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Audio description: say what you see

Visually impaired or blind people can enjoy television programmes and movies, almost as if they were normally sighted, through the application of audio description. Dave Robinson listens to a man who knows more than most about it.

The journalist walks across the car park. He knocks on the door of the office. A woman lets him in and escorts him to the first floor. He sits on a sofa. After a minute, a second man approaches, smiling and offering a handshake.

“Hello, I’m James O’Hara.”

One definition of audio description, according to O’Hara (pictured), could be “a commentary woven around the dialogue, soundtrack and sound effects of a TV programme or cinematic film in order to make it accessible to blind and partially-sighted people.” The describer details what’s going on, what people look like, or where they are in a scene, for instance. “It’s like a talking book – with this other voice ushering you through to the end,” suggests O’Hara.

The managing editor of itfc’s AD department has been immersed in the industry since 1994. “Audio description is not something that should be ignored. A blind person has as much right to see the new Harry Potter film on the day it’s released as anyone else in the country.”

“I believe passionately in what I’m doing,” he adds.

Back in the early ’90s, the AUDETEL consortium (comprising broadcasters, manufacturers and organisations with an interest in the visually impaired) ran an experiment on British television, whereby four hours of audio description were transmitted alongside a selection of soaps – Coronation Street, for one – and other mainstream dramas. (The AD was piped in via a slice of the Teletext bandwidth; participants in the experiment had a set-top box style device giving them access.) O’Hara, formerly a broadcaster and announcer with the BBC, was asked to participate, “because I have a deep voice” and worked for ITV Technology Centre.

As a result of the experiment, the 1996 Broadcasting Act made AD compulsory on Digital Terrestrial Television, with a requirement for 2% of programming to be AD-ready, and for this to increase to a maximum of 10%. O’Hara was invited to join itfc with a view to setting up an AD department to service this need, and has since been a part of the successful itfc operation, which now employs 10 describers in west London and a pool of freelancers. Itfc was taken over by the Deluxe Entertainment Services Group in August 2010.

“Now the broadcasters have agreed to do 20% description,” he notes, “which means that a blind person can come home from work and have a choice of programmes to enjoy.”

The emphasis in AD is that word ‘description’. “We don’t tell the audience what to think about the programme, we don’t interpret what we see, we simply try to describe it.” (O’Hara emphasises this several times during the meeting.)

So a describer is more likely to say “he raises his eyebrows and opens his mouth” than “the figure looks startled”. “We try to leave it to the viewer to decide exactly what that emotion should be,” he says.

O’Hara – fond of peppering his conversation with anecdotes – recalls a conversation he had with a viewer of the AD version of the movie WTC: when asked what he thought about the film, the viewer said “it was too long, like a typical Oliver Stone film.” “But he didn’t mention or criticise the audio description at all – he’d just appreciated the movie like a normal sighted person. Which means we’re doing our job correctly.”

Content receiving the AD treatment from itfc tends to be mainstream material: Minder, CSI, Neighbours, “even some old Terry And June episodes”.

“We’ve been asked, why not get a computer to do the voicing? The blind people I talked to screamed in horror when I suggest that,” he says. “You have to pace the description. A Merchant Ivory film has to be paced differently to a Bond film. We try, with horror movies and comedies, to have the blind viewer laughing or screaming at the same time as the sighted viewer. It doesn’t always work, but we try.”

The AD process is fairly straightforward. The describer watches the content, and produces a timecoded script of what needs to be said and where, using Softel’s Swift Adept preparation and recording software. After rehearsing each line, and checking that it fits in the space allocated, the describer performs a punch in-punch out record. Then at the end of a session, individual files are compiled into one contiguous track, with the fade data on a second track, transferred to a master alongside the stereo audio tracks (digibeta format is the norm) and returned to the broadcaster.

Though the office is fairly open plan, itfc has a couple of sound booths for more intensive work. O’Hara takes PSNE downstairs to view one. Again, it’s a simple set-up: Audio-Technica 8410a mic runs into a Junger Audio V01 digital voice and meta processor, and then to the computer. On the screen, the script reads: “Ginger cat jumps off a slate roof”. It’s Coronation Street! But these are the opening titles – surely they don’t have to do be refreshed every episode?

“We take titles for granted but some people like to watch them and hear the music. So why not blind people too?”

Good point. So, what makes a good audio describer?

“They must have the ability to write and not interpret. The backgrounds of our people are very different: one is an actor, one a film editor, one came straight from college…”

Must they have a certain type of voice?

“One of our first employees was an American. I was told, ‘She’ll never do Coronation Street’, I said she could, and she did! It doesn’t matter about the accent, as long as you can understand the language. Someone else said to me, it would be great if Anthony Hopkins did audio description. But I say no: viewers would be too busy listening to the tone of his voice than to what he actually said. The only complaints we have is that they speak too quickly, or if it sounds like they are reading a shopping list. I’m training five new voices at the moment: not to be BBC newsreaders; rather, how to get their message across.”

O’Hara finishes with another of his many stories: “I was watching a DVD of Spider-Man 2 with my two godsons, and we had the audio description channel active. One of them turned around and asked in disbelief, “James, is that you?” I said, yes – I thought, fantastic, these lads will think their godfather works on Spider-Man! Then five minutes later, the other boy turns around and says, “James, can we turn you off now please?”

Dave Robinson