The Art of Audio Description

December 6th, 2019 By Marisa Jackels

Roy Samuelson sits in a recording studio, wearing a pair of headphones. He's speaking into a microphone that's in front of him while reading from a script.

Picture this.

“Throughout the bar, blue lights spread over various patrons and items, erasing them completely. Drones become exposed, hovering throughout the space. Projected by the drones, the digital blue lights continue to scan and change the room, revealing it as an abandoned establishment. The remaining people look to Beck, who stays seated at the bar. Beck smirks, then shrugs.”

Some might recognize this as an important scene from the 2019 film Spiderman: Far From Home. For those who are sighted, the words bring to mind images and details from the movie. For those who are blind or have low vision, the description provides critical narrative information and brings life to a scene that otherwise has no dialogue. This is the power of audio description.

Audio description is a narrated description of the key visual elements in a television program or movie. In fact, Aira VP Paul Schroeder wrote about it in our recent article titled, “What Just Happened?” It’s useful for those who are blind or have low vision, or for those who want to listen to a movie/TV show like an audiobook (while driving, for instance.)

What sets it apart from other voiceover work, is that it is a unique form of storytelling that should integrate seamlessly with the movie. At least, that’s what voice actor Roy Samuelson would say.

“You’re not just reading a phone book,” he said, speaking over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “You have to allow your audience to ride the emotional arc of the scene.”

You might recognize Roy’s voice from commercials for Ford, Target, and McDonald’s (to name a few), Intel Tags in the Super Bowl and Academy Awards, and one of his personal favorites, the voice of Raphael in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video game.

However, it wasn’t until recent years that Roy first grew attuned to the powerful capabilities of audio description. When a dear friend was diagnosed with an illness which caused him to lose his vision, Roy spent time visiting him in the hospital. While hospitalized, Roy’s friend used audio description to continue enjoying his favorite show, The Marvelous Miss Maisel, despite his loss of sight.

“Of all the challenges he was facing, having audio description normalized his entertainment experience,” Roy said. “Instead of talking about the tests and chemo and procedures, I could show up and joke about what the characters did, in a way that he wouldn’t be able to do without audio description.”

It was a lightbulb moment for Roy.

“For him to still be able to have that connection — even though he was unable to see — it brought a lot of joy,” he said. “I thought, if he’s experiencing this, there are other people who have this experience.”

Roy has since become a vocal advocate for the necessities of audio description. He has narrated over 400 movies and TV shows — including Spiderman: Far From Home — and recently celebrated his 100th episode of NCIS. In October, he was nominated for a 2019 Society of Voice Art (SOVAS) award in the narration category.

“Audio description is evolving,” Roy wrote on Twitter, a platform he regularly uses to spread awareness on the subject. “From nonexistent, inaccessible, amateur, and clunky… toward accessible, friendly, seamless, usable, and professional audio, thanks to experienced writers, narrators, vendors, and productions, all who are committed to excellence and quality.”

So what makes a great audio description? Roy says it’s all in word choice and heart. For the writers, they are faced with the unique challenge of conveying thousands of frames of visual information through short, seconds-long blurbs. For the narrator, the challenge is taking those words and infusing them with the feeling of the film.

“These writers have to find the most efficient words that give a sense of what the scene is about. They are some of the most exceptionally decisive, crafted writers. They have to communicate the scene effectively and stay out of the way,” Roy said. “For the voice actor, you have to make your voice a part of the story. You’re never speaking down to the audience. It’s not sing-songy.”

Often, Roy said, he has an audience member who is blind give him active feedback on his narration. The engagement of the blind and low vision community is a crucial part of creating effective audio description, he said.

“I think a lot of our decisions need to be made with our audience in mind,” he said. “Engage with the audiences and listen to what they want.”

Although audio description has been around since the 1990’s — Forrest Gump was one of the first to be available in this format — it has remained a hidden gem to most of the general public for decades. In fact, as his own awareness grew, Roy found there was a lack of awareness towards audio description in both the sighted and blind/low vision community.

“A challenge I’m facing is education. It’s not deliberate ignorance or intended negatively. People are just unaware,” he said.

The benefits of audio description are not just for those who are blind and low vision, either, Roy said…“Everyone I know who’s listened to audio description says, ‘I’m picking up on things I never realized.’”

However, recent years have brought a renewed attention to audio description, particularly from giants in the streaming industry. In 2015, Netflix announced that it added audio description for their series Daredevil — which features a comic book character who is blind. The following year, Netflix agreed to provide descriptions for its original series within 30 days of their premiere.

This year in particular has seen huge strides for audio description accessibility. In November, Disney+ launched with 275 titles available with audio description, and is in the process of adding even more titles (new titles are regularly updated here.) That same month, Apple TV+ launched with 10 original titles, each available with audio description in nine languages.

Now, Roy hopes the next step will be shifting the industry mindset towards audio description from “just a requirement,” to an artistic opportunity.

“There are a lot of companies that see this as a dismissive box to check,” Roy said. “If you’re spending $100 million on your film, and the very final step for your blind and low vision audience is something that you sneeze at, you’re doing a disservice to the film. For our audience, it’s more than ‘does have it or doesn’t have it.’ We want good quality when it does have it. We demand it.”

Some producers and directors are beginning to play a more participatory role in the audio description process. For instance, Neil Gaiman, co-author of the novel Good Omens which was recently turned into a mini-series, was asked if the show would include audio description. He responded, “It will, yes. And I also proofread and corrected the closed captioning.”

Roy was enthusiastic at the response.

“That was the first time I’d seen that,” Roy said. “I hope we start to see more involvement like it.”

The benefits of audio description are not just for those who are blind and low vision, either, Roy said. Similar to podcasts or audiobooks, audio description provides the perfect way to enjoy a film or TV show when you cannot see the screen (while driving, for instance.) In fact, it often lends a completely new experience to beloved films and shows.

“Everyone I know who’s listened to audio description says, ‘I’m picking up on things I never realized,’” Roy said. “For those who are sighted, it enhances what you’re already seeing.”

(A personal favorite is this trailer for Frozen, which is arguably funnier with the audio description than without.)

Thanks to efforts from advocates like Roy, and industry leaders who are listening, audio description is beginning to garner more attention from around the world. However, there is still work to be done. For example, while most theaters are required to offer audio description headsets, few are in working order. And while there is increased accessibility to audio description for streaming services, there are still thousands of movies and TV shows that still do not have that option.

Roy sees all of this as the wide-open door of opportunity.

“I think it’s an untapped resource. It’s like the Wild West; this uncharted way to enhance the films and TV shows you love,” Roy said. “I saw how it changed the experience for my friend. The more I connect with people who appreciate the work, the more I want to do.”

You can follow along with Roy’s audio description advocacy through Twitter (@RoySamuelson) or find him leading audio description workshops for fellow narrators. Roy also recommends checking out: The Audio Description Project by the American Council of the Blind, the Facebook group “Audio Description Discussion”, and his new website, the Audio Description Narrators of America, to learn more.

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