Student filmmakers capture world they know and can’t see

By Linda Matchan,
Boston Globe
April 21, 2010

WATERTOWN — Kevin Bright was going around the table telling each of his film students what he thought of their work on the homework assignment, which was to get comfortable using their new video cameras.

He turned to 19-year-old Laurie Cherry-White, whose clip had a serious technical glitch.

“When you woke up at 2:30 in the morning and started shooting, I thought that was really cool,’’ Bright told her. But, he added, “What was the one thing you didn’t do?’’

“Turn the light on!’’

“That’s right, baby!’’ The students burst out laughing.

Here’s why they laughed: They’re all blind.

Bright, the Emmy-winning producer of the smash sitcom “Friends,’’ is involved in a groundbreaking partnership with the Perkins School for the Blind. An executive artist in residence at Emerson College, Bright has developed a filmmaking course for blind students, teaching them how to shoot, light, direct, and produce. His students just completed their first short film, “Seeing Through the Lens,’’ about the friendship between three teenage girls at Perkins.

“Just because they can’t see the final product doesn’t mean they can’t express their feelings or write a script,’’ said Bright, 55, who is thinking about producing a reality TV show by and about Perkins students. “It just came to me: Film and television are unique art forms because they require collaboration. A blind person needs a sighted collaborator. But there’s no reason for there to be any limit to their potential.’’

It was serendipity that brought Bright not just to Perkins, but to Boston. Three years ago he was living in Los Angeles — weary, discouraged, and looking for a way to recharge himself after more than 30 years of producing and directing comedy shows such as “In Living Color,’’ “Dream On,’’ and “Friends.’’ In 2006, around the time that his “Friends’’ spinoff, “Joey,’’ bombed, Jacqueline Liebergott, Emerson president, invited him to spend a semester teaching at his alma mater. One semester has stretched into three years.

Bright, who divides his time between LA and Boston, was at a Celtics-Lakers game at TD Garden a year ago when the choir from the Perkins School sang the national anthem. He was so moved he slipped a $1,000 check into a donation envelope, which led to a thank you call from Perkins and an invitation to tour the school.

Bright was instantly captivated by the school and its students, one of whom astonished him by conducting the tour unassisted. He was intrigued by Perkins’s connection to Helen Keller, who’d studied there as a child, and by a framed letter hanging on a wall that she’d written in perfect penmanship.

“It was a miracle,’’ said Bright. “Straight as an arrow! Even line! It never drifted!’’

He met Jeff Migliozzi, a visually impaired English teacher who developed a media course at Perkins; his students had produced a TV show about the school, “The Perkins Insider,’’ for Watertown’s public access station. Bright offered to drop in on his class — “even if it was just to watch ‘Friends’ with them and annotate an episode.’’ But Migliozzi had his own agenda: to find some way the students could use a camera.

He asked Bright to teach a filmmaking course.

To Migliozzi’s delight, Bright agreed.

“But I predicted failure . . . ’’ Bright said. “I didn’t think I could get them excited about it, if they couldn’t see.’’ He didn’t have to worry. The class, which started in January, has been a hit. The 10 students, aged 17 to 20, are tech-savvy, and they quickly caught on to the high-definition digital flip cameras Bright bought for them. “Their fingers were all over them, like 10 eyes,’’ he said. “One student had it going before I taught it to the class.’’

“I thought, ‘I can take a camera? I can make a movie with my classmates? Wow!’ ’’ recalled Sam Robson, 17.

Bright explained the cameras could be a kind of diary for them. “I told them, ‘We’re here to tell our story, to leave something, not to just pass through 40, 50, 60 years and leave nothing behind. You’re here to share your experience with the rest of the world, including the sighted world.’ ’’

Still, there were obvious challenges: How would they know where to point the camera? How could they tell if a room had enough light? How could they visualize a scene?

“But the more I got to know them, the more I got inspired by them, and the more they got excited by film and TV the more I want to teach them,’’ Bright said. “I’ve rediscovered the love of [this business] by watching them discover the love of doing this.’’

He added: “If Helen Keller could write that letter, I knew a blind person could make a movie.’’

There is no textbook for teaching filmmaking to blind people, so Bright has improvised. He figured out that the students’ canes are a useful tool for measuring distances between camera and subject: “If I want to have a wide shot, I have to be a full cane-length away. A close-up would be a half-cane.’’

He told them to make sure there’s nothing on the floor they don’t want in the shot. He explained editing by playing video for them so they could listen to it before and after it was edited. He tackled lighting by using desk lamps, and having the students feel the difference between a scene that’s well lit and one that’s overexposed.

“You have to take advantage of the senses they do have,’’ said Bright. “Light becomes not bright and dark but hot and cold.’’

And he doesn’t wear kid gloves when he’s critiquing their work.

“Sam, I appreciate you saying hello to me on the video, but it’s really about filming Laurie,’’ he told Robson. Bright has high energy, an apparent aversion to shaving, an affinity for hats, and a resonant voice that still bears the trace of his childhood in New York, where his father was an actor and vaudeville performer. The students seem to adore him, and he seems to adore them back, bringing them cake one week, Gummi Bears another. The students talk, a lot, about what it means to them to use video cameras.

“If I don’t have a week with my camera, oh dear lord,’’ said Cherry-White. “I feel like a queen when I have the video camera in my hand.’’

They explain that even if they can’t see what they’ve just recorded, they can hear it, which helps them remember places they’ve been.

“It makes a cool audio experience as well as video,’’ said Ashley Bernard, 17. She talked about a recent encounter she had with a stranger when she was out walking during her mobility lesson. “Some lady drove up in her car, and was, like, you’re walking with a video camera and you’re blind! It makes me feel — honestly? — kind of powerful.’’

“I like other people to see who I really am,’’ said Michelle Smith, 17.

Recently Bright strode into class with some news: He’d just heard that the Braille Institute, a California-based service agency for the blind, had announced its first film festival for the visually impaired, called Cinema Without Sight. The best submission wins $1,000 and a trip to Los Angeles.

“We’re going to do a film for the film festival,’’ he told the class. “We win this, then we’ll figure out how to get you all to LA.’’

“Really?’’ said Dan Guilbeault, 17. “Awesome!’’

With only about two weeks until deadline, he outlined his vision of the film to the students. It would incorporate the theme of the festival, which is “I am more than what I see.’’ It would be about the friendship amongthree girls in the class — Cherry-White, Bernard, and Smith. Smith, who has some vision in one eye, would be the director. The boys would do the shooting. They’d start with a “three-shot’’ of the girls looking into the camera and introducing themselves.

Bright’s teaching assistant, Eric Fox, edited the video at Bright’s apartment in a 48-hour blitz and made the deadline — barely. A few days ago Bright showed the finished product to the class, describing each scene and each shot — Bernard, 17, playing piano and singing; Smith at her computer; Cherry-White on Facebook when she was supposed to be in English class; the three girls in the snack bar, entertaining each other with jokes about blind dating.

“Nothing would give me greater pleasure than winning the competition and taking the entire class to California for the screening,’’ Bright said. “I want the film to win for them, but I think it’s just secondary to them: I think they’d just say, ‘We’ll get it next year.’ ’’

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