FIVE QUESTIONS WITH . . . Peter Middleton & James Spinney
WAYS OF SEEING
5 Questions for Peter Middleton and James Spinney, directors of NOTES ON BLINDNESS
by Anthony Kaufman, DOC10 Programmer
A probing sensorial experience of a film, Notes on Blindness follows respected Australian-born academic and theologian John Hull as he grapples with middle-age blindness, forcing him to change everything about his life, from the way he teaches to the way he connects with his children. Gorgeously photographed and beautifully crafted, Notes on Blindness employs actors, who lip-sync Hull’s actual audio recordings, to provide an intimate, fascinating and sometimes frightening account of Hull’s challenges and triumphs, anguish and acceptance. Below, directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney speak about constructing a film first through its sound (and not its images), the idea of “acoustic space,” and flooding a room with water before the wallpaper peels away.
How were you introduced to John Hull, and how did you convince him that you should make a documentary out of his memoirs and recordings?
We met John in 2010 whilst researching a different project. We’d come across his book, Touching The Rock: An Experience of Blindness, which reads like a diary. The foreword to the book mentions that it was transcribed from recordings John made in the early 1980s. We interviewed John at his home, amid study shelves lined with boxes of cassettes. Among them were the recordings that would come to form the basis of Notes on Blindness. We began discussing the possibility of a long-form collaboration with John not long after that first meeting – and he was receptive to the idea. Within a few months we received a parcel containing dusty box of eight C90 cassettes – sixteen hours in total - that hadn’t been heard for almost quarter of a century.
The film has a dense and multilayered sound design. Can you talk about the aural strategy of the film, and how that soundtrack becomes so much more evocative as the film goes on?
Yes, indeed, the foundation of the project was sound. The film is structured by John’s original diary recordings and populated by voices from the home recordings he and Marilyn kept during the period. These archive recordings are interwoven with interviews in which John and Marilyn reflect on the events from a distance of thirty years. We worked with supervising sound editor Joakim Sundström to embed these original documentary elements within the wider sound design of the film. And yes, as the film progresses and John goes deeper into blindness, he registers a new sensitivity to sound and acoustics. A passage from the diaries in which John considers how the sound of falling rain ‘brings out the contours of what’s around you’ became the starting point for a key sequence in the film. On top of this, because actors Dan Skinner and Simone Kirby were lip-synching to these original recordings, we didn’t record any sound on set – so large parts of the soundtrack were re-constructed by Joakim and his team in the edit. It was a curious mirror-image process because during the shoot Dan and Simone had been building their performances to synchronize with the audio recordings, then in post-production the sound team was using foley to match to the movements of the actors. It’s an unusual way to make a film!
The visual landscape of the film is stunningly gorgeous. Can you talk about the process of designing some of those memorable images, such as the rain falling down in the interiors of the house. You must have storyboarded extensively?
Thank you! All the film’s imagery is derived from John’s account. The diaries describe in vivid detail John’s dreaming life, which remained visual even after he has been blind for many years and informed much of the water imagery in the film. The film follows John on some of his imaginative excursions; for example, he contemplates how if there was such a thing ‘as rain falling inside, the whole of a room would take on shape and dimension.’ That scene was shot on our final day in the studio, so the entire set had to be built on a platform to allow the water to drain away. We only had a certain number of takes before the wallpaper began peeling off. We did storyboard certain scenes – and during recces we would use DSLR cameras to film rough mockups of particular sequences, which we would then edit to the audio. In fact, one of benefits of constructing the screenplay from documentary audio was that we effectively had a rough audio edit of the film’s soundtrack before we had shot a frame. This became really useful in terms of pre-visualizing scenes.
Were you able to share any of the film with Hull himself (even though he couldn't watch the film, obviously).
Unfortunately we weren’t able to share the finished feature with John. He passed away in July last year, three months after celebrating his eightieth birthday. He had been incredibly supportive and engaged with the project throughout its development. We released a short film with the New York Times Op-Docs in January 2014 and John would respond online to viewers’ comments and questions. He went on to use the short film when speaking about blindness. Conversations we had with John around this time were instrumental in helping us shape our ideas around how to make the project more accessible for blind and partially sighted audiences, helping to lay the foundations of our outreach and engagement plans for the film, which we hope will set a new standard in accessible filmmaking. No doubt he would have brought his tremendous warmth and energy to the release of the feature. His presence is greatly missed by all involved.
Please talk about your decision to design a Virtual Reality project for the documentary? Since we don't think of blindness as visual, let alone a 360-degree viewing experience, it doesn't seem like an obvious fit.
Yes, Notes on Blindness encompasses both a feature film and a VR project - and we’re presenting both at DOC10. The VR will eventually be released as a download alongside the release of the feature film. We were led to VR by the sheer wealth of material in John’s diary archive - only a fraction of which could make it into the feature film. We became interested in how some aspects of John’s account could find fuller expression in other mediums, in particular diary passages that describe the development of his appreciation of what he came to call ‘acoustic space’: the mental mapping environments through sound.
The VR is predominantly an aural experience: John’s diary recordings introduce three-dimensional spaces that are responsive to the movement of your head, encouraging you to appreciate the multi-layered patterns of sound that bring a sense of depth, detail and contour to an environment. In fact, initially the project was conceived as an audio-only piece – but early tests suggested that sighted audiences struggled to engage with a project that didn’t have some kind of visual component. So on the visual plane, sound is represented by particles, which come in and out of being, as sonic elements rise and fade.
One of the things we discovered is how differently we as audience members engage with immersive experiences like this. When free from a driving narrative, the VR experience becomes much more personal, exploratory and meditative. We’re really interested in how the two components of the project speak to one another – and provide different entry points to John’s account of blindness.