Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 7, 2009

Technologies help more enjoy movies


TRAVERSE CITY -- When Libby Magee watches a movie on the big screen, all she sees is a series of shapes and colors.

"If I go to a movie that's a lot of dark scenes, I have to ask someone what's going on," said Magee, who is visually impaired. "I don't hardly go to the movies because it takes (the fun) out of it when you can't see the screen."

With assistive technology coming soon to the State Theatre, Magee and others like her can experience movies like "Slumdog Millionaire" and "State of Play" with rich descriptive narration. The technology, called DVS Theatrical, is part of the MoPix system, which also includes a patented "Rear Window" captioning system for deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons.

The system is expected to be installed at the theater in time for the fifth annual Traverse City Film Festival this summer, festival Executive Director Deb Lake said.

"There are several hundred systems installed in the country, but it really hasn't caught on as a standard in the movies," said Sharon Neumann, chairman of a community group raising money for the project. "With it, they will probably make the State Theatre one of the most accessible theaters in the country."

The MoPix system works by displaying reversed captions on a light-emitting diode (LED) text display which is mounted in the rear of the theater. Deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences use transparent acrylic panels attached to their seats to reflect the captions so that they appear superimposed on the movie screen. The reflective panels are portable and adjustable, allowing the caption user to sit anywhere in the theater.

Descriptive narration is delivered via an infrared listening system, allowing blind and visually impaired moviegoers to hear the narration on headsets without disturbing other audience members. The narrative provides information about key visual elements such as actions, settings and scene changes during natural pauses in the dialogue.

"You hear the movie, but when there's no dialogue going on, you also hear narration in a very thoughtful and beautiful way," Neumann said. A descriptive line from Disney's "The Lion King" goes like this: "Smiling, Rafiki bends over Simba, the baby lion and shakes his walking stick which has two melons tied to it. Simba swats his paws at the melons playfully."

The technologies were developed by WGBH, Boston's public broadcasting station, which pioneered closed captioning and descriptive video service for television programming. They made their debut at a California movie theater in 1997 during a presentation of the Universal Pictures film, "The Jackal." Now hundreds of movies are MoPix enabled, including most of the new movies coming out, Neumann said.

The State Theatre MoPix system would be a boon for the 15 or so members of the Traverse City area Sightseers support group.

"There's a lot of people in my group who are blind, and this would be good," said Magee, the group's co-facilitator. "None of us can read print or hardly see at all. We have to do almost everything by feel now."

Magee said the group sometimes rents videos with described video service at the Grand Traverse Area Library for the Blind and Visually Handicapped. The library began carrying the videos in 1997 and currently has about 180 titles on VHS and DVD, said Barb Nowinski, assistant director of the Traverse Area District Library.

"It tells on the movie if the faces change, or if someone raises their hand," Magee said. "It tells a person every little detail. Some of them even describe the colors. For someone who has never seen colors, that would be interesting."

The State Theatre already has two systems for the hearing impaired, one of which works only on the main floor. Lake said installing MoPix would allow that system to function in the balcony, too. But she said the main benefit of MoPix is that people who are deaf or blind will be able to experience films at the theater for the first time, provided the film that is showing is MoPix enabled.

Lake said theater officials planned to adopt the technologies even before renovations to the theater were complete.

"We knew about it, we knew what it was, we knew we wanted it," she said. "It was just a question of funding." Now the goal is to have the system in place by the start of the Traverse City Film Festival July 28, she said.

The fundraising group, led by the nonprofit PMD Foundation, kicked off its campaign in April with $5,000 from the Rotary Club of Traverse City's Committee for the Handicapped. The project's total cost is $70,000, half of which goes to PMD for neurogenetic research, said Neumann, who volunteers with the foundation.

PMD or "Pelizaeus-Merzbacher Disease" is a neurological condition that affects myelin, the insulation surrounding the nerves in the brain and spinal cord. It is marked by vision disturbances among other symptoms.

Neumann said the rest of the funds will be solicited through a Web site, grant applications, mailings, community events and other activities. Those lending their names to the effort include singer Stevie Wonder, Michigan Commission for the Blind Commissioner Emeritus J.J. Jackson, and actress Gretchen Mol, a national spokeswoman for the foundation and a film festival regular.

"If we're successful in our efforts to get what we need by June 30, we will be having a special premiere event with celebrities in September or October," Neumann said.

For more information on donating to the cause, call 633-4357.