For those not familiar with audio description, it’s painting a picture with words for those that are unable to look at a screen, including Blind and visually impaired people.
There are many samples you can watch to get a sense of how audio description works. It’s painting a picture between natural pauses in the soundtrack of a production. It’s also great for podcasts and radio listeners, too. Audio description can benefit so many people, including sighted people that are unable to look at a screen because they are busy or because they are listening to an audio only podcast.
Audio description is very different from closed captioning. It’s an art as well as a science. It isn’t just about interpreting what someone sees, it’s crafting a visual interpretation to go along with the ebb and flow of the scene as well as the whole production. Up until now, Blind and visually impaired people rarely had opportunities to shape and craft audio description. That’s changing.
Blind and visually impaired people are audio description narrators, engineers, Quality Control specialists, people that are basically script editors that make sure the script makes sense to the intended audience, and writers. Blind and visually impaired people are getting involved in the making of audio description. I’m here to talk about some tips I’ve learned as a Blind audio description writer.
For a brief rundown of my audio description work, check out my work with Social Audio Description or see my work on other films and TV shows including those found on popular streaming services.
My process for writing audio description is very involved. I first watch the production several times taking copious amounts of notes on sounds I hear as well as key sounds conveyed by the production. Key sounds could include music tempo, noticeable background sounds, the cadence of the music for a particular scene, and more. If a script is available, I read the full script before watching the production.
I take down timestamps and other key factors into a notepad. I then pull from a diverse roster of assistants I handpicked for this particular task. These people are different races, genders, sexualities, and otherwise. It’s important for me to get at least four differing perspectives on a scene or production. I’ll sometimes use Aira when none of my assistants are available, but I lean on my assistants first. They know me better. They know, generally, what I’m looking for and they have a more general idea of how I’m going to ask the dozens upon dozens of questions I’ve prepared ahead of time.
I ask my assistants these questions I’ve crafted based on the sounds I hear, the accents I hear, the background noises I hear, and otherwise. I don’t let just any random person be my audio description assistant. I want my audio description assistants to have some key skills in place before I begin.
Some of my criteria for audio description assistants are,
They have to read a lot. This helps with explaining what they mean if something is unclear. They don’t need to be writers in order to internalize how to drill down and describe a scene. As people read books, they pick up phrases and that helps them expand upon concepts and descriptions.
They need to know film terms. I like using film terms in my audio description and I want someone that knows what a cut is, and I want someone that knows what a fade in is versus a cut to a scene.
They need to work in the fashion industry or at least love fashion. I want someone that can tell me the difference between a floral print dress versus a knee-high skirt.
I write my scripts in Google Docs or Microsoft Word with timecodes.
After all the questions are answered to my satisfaction, I’ll sometimes call Aira if I want to have an outside opinion, but usually, my team at Social Audio Description is more than willing to jump in to be that one outside pair of eyes, to ensure my notes align with someone that isn’t close to the production.
My team at Social Audio Description is also more than willing to be my audio description assistants for SADC projects when my usual roster is in short supply.
After all notes are complete, I then just write the audio description script. That’s it. There’s nothing more to it. My writing background helps a lot with this task. It sure does come in handy when I need to reach for a verb or an adjective that’s one syllable.
Even though my writing background helps me immensely with this task there are several things I’ve had to learn as an audio description writer. I’d like to lay down some tips and tricks I’ve learned in the hopes that these tips and tricks help you in the future.
Read your audio description script out loud.
I’ve done this a few times before sending it off to the narrator. I’ve read my own scripts out loud to myself several times to ensure the timing fits.
Sometimes, one word is better than two.
If possible, and if you’re crunched for time, one word that appears to be a longer word might fit better than the two shorter words you were initially going for.
Don’t try to imagine your narrator.
When I was starting out, I’d keep trying to envision the narrator before writing. I’d imagine a narrator’s voice before even beginning to write and that left me thinking I should write less because I believed my imaginary narrator would speak slowly. Try not to worry about the narrator. It isn’t your job to worry about how the narrator will sound. Be cognizant of the complicated words you’re giving them, but they have their own part to play. You should write to your satisfaction first. If adjustments need to be made later based on the narrator, that’s far easier to do than adding to your script because you were imagining a narrator and not writing enough.
Don’t be afraid to use a thesaurus.
I use many tools at my disposal. I have a Word of the Day alert sent to me every morning through my smart speakers. My biggest tool when reaching for a word is an online tool called WordHippo. It helps in my fiction writing too. WordHippo takes some getting used to with a screen reader but it’s well worth it. I love this tool and use it daily to craft my writing.
My audio description is a little bit more literary than most, but that’s okay. My voice is my own voice, and I think that’s perfectly fine. I have my own writing style and that’s perfectly fine. This brings me to my last tip.
Don’t try to hide your writing voice.
People will try to tell you that audio description shouldn’t be novelized or subjective. Films and other kinds of art will never be objective, so why should you try and hide your writing voice? Of course, audio description isn’t a novel, but don’t be afraid to inject some of your personality into your audio description scripts. If you want to novelize by using adjectives like beseechingly, angrily, furiously, ghastly, go for it. Your goal isn’t to please everybody. your goal is to provide audio description that’s true to you. You’re providing a service, yes, but your script is your script, and people are free to like it or hate it. Diversity in audio description is never a bad thing. Obviously, remember who you’re providing a service for, though. This service isn’t for you exclusively. It’s for your Blind and visually impaired audience but you can make your scripts your own way. People are free to have their beloved audio description writers and their most hated. That’s what advances conversations. Advancing dialog is always a good thing.