Audio Description: art or industry?
First published in Dail (Disability Arts in London Magazine) magazine, November 2002.
DRIVE (UK 1997) is the first film to have audio description fully integrated into the production. DRIVE's director, Raina Haig, told me, 'I wanted a product that presented one seamless creative vision.' Raina was delighted that all the films had been audio-described at LDAF's (London Disability Arts Frorum) 2002 film festival. 'I'm in seventh heaven. This is the first time in over a decade in film that I'm at a film festival and feeling fully involved, fully absorbed rather than feeling as if I'm sitting on the outside. It makes me glad to be working in film.' However, Raina was critical of both the style and quality of audio description for film, both at the festival and in current practice. I asked her to tell us more about this.
Question: Is your criticism of the service currently provided by audio describers based on what is left out of the description or bad choice of what is being described?
Answer: Audio description is difficult to do. A film may use complex visual effects, whilst there is little space to fit in audio description between lines of dialogue, or sound effects. Even an apparently simple shot can contain a number of visual elements, presenting a dilemma for the audio description writer.
For example, a shot shows Joe sitting in his office. He sits on a battered old office chair, the revolving sort that wheels from desk to desk. Joe's knees swing slightly from side to side, moving the chair, giving him a brooding air of impatience. He leans back, hands in pockets. He looks moodily across the room. He's wearing a blue cotton open necked shirt, faded blue jeans and a beaten up pair of trainers. Behind Joe, a computer screen displays a scrolling screensaver that reads, 'Here's looking at you kid' etc. etc.
We haven't even begun to describe the office interior, the colleagues working around him, what's on his desk. However the shot may only offer a 3 second space maximum for audio description. How does the describer make their selection? In my opinion, they must study very closely the sequence that builds the mood, the pace, the emotional pitch of this particular moment in the narrative, to arrive anywhere near an accurate choice of words. They need to analyze shot size, angle, editing style, lighting.
When making a film, the filmmaker has made a series of deliberate choices about what is in each frame, to create a string of meaningful moments. To go back to our example, if the 3 second shot of Joe in his office is part of a film drama, then the description must tell us the key storytelling point of the shot, which might be, 'Joe, at his desk, looks moodily across the room.' It would be absolutely wrong for the describer to use up the short amount of time with: 'Joe is wearing a blue cotton open necked shirt.' However, if Joe is a model showing off an outfit in an office setting, the second sentence would be right.
Question: Then what is the best way for a describer to access the story? Isn't there a risk of over-interpretation?
Answer: What you've just said I think goes to the heart of the problem. Audio describers conventionally say 'We are not an interpretive service, we are simply providing an objective description'. There is no such thing in film. Every single frame is a complex event, the outcome of decisions made by the filmmakers, The audio description is necessarily a series of subjective decisions made in response to the film. So I think it is, inherently, an interpretative job. To do the job properly means understanding the essential elements of 'story' and how the film medium works in different ways to build a flow of narrative, or abstract, moments. Ideally, in my opinion, the description needs to be constructed in consultation, or even collaboration with the filmmaker.
Question: What do you think needs to happen for audio description to work better with film and moving image?
Answer: First of all, we have to regard the job of audio description as a part of the film industry. Those who write and deliver audio description get paid. It's a commercial enterprise alongside other areas of film, one which targets visually impaired audiences. Building on the success of the Disability Film Festival, I would like to see LDAF asking describers what training and experience they have in terms of film: technique and language.
Some visually impaired people say they don't like using audio description for film because they find it too distracting. I think that's because of the current, too often amateur, approach. I think more attention needs to be paid to use of language, cultural concepts, and you know, engagement with the technical aspects of the medium. A describer has to understand the processes of film making to a certain extent to be able to analyze what's going on. They need to learn how to attune themselves to the filmmaker's vision. I think this can only occur through training and exchange with filmmakers.
Audio describers need to have an appreciation and understanding of different cultural codes. There's an institute in San Francisco where people train for two three years to audio describe film, and audio description is regarded as an art form. A great deal of emphasis is placed on the communication of cultural codes. So for example you're watching a Japanese film, there's a lot of cultural meaning around the way people's hands are placed. Now some describers probably wouldn't know or notice this. So it's knowing stuff like that, and I think filmmakers can help to point describers in the right direction. Filmmakers could help by providing guidance notes for audio description. But I think the ideal is to involve the describer in a collaborative relationship with the filmmaker.
