Vision disease can’t stop Paul Demeyer, animation director

Originally published on http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/great-reads/la-et-c1-blind-director-20150622-story.html

At first blush, Paul Demeyer‘s office in Burbank is what you might expect for any animation director. The walls are decorated with prints of Disney’s classic “Pinocchio” and images from the film “Rugrats in Paris: The Movie,” which he directed. There’s a plastic toy ostrich character from his latest show, the top-rated TV series “Miles From Tomorrowland.”

But the office also offers subtle clues that something is different: the large magnifying glass in a pen holder, the small telescope, usually fastened around Demeyer’s neck.

The 62-year-old Belgian director uses the magnifying glass to help him see small or especially detailed images. The telescope zooms in on scenes he can’t make out on a screen. He can’t see well enough to drive. In a crowd, faces sometimes appear as impressionistic paintings. Colleagues have to keep the aisles clear so he won’t trip over boxes.

Demeyer suffers from diabetic retinopathy, a disease that causes damage to the blood vessels in the retina and is a leading cause of blindness in American adults. He came close to losing his sight completely; today, he’s legally blind in one eye and has no peripheral vision.

Demeyer describes his world as “life through a keyhole.” But he has managed to defy the odds, forging a successful career in Hollywood as an award-winning director of animated movies and TV shows.

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“I always tell people if they knew what I see, they wouldn’t give me the job I have,” said Demeyer, a soft-spoken man with a boyish face and an impish smile.

But Demeyer says his disability has actually made him a better director. “The narrowing of my view,” he said, “has made me look at the broader picture.”

Twenty-five years ago, Demeyer’s career was taking off. He was living in London and animating commercials for TV and had just finished a short animated movie.

He was reading a book on the subway when he noticed he couldn’t make out the words — a sentence he was trying to read appeared as a big black line.

The sense of beauty we get though the eyes is something I always relied on for drawing and painting … It was like the rug under my feet was being pulled away.

— Paul Demeyer

He visited an ophthalmologist, who gave him the bad news that he had advanced diabetic retinopathy in the left eye. Blood vessels in his eye were bleeding, clouding his vision.

Demeyer had been diagnosed with diabetes as a boy growing up in the Belgian city of Bruges and had learned to live with daily insulin injections and watching his diet. For someone whose career was in the visual arts, it was a particularly alarming complication.

“The sense of beauty we get though the eyes is something I always relied on for drawing and painting,” he said. “It was like the rug under my feet was being pulled away.”

He needed immediate laser treatment to stop the bleeding. After the treatment, the vision problems persisted and his right eye began to hemorrhage as well. His vision would clear and then get cloudy again.

At one point, his vision was so cloudy that he couldn’t even see the food on his plate. He could barely read the numbers on his syringe when preparing his daily insulin injections. And he would wake up in the middle of the night with panic attacks, wondering about his future.

Then, months after his initial diagnosis, he got even worse news: A doctor warned him that he might go blind.

Unable to work and drive, Demeyer moved back to Belgium to live with his parents and began making contingency plans. He thought about giving up his career in animation to become a massage therapist. He recalls listening to a program for the blind on the BBC. He turned to holistic healers for help.

“I was on the road to blindness,” he said. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do?'”

The number of Americans with diabetic retinopathy nearly doubled in the last decade to 7.69 million people, reflecting the sharp increase in diabetes nationwide, according to a 2012 study by Prevent Blindness America and the National Eye Institute.

Among the more famous people with the condition is actress Mary Tyler Moore, who has helped support juvenile diabetes research.

After a year and a half and seven surgeries, Demeyer was able to recover much of his sight. The laser treatment, however, damaged his peripheral vision and left him with other permanent visual problems, such as the inability to see fine details.

Unable to do anything but rough sketches, Demeyer switched from drawing cartoons to directing them.

A graduate of the California Institute of the Arts, Demeyer returned to the Los Angeles area in 1993 and joined the independent animation studio Klasky Csupo, where he directed award-winning episodes of the “Duckman” TV series and the Paramount/Nickelodeon movie “Rugrats in Paris.”

He now works as a supervising director at Wild Canary, an animation studio in Burbank founded in 2008 that produces “Miles From Tomorrowland” with Disney Junior.

Demeyer’s ophthalmologist, Joseph Caprioli, says his patients have included painters, sculptors and musicians but no other directors.

“He has been able to compensate for his visual disabilities in a remarkable way,” said Caprioli, chief of the glaucoma division at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute.

To explain his view of the world, Demeyer uses the medium he knows best — cartoons. One shows him walking his dog and waving to a neighbor whose image is so blurred he looks like a cactus. Other drawings show him facing a class full of students, their smiley faces all identical, and tripping over a bench as he walks toward a painting.

That actually happened at his office recently when he stumbled into a stack of paintings that had been left in the hallway.

