Hearing is seeing

No lights… no camera… but there’s plenty of action. A new art form developed by AudioVision Canada is opening up a fresh way of “seeing” film for sight-impaired Canadians. But in a serendipitous twist, AudioCinema — movies on tape — may find an even larger audience among the fully-sighted.

Audio books, read by authors or performers, have developed into a North American operation generating approximately $1 billion annually. Commuters enjoy hearing a book as they travel or battle traffic jams; people listen to them while jogging, lounging around the pool or preparing dinner. But audio movies?

“Our feedback is that these are even more enjoyable,” says Marc Rosen, director of AudioVision Canada. “Instead of one voice speaking for two or three hours, you’ve got all the characters in the movie, the sound effects and the music. It’s a much richer, more entertaining and engaging experience than listening to one voice.

“You don’t get distracted too often when you’re listening to one of these movies,” he muses. All the dramatic elements combine to keep your imagination and interest stimulated.

The music swells as the narrator reads the titles: “Edward Small prests Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton, in Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution . . . ”

Music signals a busy street as the describer sets the scene in a chauffeured car. Within seconds you’re caught up by the movie playing in your head.

Rosen believes film and television should be more easily available to visually impaired or blind people. “So much information today is conveyed in that format,” he says. Without access, “People will miss out on a lot of our culture, as well as the ability to participate and make informed decisions.”

The notion of listening to what began as a visual product actually flows quite naturally from the work done by AudioVision Canada. As part of the National Broadcast Reading Service Inc., a non-profit organization providing information services for blind and low-vision people, AVC produces unobtrusive description for films and videos.

AVC also trains disadvantaged workers to describe these films or videos, determining where a description can be inserted, and what words convey the most meaning. Because many of Canada’s 1.5 million visually impaired are part of a blended audience, watching television with their families, the description must be concise and unobtrusive so information is conveyed without intruding on dialogue or sound track, fitting the action on screen.

AudioCinema was born when the audio cassette of a described movie requested by a blind consultant proved as popular with sighted members of a focus group as it was with visually limited members. The AudioCinema cassettes go one step further than simply copying the audio of a described movie. The describer watches the film, noting the opportunities for inserting a descriptive phrase, but because the audience sees no picture, these phrases can be made longer and more detailed.

“When I no longer have the picture there, the sound track is easier to edit,” says Marc Rosen. “We can say the actors are waltzing in their wonderful costumes in the lights, and play another five to 10 seconds of music to get the idea across. Then we just fade it out and bring in the next scene. We simplify some things that are not worth explaining. It may take too many words to explain, for what it adds to your understanding and appreciation.

“We’re trying to use the soundtrack to enhance it, to be the most entertaining and enjoyable experience that we can provide,” he says, “of course remaining true to the film and the spirit of it.”

Rosen is excited about the potential of the AudioCinema product to fund the activities of its parent, The National Broadcast Reading Service Inc. which operates VoicePrint, a 24-hour national news and information audio service for the visually-impaired in Canada. Carried without charge on unused audio portion of some cable TV services, VoicePrint reaches 5.2 million homes in Canada. (Stockbrokers across the country are fans, listening as they read the stocks on the visual portion of the channel.)

“We’re hoping that our AudioCinema will appeal to a wider audience. They’ll get good value for their money and it will allow us to do more — and help NBRS to become self-sufficient.”

The current playlist includes films from the 1930s to the 1990s, most of them in the public domain since copyright is a major problem. Titles range from To Kill a Mockingbird, My Man Godfrey, and Witness for the Prosecution, to The Arrow — the 1997 television production starring Dan Ackroyd.

“I’m in the process of trying to contact or inform producers about the opportunity, so that they can become part of the contractual process. Then they can include this as part of what they’re purchasing from the actors and musicians — everybody who might have some stake in having another version of their work out there. If we get it in before the fact, it’s all part of the deal and we’re in a position to go ahead with a movie. That’s the only way to get around the problem.”

“We’re hoping the general audience will accept this new entertainment product and will want it and pay for it,” says Rosen. “It will help us as a non-profit charitable organization to be able to do more movies and television programs that will serve the blind or vision-impaired audience, our mandated core.”

AudioCinema tapes can be ordered directly from AudioVision Canada by calling, toll-free, 1-800-567-6755. They accept Visa and Mastercard. E-mail [email protected]

The $14.95 price provides a lot of entertainment value. All you need to add is the popcorn.