'Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness': We Give New Documentary's VR Companion a Try

I’m standing in a Gothic cathedral. It’s a dark, cavernous space illuminated only by small points of light. Ahead of me, I can see the outline of the pulpit where the preacher normally sermonizes. Peering into the gloom above me, I can just make out the arched ceilings hundreds of feet in the air. Even though my eyes are failing me, my ears are working overtime. Somewhere close by, I hear a choir singing a hymn, and as each singer raises his or her voice, a colorful outline of that person flickers in my field of vision. They almost resemble celestial stars, burning brightly against the encroaching darkness for a moment and then fading away.

As my eyes and ears take in this majestic cathedral, my body remains seated in an ordinary office building’s conference room. My gateway into this other realm is Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness, a virtual reality companion piece to the new documentary, Notes on Blindnessdirected by Peter Middleton and James Spinney. The film — which opened theatrically in New York on Nov. 16 and expands to more cities over the coming months — is an impressionistic telling of the life of theologian John Hull.

At age 13, Hull began experiencing vision problems that persisted throughout his life, leading to total blindness in 1983 when he was not quite 50 years old. That same year, he began keeping an audio diary of his new life without sight, which provided the basis for his 1990 memoir, Touching the Rock. Those recordings play a major role in the film and the VR component as well; while touring the virtual cathedral with a VR headset and headphones, I heard Hull’s voice explaining how he uses sound to “see” the world. (Watch my full VR experience in the Facebook Live video below.)

Directors Middleton and Spinney discovered Hull’s book five years ago while researching first-person accounts of blindness, and reached out to him about participating in a film, a collaboration that continued until Hull’s death at age 80 in 2015. “Throughout the project, we were always working very closely with John,” says Middleton. “We’d spend a lot of time with him and his wife, Marilyn, talking about ideas and recording audio with them, which found its way into the film as well.”

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As their documentary took shape, the directors came to recognize that there were aspects of blindness that Hull described in his recordings that cinema couldn’t completely capture. That coincided with their fledgling partnership with ARTE France, a production company interested in financing film projects that might have a built-in interactive component, such as virtual reality. Both sides recognized that Hull’s personal story — and his vivid descriptions of his newly sightless existence — had the potential to create an illuminating and immersive VR experience.

“We were quite attracted to how VR affects your spatial relationship with sound,” explains Spinney. “There are lots of passages in John’s audio recordings that talk about the awakening of what he called ‘acoustic space,’ how the sound around him gives him a sense of depth and detail. So this felt like a perfect technology to be exploring the kind of sensory development John describes in his recordings.”

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While Spinney and Middleton continued to shoot and edit the film in England, the VR component came together in France under the guiding hand of Paris-based collective, Agat Films & Cie/Ex Nihilo. Working closely with the filmmakers, the designers fashioned a six-chapter journey into Hull’s “world beyond sight.” Both Notes on Blindness and Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness premiered side-by-side at the Sundance Film Festival in January, with the VR experience becoming commercially available on platforms such as Samsung Gear, Cardboard, and Oculus over the summer, well ahead of the movie’s stateside theatrical debut.

The filmmakers hope that Into Darkness drives interest in Notes on Blindness and vice versa. At the same time, they realize that VR is still a specialized experience, albeit one that faces some of the same challenges confronting the documentary market — namely, distribution. “How you reach out beyond the film festival circuit to the wider public with this technology is something we’ve been grappling with,” Spinney acknowledges. “In England, we did a VR tour in cinemas alongside the film. Our teams would set up VR stations.” That’s an idea that the movie’s U.S. distributor, Bond 360, is following for its American release. In New York, for example, audiences can travel directly from Film Forum — where Notes on Darkness is playing thru Nov. 29 — to the city’s sole VR cinema, Jump Into the Light, to take the companion trip Into Darkness.

Having emerged from that virtual journey myself, I can attest that Into Darkness functions as a thoughtful addendum to Middleton and Spinney’s touching film, while also providing a unique perspective on Hull’s life. Prior to the cathedral visit, I found myself in a nondescript room where falling raindrops directed my gaze; as each drop struck an object, more details about this space revealed themselves to me.

Perhaps my favorite chapter deposited me in a leafy park, where the sound of the rushing wind served as my guide. And if the deliberately minimal visibility renders these familiar environments foreign at first, by the end of each chapter I really felt as if I was seeing the world in a new way…so much so that it was something of a shock to lift my visor and have reality flood back into my vision. “With his writing, John set out to bridge the divide that separates different worlds of experience,” Spinney muses. “If virtual reality can help do that, it has the potential to be quite a profound medium.”