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A New Appreciation for Audio Description

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Written by: Mark Vomend

While at the John Slatin AccessU event in Austin, TX recently, I had the opportunity to learn more about audio description.  What is audio description you ask?  Audio descriptions provides a narrative of visual cues in movies, television shows, commercials, and other types of visual media so that visually impaired users can have a similar experience as sighted users.

Before taking this micro-class, I had heard of audio description and had seen them in action, but never really understood how it worked.  I now have serious respect for the people who create this content.  There are several nuances that an audio-describer must consider when watching visual media.  First, how much time is there between dialogue, loud action sequences, or the music score to add a description?  Second, what visual cues need to be described?  Third, how do you describe the visual cues?  These three points are only a small part of the audio description process.

In terms of time, a scene may only have eight seconds between one person speaking and another person speaking.  That does not seem like a lot of time to communicate things like complex facial expressions.  And how should facial expressions or emotions be described?  Are there other cues like the sound of sniffling that might allow someone to understand a character is crying or should the description say a character is crying?  What about including information like the name of the director of a movie? (the answer is yes by the way, credits at the beginning of a movie or TV show must be read)  As I said, there is a lot that an audio-describer needs to consider when creating content.

Then there is the question of how the content is created. What type of tools does an audio-describer need?  One of the most important tools is the ability to watch the visual media over and over and over again, starting and stopping the visual media to be able to figure out how much time they have and where content can be added.  The audio-describers will also often write scripts that help to determine how much can be said during the limited time between other sounds.  The scripts are then read and recorded in the snippets of time available for the description as they will be edited into an overall sound track later.  As for what to describe, it is OK to talk about colors but calling out specific emotional reactions like smiling or crying should be left to a minimum as these may be considered subjective.  Who knew smiling could be considered subjective?

Overall, what I learned about the job of audio description is that it is not for the faint of heart. To create quality description takes a lot of practice and commitment that I can now truly appreciate.

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