Movies

Devices give blind filmgoers Oscar-worthy experience

Carl Richardson and his service dog enter AMC Loews Boston Common Theater to take in “American Sniper.” Richardson received a special hearing device to enjoy the film.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Carl Richardson and his service dog went to AMC Loews Boston Common Theater to take in “American Sniper.” Richardson received a special hearing device to enjoy the film.

Like a lot of movie buffs, Carl Richardson loves to take in the Oscar-nominated films during the run-up to the Academy Awards. But it can be frustrating because he’s blind. He’s able to follow the movie’s story line when there’s dialogue, but it’s confusing when there’s silence, or during action scenes.

This year, though, is different. Seven of the eight films nominated for best picture use so-called “descriptive” technology that makes them more accessible to the visually impaired, and Richardson is happily working his way through the Oscar contenders.

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The technology involves transmitting an audio description of scenes to moviegoers who wear a programmed wireless headset, providing an additional track of narration during natural pauses in the film. It describes the action and provides context when there is no dialogue to guide the moviegoer.

“It allows me to enjoy my first love again, which is movies,” said Richardson, 47, of Brighton, who was a film major in college before he lost his vision. “And my wife loves it because we get to go out on a date and not have to work hard at it.”

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Kim Charlson, director of the library at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, and president of the American Council of the Blind, estimates that 80 percent of the theaters in the Boston area have descriptive technology. The technology was pioneered by Boston’s WGBH Media Access Group.

“The number of feature films available with description has grown from about a half dozen a year to over 100 last year,” said Ira Miller, production manager for the Media Access Group at the public television station, which also provides video description for its programming (“Downton Abbey,” “Masterpiece Mystery”) as well as for CBS, including Monday’s two-hour tribute to Stevie Wonder.

Five of this year’s best picture nominees — “Birdman,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything,” and “Whiplash” — were audio-described by WGBH. (Two others, “Selma” and “American Sniper,” have also been described, though not by WGBH.)

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The people who write the scripts are called “describers,” and describing a film is an art form unto itself, calling for succinct, evocative prose that does not inject a point of view.

“Some of the people we work with are aspiring screenwriters, people who are keen to understand how to look at something and see the visual cues important to a story line,” said Alison Godburn, senior director of the Media Access Group. “Sometimes you only have three or four or five seconds to do it.”

The description can refer to costumes, scene changes, expressions, or gestures — a skill put to the test in “The Theory of Everything” about the paralyzed physicist Stephen Hawking, for whom subtle facial expressions are key. The audio description handled it delicately: “With a deeply pained expression, Stephen tries to speak . . . Jane gives him a soft nod with her hands clenched on his leg, fighting to hold back her tears.”

Sometimes, the narration illuminates scenes or events that would otherwise completely elude a blind person. In “American Sniper,” for example, sniper Chris Kyle has a flashback to himself as a little boy, hunting deer with his father.

“I would never have known that was a flashback,” Richardson whispered during a recent screening at the AMC Loews Boston Common.

He became legally blind in 1997 after being diagnosed with a progressive disease called Usher syndrome. Richardson works as the Americans With Disabilities Act coordinator for the State House, and is also working on a master of public administration degree at Suffolk University, specializing in disability policy.

Audio description for the visually impaired is not a new concept. It’s been available for television for some 25 years, first on PBS and over time — and not without some resistance — on some other networks.

An FCC ruling effective in 2012 mandated that local affiliates of ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC in the top 25 markets must provide four hours a week of audio-described prime time or children’s programming. (In July, the rule will extend to the top 60 TV markets.) The top five cable networks, including Disney Channel and TNT, must also provide four hours a week of description.

But there is no such mandate for movies. This has angered the visually impaired community, which has lobbied hard for all movies to be described. Over time, many of the larger studios have underwritten audio description for their movies, albeit reluctantly in some cases.

“There is a sliding scale of acceptance and participation,” said Godburn.

But even if movies have audio description, not all theaters are equipped to handle the technology. Until recently, only a handful of screens in the Boston area had the necessary equipment in place.

The situation is expected to change soon, though, as the federal government weighs in. The US Department of Justice is proposing to require movie theaters to show films with audio description at all times.

“Persons who are . . . blind or have low vision . . . still cannot fully take part in moviegoing outings with family or friends, join in social conversations about recent movie releases, or otherwise participate in a meaningful way in this important aspect of American culture,” reads the notice of a proposed amendment to the ADA.

Carl Richardson can relate to this. “American Sniper” has been on his must-do list to get some insight into the discourse around the movie. He has wondered how it has generated such divergent opinions.

He’s already seen “Selma,” which he loved, though he was sorry he didn’t recognize Oprah Winfrey. (“I didn’t catch on to her voice.” ) He borrowed an audio-described version of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” from the Perkins School.

But he was determined to take in “Birdman” over the recent long weekend. His first try didn’t go smoothly. He and his wife, Megan Sullivan, went to Landmark Theatres’ Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge only to be told the equipment was broken that day.

Richardson was angry, especially after a manager said she didn’t know how to fix it. “How much training do you get?” Richardson wanted to know. “How long has the equipment been down?”

Disappointed, they left the theater. “I made an effort to come here with my wife and my dog, which is all challenging to a blind person,” he said. “The movie theater makes me feel like I don’t matter.”

(A spokeswoman for Landmark said the devices are checked daily, but the software had failed. “We’re very sorry that this happened,” she said.)

Richardson tried again three days later at the AMC Loews Boston Common, walking over with his dog Wednesday night after work.

This time the projector wasn’t working, so he walked down the hall to “American Sniper.”

“I liked it a lot,” he said as the last scene concluded. “I was glad to see what the fuss was about, culturally.”

Then he turned back to listen to the credits.

Linda Matchan can be reached at linda.matchan@globe.com.
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