I still find it very humbling and flattering that so many people have taken an interest in my adventures over the past few years, whether it be reading my blog, watching my videos, or seeing me speak at events. I’m very grateful to everyone for the support and encouragement, and I wouldn’t be doing this if nobody cared, so thank you.
I never imagined that I’d have a documentary made about me though. Yet that’s exactly what happened for the first time a few months ago. It was an exciting experience and I’m delighted with how it turned out.
I’ve held it back until now for various reasons. Firstly, whilst I have permission to post it regardless, I wanted to give a bit of space for its creators and sponsors, including a major charity, to publish it first if they so wished. But I also had a few things distracting me over the summer too, as regular followers will know, which has further delayed it.
But now’s a good time to release it, as it ties in nicely with the recent publication of my Aniridia Network Conference talk – Growing In Confidence With Aniridia – which was filmed shortly after the documentary was completed. Soon after that I was also in a second documentary – See Differently by Yiwen Feng – which featured myself and others. You can find out more about my speech and that other film in my June Favourites. I was certainly getting my 15 minutes of fame around that time!
In this post, therefore, I want to share my first ever documentary with you, and give a behind-the-scenes insight into how it all came together. I hope you enjoy it, and please do share the film around on social media.
So without any further ado, I present my documentary debut – What Is Normal?
The Production Team
First of all, credit where it’s absolutely due, so get ready for a lot of links!
The documentary was made by IndiGo Productions, a wonderful group of students from Met Film School, who were doing a ScreenSpace media course at Ealing Studios, working with creative agency Karmarama and the charity Guide Dogs.
- Stella Webb – Director & Interviewer
- Amy Thorne – Producer
- Olivia Ulpiani – Director of Photography
- Laura White – Audio
- Michael Shaw – Cameraman & Editor
They were all really friendly and professional, and it was an absolute delight to work with them, so thank you very much to all involved!
But how did it all come about?
An article on the ScreenSpace website outlines the general purpose of the students’ project:
“On the ‘Change Hearts’ module, students focus on social impact filmmaking, and how to use the power of storytelling to evoke an emotive and thought provoking response.
In small groups, students are assigned briefs from one of three charities to create a piece of factual content, which aims to change the attitudes, behaviours and hearts of the audience.”
The IndiGo team were commissioned to make their film by the Guide Dogs charity, which may sound strange given that I don’t have a guide dog. But in this case the organisation deliberately wanted a film without one, to raise awareness of visual impairment at a broader level. Indeed, it’s easy to assume that they’re all about the animals, and they are of course their primary focus. But they do much more than that, providing a variety of other services including My Guide and CustomEyes Books. So if you’re visually impaired, it’s worth checking them out to see what support they might be able to provide, even if you don’t need or want a dog.
The team also wanted to include an overview of the Microsoft Soundscape app, which uses directional audio in your earphones to indicate what’s around you as you walk down the street. For example, if a road, shop, bus stop, etc is coming up on your left, it will be announced in your left ear. You can also use the app to indicate when you’re close to a specified location that you’re trying to find, as it plays tones in your left or right ear, or in the centre, to indicate which way you need to go. Some people don’t like the idea of wearing earphones in case it blocks out the environmental sounds around them, which are important when crossing roads for instance, but this can be worked around by getting bone conduction earphones instead, which don’t go directly into your ears.
Overall, therefore, it was a project designed to raise awareness of visual impairment and assistive technology, which is great. Anything that helps to educate and enlighten people is important, and I know that the team learned a lot themselves in the process.
Amy and Laura were the first members of the team to contact me, after stumbling across my blog while looking for potential interviewees. They seemed very nice, the project sounded fun and different, and it appeared to be a great opportunity to raise awareness of my conditions and show what my life is like as a visually impaired person. I greatly appreciated the fact that the students actively wanted to learn more about this kind of subject and help to spread the word. So I was flattered to be asked and happily agreed to take part, and went to meet them one evening to record my interview.
Having never been interviewed on camera before, I was a bit nervous, inevitably. But it turned out to be a fun experience. It took place at one of the student’s houses in Ealing, in a small living room. There were at least 6 students in there, a couple of whom were helping out but weren’t actually part of the main production team, so it was lovely of them to give us a hand.
Stella was interviewing me, and she was very good. The whole atmosphere was very informal and relaxed, so we had a lovely conversation. I didn’t feel like I was on camera at all, effectively forgetting they were there much of the time, and it was very easy to talk openly to her. She had a genuine interest in my conditions and my experiences, rather than just asking scripted questions for the sake of it to get the job done, and she allowed me to ramble on as much as I wanted to. I had been sent a list of potential questions beforehand, so I had a rough idea of what to expect, but as it turned out my blog had inspired a lot of questions as well. So it was a very flexible and varied conversation.
I was asked about my aniridia and nystagmus, how I live with my visual impairment, my blogging, my abseil, my experience in education, my college exchange trip to America, my cultural adventures in London, my advice for others living with sight loss and more.
They were delighted with my responses as well, because some interviewees can give very short answers, and need prompting to open up and expand on things. But I was conscious that they’d want a bit of detail, so I did my best to give some substance to my replies, without going overboard. And it seemed to work, as they didn’t feel the need to do any retakes. We did still record a few additional takes, but that was for a few new questions, not repeats of existing ones, to give them lots of material to work with.
