Audio Description Snobbery

by Roy Samuelson

Blind people watch movies and TV shows. Like a sports radio announcer, audio description gives the play-by-play of the visuals. When my voiceover career brought me to audio description, it was an audition in a studio, where I sat in a room in front of a microphone, hearing in headphones, and watching both the video on a screen and reading a paper script on a music stand. I was directed and an engineer made sure the volume and timing were just right. Every moment of the recording, from the performance to the collaboration with the team, got me so excited I could barely sleep that night — not only because I wanted the job, but also because it brought so many performance elements of voiceover training into one job in such a uniquely nuanced way.

Since then, the audio description titles have grown to nearly 5,000! And consider a title is one show, and one show can have many episodes and seasons, that number is counting individual episodes, likely closer to 15,000 to 20,000! We’d have to check with the Audio Description Project at acb.org/adp to verify that, but the quantity is getting there.

Beyond quantity, audio description audiences are turning into snobs, in the best way possible. They are distinguishing between what works for them and what doesn’t.

The writing has been the main focus of most discussions of audio description quality — and rightly so! If a picture is worth a thousand words, and one second of a movie is 24 frames or pictures per second, right there in that one second of a movie is 24,000 words the audio description writer has to choose from. Now in a 90-minute movie, that can be in the millions of words! Writers then have to narrow down even more to fit in between lines of dialogue. Plus, make sure the writing style, word choice, and phrasing also don’t distract from the immersive experience.

Just like going to the theater to see a Shakespeare play, someone could either be moved to tears because the actors are using the text in a way that taps into something deep and heartfelt, or someone else could also hear that same exact text performed in a way that brings you to tears — because you can’t wait for intermission to leave and never come back. Audiences are noticing that the performance can mean an immersive experience similar to what sighted audiences have, where the audio description voice talent is focused on the story and not the voice talent.

And what about timing? If audio description is unintentionally talking while characters are talking, it’s distracting. Also, being left out of the joke because the audio description was holding back, and everyone else is laughing, or the opposite — a jump scare where the audio description audience gets the experience way before the rest of the audience does. Setting that timing is the sound editor’s job, to make sure the experience syncs up with sighted audiences.

Sometimes the audio description gets in the way of the original audio, where the audience has to turn the volume up and down, constantly having to make adjustments, or miss out on the sound experience that was painstakingly created by many post-production sound experts. And other times the audio description blends in perfectly, and audiences can experience the highs and lows — and with audio description — due to the care and consideration given to the content.

And that’s not the end of the quality and excellence of audio description. Blind advisors give feedback as to what works for them and what doesn’t. In the dozens of projects I’ve produced, each one has had a paid blind advisor who gave the audio description what it needed, and it’s made all the difference.

Once the audio description is complete, does it even travel from cinema to streaming? There are licensing and legal reasons that the answer might be no, or even multiple versions, created by different companies — create audio description for the same show. Imagine the U.S. version of Spider Man starring Tom Holland, but the Canadian version has Debra Winger, and written by Trevor Noah. Yet some companies have figured this out, and the video, audio, audio description, and dubbing and subtitles all travel together. So it can be done.

All of these elements — writing, voicing, directing, editing, mixing, advising, and distribution — boil down to an immersive experience, in parity to sighted audience’s experience. It’s not a flip of a switch, or an automation, just in the same way that films don’t just simply come together. A lot of care, coordination, and expertise goes into this.

Yet, as more of this work comes out, many shortcuts are taken to get more content with audio description to audiences. While audio description audiences are grateful to even have audio description, a poorly executed audio description track can hurt their immersive experience. Yet systemic changes are starting to happen as more audiences continue to speak up and demand the kind of experience they want, beyond just having it. Audio description snobs could number nearly 30 million blind and low vision Americans. And their voice needs to be heard.

ACB’s Audio Description Project at acb.org/adp provides lots of researchable content. Discover more about resources there. Hear more about the quality of audio description from the 2020 ACB convention keynote speech. Also, why not also visit the nearly 80 interviews of professional audio description talents — writers, voice talents, engineers, and other experts, blind and sighted, at theADNA.org/know-your-narrator and on most all podcast platforms. And be sure to visit kevinsWay.com to learn more about bridging the gap between audio description audiences and the entertainment industry.

This blog post was featured in ACB’s February Edition of the E-Forum.

One comment

  1. Here is another unexpected issue with the awesome service which is Audio Description. When the writer is describing a text message conversation between two or more characters, it becomes a bit tricky. Not only does the writer and therefore the narrator have to convey the conversation, they try their best to clarify who is saying what, who is sending, who is receiving, any visible reactions displayed by one character in response to the other’s reply, and anything else happening in the background while the conversation is taking place. It can be confusing at times not only for the visually impaired viewer, but the describers as well. Oh yes, don’t forget subtitles.

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