Voice Actor on How Ron Howard's Pavarotti Doc is a "Gift" to the Blind Community
With her company, Woman of Her Word, Michele Spitz's audio describes movies like Howard's 2016 Beatles doc to meet a growing need: "There is no greater gift."
While talk in Hollywood leans toward greater inclusion, it generally concerns diversity both in front of and behind the camera. But for the low-vision community, movies and TV are often simply not options to enjoy, and Michele Spitz is out to change that.
For about seven years, Spitz has been audio describing dozens of shorts and documentaries, laying down a track that paints the scene so the low-vision can picture the image surrounding the dialogue. Her latest work, Pavarotti, is Ron Howard's bio-doc on one of the 20th century’s most celebrated opera tenors, in theaters June 7.
Spitz stumbled into her life's passion after a series of jobs in broadcasting and real-estate. Her work through her company, Woman of Her Word, dates to 2012 and includes Howard's 2016 doc, The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years.
Most people have no idea such a service exists, and that includes distributors as well as filmmakers. With three percent of the population legally blind, budget hawks might think it isn't worth their while. But Spitz provides in-kind services paid for by grants.
The process sounds easier than it seems, with laying down a track that illustrates the scene. However, the information must be economically related to dialogue pauses, which requires tight descriptive passages. With a movie like Pavarotti comes the added challenge of using subtitles under Italian speakers, plus supertitles from opera scenes. Spitz's solution was to hire two actors, a man and a woman, to read the Italian subtitles, with herself assuming the role of the narrator.
"It's all about inclusion, it's very simple," says Pavarotti producer Jeanne Elfant Festa of White Horse Pictures, who counts two members of her extended family that are low vision. "This is very important to us. It's nice that they could see my life’s work. They could see my passion. They experience what my passions are and that makes it — I wish I had the wonderful words to tell you how much that means to my heart, my soul and to my very being. It's deeply moving."
While much of the industry remains indifferent to audio description for the low-vision, according to Spitz, mainstream film releases, Netflix and the new Apple launch are addressing the needs of the blind, with Hulu and HBO also beginning to adapt.
"The blind community, they're all over Netflix and Amazon Prime, they’re all over everything. How many people really want this, and how many people are watching it?" asks Spitz. "In the film, Pavarotti wanted to democratize opera and he donated time and made it for all audiences. And I realize that were he alive today, he would be thrilled to know that someone donated this asset and made it accessible to blind people. To be able to be the voice for the eyes that can't see, there is no greater gift. It's perfect for me."