Question: Should describers have training in film making?
Answer: They certainly need to have an understanding of how and why film sequences are put together the way they are. They need to know about the elements within a frame - focus, dimension, layering, special effects versus naturalism. How else can they discuss their work with colleagues? How else can they really know what needs saying and what doesn't? Most describers for film in this country have learnt their craft in theatre, but have little or no experience describing film. So they may be good on performance, and costume, but totally ignorant when it comes to photography, editing style, shot size and shot flow. In one film the editing approach may be unimportant, but in another it may be part of what you're noticing, and that then has to be translated by the describer. The describer must re-create the experience of the film, whilst also knowing the information priorities of blind and partially sighted people. How can you do this highly technical job effectively without training in moving image analysis? Ironically, the blind or partially sighted person in the audience may, otherwise, have more understanding of photography and filmmaking than the describer. Visually impaired people do have family photos and home movies. We make amateur and dare I say professional films, and we watch movies with friends or hear about them. So, even if you're totally blind, you will more than likely have an understanding of the medium and a vocabulary. Describers need, also, to really research their audience, which of course is different for different films.
I'd like to see screen writers and filmmakers training and working as audio describers. What is the screenwriter's job after all but to conjure up the world of the film in words, for a metaphorically blind audience? I'd also like to see visually impaired people having the opportunity to work in the field as consultants or description writers and narrators.
Whoever the description writer is, they must be able to attune themselves to and recreate the filmmaker's creative vision, as expressed by the film. This means analysing all the elements, all the visual elements and the soundtrack, because the style of the audio-description, the pace, the rhythm, the delivery should be in keeping with that creative vision.
Question:Answer: I disagree with you. This would be like saying that the music on the soundtrack isn't an art form in itself because it's simply reflecting something in the film. Are you saying that the design in the film isn't an art form because it is simply reflecting something in the script, are you saying that direction is not an art form because it is simply reflecting? All of the elements of a film are interpretative of the script or of the story. Everything is a creative interpretation and I don't see the audio-description as any different. I see it as another part ideally of the creative interpretation of the essential story or piece. And in that sense it has to be part of the art form that is the whole film. But it's not an art in the sense that it stands alone, but neither does film music stand alone, neither does the design of the film stand alone, neither does the photography of the film stands alone. All these are constituent elements of the film as a whole. It's impossible to be there in the audience in two headspaces at once. Look at the great sport commentators. They get so excited because they're going with the emotion of the race. Otherwise they're on the outside, a distraction.
You have a group of artists: writer, director, actors, and designers, who collaborate on a creative project, the film. Well the audio describer to my mind is just one more participant in that project, and how can they work as part of an otherwise highly qualified team, without a sound basis in how film works? So I think audio description is an art, and a craft, and a service in the widest sense of the word.
Question: It seems that audio describers, who are not filmmakers, should engage in the art and craft of filmmaking to a level that they are actually filmmakers in a way, because they are part of the filmmaking process.
Answer: Yes. I'd like to see more discussion about this issue. I wish this kind of comment could be welcomed rather than seen as threatening by the audio describer 'community'. The audio description industry is still in its infancy. We need to share insights and skills, to improve creative standards, not be protectionist and self-promoting. However, if I voice what I consider to be a constructive criticism, I often feel like Oliver with his empty bowl asking for more food. Audio description providers react as though I'm ungrateful, unappreciative of the marvelous efforts that all these good people are making to help me. This does annoy me. This isn't charity we're talking about. It's a profession, albeit a new one.
As a film maker who is visually-impaired, with a passionate interest in audio description, I have often given demanding feedback about an area which I know something about. It worries me that the input of visually impaired professionals such as myself, who have relevant expertise, is not sought. Why not?
I would like to see LDAF challenge their audio describers to improve their service. Perhaps LDAF could help provide training for existing describers, and encourage screenwriters to take up the job, and involve blind and partially sighted people either as consultants or describers themselves. We need to set new creative standards instead of continuing to support what is becoming a somewhat complacent, self-promoting industry which cares too little for creative excellence in the art of audio describing film..
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