They were also pleased that I had remarked on how my sight is normal for me, having never been born with perfect vision, which fitted in with the title of the film perfectly. That hadn’t been a conscious move on my part, it’s just the way I always talk about it.
Off-camera, from what I could tell, Laura was behind Stella holding up a boom microphone, Michael was filming, and Amy was observing, while one guy was using a laptop on to which the footage would be downloaded, and another was operating the clapperboard to start each take. It was the clapperboard that made it feel really official somehow, as it’s such an iconic feature of filmmaking. It was a bit surreal having it used right in front of me.
And interestingly, it was only when I saw the footage later that I realised there had been 2 cameras rolling – one capturing a wide two shot of Stella and I, and the other recording a close-up of me. I hadn’t been aware of that on the day itself, given my poor distance vision, and the fact that I was just focusing on my interview. It helped to keep the imagery varied though, and allowed them to zoom in on me when I was making important points, so I’m glad they did that.
I’m very happy with how the interview segments have come out in the final edit too. I know I have a tendency to talk a bit too quickly and ramble a bit sometimes, but I feel that I actually came across really well here. Obviously they had to cut a lot out, simply because they couldn’t include everything we talked about in the time allotted for the film. But they made sure all of the most important points were included, and that a variety of topics were covered, which is great. I feel that I’ve been represented very fairly.
I then met the students again for outdoor filming on 2 consecutive Sundays – in between which I got my hair cut, not knowing that the second weekend would be required initially. But with the way it’s been edited I don’t think it’s particularly noticeable. In any case, we were blessed with good weather on both days, and it gave me a nice chance to see a little bit of Ealing, having never explored that area before.
The first Sunday was mainly about my use of the Microsoft SoundScape app. It’s not an app I’ve used heavily before, because I’m so used to relying on my remaining vision to get around. So I was looking forward to trying it out properly, and it was an interesting experience.
They asked me to enter a destination into the app, and then find my way there using the audio signals in my earphones. Navigating in this way took a little bit of getting used to, having never actually used the app for this purpose before. So we tried going to a couple of different destinations, allowing me to get accustomed to using the app, which is very good at what it does, and enabling the students to get a lot of footage of me walking around, with phone in hand, earphones in, and sunglasses on. It all went very well, and there was a very good sign when one of them remarked that they had got the ‘money shot’ at one point.
The destination we settled on was a restaurant called Charlotte’s W5, which was rather a good place to choose as it’s a little bit tucked away, and without the app I might not have found it. So it was very rewarding when the pitch of the audible tones changed, indicating it was nearby, and I was able to use that to find it easily. The restaurant manager very kindly allowed us to film in the outdoor seating area, where I ordered some porridge from their brunch menu, and was recorded having it served to me. Once the filming was complete, we then went inside the restaurant to eat together properly (and the porridge was very nice by the way), before the students took me back to the station.
I was then invited back the following weekend to help them capture additional B-roll footage, to give the documentary further visual variety. And I was very happy to do so. I felt like a minor celebrity asking to be filmed so much!
We started off by having a drink in Starbucks opposite the station, where it turned out the lighting was ideal to film close-ups of my eyes, in order to see them shaking due to my nystagmus. Then we went for a walk down the high street, where I showed them the rotating cone underneath the wait sign at one of the pedestrian crossings. Like many people, they had no idea that was there. It spins when the lights turn green, so visually impaired people can feel it to know when it’s safe to go, and we got some footage of myself and the students using the crossing in this way. If you’ve never been aware of this feature before either, check out the videos by Tom Scott and Sam Little about it.
We then went to Walpole Park and did a bit of filming there, including footage of me chatting with the female students and showing them how to use my monocular (the small telescope that I use for seeing signs and other things at a distance). We also got footage of me outside the Pitzhanger Art Gallery, looking closely at a sign and then walking towards the entrance. I didn’t actually go in, but I’m sure it’s probably very interesting in there.
So it was another successful day of filming, and the students were very happy with the material they ended up with.
I received the final edit of the documentary a few days later, as they had been working on it as they went along in order to meet their deadline. And I’m delighted with how it’s all come together. I had no idea how I’d come across, and didn’t know what to expect, but the way they combined all of the footage was very effective and I’m very happy with the way I’m portrayed. And just on a visual level the whole thing looks great.
Some of my own personal footage from past years has been included as well, which is cool, expanding on my story further. I also like the background music, which adds a nice feel to the whole piece, along with the informative narration and the inclusion of speech from the Soundscape app. So all in all, many different elements have come together very nicely, and I appreciate the amount of time and effort that the team have put into it.
The team also had to produce alternate edits for use in other formats too, particularly social media. I don’t know what marks they got for the project in the end, but they deserve to do well as far as I’m concerned. And ScreenSpace have been supportive of them online, which is good to see.
So I hope you’ve enjoyed watching the documentary and reading about how it all came together. Big thanks again to Stella Webb, Amy Thorne, Olivia Ulpiani, Laura White and Michael Shaw for inviting me to be part of their project and for producing a wonderful film that I’m proud to share. I wish all the members of Team IndiGo the very best with the remainder of their studies and their future endeavours beyond! 🙂