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Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Seen: 2001.11.18

A mere four days after the big launch, I schlepped up to Yonge & Eg to enjoy the sensation of Steve Case’s youth marketing vehicle washing over me. I chose wisely: This Sunday afternoon coincided with the Santa Claus Parade, guaranteeing the maximum number of absent children.

I couldn’t believe my luck when half the couple in front of me in the ticket queue was quite clearly blind. (The white cane, being led by her husband, and evident inability to see were dead giveaways.) So I said hello and asked if she were here to enjoy the audio description. “I’m hoping to, yes,” she replied, and had nothing else to say. The couple, who were elderly, were apparently also buying tickets for their grandkids, and were a tad taken aback when the total bill exceeded $40. No, ma’am, you don’t get a discount; the movie is as accessible as it comes.

I made my way up to Guest Services and asked for a caption reflector and a description headset. The very sharp young people at the desk immediately pulled them out and opened the logbook. Instead of trading in ID, which kids do not have, Famous Players jots down your name and phone number. I was the fifth person to use any of the systems – three captioning users and one description user preceded me. Neither employee (“player”) batted an eye over the fact that I asked for descriptions and captioning, which serve mutually-exclusive audiences.

(This is the correct response. Do not interrogate the customer. Do not imply or state that the customer clearly can see or hear and does not need the service. Blindness and deafness are often invisible, though not in the case of the elderly lady aforementioned, and a nondisabled person may be signing out equipment for a deaf or blind friend or relative.)

After waiting forever for a busybody mom to spend $40 on treats for her kids (that dollar figure does seem to be coming up a lot today), I snagged a glass of water – for Harry Potter, I’m gonna break out the hard stuff – and wandered down the hall.

I say again that the Rear Window reflector, with its weighted base, two feet of flexible armoured cable, and blade-like plexiglas panel, looks just like a scythe. I literally heard Blue Öyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” play in my mind as I headed to the “equipped” Cinema 8. (Did you see the superb music-video treatment of that song in the opening credits of the TV miniseries The Stand?)

I walked into the house and looked for a seat. The place seemed half-full. Immediately another very solicitous and interested “player” – actually a posse of them, a posse of “playaz” – stopped me and helpfully told me the reflector worked better in the middle of the theatre. I pointed to the most remote seat and mused that it would be fun to try it out there. I thought to myself: If I were really deaf, how would these playaz communicate with me? (This issue would of course be handled in a rollout.)

I found a spot alongside a broken seat, guaranteeing but one neighbour, and did a Pulp Fiction and got in character. The place was actually three-quarters full, more than half of them children. Very keyed-up children, so anxiously awaiting the movie that two kids behind me kept reciting ten-second countdowns until it started. So obviously plunking down a Grim Reaper scythe and manhandling it into position attracted attention.

The mom to my left muttered to her son that she’d seen this on CBC, it’s so you can read the words on the movie. Well, well, well. I got the occasional smile from her.

Lights went dark, commercials and trailers ran (with no accessibility – something that needs to be fixed and very occasionally has been), and it was time to put on the description headset. It’s like being a DJ at Palladium in 1981: You can just feel the sinews of the neck building up like a Russian gymnast’s as you put on the earphones, each the size of a moon of Jupiter and about as heavy.

I flicked on the ON switch (what else do you do with it?) and immediately thought “Here goes nothing.” Yes, the piercingly laser-bright light-emitting diode at the very top of the headset was brilliantly illuminated and would mark every tiny motion of my head for the next two and a half hours. It’s like biomechanists attaching light points to the joints to track the motions of an athlete (a Russian gymnast?). Everyone seated behind me knew of my every twitch and feint for the duration of the movie. I would suggest hockey tape.

So how was it? Fine. Fine, actually. The Rear Window LED display has a pretty awful 1970s-era font, even worse than we put up with on television, with no descenders and a lot of confusable character shapes – s, e, and g differ only by a couple of pixels. This was an actual problem with Harry Potter because of the many never-before-seen proper names and nonce words: Muggle, Dumbledore, De Mimsy-Porpington, Hagrid, McGonagall. We read by word shape, not letter-by-letter; unfamiliar words in an illegible font are simply hard to make out.

After the movie ended, my neighbour asked who played Voldemort; for some reason her son insisted on knowing. “I dunno,” I told her. “They just read it on the description. It should be coming right up.” Moments later we spotted it on the credits. (Richard Bremmer.)

