By Joel Snyder
Audio Description is a kind of literary art form. It’s a type of poetry–a haiku. It provides a translation—a verbal version of the visual: the visual is made verbal, and aural, and oral. Using words that are succinct, vivid, and imaginative, we convey the visual image that is not fully accessible to a segment of the population—new estimates by the American Foundation for the Blind now put that number at over 21 million Americans alone who are blind or have difficulty seeing even with correction—and not fully realized by the rest of us–the rest of us, sighted folks who see but who may not observe.
It’s useful for anyone who wants to truly notice and appreciate a more full perspective on any visual event but it is especially helpful as an access tool for people who are blind or have low
I often will ask attendees to let me help them see what description is all about by having them experience a video excerpt with the audio only, unaccompanied by audio description. What they experience is the original soundtrack of an excerpt from a major motion picture, “The Color of Paradise.” The audio at this point in the film contains no dialogue—only the sounds of birds, rustling, and a disembodied grunt or two.
What can be gleaned about the film when you’re limited to listening only? What’s going on? Hard to tell!
We then experience the same excerpt again—everyone is still blind, there will be no picture, but this time I add the add audio description which I wrote and voiced for the film when it was broadcast many years ago on ABC-TV. Does it make a difference to have the images translated into spoken words? I ask attendees to see—by listening. The experience is much more clear, of
But just from having listened closely to the description of the main character and his interaction with a tree, what can be gleaned about him? (Remember, the character would have been described much earlier in the film.) I ask attendees to consider the words of the audio description carefully and why the images chosen for description were included. Description, after all, is often about what not to describe. Inevitably some folks will pick up on the description of how the character uses his hands and uses his sense of hearing to explore the scene. That’s right—he’s a blind boy.
What follows is an annotated version of my audio description script (the seven annotations are listed at the end of the script):
1 Mohammed kneels and taps his hands through the thick ground cover of brown 1. curled leaves.
2 …[CHIRPING/RUSTLING :02]
3 A scrawny nestling struggles on the ground near Mohammed’s hand.
4 …[GASP/CHIRPING :02] 2.
5 His palm hovers above the baby bird. He lays his hand lightly over the tiny creature. Smiling, Mohammed curls his fingers around the chick and scoops 3. it into his hands. He stands and strokes its nearly featherless head with a fingertip.
6 …[CHIRPING/RUSTLE :01]
7 Mohammed starts as the bird nips his finger. He taps 4. his finger on the chick’s gaping beak. He tilts 4. his head back, then drops it forward. Mohammed tips 4. the chick into his front shirt pocket. Wrapping his legs and arms around a tree trunk, Mohammed climbs.
8 …[HEAVY BREATHING/CLIMBING :11]
9 He latches onto a tangle of thin, upper branches. His legs flail for a foothold. Mohammed stretches an arm between a fork in the trunk of the tree and wedges in his head and shoulder. His shoes slip on the rough bark.
10 …[SCRAPING :03]
11 He wraps his legs around the lower trunk, then uses his arms to pull himself higher. He rises into thicker foliage and holds onto tangles of smaller branches. Gaining his footing, Mohammed stands upright and cocks his head to one side.
13 An adult bird flies from a nearby branch. 5. Mohammed extends an open hand. He touches a branch and runs his fingers over wide, green leaves.
14 …[RUSTLING :03]
15 He pats his hand down the length of the branch. His fingers trace the smooth bark of the upper branches, search the network of connecting tree limbs, and discover their joints.
16 …[RUSTLE :02]
17 Above his head, Mohammed’s fingers find a dense mass of woven twigs–a bird’s nest.
18 …[CHIRPING :03]
19 Smiling, he removes the chick from his shirt pocket and drops it gently into the nest beside another fledgling.
20 …[CHIRPING :03]
21 He rubs the top of the chick’s head with his index 6. finger. Mohammed wiggles his finger like a worm 7. and taps a chick’s open beak. Smiling, he slowly lowers his hand.
1 – Color has been shown to be important to people with low vision, even people who are congenitally blind.
2 – Timing is critical in the crafting of description. We weave descriptive language around a film’s sound elements.
3 – Vivid verbs help conjure images in the mind’s eye.
4 – Description, like much poetry, is written to be heard. Alliteration adds variety and helps to maintain interest.
5 – What to include? This image is important – the adult bird returns in the next scene.
6 – Be specific– precision creates images!
7 – Similes paint pictures!
In conclusion, I do want to emphasize one point—there is no reason why a person with a visual disability must also be culturally disadvantaged. In the United States the principal constituency for audio description has an unemployment rate of about 70%. I am certain that with more meaningful access to our culture and its resources, people become more informed, more engaged with society and more engaging individuals—thus, more employable.
Excerpt from “The Color of Paradise”—original audio only, no video: http://chirb.it/GIsact
Excerpt from “The Color of Paradise”—original audio with audio description track, no video: http://chirb.it/Ambh7A
Excerpt from “The Color of Paradise”—video included with original audio and audio description track: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9RFTKxZqkw