Describing The Mandalorian

January 16th, 2020 By Marisa Jackels

Galactic-like rocky mountains surround a part of the Millennium Falcon at Disneyland’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, near the Millennium Falcon Smugglers Run ride

If you haven’t watched the Disney+ flagship show The Mandalorian, you’ve likely heard it mentioned at some point in the last few months. The show, created by Jon Favreau and described as an American Western space opera, takes place within the Star Wars galaxy and follows the story of a Mandalorian bounty hunter as he travels through space, protecting a precious bounty (whom the internet has come to love.)

What some may not realize, however, is how the benefits of audio description can enhance the experience of watching a show like The Mandalorian. As a huge fan of the show myself, my interest was first piqued when I saw a comment on the Facebook page, “Audio Description Discussion” (which is worth joining for anyone interested in audio description.)

Fred Berk, webmaster, and social media manager of the Audio Description Project, wrote this:

“Both the writing and narration of Disney+’s The Mandalorian are excellent. I, as a sighted person, am getting so much more out of the series because of the description. ‘Races’ of characters are being identified, objects whose names are unknown to me are being spoken, additional details not visually noted or known by me are revealed. I suppose a purist would say this violates the ‘say what you see’ rule to some extent, but I find it extremely helpful and would definitely recommend that sighted folks turn on the description to try it out. Great job all around!”

“Another unique aspect of this program is that you never see any facial expressions from the lead character, so I would reiterate from time to time the blank, inscrutable mask of his helmet, which adds to the mystery of his motivations,” Justin said.

I was curious as to what audio description is like ever since writing this article with audio description activist and voice actor Roy Samuelson. Roy, too, had commended the benefits of audio description for both people who are blind or have low vision as well as people who are sighted. With a world as complex and steeped in lore as Star Wars, it made sense that audio description would provide unique insights and deep background information.

“For me, personally, not being a ‘Star Wars Junkie,’ I am not familiar with the names of various species, aircraft, weapons, etc. that are so familiar to faithful followers of the movie series,” Fred said. “When the audio narrator (the person speaking the audio description) names these, I learn so much more and can appreciate the action better.”

Fred originally began watching movies and TV shows with audio description because his wife is blind. In fact, this is why he helped build the Audio Description Project (ADP), an initiative developed in partnership with the American Council of the Blind as a core resource for all things related to audio description.

“My wife is blind, so she depends on audio description. If I am watching without her, I am so used to hearing description that I simply leave it on,” he said. “Also, as an audio describer myself, I am always interested in the choice of words that the describers use, and I learn from them.”

In this case, the words were chosen with care by Justin Sohl, Lead Audio Description Writer at Deluxe Digital Studios, and narrated by Nicol Zanzarella, an Audie and Earphones award-winning narrator. With a show like The Mandalorian, Justin explained, it was important to communicate the unique style and character of both the show and its protagonist.

“My mindset going into any audio description project is to try to accurately and dynamically convey the visual experience for the blind/low-vision audience,” Justin said. “In this case, there’s a gritty, unsentimental, spaghetti-western style to the program that I wanted to communicate — often a lone figure framed against a harsh, exotic landscape.”

“Another unique aspect of this program is that you never see any facial expressions from the lead character, so I would reiterate from time to time the blank, inscrutable mask of his helmet, which adds to the mystery of his motivations,” Justin said.

And Fred was right to have picked up on the extra attention to Star Wars detail; it was something Justin was intentional about when writing the script.

“I am a pretty big lifelong Star Wars nerd, so I would throw in easter eggs for the fans whenever I could about alien species, ships, weapons, etc,” he said. “I even had Wookiepedia bookmarked on my computer.”

Of course, communicating visuals through audio description has its challenges. With The Mandalorian, Justin shared that it was particularly hard to describe “The Child” (fondly known as “Baby Yoda”), as there was very little information given about the character within the show.

“One of the cardinal rules of AD is to only present information to the blind viewer that’s been presented to the sighted viewer,” Justin said. “This includes character names, which made it tough to describe the ‘Baby Yoda’ character, since he never gets named and his species is not named anywhere in the vast Star Wars canon. We don’t even hear a gender until about mid-way through the season.”

And that’s not to mention the strict security protocols of the show, which prevented him from even seeing ‘The Child’ character until just before recording; a challenge that made it hard for him to fully convey the cuteness of the character, he said.

However, this is not Justin’s first foray describing a Star Wars story; he’s written audio description for most of the feature films in the franchise. From this experience, he, too, sees how a sighted audience could benefit from listening to the audio description.

“I think this is one aspect where even the sighted viewer might get something out of the AD experience that they might have missed on just a casual viewing,” he said.

For instance, as Fred noted, in Episode 1 (minor spoiler alert) we see a prisoner of the Mandalorian get frozen. In the audio description, the narrator describes, “The prisoners are frozen in Carbonite.”

“That’s something that is never stated by a character,” Fred said. “I wouldn’t have known that otherwise.” He then noted this was true not just for The Mandalorian, but for other audio description experiences as well.

“A describer will often identify something I miss visually or am not familiar with,” he said. “Sometimes an item is small, or at least I can’t readily identify it on a smaller TV screen, and the description enhances my knowledge of what is going on.”

As The Mandalorian continues to gain applause and acclaim, experiencing the art of its audio description is a great idea for its fans — no matter your level of vision.

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