Future Reflections                                                                                Convention Report 2004

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On the Other Side of the Microphone

by John Cucco

“Ms. Plenerleath puts down the clubs and looks over her shoulder once again. She swings her arm, and flings the briefcase into the lily pond in front of her. It bobs for a moment, then slowly sinks into the murky water.”

This is an excerpt from an audio description I wrote and performed at a workshop at the 2004 NFB National Convention in Atlanta. The workshop was led by one of the pioneers of audio description, Joel Snyder, who is the founder, president, and CEO of Audio Description Associates. The workshop was specifically geared towards teaching the basics of audio description to sighted teenagers. Mr. Snyder explained the uses of audio description in visual museum exhibits, as well as for theater productions, television, and movies. We learned the four skills of audio description, watched a few samples of description, and then wrote our own. Later that night, we performed our audio descriptions for an audience of blind people.

At the beginning of the workshop, Mr. Snyder led an exercise to show us the importance of audio description to a blind person’s understanding of a movie. Participant Tracy Yeager noted, “We watched a scene from The Shining three different ways. First, with just the soundtrack and no audio description or video. It was very hard to understand what was going on. Then we watched it with the audio description added, and I could picture the action in my mind. When we saw it with the visuals and audio description in addition to the soundtrack, I realized that the description had given me a very accurate sense of the action.” This activity showed that audio description can be very effective in portraying visual images, and without it, the sounds of the movie are not always sufficient for understanding.

Observation is the first step to good audio description. In the words of participant Donna Neddo, “We see things without taking the time to observe them. Audio description brings our attention to things we may have missed.” To produce useful audio description, it is imperative to notice all important details that need to be described. Often when I am watching an audio described movie, my attention is brought to important objects or actions that I wouldn’t have noticed without it. In this way, audio description can also help a sighted person understand a movie. An audio describer needs to notice all details, and must learn to see actively instead of watch passively.

Editing the observed information is the second step of audio description. Usually, the fewer words used to accurately describe something, the better. A describer must take full advantage of the short time between dialogue lines and sound effects to describe only the most important things.

Use of language is the third step in audio description. Mr. Snyder illustrated this by asking each of us to describe walking with a more descriptive word choice. We realized that a person may saunter, scamper, stomp, or stroll, but rarely does the person simply walk. More descriptive words instead of common or vague ones help to paint a picture in the listener’s mind. Metaphors and comparisons can also be useful tools for describing qualities like size. “As tall as a skyscraper” or the “car-sized dog” give a better sense of size than a measurement in feet.

The last important item in audio description is vocal skills. Expression with the voice adds to both mood and meaning. Workshop participant Michelle Povinelli noted that “saying the same exact words in a different way can totally change the meaning.” An example is the unpunctuated sentence “Woman without her man is a beast.” This can be made sense of in the following way: “Woman, without her man, is a beast.” However, a change in the punctuation makes the sentence read like this: “Woman: without her, man is a beast.” These sentences mean the opposite thing, but contain the same words in the same order. In audio description, pause and emphasis on certain words can also determine and expand meaning.

After we learned the fundamentals, each of us wrote audio descriptions for clips from PBS’s Mystery!, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, and a Star Wars movie. We watched the clips a few times and practiced timing our words to the sound effects and dialogue. Later that day, the group convened again along with an audience made up of blind and sighted listeners. Each of us performed the audio description we chose and was critiqued by the audience. A blind twenty-year-old, Serena Cucco, observed, “They were pretty good. It seemed that they learned how to audio describe pretty well in only a few hours.” Interesting issues came up, including the place of color in audio description. Most professional describers include colors in their descriptions. Some blind people find the colors useless information, while others feel that they are helpful to understanding. 

All in all, the audio description workshop was both interesting and informative. Many blind people and their family and friends have taken advantage of audio described movies, theater shows, and museum tours. However, it was a unique experience to be on the other side of the microphone, describing the action for someone else. I have no doubt that Joel Snyder’s workshop brought a new interest to the participants, and I would recommend the experience to anyone who has the chance to be a part of it.

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