“He went down pretty hard,” said Carmen Italia, chief executive of Wild Canary. “I turned around and said, ‘Oh, my God! Paul went down.’ He gets up and says, ‘Geez, I didn’t see that stuff.'”

Only his close associates know he has diabetic retinopathy.

“What’s so amazing is that I didn’t know about his visual limitations for a long time,” said Sascha Paladino, creator of “Miles From Tomorrowland,” a popular show on the Disney Junior channel that was recently picked up for a second season.

“He’s so good at what he does and has such a great visual sense that I didn’t even know about the impairment for the first year. It wasn’t an issue. I thought it was an affectation, that little telescope, until I realized he actually needed it.”

Aside from the telescope, Demeyer does rely on the eyes of his colleagues to spot small glitches in animation scenes. And he can’t direct actors doing voice-overs. “I couldn’t see their faces,” he said. “It was so frustrating. I did it for months and said, ‘It’s not working. Let’s just hire somebody else.'”

But he doesn’t view his visual impairment as a liability. Because he can’t see the fine details of each frame of animation, he tends to concentrate on the overall flow and look of scenes and characters, giving them a distinctive cinematic quality.

And he says his tunnel vision actually makes it easier for him to focus on what is immediately in front of him and not be distracted by too much extraneous background information.

Colleagues agree that Demeyer brings a unique perspective to his work.

“Because of his limited eyesight, he gets a better visual image,” Italia said. “He concentrates so much on the overall scene … he has that cinematic sense.”

Demeyer’s optimistic outlook and calm demeanor also make him a popular presence at Wild Canary.

“I’ve been in the business for 35 years, and this guy is one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met,” Italia said. “If I feel uptight about something, I’ll come and talk to Paul for a few minutes.”

Demeyer credits the support of his wife and parents and his religious faith for giving him strength to cope with his vision challenges. In an account of his life story he wrote for his Catholic church group, he recalled his reaction after a breakthrough surgery restored much of his sight.

“The first time I sat at my desk to write or draw, I felt this peace come over me like a blanket,” Demeyer wrote. “What a blessing, what a gratitude I felt to life, to God, to all who helped me through these few years of struggle.”

The Enlightenment and visual impairment

Originally published on http://blog.oup.com/2016/07/blindness-and-the-enlightenment/#sthash.ykK693l5.dpuf

Blindness is a recurrent image in Enlightenment rhetoric. It is used in a political context to indicate a lack of awareness, seen in a letter from Edmund Burke to the chevalier de La Bintinnaye, in poetic rhetoric, with the stories of the blind poets Milton, Homer, and Ossian circulating among the intelligentsia of the time, or simply as a physical irritation, when writers with long lives and extensive correspondences frequently complained of their eyesight deteriorating.

The reception of those with total blindness, however, changed during the course of the long eighteenth century. The experiences of three people (acknowledged as blind) serves to show the ways Enlightenment thinkers, and eighteenth century society in general, responded to those who were rendered separate by their blindness.

The first is John Vermaasen, who plays a small but fascinating role in the evolution of Enlightenment epistemology, appearing as a living thought experiment in Robert Boyle’s Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours (1665). An organist, Vermaasen was blind from the age of two. He came to the attention of Robert Boyle when it was discovered that he had what may be considered a case of synaesthesia; he was able (allegedly) to experience colours using his sense of touch. When presented with a selection of coloured ribbons, and asked to give their colour, Vermaasen would “place them betwixt the Thumb and the Fore-finger…his most exquisite perception was in his Thumb, and much better in the right Thumb than in the left” (Robert Boyle, Experiments, p. 45) and then describe the colours to Boyle and his companion, determining them on the basis of the asperity, or roughness, of the material. Boyle was also sent another anecdote about an encounter with Vermaasen by Henry Oldenburg, in 1665.

Boyle would go on to use this experiment to hypothesise a continuity between the experiences of the five senses, a concept that would have a profound impact on the investigation into the nature of empiricism conducted by figures such as David Hume, George Berkeley, and the French Philosophes in the eighteenth century, most notably Denis Diderot, who in 1749 would write his Letter on the Blind, advancing a theory of education for the blind based on these principles.

A less endearing postscript to this story comes from Jonathan Swift, who included a possible reference to Vermaasen in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), as part of his satirical portrait of the Royal Society in the academy of Lagado (Bk. III: Ch.5), implying that Swift, at least, didn’t believe a word of Boyle’s story:

“There was a man born blind, who had several apprentices in his own condition: their employment was to mix colours for painters, which their master taught them to distinguish, by feeling and smelling. It was indeed my misfortune to find them at that time not very perfect in their lessons, and the professor himself happened to be generally mistaken. This artist is much encouraged and esteemed by the whole fraternity.”
— Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, Bk. III: Ch.5

We can see the identity of Vermaasen being torn between the theoretical implications of his synaesthesia and his own playful means of adapting that synaesthesia into a self-representation of his own. Ultimately though, as far as we can tell, his blindness does not appear to have damaged his professional or social life. It was transcended by the unique and philosophically interesting sensory experiences he had in place of sight.

