December 14, 2016

Sundance-Winning 'Notes on Blindness' Reveals How Cinema and VR Coexist

Notes on Blindness is the first feature film to debut a companion VR experience alongside it. That's because the story was bigger than either medium alone.

A great film is a portal into a new world. But what if that world is drowned in pitch-black darkness?

Filmmakers James Spinney and Peter Middleton have created a double portal into what Middleton describes as the "interiority of blindness." Both the Notes on Blindness feature film and award-winning virtual reality experience are rooted in the life of British theologian John Hull, who kept extensive audio diaries of the psychological and emotional experience of going blind.

"I knew that if I didn't understand blindness," Hull says in both the film and VR experience, "it would destroy me."

Originally searching for first-person accounts of blindness, Spinney and Middleton stumbled across Hull's book, Touching The Rock. "It reads as a diary that spans about three years," Middleton told No Film School, "moving from him grieving the loss of his sight to discovering this whole new way of being: what he describes as a world beyond sight." The duo contacted Hull, who sent them his tapes—"a box of six old C90 cassettes which hadn't been played for 25 years."

Spinney and Middleton parsed the audio diary for segments that might help illustrate Hull's world beyond sight. It was a goldmine; in the end, Notes on Blindness harbored too much potential to be confined to one format. "There's so much in the diaries," said Spinney, "that we felt like we needed to find other mediums."

Viewed together, the Notes on Blindness feature film and virtual reality experience illuminate cinema's greatest advantage: emotion.

The resulting film version, which Spinney and Middleton co-directed, plays as part-documentary, part-experiential narrative. In a manner reminiscent of the exquisite The Diving Bell and the Butterfly— "it was a big influence on the film," said Middleton— Notes on Blindness reimagines Hull's journey from denial to depression to acceptance of his new reality. Both films chronicle the triumph of the human spirit; as Hull's brain begins to rewire, overcompensating for the loss of sight, it opens itself to new avenues of engagement with the world.

"There is a tremendous sea change in Hull's whole outlook [in the diaries]," said Spinney. "He begins it from this position of grief and loss, but over time, he senses a rewiring of what he calls his neurological personality.  At the beginning of the film, he feels that he actually isn't blind. He feels he's a sighted person who can't see. His brain hungers for visual experience. But over time, that recedes. By the end of the diaries, he says that those things that first he'd mourned the loss of—then tried desperately to compensate for—actually ceased to matter. He reconceives blindness as a gift."

"That kind of story really needed a feature-length treatment," added Spinney.

A philosopher through and through, Hull recorded many of his audio tapes with careful attention to phenomenology. Some short diary entries concern the experience of losing eye contact as a social device; others detail vivid dreams in which Hull "sees" his children's faces for the first time. Perhaps the most evocative is a poetic scene in which Hull describes the newfound value of rainfall:

Rain has a way of bringing out the contours of everything; it throws a colored blanket over previously invisible things. Instead of an intermittent and thus fragmented world, the steadily falling rain creates continuity of acoustic experience. This is an experience of great beauty. I feel as if the world, which is veiled until I touch it, has suddenly disclosed itself to me...If only rain could fall inside a room, it would help me to understand where things are in that room, to give a sense of being in the room, instead of just sitting on a chair.

This passage was where it all began for Spinney and Middleton, who decided to make a three-minute short film centered around it in order to experiment with the material. "It's a completely mesmerizing passage, and also a quite turning point in his journey," said Middleton. The short was picked up by The New York Times, which included it in a 12-minute compilation that went on to screen Sundance and win an Emmy. 

 "Here we have a film about blindness in a medium that's predominantly defined by the visual."

Though they were pleased with the attention the short garnered on the festival circuit, Spinney said the co-directors "felt that there was a feature film project in it all." They cut a 3-minute pitch and trailer, which was "instrumental in a pitching environment—being able to show that and give a sense of the visual, stylistic approach," said Spinney.

But it wasn't an easy sell. "Here we have a film about blindness in a medium that's predominantly defined by the visual," said Middleton. "It's based on this audio source. [We want to make] a documentary that uses actors. All this stuff set off a few alarm bells, I think, for funders."

So they decided to make a few more shorts. "We wanted to demonstrate some of our approaches, as well as find our own style, work things out, and build the team around us," said Middleton. Over the next four years, the duo made various short films, assembling key collaborators along the way—including a cinematographer, production designer, and sound designer, all of whom would follow them on the journey to the feature.

Credit: Sundance Institute

Above all else, the shorts helped Spinney and Middleton sculpt the feature. "It's a good way to tease out some of these creative problems, trying to work out the potential of the material," said Middleton.

"By the time we were shooting the feature, everyone had a sense of the approach," said Spinney. "A shared mindset had developed through the process of making the shorts."

Like Hull's trajectory from light to darkness, Notes on Blindness was a process in reverse: Spinney and Middleton edited the audio diaries first, then shot the film to complement them. "By having these audio diaries," said Spinney, "we were able to pre-visualize quite a lot. There was a mental projection process of the structure that had emerged from the audio elements. We had visual references for every scene that we laid against the sound edits."

"There was a mental projection process of the structure that had emerged from the audio elements."

But this inverted method posed one major challenge: how would the actors effectively lip-sync their performances? "We must've seen quite a few people for the parts," said Middleton. "It is an unusual technique. There's that kind of musicality to it, really, to be able to live with the lip-syncing without looking like you're concentrating on lip-syncing. To actually give us an emotional performance."

Some weeks before shooting, Spinney and Middleton worked with the actors—Dan Skinner, who played John Hull, and Simone Kirby, who played his wife, Marilyn—in order to rehearse their real-life counterparts' speech patterns. "They would learn the rhythms of those lines," said Spinney, "and then on set, there'd be a playback person who'd trigger those cues. Of course, sometimes we had to slightly re-edit the rhythms of those later because something didn't quite fit with the movement."

