How does one visualize the experience of blindness? It seems the riddle of a sphinx. But that’s exactly what co-directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney and cinematographer Gerry Floyd aimed to do in Notes on Blindness, one of Sundance’s most visually arresting documentaries.
In 1983, academic theologian John Hull went totally blind. To help process this trauma, he kept an audio diary. Maintained for three years, this soul-searching journal articulates the impact of blindness on Hull’s relationships, consciousness, identity and dream life. These tapes formed the basis of his book Touching the Rock, which neurologist Oliver Sacks called “the most precise, deep and beautiful account of blindness I have ever read.”
Middleton and Spinney discovered the book in 2010 when researching a project on the blind experience of snowfall. They interviewed Hull and incidentally inquired about the audiotapes mentioned in the book’s foreword. Soon after, a parcel arrived containing some dusty C90 cassettes. These set the filmmakers on a five-year journey that resulted in two shorts and the feature Notes on Blindness, which premiered in Sundance’s New Frontier section, along with a virtual-reality component.
Belfast-based Gerry Floyd was their cinematographer for all three films. Floyd had built a career in music videos, then commercials, shooting some BAFTA-winning and Cannes award-winning shorts along the way. The three met in 2010 on the indie feature Honeymooner, tand hen were reintroduced by a mutual friend when the directors embarked on their first short, Notes on Blindness: Rainfall, in 2013.
As first-time filmmakers, Middleton and Spinney needed a short to prove themselves to funders and to illustrate their radical vision. “Traditional documentary was not suited for such an interior journey,” says Middleton. “It’s about dream life, imagination and memory. So the question was how to do that creatively: how to evoke the experience of blindness without talking heads or observational footage. And we were dealing with something that took place 30 years ago, so we had another challenge there.”
Notes on Blindness: Rainfall was an ambitious start. In this three-minute short, Hull describes how the world outside reveals its contours during rainfall, when water bouncing off surfaces creates a three-dimensional audio environment. He wistfully wishes the same could happen inside. The filmmakers fulfill that wish, showing an actor at the kitchen table under a shower, the droplets striking various surfaces and creating a symphony of sound. The short won a prize at Hot Docs, which attracted the attention of the New York Times’ Op-Docs team. They produced a 12-minute version (viewable here), which subsequently showed at Sundance in 2014 and won an Emmy.
The 90-minute feature version contains a narrative arc, but one that’s psychological. It traces Hull’s practical preparations, his despair as his sight completely disappears, then his climb out of the abyss to a rejuvenated mindset. This narrative spine is built entirely from actual recordings. “We had all the audio for the film in a Final Cut timeline before we shot anything,” says Spinney. The audio included not only Hull’s diary, but ambient recordings of family holidays. The directors also conducted interviews with Hull and his wife, Marilyn, reflecting on that time. “We didn’t imagine they’d be used in the film,” Middleton says. “We considered them research.” But they gradually saw the potential of moving between the present-tense diaries and the more reflective perspective in the interviews.
To express the audio material, they turned to actors, introducing a dramatic element. “But we were keen to preserve the authenticity of the documentary audio,” says Middleton, “so lip-synching seemed the only way.” Thus, the actors playing Hull and his wife and children worked with audio playback on set, cued by pips before every line of dialogue.
Visually, it was anything but conventional drama. The filmmakers’ objective was to evoke the experience of blindness — the interiority, the isolation, the shrinking space of physical conduct, the heightened importance of touch and sound.
The team developed a visual lexicon. Throughout his diaries, Hull mourned the loss of eye contact and the intimacy that flows from it. So the first principle regarded the framing of figures. Apart from the narrators John and Marilyn Hull, everyone would be fragmentary and framed below the eyes. For Floyd, that took some getting used to: “When framing up, the guys would correct you: ‘No head,’ or ‘Show lips, not eyes,’ or ‘We’ve got to keep them right on the edge of frame.’” As Spinney notes, “Fragmented framing became a guiding principle for shooting all the children. Faces are one of the big things that John talks about losing. So we wanted them to be glimpsed, shot in silhouette, fragmented.”
A second principle involved positioning Hull in negative space — one of their motives for shooting 2.39:1 widescreen. After his sight disappears, he’s typically shown alone in close-ups, often pushed to the side. Even in wider shots, “we isolate him in a space,” says Floyd. “Even if he’s walking in the university, he’s by himself. All these people are walking around him and you can hear them talking,” but Hull remains alone, the voices disembodied. When he’s shown with others — for instance, in a conference room with fellow academics — they’re obscured by glass. Elsewhere, doorways or foreground obstructions form frames within frames, visually restricting the space around him.
