Creating Audio Description (AD) is an interesting area of work. To be placing information into gaps and moments not necessarily intended for AD yet the art of placement and conciseness is quite the skill.
What got your interests in AD?
I have my bachelor’s degree in literature and have been writing creatively for over a decade. I am also a huge TV and film addict. I have always loved how films and TV find unique ways of telling a story. When writing my own creative work, I enjoy writing the description more than anything else. The last year I was in college, I was looking for a job and found an opening with my company for a Captioner position. I sent in my resume and was surprised when my boss contacted me for an interview as an Audio Describer instead. Part of the interview process is a test where we are given clips from 4 different types of shows, and we have 90 minutes to describe each one. My boss told me not to worry if I don’t finish all of them, no one does. He was shocked when I not only finished them, but also had gone back and edited my work a couple times. I was hired a week later. I didn’t even know about Audio Description before that. During the 5 years I’ve been with my company, I’ve become very passionate about accessibility and I love my job. It’s uniquely suited to my skill set and personality.
I edit audio all the time and I find myself listening for edits or inserts and the mechanics, do you find yourself watching a random movie and thinking about AD?
I eat, drink, breathe, and dream about AD. When I’m home, I turn on the TV while I’m cooking, cleaning, etc. And I know that any time I have to look at the screen to understand what’s happening in the program, that’s when I would put AD. When I go to the movies, I look at all the posters to see what studio is releasing it. If it’s a studio we work with, I go home and look up the trailers, so I can strategize how to handle the description for it. I also often think to myself when watching a movie that would be challenging to describe, “Oh, I’m so glad I didn’t have to work on this.” LOL.
Do you get feedback from a Blind/Visually Impaired (BVI) person(s)?
Unfortunately, we don’t get much feedback from the community. Mostly we get feedback from the clients. I find this frustrating because the BVI community is who I’m writing for, not the clients.
Does the person that does the voice ever give you feedback?
We do get some feedback from the voice artists. We take their opinions into consideration, and will sometimes make changes based on them. There are a lot of things to consider on our end though, so we can’t make changes based on their feedback too often. I have to think about the fact that some narrators have trouble saying some things, no matter how much we work with them. We also try to keep some things vague for a reason, usually locations that not everyone would know because not all viewers are from that area. We also have to stick to what the client wants. And during broadcast season, we have a tight mix schedule and can’t waste a lot of time making changes in the mix room.
Do you write with a tone for each movie or is your descriptions pure narrative and neutral?
I wrote for the tone of the film/show/episode. Kids shows, the AD is more simply worded, more youthful and bubbly. Horror movies, the AD is darker and more grotesque. Period pieces and dramas, the AD is more prosaic and emotional. Action movies, the AD is more exciting and punchy.
How do you see the future in AD, I know it is getting more availability, from your perspective, is AD getting more awareness from the industry?
The industry is a lot more aware. We are getting so much more work, especially streaming work. The movie studios could do a better job providing more content, but some of them are providing a lot more than when I first got hired. I’m hoping this uptick is a step in the right direction. We are providing AD for commercials now, 4D theme park experiences, and trailers.
As a BVI person, I love the seamlessness of watching an AD movie that has just enough AD. Not too much as sometimes an awkward silence says a lot. How tough is it to find that balance?
We have several unwritten rules/questions we ask ourselves: Is the visual more important than the dialogue here, thus warranting talk over? How much information does the dialogue give us about what is happening visually? Does the weight of the dialogue warrant no description or a pregnant pause before description starts? Do I think the scene is confusing without clarification through description? I also try to work around sound effects, music changes, and extradiagetic lyrics that I feel convey the emotion of the scene or a character’s feelings and thoughts.
Unfortunately, I don’t always get a say in the final result because we have some clients who want wall to wall description, regardless what we try to tell them.
Describe your process from start to finish when taking on a new movie/project.
For TV shows that I’ve been working on for years, I no longer watch the episode before describing it because I know it well enough to know what to expect. It’s faster that way, and I can also go back and change my description if I get to the end and find I need to fix something. Like if we find out a character isn’t who they said they were in the beginning.
For non-new release movies that will air on TV or a streaming service, I only watch it first if I’ve never seen it. Honestly though, that’s rare when it comes to me. I watch everything.
For new release films, I watch the trailer for the film to get an idea what to expect. I then watch the movie first and makes notes on anything I find that needs to be conveyed in description. I think about how I would describe someone’s appearance, what acting decisions are being made, along with what directorial, narrative, sound design, and cinematic decisions were made.
