On a warm, sunny morning last month, a group of LightHouse employees piled into a van and drove north to Skywalker Ranch, George Lucas’ historic outpost in the rolling hills of Marin County. But we weren’t there to talk Wookies and Ewoks; we were being hosted, along with a handful of other blindness organizations, by Pixar Animation Studios
Some might be surprised to hear that Pixar and Disney (which now owns the Emeryville-based animation studio) would be seeking out blind and low vision individuals to test animated movies, but that’s exactly what was happening last month. In Lucas’ private theater, a group of almost thirty sat for a test screening of Pixar’s summer hit, Inside Out, each with a light set of headphones and a specially-loaded iPad on their lap. A small group of some of Pixar and Disney’s greatest movers and shakers waited patiently for feedback of a brand new technology they’ve been working on for some time now. Specifically, they’re on a mission to figure out two things: What is good audio description, and how can it best be delivered.
Many blind moviegoers and television fans don’t use audio description (also called Descriptive Video Service or DVS). Due to a combination of factors, including a range of DVS standards and practices, there are lots of blind and visually impaired folks who feel like it’s just not for them. Personally, I was one of those people — I had never watched a full film with audio description, and I’m told that about half of the group gathered at Skywalker was in the same boat.
And yet, once the narration kicked in and we got the levels right, the audio described Inside Out was a ball. We laughed, we (well, some of us) cried. Most of all, there wasn’t one person in the theater that felt left out of the experience. None of us needed to whisper back and forth quizzically about what was happening onscreen; none of of us sat silently spacing out during action sequences; and most importantly, we all smiled at the same time.
Paul Cichocki, the post-production supervisor at Pixar who oversees foreign language and audio described soundtracks, has been running these kind of focus groups for years, but this year they’re trying a few, exciting new things. “All studios make an effort to do this descriptive audio track,” he told me, “but we wanted to place the same kind of attention to the quality of audio narration as we do to the films themselves.” Disney’s aim, under the guidance of Paul and others, is to innovate rather than placate, to find an elegant solution to the seemingly daunting challenge of helping blind folks enjoy the movies as much as anyone else.
After the film, I sat at a table with Inside Out’s producer Jonas Rivera (who also produced Up) and a few other blind elementary and high school students and talked about our experience. We had all found the audio description satisfactory, useful, and even pleasurable — even those of us who had never used the tool before — but Rivera was nonetheless eager to improve the experience in any way possible.
“Did you understand what memories looked like?” He asked about clarity of action, about the choice of narrator, about how to properly introduce all the characters without overloading the listener. As the kids and adults responded, he took studious notes. “If this was me, when Joy sees Bing Bong disappear, I would amplify that maybe — but maybe that’s not right. Does it feel like the narrator is too robotic maybe? A little too literal, in some ways?” Jonas scribbled on a notepad as the kids talked. Simultaneously, at six other tables, a different Disney or Pixar employee did the same with other groups.
When I spoke to Paul again this week, he had just gotten back from LA, where he was working with the voice actor recording audio description for Pixar’s new film, The Good Dinosaur. Usually the narrator’s script for an audio described film is contracted out to a specialized agency — in Pixar’s case it’s WGBH in Burbank, which handles most broadcast and film audio description on the west coast. Even with contractors like WGBH, Paul is totally hands-on. “I don’t know of any other studio that sits down and reviews the script for the narration track,” he told me this week. “We have the producer, the director, the writer, the film editor and myself comb through that script and make changes. I sent 3-4 rounds of changes to WGBH for The Good Dinosaur. And it’s about helping them, too — they don’t get direct feedback very often about what’s good and bad about their script. We want to up that standard for the whole community — so that blind people can feel like they really saw the movie.”
Check back on the LightHouse blog again soon for more exciting news from Disney•Pixar.
article by Will Butler