Lim­ited sight, un­lim­ited vi­sion

Vis­ual im­pair­ment doesn’t stop Paul Demeyer, who says his dis­abil­ity has made him a bet­ter di­rec­tor.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Richard Verrier

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 toprated 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, forg-

ing a suc­cess­ful ca­reer in Hol­ly­wood as an award­win­ning di­rec­tor of an­i­mated movies and TV shows.

“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.

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 L. A. 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 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 f low 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.”

Kirk McKoy Los An­ge­les Times

AN­I­MA­TION DI­REC­TOR Paul Demeyer is legally blind in one eye and has no pe­riph­eral vi­sion.

Kirk McKoy Los An­ge­les Times

PAUL DEMEYER,

left, con­fers with di­rec­tor Michael Daedalus Kenny about “Miles From To­mor­row­land.”

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