I then tell my boss which narrators I think would fit the project, but this doesn’t always go my way. Sometimes, I’m out voted by my bosses or the client, or the narrators I want are not available.
We describe films reel by reel, and generally have around 3 people working on the same film, so communication between us is key in order to keep things consistent. We have a database where we can share details and notes as we all work on a project. I then watch the film again as I describe, mapping out places where AD should be and writing what the narrator will read.
Once the description is finished for the film, the script goes to an editor/Post Production Supervisor (PPS). That’s my job title, PPS. Only one PPS works on a film. Our job is to watch the film and make notes, then watch the film again as we edit description. For the editing process, my job is to check for accuracy and consistency, research what something is if I question it, rewrite sentences if they are clunky, too hard to say, or awkward, time out the description for the narrator so the description happens as the action is happening when we can, add description if we feel the visual needs clarification, cut description if we feel it’s unnecessary.
After I have finished editing the script, I print out three copies, one for me, one for the narrator, and one for the audio engineer. We then schedule a mix and book the narrator.
On the day of the mix, I hand the narrator their script, and the audio engineer gets them set up in the sound booth. The audio engineer and I then go into a separate room where the mix board, TVs, and computers are. I communicate with the narrators through an intercom system. They hear my voice through their headphones, and we hear everything they say into the microphone. And I mean we hear everything, page turns, mouth noise, chair squeaks, clothes rustling, them shifting, belching, throat clears, stomach noises, etc. The mic picks it all up, and it’s my job and the audio engineer’s job to keep track of it.
We record reel by reel as the film plays for us and the narrator. I mark my script wherever I want retakes, to check a visual, or to change description. At the same time, the audio engineer also places markers in the ProTools session where he needs to do clean ups, feels a retake is needed, questions the description based upon the visual, or where he needs to go back and change the volume levels on AD based upon the volume of the program audio.
After the recording and all the retakes, we let the narrator go, and the audio engineer and I move description around to put things to picture, get off dialogue, or get off sound effects. The audio engineer then does his cleanups and volume alterations while I attend to other projects.
When he finishes, we then watch the film again, going cue to cue to double check description with the AD track and mark any places where we might need to bring the narrator back for fixes. A QC person then watches the film with AD and makes notes where they feel we might need to bring the narrator back. If we need to bring a narrator back, I then make changes in the script and print 3 copies of the pages we need and record those changes with a narrator.
The AD is then sent to another post house where the Digital Cinema Package (DCP) is wrapped. The film is then screened by the client. If everything goes well, we deliver the final files to the client. If something needs to be fixed our company has to pay $1200 to rewrap the DCP, as well as incur any cost for bringing narrators back.
Knowing that your work is intended for the BVI community, and that the community is a small percentage of the viewers of movies, it makes me believe that the feedback is hard to come by and the rewards are the fact that you are doing something for people who need AD is your solace or resolve.(?)
That’s exactly correct. I always wanted a career where I felt that I was helping people. I love that I am able to provide a service that enriches the community member’s lives.
How can people get feedback to you or to an AD team?
Have the community members contact the companies that provide AD directly. Try to contact the studios directly if you can. Be loud in the media about more accessibility. The negative press that Netflix got over not having AD when they launched Daredevil lit a fire under the butts of a lot of studios.
Now, I have a few questions for you…
What do you consider to be good description versus bad description? For instance, what shows do you feel have good description?
I easily recognize characters voices without having to see their face or being told who is speaking? Do you find that the BVI community also feels this way?
We try to avoid talking about race if it is not plot relevant. Do you feel that this is a mistake?
Does the community wish that AD were available in multiple languages?
Does the community wish that AD were more akin to literary writing? Or are you happy for it to not be like that?
If a film is primarily about a man’s experience, would you rather the narrator be Male? Same question for a movie primarily about a woman’s experience?
Are there any shows in which you would like a different narrator on?
Does it bother you when a show that usually has one narrator has an episode in which another narrator is used?
For films like 50 Shades of Grey, do you feel the description should not hold back based on the content of the story?
Does the amount of staring in description bother you?
Do you feel that using a larger vocabulary in description is good/bad?
We would love to hear your responses to these questions. Submit your response to us by email.
Check out the Blind Abilities Communityon Facebook, the Blind Abilities Page, the Job Insights Support Groupand the Assistive Technology Community for the Blind and Visually Impaired.