I stay for all credits. Pretty much no one was left in the theatre, and captions were hard to read in the light (and through the bodies of people standing behind me). More playaz came to talk. Was it comfortable? Where should you sit? “Well, you can sit pretty much anywhere –” Then I noticed another scythe behind me.

By gar, we’ve got another captioning viewer. Turned out to be a hearing mom and her hard-of-hearing son. We had a very nice ten-minute chat and tried to configure their seatback display to get it working for them. Yet another playa came to ask if the system worked well for me. I wished my new friends luck and headed off.

Important sociological remark: Note how so many of the playaz, none of whom was older than 21, were avidly, rabidly interested in the system and how I felt about it? That’s because the kidz today grew up with captioning and are pro-captioning. It’s the Boomers who can’t handle it.

Caption quality

Caption style varies noticeably from Caption Center standard. There aren’t enough character positions, or reading time, to give every utterance or event its own caption block, so the Captions, Inc. or European style is used:


-Oh, no. Snape.

Note that it’s a tacky single hyphen with no space. There are no italics, so book titles have to be written in quotation marks, as if this were European captioning. (How do you write a title in the possessive?) We’re expected to somehow accept the use of ♪♪ (two staffnotes) to mean “music playing” or “music continues,” which must actually be written out.

One clear-cut error was seen: When Harry, Hermione, and Ron are trapped, Star Wars–style, in the tendrils of a vine, Harry and Hermione drop down to the floor below but Ron yells for help, which is captioned as:


Nope. Harry is standing right there safely before us.

Captioners did not credit themselves at the end.

Description quality

Description style was superb as ever; this is DVS we’re talking about. One tiny error: When the kids are out learning to fly their brooms, Ron’s broom whips up and smacks him in the face. The narrator very slightly fumbles the description, saying “Ron flips up and hits him in the face” rather than “Ron’s.” (I may have somewhat misquoted the description, but you get the picture.) I know perfectly well this is not important enough to fix, but it is important enough to note.

When reading the credits, Zoë Wanamaker’s first name is consistently mispronounced (at least twice). It rhymes with Joey, not Joe.

DVS credits itself as the source of descriptions, but I didn’t hear who wrote them, only who read them: Miles Neff, frequently used in the MoPix project (on the left in this photo).

However, all is not well in descriptionland.

Extremely serious error

The title of the film is in fact Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The only title is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – here, anyway. There is no film called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in Canada. (Or in the U.K.) But the narrator specifically reads the film’s title as the latter when it is the former.

While Canadians are willing to live with American spellings on American films and TV programs captioned in the United States, we are not willing to put up with an inaccurate description of plainly-evident titles that vary between the U.S. and Canada. (If, in the future, MoPix spreads to the U.K., an issue of terminology may come up – lift/elevator, boot/trunk, etc. – but we’re not talking about that quite yet.)

If the first precept of audio description is “describe what you see,” leaving the U.S. description on the Canadian recording violates the principle and essentially lies to the audience.

Now that MoPix installations have spread beyond the U.S. border, WGBH must acknowledge that not everything adapted for captioning or description will be American or will be the same in the U.S. and Canada. WGBH must localize its work at least as far as basic facts are concerned.

WGBH has experience adapting multiple versions of the same work – even Canadian vs. American versions (Cf. Jeff Healey’s music video “I Think I Love You Too Much”). The typical example is uncensored vs. censored versions, which come up all the time. Even Rear Window captions vs. Line 21 captions vs. so-called subtitles on DVD all vary even for an otherwise identical work.

It isn’t WGBH’s fault that the Harry Potter titles differ, but that doesn’t mean the facts can be ignored. Yes, it’s gonna cost some money to bring in the same narrator and try to meld the snippet of description that includes the title into the existing track; there may be a discernible difference in how that rerecording sounds, but you can find that on other DVS videos (Cf. Chaplin). The cost of producing new CD-ROMs for the Canadian installations is, however, trivial. Arguably, WGBH should bill Warner Brothers; it’s their doing.

In the future, WGBH needs to explicitly ask studios up front if U.S. and Canadian (or other) versions are known to differ.

WGBH intervened in the Australian human-rights case concerning captioning of first-run movies. WGBH has actively pursued “foreign” sales of the MoPix system – and has actually made a sale. This is the first test of whether WGBH really wants to accommodate viewers, clients, and indeed films outside the U.S.

So what has happened?