Wide shots were largely avoided, especially establishing shots that give a sense of location. “We didn’t want the audience to have a privileged viewpoint,” Spinney explains. Likewise, traditional coverage was deemed unnecessary. For the Christmas scene, when Hull is feeling isolated, irrelevant, and bottoms out emotionally, the filmmakers didn’t even bother to shoot reverses of the children; the scene was captured in close-ups of Hull attempting a one-sided conversation, until Marilyn intervenes.
Cutaways to Hull’s tactile environment were key. “We tried to keep it confined to the immediate distance around John,” says Floyd. “We wanted to concentrate on a quite intimate camera style, something that had a sensual, sensory nature.” The exploratory camera follows Hull’s hands as he touches objects in his study, grasps the stairway banister or fumbles in the dark. “We’d be using very shallow depth of field, just searching for things,” says Floyd. “We spent quite a bit of time trying to get those shots in. They’re lovely to do, but they do take time.”
The team utilized a Red Epic Dragon for practical reasons, as the production company, Archer’s Mark, owned two. The Dragon allowed 6K capture even for high-speed camerawork, recording Redcode raw, typically at 8:1 compression. Hull’s dreams and fantasies were often slow-motion sequences, shot 100 fps at 6K. (The digital color grade was done at Raised by Wolves in London, where the filmmakers worked with colorist Vic Parker using FilmLight’s Baselight. The final DCP was 2K ’Scope.)
“Pete and James were keen not to use modern lenses, but to get something with a 1970s or Eighties look,” says Floyd. “We didn’t want anything that was going to be too sharp, but would visually fit with John’s blindness.” He knew One Stop Films in London had a set of vintage Super Baltars, manufactured by Bausch & Lomb. So he tested these, along with Todd AO anamorphics, Cineovision anamorphics, Kowa anamorphics and Cooke S2 sphericals. Everyone loved the look of the Baltars, which were also suitable for handheld work. “These soften the ultra-HD feel of [the Dragon’s] chip,” says Spinney. “You also get bizarre aberrations when you muddy the foreground of the frame. The image feels like it’s morphing and pulsating.”
Principal photography was done with four Super Baltar T2.3 primes: 35mm, 50mm, 75mm and 100mm. Though they carried Cooke S2s for second-unit landscapes, “we tried to stick to the Baltars as much as we could, even when running two units,” says Floyd. “Our loader was running between units saying, ‘Gerry wants to use the 50. Can we have that back?’”
For macro work, they relied on Schneider 138mm circular diopters of 0.5, 1.0. and 2.0. “We used them quite a lot and would sometimes handhold them in front of the lens,” says the cinematographer. He also took some rippled Victorian window glass from home and built a filter from that. “It had a lot to do with fracturing the image and trying to make an optical fault — like a kind of astigmatism,” he says. “We were always experimenting, trying to get away from the standard way you perceive films and work with an image that’s slightly retro, disjointed, and more difficult to read.”
When lighting, Floyd would often expose for the highlights and eschew fill, letting interiors fall quickly into darkness. That had logic, since a blind person wouldn’t turn on lights. What’s more, “I was always thinking it was a little journey John was going through,” he says. “That sense of moving from light into darkness — the central motif of the film — was an idea you could have within a shot.”
For the feature documentary’s expanded version of the interior rainfall sequence, the Hull home was a larger set, constructed over a shallow tank at Halliford Studios. The production spent 10 days there altogether — a quarter of the shoot — flooding the set on the final day. Floyd was well prepared. He knew from experience that the waterproofed props wouldn’t get completely trashed after the first take. (Three takes were filmed.) He knew they’d need fewer water bars than special effects had brought and that the trickiest part would be getting the rain to fall absolutely vertically. He knew a 180-degree shutter would work just fine for the 100-fps dolly move. And he quickly saw they’d need less backlight for the rain than imagined, ultimately using just two open-faced 2Ks at the rear of the set, plus two 1Ks picking out selected spots.
Despite knowing all this, Floyd obsessed over the scene for six months prior. “I was thinking, ‘This has got to be better than the original,’” he recalls. It was a high bar to set, since the short had pleased everyone. But once in the thick of it, he was in heaven. “For a cinematographer, it’s just a godsend to shoot that stuff,” he says. “We kept saying to the production designer, ‘Can we go again?’”