What is Audio Description?
The classic question. You can find the answer on almost any post production company’s website in brief or extreme, but always dry, detail. For the fans at home, let’s do this one last time: What is audio description?
Audio description is a form of voice over narration supplementing visual media to inform blind and visually impaired audiences of critical visual elements. In film and television, the narrator’s descriptions are spoken between dialog and pertinent sound effects. They provide the content of on-screen action, facial expressions, text and innumerable other relevant visual elements. In addition, they bring context to the lines of dialog and sound effects they squeeze between. Ideally, a track of audio description voice over will enable a totally blind audience member to understand a movie’s overall story as well individual moments’ fleeting thrills.
I provide some version of this explanation at least a dozen times a month. Whenever a conversation with a stranger gets far enough along to exchange each obligatory ‘So, what do you do?’ the question ‘What is audio description?’ is seldom far behind.
To be a producer of something the average person doesn’t know exists is quite strange. I certainly did not invent audio description. There are thousands of dedicated people who have nurtured and promoted this medium for decades. They are the ones who deserve credit for getting society to a place where audio description has finally penetrated the fringes of the general public’s consciousness.
And yet, in my daily life, I find myself the medium’s steward. On any given day, this classic question can and will come up, and when it does I become an ambassador. Our dialog may be the only exposure that my partner in conversation has to audio description in their life. Therefore, I feel a certain responsibility. Audio description is the only way for some people to experience the movies (my favorite art form) and without its promotion many of the most iconic films and shows remain inaccessible.
So, in my private moments, I think carefully about my answer to the question. How can I intrigue someone and get them to care about a previously unknown concept that doesn’t affect their life directly? The seeming contradiction of ‘movies for the blind’ is a cheap and effective hook, but perhaps at odds with what I hope to accomplish by informing people about audio description. What do I hope to accomplish exactly?
I want to show people what this medium does for millions of people around the world. As sighted individuals we tend to view visual media as cheap and disposable. It doesn’t take much effort to consume. We cook dinner, check our instagram and enjoy intimate brushes with a lover — meanwhile, the fifth consecutive episode of Beat Bobby Flay playing on the kitchen television seems no less enjoyable. We scroll past hundreds of posters, titles and plot descriptions on Netflix without spotting a single movie we’d like to watch. What is so important about visual media?
Some of my earliest memories come from watching The Terminator with my dad when I was five years old. A sense of taboo pervaded the ritual of sliding that VHS with the big bold ‘R’ on it out of the sleeve and into the player — away from my mother. From that point on, I saw my dad as a person who valued art more than social preconceptions of what was proper. I could go to him to access darker themes and worldviews, and he trusted me enough to take me there.
And of course I remember my mother walking in during the sex scene where Linda Hamilton bares her breasts. She got cross with my dad, her body and expression shifting to the posture I would come to know as ‘you’ve crossed the line’. Dad quickly covered my eyes with one of his large hands. I tried to push it away, thinking ‘If I can watch Schwarzenegger murder an entire police precinct, I should be able to watch whatever’s going on here.’
Thankfully it’s only nudity that upsets my mother and once that scene ended she calmed down enough to let me experience the most horrifying moment of my life thus far. Arnold’s skin melting off the robot skeleton, its red eyes glowing as the creature scraped and clawed its way through a narrow shaft toward the desperate, wounded Hamilton. I was screaming and my eyeballs were popping out of my head, but I wanted to be as close to the television as possible. I knew I had changed.
More than being an intense sensory experience with unforgettable movie moments, that screening revealed to me my family’s dynamic. I understood the most important people in my life more deeply because of it. If we really want to go there, it determined the trajectory not just of my career, but my entire life. That is what a movie could be to someone. That is what audio description could be to someone.
If you think that’s grandiose and sentimental… Well, you’re probably right. Let’s talk practicality.
We don’t necessarily realize how much discussion of visual media defines our social dialogue. Even if Sex and the City is not the focus of our conversation, when you say our friend Becca is such a Miranda, I understand your turn of phrase deeply because I have access to an important cultural touchstone. Thankfully, so might a blind person because HBO has provided audio description for Sex and the City.
What you might not realize is that when you and your buddies are having an exhaustive discussion about Game of Thrones, Tom, your VI friend, is sipping his beer silently, completely left out. Tom can’t tell you who he thinks will chop off John Snow’s dingus because he can’t watch Game of Thrones. Incredibly, the cultural phenomenon that’s streaming traffic used to crash HBO GO the night new episodes aired still doesn’t have audio description.
Movies and television are not just entertainment. They are stories and myths which inform our actions and permeate our society’s lexicon. Many non-sighted people refer to the ways in which their disability isolates them from society. A lack of access to visual media is an example of this which we are finally addressing. For them, audio description is a means to participate in society.
Condensing all this to a couple of sentences in a brief encounter with a stranger remains a challenge. However I choose to answer the question, I hope my audience will understand the value, get excited and come up with their own questions. Then, hopefully, the second most popular question they’ll be asking won’t be, ‘how to turn off audio description on TV?’
I am totally blind, I anticipate and look forward to reading about your views on audio description. Questions I have: What is your favourite project you’ve worked on? What is the best audio description script you’ve read and what’s the worst? I enjoy this show In the Dark which is a crime/drama about a blind woman and her friends who at first get involved in solving a murder and then… but unfortunately the show although about a blind protagonist is not available in described caption, as far as I know. talk about irony.
I’m glad you’re excited about the series. My favorite project I worked on was the film “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”. It had a lot of surreal elements and small, subtle details that were fun to hunt down. It offered a unique challenge beyond just conveying plot.
Rather than name specific projects for ‘best’ and ‘worst’ I’ll tell you what qualities I think make the best scripts. The best description is vivid, informal and immediate while being seamless. As a sighted viewer, I can tell description is great when it conveys and integrates with the soundtrack and what’s onscreen so well that the VO drifts to my subconscious and I forget it’s there. The worst description is redundant, inaccurate and lacks detail. It describes things the audience can hear or infer from dialogue. It says a shotgun is a rifle. It completely omits the shadowy figure subtly standing in the corner in a horror movie. All of these things throw off seamlessness and make it incredibly grating to listen to as a sighted viewer. Worse, this type of description doesn’t inform and fools the non-sighted viewer who trusts it to be right. If you were looking for recommendations by asking what I thought the best was, don’t hesitate to ask and I’ll give you some!
It is ironic and frustrating that a show with a blind protagonist has no description. I’m sorry you can’t enjoy the show you like fully and will look into getting it described for you. While the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act is an amazing piece of legislature it has at least one failing: It only specifies that a certain percentage of companies’ content must be described and does not speak to the quality of the content described or provide any means for non-sighted individuals to choose what content they want described. One of my goals in running this blog is to connect and unify the visually impaired community to give you a voice to collectively decide what content you want described.
Thanks for your comment and have a great day!
Great insights, John! Looking forward to hearing more 🙂