Thomas Blacklock (1721-1791), nineteenth-century engraving based on eighteenth-century painting. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Thomas Blacklock (1721-1791), nineteenth-century engraving based on eighteenth-century painting. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The same cannot be said for the second of our cases, however: Thomas Blacklock. Blacklock was a Scottish poet and clergyman who lost his sight to smallpox in infancy, but went on to become an advocate and pioneer of unique educational techniques for the blind. In 1760, he was nominated to the ministry of Kirkcudbright, only to find his potential congregation turned against him because of his blindness, creating an environment so toxic that his ordination was delayed until 1762, and he was only able to hold the position for three years, before resigning in 1765.

Blacklock’s understandable outrage at this rejection manifested itself in a satirical poem which he wrote in 1765, but which remained unpublished until 1903, so damning was it of the members of his congregation who had rejected him, out of nothing more than a prejudice against his blindness. This satire, called ‘Pistapolis’, is filled with evocations of the aural nature of sermonizing, highlighting the degree to which sight is irrelevant. A typical stanza runs as follows, addressing the poetic Muse:

“…if in thy view their procession should pass,
Though thy Tongue were of Iron, and thy Lungs were of brass,
To praise them in strains, like thy subject refin’d,
Were to p—ss in the ocean, or f—rt at the wind.”
— ‘Pistapolis’, (1765), unpub.

Though he was clearly embittered by his experiences, Blacklock went on to re-invent himself under the patronage of the poet and essayist James Beattie, becoming an expert on Scottish musical culture at Marischal College, Aberdeen, again exploiting his finely tuned ear.

In the case of Blacklock, we can see the liberating potential in the Enlightenment, particularly in Scotland. Blacklock was able to realize his secular, religious, and pedagogical potential by turning to the figures of the Scottish Enlightenment like James Beattie. He was able to move towards improving society for those marginalized like himself through a programme of pedagogy and publication, an early form of disability rights activist.

Later in the eighteenth century support for the blind became institutionalized. However, this also had its limitations. Anna Williams (our third case) was a Welsh poet who lost her sight later in life, and was given an annuity to support her by the bluestocking socialite and Shakespeare critic Elizabeth Montagu. In a letter of thanks, Williams says:

“I may with truth say I have not words to express my Gratitude as I ought, to a Lady whose bounty has by one act of benevolence doubled my Income, & whose tender Compassionate assurances, has removed the future anxiety of trusting to Chance, the terror of which only Could have prompted me to stand a publick Candidate for Mr Hetheringtons Bounty.”

Elizabeth Montagu, mezzotint engraving, by John Raphael Smith, after a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, published 10 April 1776. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Elizabeth Montagu, mezzotint engraving, by John Raphael Smith, after a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, published 10 April 1776. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It is the reference to Hetherington’s Bounty which is particularly significant here. This was an annuity of £10, to be given to one of 50 blind people “objects of charity, not being beggars, nor receiving alms from the parish” (London Evening Post, 29 March 1774–31 March 1774) from a bequest of £20,000 given by Hetherington to Christ Church Hospital. While Hetherington’s intentions were praised as noble, the extent to which his charitable donations were able to ameliorate the conditions of those both poor and blind in London as a whole was called into question.

The celebrated philanthropist Jonas Hanway quantified the blind poor of the metropolis, organizing them into categories based on age and ability to sustain themselves. Hanway finds that the poor urban blind in need of Hetherington’s bequest amounted to over 600, concluding that “we must turn our thoughts to a more practicable mode, distinguishing the most distressed, and appealing to the most affluent and charitable” (Jonas Hanway, Defects, p. 262).

Anna Williams is clearly aware of the excessive demand being placed on the Hetherington annuity, as well as its informal process of deciding who was a valid candidate, claiming that submitting to it would be “trusting to Chance”, making it little more than a lottery.

Thus we can see, in these three stories, the ways in which those recognized as blind responded to the changes in society within their own communities and times across the period of the Enlightenment. Vermaasen recognized the public and philosophical potential of his unique sensory gift, and exploited it to build an identity in the early Enlightenment scientific drive to investigate and elucidate the strange or unknown of the previous generation. Blacklock saw the potential in new secular power structures developing in the universities and formal or informal circles of intellectual patronage to develop a political and pedagogical identity outside of the church. Williams, while herself benefitting from the informal patronage of the eighteenth century social network, was witness to the burgeoning impersonal, “telescopic philanthropy”, which would become a standard model of Victorian social enterprise.

A different version of this blog post appeared on Electronic Enlightenment.