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VIEWPOINTS Reviewing in the dark
by Robert Kingett
2013-03-06

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In a movie review you might find fleshed out descriptions of the whizzing visuals on screen or the tickle of a green screen effect. After all, reviewers write what they see in a movie.

A film has everything from vibrant camera work to catchy credits with high-class animations. My attention, however, isn't focused on the shiny effects, the green screen effects, or the makeup because I don't see any of that when I sit down to review a movie for magazines and newspapers. I'm a blind film critic evaluating a different aspect of a movie or play at a theater that many people don't know about. Instead of focusing on the stunning visuals I evaluate the word choice, tone of voice, and emphasis pauses in a special service for the blind and visually impaired, now steadily growing to a never-before-seen availability that helps me to do what I do called audio description.

Audio description is a service for the blind and the visually impaired that describes key visual elements of a program in between natural pauses in the movies soundtrack. Audio description describes costumes, gestures, scene changes and facial expressions.

When reviewing a movie, reviewers pick apart the movie as if it were an interesting molecule. They evaluate camera effects and makeup. I evaluate clarity, accuracy and word choice. I especially take careful attention to how the audio description describes a good-looking man, for example. Being gay, my vital ear is always tuned in extra hard to a description of a hunky African American on the screen who could potentially be my soul mate if I was deemed lucky enough to actually come into contact with, say, Denzel Washington.

Audio description is both an art and a science. The process of describing a film is quite a long one. After the filmmakers finish shooting the movie, they send it off to whatever company they choose that describes movies. Trained describers watch the movie a minimum of three times before carefully compiling a script to match the pauses in dialogue. A writer writes out the descriptions. When the writer has compiled his script, the script, along with the produced movie are then sent to the audio description production team where a separate digital audio track is recorded. The audio describer reads the script while watching the movie. Once the process is completed, which usually takes about a week, the described film is sent back to the studio where they distribute it to movie theaters, and later on DVD, if the studios decide to even put the audio description track on the DVD.

Because audio description is such a careful practice it has a lot to review and evaluate. How many words is the describer using? Is he using too many words when the music could speak for the actions? Does the describer have appropriate inflections? Is the vocabulary age appropriate? Are the words too simple or too complicated for this film? All of the above can really make a world of difference when a blind person is listening to a movie. If there's a hilarious scene happening in a comedy and the audio describer keeps using complicated words to describe a simple witty action, the audio description is not good audio description. In that case the description detracts the comedy effect and it should be critically pointed out.

A lot of people don't know about audio description, newspapers and magazines included. Because of this, my pitch, resume, and writing samples have to be slightly longer and prominent, making it clear that I'll be reviewing the same movie as everyone else but that I'll be covering it from a different angle. Editors, at first, think that I'm going to be doing an audio review. Once I explain the aspect of this movie or that play at a local theater I'm usually swept up like a catch phrase. That being said, I've had to have all my ducks in a row before pitching queries.

Once I'm on board with other reviewers there are some things that are different and will always be different about how I operate. Usually critics are anonymous. They show up at theaters unannounced, hired by marketing companies in their city. They have the added advantage of just picking a movie and going to see it, stealthily using their X ray vision to see through theater's pretenses, good or bad. Since I'm an audio description critic, using a service that's just now making its way into true mainstream media, I have to make sure it's available. I could review a movie without audio description but that wouldn't be fair. How would I review a movie where I didn't know what happened on screen at a very crucial point?

Because I'm in such a specialized field of reviewing certain things have to be set in solid stone. A movie theater near me has to have audio description. To ensure this, I turn to caption fish; a service that will find described and captioned feature films near you designated by zip code. After I gather the information, including the date the described film will air, and the exact time, I then have to call the theater to confirm and see if the online information is accurate. Once everything is cleared, I call ADA Paratransit to whisk me on a door-to-door van ride to the movie theater, after calling in and scheduling a trip 24 hours ahead of time. When I get there, the manager, who knows me very well, issues me my reviewers ticket, as we call it, and I strut into the theater with my audio description FM headset on, ready to dissect the meaty goods of a feature flick. For movie theaters that have never had me arrive, however, it often takes a host of phone calls to the manager, who calls my editor, who calls him back and explains my validity with the newspaper or magazine and special accommodations as far as issuing tickets since there's no standard for audio description critics. This could take a few days to a few weeks so I'm proud to say that I have patience.

The people I write for appreciate the different scope of opinions. I enjoy bringing a new objective opinion to the table about the newest hit blockbuster. Even though life as an audio description critic can definitely be a barrage of telephone calls for confirmation from movie studios to see if I'm really a critic, zipping emails about ticket policies, and slight frustrations with ADA Paratransit arriving early or late, I enjoy using my brain to dissect the unexpected as well as shed some light on an accessibility angle.

Through my reviews, movie studios, readers and movie theater managers get a chance to experience a movie through different eyes. The reward is not in getting to see a movie before others but the reward is lending my appraising ears to a medium that has its own form of sight in adjectives, nouns and pronouns. I believe my work will open readers to new sights and sounds, open editors to unique and different perspectives that many can appreciate, and, overall, new beams of awareness involving care for accessibility and careful choice of words.

Robert Kingett is a blind critic who lavishly lives up the single life in Chicago. He has been published in a wide array of media. Visit Robert Kingett online and read his work at www.robertkingett.com


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