Fingerworks for Fireworks

Describing Celebration of Light fireworks at English Bay 2015 (Rick Lin photo)

Describing Fireworks

An Experiment in Accessibility



Collin van Uchelen is one of our board members who has vision loss and he has been a longtime fan of the annual fireworks competition at English Bay. He has presented me with the challenge and the opportunity to describe tonight’s Celebration of Light for him (July 30, 2014). He has attended more fireworks displays than I have, including last Friday’s Celebration of Light with a friend who did some describing for him.

I never would have thought that someone with vision loss would be interested in having fireworks described. And I realize that my assumption isn’t that far removed from many theatre/gallery/museum administrators who might assume that people with vision loss aren’t interested in attending live performance, visual art exhibits, or sight-seeing tours.

Is our board member the only blind person in town who is interested in having the fireworks described? If VocalEye describes this event next year, would anyone else with low vision come? I’d like to find out… but first, how the heck do I describe these things?

I’ve found some glossaries of firework terms and effects, some of them illustrated with still photos or video. I’ve got a lineup of last year’s Celebration of Lights YouTube videos for practice and Friday night’s from Global BC.

I contacted some people involved with the event, hoping to get some information from the creative team. I also reached out to audio description users and colleagues for advice.

I received some excellent notes from Roz Chalmers of VocalEyes UK:

“First of all, they’re noisy, so you need to think where your audience will be and if the equipment will do the job!  You need to know what kind of perspective you’ll have of them – will you be in an elevated area or in and amongst the crowd?  Before the event, give a description of the crowd – are there kids on parents’ shoulders – are people hanging off scaffolding to get a better view – are they all crammed together or dotted about on a hill – that kind of thing.  Where is it taking place – give an overview of the surroundings, the buildings, the light, the sky. The audience is part of an exciting communal experience, and the visual atmosphere and context is vital.

Describing the fireworks themselves means giving an idea of their movement – some shoot straight up before exploding, others whirl in a spiral, some shatter into thousands of sparks, others tumble like a scarlet waterfall or float in a glittering silver shower.  Describe their colours (obviously) and the shapes they make.  Think about some movement verbs, coll, jet, spin, spiral, whirl, whisk, burst, spurt, shoot, spatter, splatter, spurt, gush, rain, spray, scatter, dart, whizz, zoom, float, flitter – and their light quality – dazzling, blazing, shimmering, glittering, sparkling, glowing, glimmering, twinkling.  What’s the light like on the faces of the crowd, where is the smoke drifting?

Delivery:  It’s exciting, thrilling, so no speak-your-weight-machine delivery.  Firework displays usually build, saving the best till last, so keep your powder dry so you’ve got somewhere to go at the climax!”

And Teri Grossman from Total Description Services in Los Angeles:

“The only thing I would add to Roz’s excellent suggestions is the audible oooh and aaah of the crowd. If you can time your description to allow your patron(s) to have a similar experience that would be ideal.”


Collin was familiar with the names of the effects, so I did lots of research and practiced beforehand. We met at English Bay hours ahead of time and fought our way through the crowd to find a place to sit on the beach.

The ocean was calm and the sunset was spectacular. There was a silver sliver of a crescent moon hovering in the sky. Time for Team France.

Having no idea of what was coming up, I soon fell into the play-by-play trap. Describing. Things. As. They. Were. Hap… pen… ing. Difficult to convey the position, the duration, the saturation, the layering, the rhythm, the relationship to the soundtrack… and so many other qualities.

Those names I researched and practiced were reduced to hollow jargon as the same effects were repeated over and over again.

I found it impossible to “see” the overall effect. I was describing things as they happened, without any sense of context. I could only describe what I noticed first and everything seemed to be given equal weight.

Feedback from Collin indicated that my play-by-play was both “too much” and “not enough”. In other words, too much useless description and not enough meaningful description. Like describing each limb of a dancer moving or each bit of stage blocking as it happens… who cares? what does it add up to?

Verbal description is linear… how to convey a sense of the use of space? the layering of effects? the simultaneous lower barge effects with the higher effects? the degree of saturation? the sheer bedazzlement?

At one point, there was a long trailing ember that lingered after a great barrage of shells, falling slowly and burning all the while. I described this to Collin and he asked me to trace the fall of the ember on his forearm and note the point when it extinguished. It stayed lit until it hit the water.

This tactile exchange was the most satisfying and rewarding descriptive communication of the evening. I was able to convey what was happening much more directly and Collin was able to picture it more directly without all those words…

Thinking about my frustration with the limits of verbal description, I kept returning to that moment. It made an impact on Collin as well…

So, our idea for the next phase of testing and experiment will involve using touch, to draw the effects using the person’s back as a canvas. This would allow us to communicate the rhythm, location, size, spacing and intensity with our hands. We can use verbal description to communicate colour and other details.

We’re kind of exited about the idea – we just have to see if it works in practice!

We also want to work with people who are blind who have never seen fireworks to determine if this technique would be of any value for them.


VocalEye tested a new tactile technique for describing fireworks for people with vision loss at the Honda Celebration of Light on July 29, 2015 in Vancouver. VocalEye’s Executive Director Steph Kirkland and Board Member Collin van Uchelen teamed up last year to find a way to describe fireworks for people who are blind and visually impaired. After trying to describe fireworks verbally in 2014, they came up with a new tactile technique called “FingerWorks” where the sighted describer “draws” the fireworks on the back of the person with vision loss, providing verbal cues about colour and shape. They tested this method in a workshop earlier this year and the feedback was so positive that they decided to try it at a live fireworks event.

Three VocalEye board members with vision loss participated in this experiment: Collin van Uchelen, Laura Mackenrot and Karim Damani; and four sighted describers: Anika Vervecken, Carolyn Vacheresse, Rachelle and Steph. Rick Lin took photographs.

It’s impossible to draw or describe 4,000 shell bursts in 20 minutes, but this technique helps the describers to convey a sense of the location, speed and intensity of the bursts, the rate of decay, rhythm, shape and relative size. Tactile cues were supported by verbal descriptions of colour, shape and other qualities. These combine with the sound of the music, the shells exploding and the crowd reactions, stimulating the imagination of the receiver and allowing them to paint their own mental picture.

The receivers had experienced fireworks at an earlier age, before losing their sight.

Overall, the response was very positive. The technique is simple, accessible and easy to share. It doesn’t require any special equipment or cost anything to try it out.

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