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IMAX theaters take lead in accommodating special needs

By STEVE PERSALL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 25, 2001


IMAX delivers more of what moviegoers enjoy, with massive screens, pristine projection and sound systems that conventional theaters can't match.

But for millions of hearing- or sight-impaired people who can't fully appreciate these enhancements, IMAX technology also multiplies the frustration of going to the movies.

Bigger hasn't been better. Until now.

Beginning today, the IMAX Dome Theater at Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry offers the MoPix System, two services designed to provide more of what disabled customers have missed.

Rear window captioning allows hearing-impaired viewers to read dialogue and sound effects with subtitles created at their seat. DVS Theatrical delivers descriptive narration through headsets, creating a theater of the mind for blind moviegoers.

MoPix was developed by Boston's WGBH public television, which pioneered closed-caption broadcasts in 1972. MoPix looks primed to make the same kind of impact.

MOSI is the first Tampa Bay area venue to adopt the program, but dozens of megaplexes, IMAX venues and theme park attractions elsewhere have the system in operation. Hollywood studios are spending an average of $12,000 per print adapting some new releases for MoPix exhibition.

Last weekend, deaf children at selected theaters around the nation shrieked at Shrek just like their hearing peers. This weekend, blind moviegoers will be well-equipped at some MoPix locations to envision the action of Pearl Harbor.

Not in Florida, though. Not yet. MOSI and the Impressions de France exhibit at Epcot are the only Florida theaters with rear window captioning and DVS Theatrical combined. The Kennedy Space Center's IMAX venue and 20 Disney World attractions offer rear window captioning only.

Among theater chains, General Cinemas is the leading MoPix provider, but that company sold its Tampa Bay area holdings several years ago. WGBH spokeswoman Mary Watkins said other chains such as AMC, Regal Cinemas and Muvico Theaters are considering the $10,000 per screen cost of adding MoPix to conventional theaters.

"I can tell you we've had conversations with each of those chains," Watkins said. "Theaters have a one-time cost to install the equipment, and it's not a small cost. We absolutely understand that. At the same time, having access systems (for the disabled) with films (as they are released) . . . is really the way to go. The project is very valuable."

WGBH depends, as usual, on public support. Persuading theater owners to install any kind of access system depends on customers declaring the need. To that end, WGBH includes contact information for movie studios and theater chains on its MoPix Web site (ncam.wgbh.org/mopix/index.html) for consumers to lobby for installation.

IMAX venues nationwide are signing on faster than theater chains. Watkins noted that tourists often visit those museums or specialty theaters and spread the word. "That's really the biggest piece of the advocacy," she said, "people who see the system in action, go back home and ask local theaters to install them."

MOSI's system was donated by Salem Saxon law firm of Tampa, co-founded by lawyer Richard Salem, who is blind. After recent test runs, MoPix officially debuts today along with a thrilling documentary, Journey Into Amazing Caves. MOSI can accommodate up to 15 deaf and 15 blind customers per screening.

Rear window captioning is the most ingenious aid for hearing-impaired moviegoers I've seen. DVS Theatrical is the only support system for sight-impaired customers that doesn't impose audible narration on other viewers.

Recently, this column described open-captioned films for deaf viewers, movies with subtitles visible to everyone in the theater. Closed-captioning does the same for television when decoded. Rear window captioning uses a simple process of mirror imaging to provide the same sort of subtitles without distracting people who don't need them.

An LED message board is mounted at the back of the auditorium. Red-lighted type scrolls across the board as usual, but in reverse motion with backward lettering.

Upon request, deaf patrons are given an attachment to clamp on the armrests of their chairs. A flexible goose-neck arm -- similar to a reading lamp -- is attached to rectangular, tinted Plexiglas. Adjusting the Plexiglas like a car's rear-view mirror enables viewers to see the LED message.

Moviegoers can position the subtitles so they appear to be at the traditional bottom of the screen, or in their laps, or closer to the middle of the screen for easier glances. The only drawback is that the weight of the Plexiglas sometimes causes the flexible arm to sag, requiring adjustment back to the correct angle. Also, make sure those clamps are tight; I accidentally nudged mine off the armrest once.

DVS Theatrical is similar to those infra-red headsets provided by theaters to amplify sound for deaf customers. Not as clunky, though. A single ear plug is wired to a palm-sized control box linked to a CD recording in the projection booth. The other ear is open to hear theater audio with everyone else while a narrator describes what others are seeing. Narration is synchronized to avoid overlapping any dialogue, something akin to an old-fashioned radio drama.

The narrator's script is economical and precise: "From inside the cave, we see the two women silhouetted by light . . . her headlamp gleams against the cave walls." At times, the narrator describes topography, how objects are framed by the camera lens, or the sweeping movement of an aerial view. Some language is worthy of a good audio-cassette novel read by an interesting, unobtrusive voice.

I know what DVS Theatrical did to stoke my imagination with eyes closed, but I can't imagine how it might stir someone without sight. Or, how much rear-window and open-captioned subtitles satisfy the hearing-impaired. The good will potential alone should make theater chains willing to attract this long-neglected audience.

Then again, museums are usually run by smarter people, aren't they?

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