“If you were going to make a film and tell people it was taking place at Perkins, how would you show that?”
“The bell tower!” “Maybe a white cane.” “The Perkins logo?”
It might seem strange to pose such a visual question to a group of Secondary Program students at Perkins School for the Blind. But during summer media class, teachers Jeff Migliozzi and Bruce Blakeslee use iconic movies like “Psycho” or “The Graduate” to teach students about the intricacies of visual storytelling.
The goal is to help students ask the right questions next time they’re watching a movie and fill in the gaps that even an audio-described version – which focuses on scenery, costumes and action – might not cover.
“Film is very, very important. It’s a major medium and it informs people’s opinions,” said Migliozzi during class. “Even if you can’t on your own experience this art form, you should understand how it works and why it’s significant.”
Migliozzi and Blakeslee have taught the class for about a decade. They use movies to explain non-verbal social interactions and gestures – like a wink or a shrug – as well as explore how different camera angles and the order of scenes convey certain ideas to the audience. Blakeslee, who is sighted, describes the settings and action as well as the types of shots used. Migliozzi, who is blind, translates those visual concepts for the students.
At the start of the summer session course, Migliozzi used examples from American history to demonstrate how visuals can drive strong emotions. He contrasted the radio-heavy coverage of World War II, which garnered more positive reactions, with the video-heavy coverage of the Vietnam War, which elicited a more negative response.
“Why is seeing blood and guts and burning bodies in a field so powerful?” he asked. “It’s more immediate.”
This year, the students watched movies with strong musical themes, like “The Wicker Man,” an acclaimed horror mystery from 1973. They discussed how the Celtic soundtrack took viewers back in time, heightening the conflict between the island full of pagan worshippers and a Christian policeman.
Migliozzi and Blakeslee frequently paused the film to explain how a lingering shot of a coastline established scenery; quick cuts created a sense of urgency; or how close-ups required more subtle acting. Even sighted people can be visually tricked by a masterful director through clever framing and editing, they explained, like thinking that two people are talking to each other when they’re actually in separate rooms.
Mid-way through the semester, Secondary Program student Jamie, a self-proclaimed movie buff, was already thinking about his favorite action and adventure films in a new way.
“One thing I was really surprised to find out was that a camera at a different angle can really intensify the emotion on a person’s face,” he said. “I used to just think about the talking and the sounds. Without the description in class, I wouldn’t have really thought about how in the pauses, there’s still stuff going on.”