‘Rising Phoenix’: An Extraordinary Story Made Accessible

May 21 2023 VITAC
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Take 1, now VITAC, recently supported “Rising Phoenix: Tokyo,” a remarkable story following athletes competing in the 2020 Paralympic games with accessibility services that saw the content premier at the world-renowned ReelAbilities Film Festival in LA. But the journey to premiering the documentary was not a straightforward one – and it arguably turned into a rising phoenix of its own.

When COVID-19 brought the world to a grinding halt in early 2020, production company Harder Than You Think (HTYT) had to rethink its entire approach to the production. What resulted was a very different series to the one it had originally envisaged.

Sharing Stories as the World Began to Shut Down

The journey began with “Rising Phoenix,” a documentary film chronicling the extraordinary stories of nine Paralympic athletes and their journeys to the competition. It also covers the story of the creation of the Paralympic games, and how it became the third-biggest sporting event in the world.

HTYT initially had planned on following up this first release with a second documentary film – this time detailing the story behind the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. But when production began in March of that year, the world was already beginning to shut down. So HTYT, instead, began documenting the impacts of COVID-19 on the Paralympics and the athletes who were due to travel to Tokyo to take part. In total, the team talked to 65 athletes around the world, amassing content from a mixture of Zoom calls and iPhone and GoPro videos the athletes had recorded themselves.

The result? A three-part series following the stories of 12 Paralympians from 11 countries, as well as the International Paralympic Committee as they struggled against lockdowns and rule changes to finally stage the Tokyo Games in 2021. With much of the games taking place behind closed doors and without spectators, the series provides a unique insight into staging one of the most extraordinary sporting events in history.

ReelAbilities: An Unmissable Opportunity

As the largest film festival in the US dedicated to showcasing films for, by, and about people with disabilities, ReelAbilities had been impressed with the original “Rising Phoenix” film and were curious to see what else HTYT had in the pipeline. When they reached out with the idea of showcasing something new at their upcoming festival, HTYT agreed to premier an episode of the “Rising Phoenix: Tokyo” project at the festival. But this was a discerning audience when it came to accessibility.

“I would never want anything I had made to be shown in a way that is not fully accessible – especially something covering this subject matter,” explains Barnaby Spurrier, head of production at HTYT. “Much of the crew on this project identify as disabled, as well as pretty much everyone in front of the camera. So, to showcase a product at the festival that wasn’t accessible was unthinkable,” he adds.

Finding a provider who could supply the necessary accessibility services was therefore vital ahead of premiering the series at the festival. This was especially true considering HTYT had never delivered audio description and closed captions for broadcast content – as this is a service usually handled by the distributors rather than the production company themselves. They reached out to VITAC on the personal recommendation of an industry colleague.

Spurrier explains, “We were on a bit of a tight turnaround, but [VITAC] worked very fast, and were very responsive.” And the VITAC team was able to provide workarounds for the complexities of the project, too. The documentary episode was set to be shown on a full-sized theatrical screen at the festival, so the captioning provided needed be burnt-in to a high-resolution video. A further complication was that the captions had to be positioned to accommodate for an on-screen sign language interpreter to allow for more complete accessibility. This meant sharing extremely large, high-resolution files between the teams, but Spurrier notes, “[VITAC] was able to find us a workaround that meant we met all of the deliverables – the team were really proactive.”

To create a fully accessible piece of content, HTYT also tasked VITAC with providing audio descriptions for the premiering episode. Spurrier comments, “Audio descriptions can sometimes prove difficult – you have to work around the existing dialogue and soundtrack – but [VITAC] did a brilliant job.” And the documentary, including all its accessibility accommodations, was incredibly well received. Spurrier notes, “People were blown away by the standard of the content – and the care and attention put into the project. The response was extraordinary.”

Not only did the content resonate with the audience, it also created new opportunities for HTYT. Spurrier adds, “The documentary had a fantastic impact at ReelAbilities, without question. But it also opened doors for us in terms of the people we were able to meet whilst showcasing the documentary film.”

Putting Accessibility on the Agenda

As HTYT look towards the future of the Paralympic series, accessibility remains top of mind in everything they create, with Spurrier aiming to hire a crew with at least 40% of people identifying as disabled for his next project. “Accessibility is not as high up on the agenda as it should be,” he notes, “Distributors are always open to making content accessible, but people just don’t always think about it from the outset.

“From audio descriptions to downloadable PDFs for those using braille readers – it’s easy to accommodate and should be the industry standard. Accessibility for all is vital – we should be doing everything we can to ensure as many people can enjoy all content as possible.”

Get in touch with VITAC to find out how we can help with your next accessibility project.