For some time now, especially in the last couple of years, I have been working as an audio describer full time.
|Me at work, wearing headphones, sitting in front of a mic.|
I am the voice in your ear. whether it's a live event - such as a play - an accessible gallery exhibit, or a film: even that hokey reality show you were always curious about, but never really got before. Chances are, here in Canada anyway, that you have heard me at some point providing audio description for these things.
What is audio description? (one might ask who is unfamiliar with the techniques)
Audio Description (video description) (AD\DV) provides narration of the visual elements— action, costumes, settings, and the like—of theatre, television/film, museums exhibitions, and other events.
The technique allows those who are blind or have low-vision the opportunity to experience arts events more completely—the visual is made verbal.
A describer speaks in the silences between dialogue and must be concise and accurate with their words.
Just to dispel any confusion - this is not the same thing as Captioning or ASL, which is are devices unto themselves with their own rules and techniques. I often get calls asking me to do ASL for shows. Sadly, this is not a skill I possess. Those callers (yes, the produces of the shows) have no clue what the difference is. They're just looking for someone to do the work because someone decided to make the show accessible. Having no idea about accommodation, or the needs of disabled people, they get terribly confused when I try to 'splain the difference. They have a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that not seeing is very different from not hearing.
While the process of describing each of these examples is a bit different respectively, it serves the same overall purpose: to open up a world that has remained closed to many for so long.
So, now that I have a good deal of experience under my belt I feel that I am more than qualified to speak up about some things - a reality check as it were - on the state of the practive, and where, I personally, think it should go in future.
Just a note of interest: I am probably the only vision impaired describer in Canada, if not in the entire world. I can't confirm that, but I'm fairly confident of it. I'd love to know if there is anyone else. I'm used to that. In all my years of working in the arts, not a whole lot of blind folks have been involved in the arts on a professional level - at least not in Canada. This is due to isolation, non inclusive practices, and a whole plethora of reasons and excuses. The silence of blind people in this country is deafening when it comes to the arts, and participation in inclusion issues in general. But this is a different subject. I've only met a handful of blind people who have made the arts their calling, sadly. And I speak purely from a Canadian perspective. I know situations differ in other countries.
You may think this is a pretty weird profession for someone who is legally blind. Admittedly, yes, it is a bit strange. But I absolutely love it - and I have a very unique perspective. I understand intimately what is required regarding the information I need to convey to the audience. And now it has become a passion - and, may the gods help me, a mission. I have become an advocate.
In this post I will start by explaining how the AD\DV process works breaking it down into three categories: Live Describe (live events such as sports, theatre and presentations). Described Video (Film and Television) and finally pre-recorded events such as guided tours and gallery and museum exhibits.
Let's clear something up. Live audio description is NOT done on the fly - unless it is a sports event or something unscripted and is happening in real time. Not to be confused with colour commentary, which is something completely different.
|Live performance: a band on stage in a large concert venue.|
Generally, the describer follows a script that has been developed along with, in the case of theatre, the script of the show being performed. They are usually out of view of the audience, and speak through an FM headset. Those using the service are seated in the house and listen through headphones to the describer.
The AD script is developed (usually) by the describer who attends several rehearsals and previews of the show. This script not only contains descriptions of the show but has Pre Show Notes read by the describer prior to curtain. These notes describe characters, costumes, set, program notes, etc. Visual elements of the show that time does note permit describing during the action. These start about 15 minutes before curtain. So, it is important to arrive nice and early so that you don't miss out.
Other live events, such as sports (especially) require a different kind of prep. IMHO sports is an entire entity unto itself. I don't think it would be my strong point. You would have to know and understand the rules of the sport, the players, the venue and a whole myriad of things. When describing, since it's on the fly, you'd have to be very careful not to editorialize like a commentator - that's not your job. It's what is literally happening that is conveyed.
PRE RECORDED AUDIO DESCRIPTION
This is a rather enjoyable process - depending on the exhibit our tour. With information provided by the organization or artist a audio tour of the installation is built. This usually includes pertinent information about the facility as well as the exhibit itself and relevant information about the ehibiters, artist statements etc.
Using this information, a logical progression through the exhibit is scripted, directing the listener on how to move through the exhibit, and providing descriptions of the works or items as they go through the tour.
Often times these tours can be a bit more creative, as music, sound clips and other audio features can be added.
Once the script is complete, it is recorded, and any additional audio features are added.
The final recoding is delivered to the patron on listening device, which could be their own cell phone, or an "audio tour guide" player.
This includes film, TV, commercials, and documentaries.
|A screenshot of a Described Video recording session using ProTools.|
Traditionally, I guess, what has been done here is to have someone write a described script with dialogue marked in and out with time codes. Then the script is passed to a recordist, who (usually with the help of an audio engineer) records the timed script. Then the DV track is given to sound for mixing.
HOWEVER this is grossly inefficient. It costs way more to produce DV this way and takes a great deal longer. This "process" is one of the reasons so much goes un described. The excuse is that it's time consuming and expensive. And as we all know, money is everything in this business. This is how I was taught that it works.
BUT WAIT! There's another way. And it's way quicker and cheeper.
One person can do all of this if they have the right skill set. Well, almost all of it.
As a DV recordist, I am a one woman show.
I receive the finished picture, and using a recording software (in my case Pro Tools) I record the DV track myself. I follow along with the show, adding in appropriate DV as I go. With this method I can do 2-3 half hour shows in one day. 1, sometimes two 44 minute shows and it usually takes 2 days to do a feature (90 minutes). Once I'm done, the sound person mixes the finished product.
This is far cheeper, faster, and with a good describer, the finished product can be quite brilliant.
In my next post, I will cover the nuances of these process in more detail, specifically dealing with Described Video..
For now - keep listening.