They are all ears at movie screenings

Lu Feiran
Special audio tracks now allow blind and visually impaired people to enjoy movies by providing them with running descriptions of what's happening on screen. 
Lu Feiran
SSI ļʱ

Imagine what it would be like to go to the cinema and hear a film but not see the scenes or know what’s going on when there’s no dialogue.

That’s the barrier for the blind and people with severe visual impairment.

Han Ying, who dreamed of making movies when she was young, is now fulfilling that ambition in a way she never expected. Blinded two decades ago due to an eye disease, she now heads up a team that makes movies accessible to the visually impaired.

Han is director of the Shanghai Voice of Light Audio Description Culture Development Center. Her team writes descriptive scripts for non-dialogue scenes of movies and has professional announcers record them onto extra soundtracks. Copies of the edited films are then copied and sent to communities through top-box sets.

Every year, Han’s team turns 50 movies ­— mostly domestic productions — into barrier-free films, including some of the latest blockbusters.

“This job is much easier said than done,” Han says. “It takes at least 100 hours to convert a common movie into a barrier-free one.”

She doesn’t exaggerate. Script writers are required to extract as much information as possible from every frame of a movie and describe the scenes vividly but objectively. The length of descriptions is restricted so they don’t overlap actual dialogue.

Han says the program has been developing and expanding since 2012. Back then, 17 commercial theaters organized barrier-free special screenings once a month, entertaining about 20,000 visually impaired people free of charge every year. But the special sessions weren’t enough to reach the estimated 90,000 blind people in Shanghai.

They are all ears at movie screenings
Ti Gong / Ti Gong

Han Ying explains barrier-free movies to an audience.

In 2014, the city government launched a program to make barrier-free movies available in local communities, allowing visually impaired people more frequent attendance. The program requires more movie sources than once-a-month theater screenings. The center was founded to address the problem.

Han, who was a teacher before going blind and a stenographer after, was recruited to lead the center because she understood blind people, movies and writing.

The center now has two full-time and eight part-time writers, plus dozens of volunteers. On-the-job training is rigorous. A new staffer has to help complete three movies before being allowed to write a script independently.

“We suggest newcomers choose relatively ‘simple’ movies to write, such as dramas and romantic comedies,” Han says. “We don’t suggest they write live-action or crime films at first.”

Volunteers come and go, but many who stay are committed to barrier-free movies as a career.

One of them is Gao Shushun, 26, who was a copywriter before joining the center as a volunteer, and then later as a full-time scriptwriter.

The first movie she wrote for audio description was “Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013),” a Chinese movie that combines kungfu and fantasy. Gao spent a month working on it, but her first draft fell below standard.

“I sent the description to the copyeditor, and when I received the final version back, it was completely different from what I first wrote,” Gao says.

Empathy, she said is the keyword of the job. She has to put herself in the shoes of the blind and feel what it’s like to hear a movie but not see images.

For example, if a character wrestles another to the ground by throwing them back over their center of gravity, it is inadequate to just write “the character wrestles his opponent to the ground.” Rather, the script should read: “The character grabs his opponent’s shoulders and gives him an overarm throw.”

“For those of us who can see, we would know what’s going on, but visually impaired people, especially those who were born blind, don’t have that perceptual knowledge about the movement,” Gao explains. “Therefore, we must describe it in small detail.”

Gao says she first came in contact with blind people when she joined the center and now feels a sense of responsibility to help them.

“I find this job more meaningful than my previous one,” she says. “I am actually doing something good for society, which is gratifying.”

They are all ears at movie screenings
Ti Gong / Ti Gong

A group of visually impaired people “watch” a movie at a community center in Shanghai’s Xuhui District. 

Another writer, Lin Yong, 43, spends most of his time working for the center as a part-time writer. He has lost the use of his legs, so he has a personal understanding of disabilities.

Lin’s connection with barrier-free movies began in 2013 when he wrote audio descriptive scripts for two Hollywood movies ­— “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994) and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008) — to help out a friend. Four years later, he joined the center as a writer.

The first script he wrote for the center was for the movie “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” (2014), a South Korean war film. After that, he did other war movies, including the 2016 hit movie “Hacksaw Ridge,” which was well received by blind audiences.

“Not all movies are suitable for adaptation into barrier-free versions,” he says. “If the movie has strong battle scene but a weak storyline, blind people might be bored with the audio description because they can’t grasp the visual impact.”

According to Lin, the most difficult part of writing scripts is extracting the essential information of a scene.

“Sometimes it is not possible to describe everything in the time allotted,” he says. “Then a writer is forced to choose the most important information to explain the story best. That takes experience.”

The effort of the team has been lauded by the blind. Han says her team receives a lot of positive feedback from audiences, who want to “see” more of the same.

“For blind people, a movie is not just entertainment,” Han says. “It’s a way they can blend into normal society. It’s a way they can socialize. They can leave a movie and can talk about it with others.”

This year the center will also write audio scripts for Chinese-language movies on Netflix. The center beat out counterparts in Taiwan and Hong Kong to win the bidding for the job.

Still, Han said she doesn’t feel satisfied. The copyrights for movies they could adapt remain a sticking point. Current copyright laws in China stipulate that the translation of books into braille doesn’t require authors’ consent, but there are no similar rules for adaptations of movies and TV shows. The Shanghai Disabled People’s Federation has to negotiate company by company to obtain the rights to make barrier-free movies.

“I know that in the United States, distributors must provide a barrier-free version when releasing a movie,” Han says. “I hope that China will eventually acknowledge the needs of disabled people and make that change here.”

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