HEARING THE SILENTS: Technology and the Accessibility of Silent Films

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Logo for TalkingFlix (“talking” in green, “flix” in black, bordered by three black lines indicating sound. Below, on blue background with white lettering: “The first global Audio-Described On-Demand entertainment platform. Below that: URL of talkingflix.com, next to “A service by Crossway Media Solutions.”

Earlier this morning, a friend of mine approached me with the announcement that she has just learned of TalkingFlix, the first fully audio-described video service, to be launched later this year. This is big news for many blind and visually-impaired movie lovers, who have been unfairly overlooked in most mainstream movie outlets. Online video streaming services on the whole have been slow in adapting their films to be accessible to people with hearing and visual difficulties, and though Netflix has promised to add captions to 100% of its movies by the end of 2014 to make them accessible to deaf customers, little has been done to make movies accessible to blind viewers. TalkingFlix would add audio description, a method of describing a scene verbally to set the scene for a viewer who can’t see it, to 100% of its movies as its primary business model.

While the emergence of TalkingFlix is exciting news in itself, my friend, who is blind, immediately saw the implications for what this means regarding a certain group of films that she has not as yet been able to experience–the silents.

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A scene from the silent film CITY LIGHTS, in which a seated woman in a black coat is handing a white flower to Charlie Chaplin, who is standing across from her. She is looking past him (the character is blind) and smiling.

Silent films are a bit of a conundrum when it comes to accessibility. Due to the built-in captions and lack of reliance on dialogue, silent films seem custom-made for the deaf community. Silent film festivals draw huge numbers of deaf patrons and sign-language interpreters are often employed for pre-movie talks and discussions to make the festival fully accessible for deaf audiences. However, for the very same reasons, these films have been largely inaccessible to blind audiences. Without the accompaniment of a seeing person to explain what is happening visually, a blind viewer would not be able to enjoy a silent movie to its full extent. With the advent of this service, all that has the possibility to change.

The website for TalkingFlix does not expressly mention silent movies, and it is likely that due to the novelty of silent film for blind customers, the idea is not on their radar. But the website has an anonymous survey that prospective customers can fill out to “shape TalkingFlix into your personal entertainment center.” If you, like my friend, would like to see silent films on TalkingFlix, be sure to visit their website and take the survey to help them shape the company into one that will allow silent films to be accessible to a wider audience. Not only will it allow silent films to be experienced in a completely different way, it will do that much more to extend the visibility of silent movies into a broader demographic, something that is much needed as many of these movies are in danger of fading away.

Be sure to visit the website, take the survey, and stay up-to-date on the imminent launch of TalkingFlix!


7 responses to “HEARING THE SILENTS: Technology and the Accessibility of Silent Films

  1. I posted this in the comments to my facebook post but I think others who see this here might find it interesting. Apparently, audio description for silent films has been done, but it seems to be a new frontier. http://www.mediaaccess.org.au/latest_news/general/a-charlie-chaplin-classic-gets-the-audio-description-treatment

  2. Cool, huh? Nice to see movies accessible to everyone.

  3. I’m a little ashamed to admit that it never occurred to me that blind people were missing out on silent films. I’ve never personally known anyone who was blind, so perhaps that is why I never thought of it. I wonder if anyone ever thought to create librettos, like they use in opera, in braille, so the person could “read” what was going on upon the screen. TalkingFlix is a great idea and I certainly do support it. Thanks for an eye-opening post!

  4. Great idea, Becky! Yeah it’s pretty much the same idea, right? Thanks for your nice comment!

  5. Hi Becky,
    I have been working on just that – a ‘silent (read) description for silent films. A silent film lover and an audio describer, the addition of the voice in describing ‘out loud’ a silent is a terrible intrusion, so I am developing a method of joining a written description to a film. I explored this recently at the Blind Creations conference – you can find audio of the paper here:

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