The co-directors didn't record any live sound on set; everything was reconstructed in post. "We even had foley matching the actors, and then actors matching the recordings," said Spinney.

Credit: Sundance Institute

Conceiving of the film's visual language was another challenge. Though the film was partially a documentary, the co-directors eschewed observational footage and talking heads right off the bat. "We wanted to find a way of preserving the immediacy and the intensity of John's diaries," said Middleton. "We wanted to suggest John's state of consciousness, of being."

They decided to forego wide-angle lenses in favor of tight, restricted imagery, shooting on a RED Dragon with '70s Super Baltar lenses, which the filmmakers chose for the unique aberrations in foreground perspective.

"John talks about spheres of awareness—how his world is limited to what he can touch and what he can hear," said Middleton. "That then formed our visual aesthetic in terms of having pools of light and strong drop-off and so forth." The co-directors also wanted to reflect Hull's claustrophobic world, characterized by a sudden inability to access the social sphere. As such, the only faces that come into clear view in Notes on Blindness are those of Marilyn and John; the family and supporting characters are framed at the eyes or shot in silhouette or over the shoulder. "We didn't want the audience to have a privileged position of a clean visual image in that special geography of seeing," Middleton explained.

"We didn't want to use establishing shots, because we wanted the sense of people coming out of nowhere, disappearing into nowhere."

Hull describes the uncanny experience of hearing an unexpected voice; suddenly, a person materializes, as if from the void. "That's one of the reasons we didn't want to use establishing shots, because we wanted the sense of people coming out of nowhere, disappearing into nowhere," said Spinney. The film's cinematography also emphasizes an impressionistic style, utilizing a marked lack of focus to immerse the audience in Hull's nebulous new world. "The general visual approach of this film problem emerged out of those limitations," Spinney added.

When Notes on Blindness does feature occasional bursts of light and color, it's to illustrate Hull's his vivid dreams and visceral memories of a visual world. "He describes dreams as films," said Middleton.

"Technicolor dreams," added Spinney. "His last state of visual consciousness."

'Notes on Blindness' VR experienceCredit: Arte France

Just as Hull's brain rewired itself to pursue new ways of experiencing the world, Spinney and Middleton sought new mediums to engage with Notes on Blindness—mediums that would transcend cinema entirely.

"There was so much rich material in John's diaries," said Spinney. "We were always looking for other ways to present this material. Because of the range and depth of [Hull's] inquiry, particularly with respect to passages where he's talking about sensory experience, we sensed that some of it might not actually be best served by a feature film treatment."

Spinney said the co-directors angled for an unprecedented immersive experience, exploring interactive approaches to documentary "with particular focus to John's increasing sense of the richness of acoustic experience," according to Spinney. "The sound was very much the starting point, and initially we conceived of it as being an audio-only project, because we thought that's something that complemented the film."

But these ambitions were thwarted by early tests, which indicated that without the hypnotic, dreamlike visuals of the feature film, sighted people had a difficult time engaging with the audio-only experience. At the time, VR technology wasn't readily available; across two years of development with Agat Films (in association with Arte France), the technology underwent a significant democratization, and the co-directors began to consider using it.

"When VR became an option, we found it was really suited [to this project] because it cuts off your outside environment and really immerses you in that experience," said Spinney. Like the feature film, the co-directors wanted the experience to be anchored in Hull's original diary recordings. But rather than craft a narrative of Hull's experience with cinematic imagery and pathos, the VR experience would directly enter Hull's consciousness, giving the viewer a sense of his phenomenological existence.

"The idea was that the visual component was a visualization of the sound," explained Spinney. "John actually delineates in his diaries the difference between visual experience and acoustic experience: in visual experience, there's a kind of constant, stable world that surrounds you. You can track things in your visual field and you register where they are. Whereas in sound, things are more presented to you, and things come in and out of existence as they emit sound, whether it's the sound of his children's footsteps or the sound of the leaves in the trees when the wind blows. Things appear and disappear. That became the visual approach."

"We felt it could be really interesting to explore some of John's descriptions of experiencing space and environments through sound," added Middleton.

'Notes on Blindness' VR experienceCredit: Arte France

Viewed together, the Notes on Blindness feature film and virtual reality experience illuminate cinema's greatest advantage over evolving technological mediums. Without the pathos of a narrative or a character to care about, the VR experience produces a cerebral effect, scientific or clinical in nature. Though it is an effective sensory experience, there's a prominent irony at its center: despite placing the viewer directly into Hull's consciousness, the VR experience distances us from the human at its core.

It's the emotional experience of the feature film that inspires empathy. Because the filmmakers laced the project with the texture Hull's family life, the audience can directly relate to his plight. We feel his yearning to see his children's faces; we experience the loss he feels when his child cries out for help and he is rendered, for the first time as a father, "useless."

"Try to imagine the story without the children—it's some of the most emotional material," said Middleton.

"I think in the feature film is more of a dramatic experience," agrees Spinney. "You feel like you're on an emotional journey. When people take off the VR headset, they're kind of processing how they experience the space rather than listening, watching, empathizing with John's descriptions. It feels like they had a sensory experience."

When both the film and VR experience premiered side by side at Sundance earlier this year, the VR component garnered the bulk of the critical praise. Many hailed it as the "first empathetic VR experience"—the project that would finally demonstrate the virtues of virtual reality. 

But just as we are inhuman without our capacity to feel, Notes on Blindness is simply an interesting exhibit at a science museum without its emotional nexus, the feature film. The most successful VR experience of the year is not a beacon of the medium's potential; it's a reminder of the transcendence of cinema.      

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