their kids to bed; letters dictated by Hull’s parents in Australia, and radio shows Hull’s daughter Imogen made on her dad’s cassette player. The family recordings brought to life characters Hull had described in his diaries, and the family voices became part of the audio script.
Middleton explains, “We structured the narrative of the film around John’s original audio diaries from the 1980s. These recordings are interwoven with contemporary narration from John and from Marilyn, with the couple reprocessing these events of the period from a distance of 30 years.”
While they planned a longer feature, Middleton and Spinney made short films based on individual diary entries, using Hull’s recordings as voiceover. In one short called Rainfall, Hull describes an epiphany. Standing in a doorway, listening to rain falling on different surfaces, he suddenly has “a new sense of how to appreciate space through acoustics,” Middleton says. The beauty of the moment moves Hull. “Cognition is beautiful,” he says.
Rainfall won Best Short Documentary Award at the Hot Docs 2013 festival. An expanded version, with two additional journal entries added, was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, and was posted by The New York Times Opinion Pages Op-Docs in 2013. “That allowed us the momentum to get the funding for the feature film,” Middleton says. The filmmakers took the short chapters to pitching forums, where they managed to find funders and co-producers from the UK, France and the U.S. The shorts also helped them show their plan for a film that, on paper, sounded unconventional: a documentary with actors, a cinematic view into blindness.
During the two years they were pitching funders, they were also editing roughly 40 hours of recordings into an audio script. “By the time we were ready to shoot the first frame, we had the edit of the audio all mapped out,” mixing old and new recordings and roughed-out sound effects, Middleton explains. The audio script helped them explain their vision of the film to their production designer, to cinematographer Gerry Floyd, and to actors Dan Renton Skinner and Simone Kirby, who portray John and Marilyn Hull. “John’s words and diaries often contain very strong metaphors, and poetic language,” Middleton notes. “As soon as we started working this through with our cinematographer and the rest of our creative team, a distinctive visual style emerged.”
Floyd shot on a Red Epic and Red Dragon. After testing a variety of lenses, the filmmakers chose to use old Super Baltars lenses, which were used on The Godfather. The Baltars’ aberrations helped “work against the crisp ultra HD look” of the Red cameras, Spinney notes.
Floyd avoided using wide lenses, and often shot details of Skinner’s hand as he groped his way forward. “John spends a lot of the early recordings mourning the loss of faces, in particular the faces of his children,” Spinney explains. “It felt wrong for the audience to clearly see them, so we tried to show faces in fragments.” They chose not to shoot reaction shots between actors, or establishing shots. Middleton notes, “We felt that if the audience had a sense of the wider environment, it would make for a very different engagement with John’s account. We wanted to create the feeling that we were in there with him, rather than an outside spectator looking on.”
The one scene shot in bright light depicts one of Hull’s dreams, which remained vividly visual even after his visual memories faded. The scene shows Hull and his small children in the aisle of a supermarket. He looks down at his feet, and sees water rising around him. Then he sees waves—created in post-production—rushing towards him and his family. The film cuts to underwater footage, and a view of a hand frantically reaching through churning water.
Spinney and Middleton didn’t record any live sound while shooting the film. Instead, a sound engineer seated just out of camera range would play the audio soundtrack on a laptop. Actors Skinner and Kirby would then lip sync words the Hulls had spoken during their interviews. The actors “quickly inhabited the voices of John and Marilyn,” Middleton notes. The Foley artists who worked with Sundström captured sound effects—such as the rustle of clothing—that they timed to match the dialogue, adding realistic details to the soundtrack.
Sundström and his team completed the sound design by adding music and layers of sound, from raindrops to wind. While they edited the film, Middleton notes, they sometimes returned to Hull’s recordings to add exposition, or adjust the pacing of the film.
John Hull died in 2015, before the premiere of Notes on Blindness, but Marilyn Hull has accompanied the filmmakers to film festivals in the UK and France. She has described the documentary as being “as much about how one can interpret loss as change, than specifically a film about blindness,” Spinney says. At first, Hull found the loss of his sight and visual memories painful. “Somewhere along the line, he [Hull] made a conscious decision to reject the visual and visual memory and to live a life in blindness,” Spinney notes. “In the reframing of his sightless existence, beauty takes on other forms—auditory and tactile.”
Both the film and the VR version, Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness, premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Created by Arnaud Colinart of Agat Ex Nihlio, one of the film’s co-producers, and Amaury La Burthe of Audio Gaming, the VR version uses 3D animation and binaural audio that incorporates some of Hull’s diary entries and additional sound effects. People who experience the VR hear Hull describe a visit to a park, and how the sound of footsteps, children’s voices or rustling paper oriented him to his surroundings. As the VR viewer hears each of these sounds, figures in the scene—outlined in pinpricks of light—take shape. When the film was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, audience members could experience the VR using headsets in kiosks set up in the theater lobby. The VR experience will also be released on Samsung Gear and Oculus for VR.
The film has been made accessible to visually impaired audiences in two forms: an audio-described version, narrated by the actors, and a version with an enhanced soundtrack that uses sound effects and music to evoke the action in the film, rather than literally describe it.
Hull often said that his experience was unique, and that he didn’t speak for all blind people. However, his thorough and sensitive descriptions made him a hero to the visually impaired. Hull’s words are “invigorating,” says Spinney. “We are usually so habituated to experience, and he is so alive to the act of perceiving experience.” In experimenting with unconventional film techniques, Spinney and Middleton also hope audiences will find new ways of confronting the world.