Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Guest post: Audio Describing for TV by Neville Watchurst

In my post about my visit to the National Theatre touch tour and audio description of The Cherry Orchard by Chekhov, I met the audio description team led by Ros Chalmers, Head of Access.  Neville Watchurst is training to become a describer and has experience in television and film.  Neville has a fascinating insight into how one can relate television and film into meaningful description terms for those with sight loss.  There are also attitudinal problems which can be summed up as "political correctness" in regarding what the blind shouldn't hear.  In this regard it is similar to attending a dance routine of an erotic nature without knowing what's going on! 

I asked Neville to write a piece for the blog and he has kindly done this.  I'm posting it below.  Neville is on Linked In and describes himself as a “freelance audio describer and voice artist”.  


People are often very envious when I explain to them what I do for a living.  It usually ends with them saying, with an edge of incredulity, “So, basically, you watch TV.” Well, yes... but it’s not quite as simple as that.

I started working for BSkyB in 2002 – cutting my teeth on a range of pleasant but not massively challenging travel and sports programming, moving through documentaries, and finally arriving where I wanted to be – which is describing movies and drama series. I have described several series of the labyrinthine “24” starring Kiefer Sutherland, the stunning Spielberg/Tom Hanks-produced “The Pacific”, and many others. Highlights from the hundred odd movies I have described for Sky include, The Godfather, Cinderella Man, Toy Story 3, Casino Royale (with Daniel Craig), Spielberg’s Munich, and Brokeback Mountain. Many “lower-profile” films also have stayed long in my mind – such as Danny Boyle’s delightful Millions, the wickedly black comedy In Bruges and The Weatherman, starring Nicolas Cage. A movie can really get under your skin when you’re describing it. And that goes for the ones you don’t like, as well!

I have, through long practice, become relatively fast and efficient in my description work - but it is rare for me to be able to cover more than ten minutes of a drama for every hour spent in front of the computer. When something is heavy on action sequences, or full of long, meaningful silences, I can be looking at covering only five minutes of screen-time per hour. To write a first draft. And there’s still the recording to be done.

So, yes, I do watch TV for a living – but very, very slowly!

We are assisted by the fact that the DVDs we receive to work from have a visible time-code – showing the frames, seconds, minutes and hours so that we can note on our script precisely where to begin and end any piece of description (aka “cue”) when we come to the recording stage.

The challenges of describing a film or drama are many – which can perhaps be summed up in large part by the phrase, “So much to say and so little time to say it!” The describer is like someone desperately looking for that little break in a conversation so as to be able to discreetly join in. And one has to choose one’s words carefully and prioritise, which of course means that it’s rarely (if ever) going come over as perfect in everyone’s opinion.

Once the describer has located a suitable gap, a good rule of thumb to follow is “Say what you see.” This helps one to remain objective. It’s not my job to say what I feel, about a character or a scene. Nor is it for me to edit what’s happening on the screen in order to spare people’s blushes or to protect them from, say, horrific violence. Saying what you see in a register which suits the production is also important. If the film is a bawdy comedy, you don’t want to come across sounding like Mother Teresa, nor, however, should you risk offending people by using gratuitously crude language.

For me, the most important element is always going to be helping the blind or partially-sighted viewer make sense of what’s going on – for example, by pointing out which character is speaking, where the action has moved to (often very suddenly), how a character is silently reacting to the words or actions of another. Then comes the need to describe as vividly and succinctly as possible, significant events of the drama which are not made clear through dialogue or sound. Finally, aspects such as what a character is wearing, the fabric of the sofa they are sitting on, or the beauties of the scenery can greatly enhance the experience for the viewer, but, unless there is a specific significance or remarkableness about a piece of costume, or the director is clearly wishing to draw the audience’s attention to the setting for artistic reasons, I would always regard these as “bonus elements” to be conveyed only of there is the luxury of time. Few viewers want to be constantly bombarded with information. It is important to allow some “air” into a script.

The aim should, I believe, be to produce an audio-description script that really melds with the visuals and the dialogue – unobtrusively supplying the requisite information and taking the listener’s attention to the appropriate person or place at the right time, like the camera does for the sighted viewer. I am always delighted, for example, when I can time an audio description cue to lead seamlessly into a dramatic music cue – you know the sort of thing;
“He pulls back the curtain, revealing a severed head.” DUN, DUN D-U-U-N!

Sometimes, of course, the space is just not available at absolutely the right moment. However, if there is a piece of information the audience simply MUST have, then a work-around has to be found –  by supplying it either pre-emptively or retrospectively - as close as possible to the moment the sighted viewer receives it.

There are numerous other strictures the describer is up against. Everything goes out of the window when characters are speaking a foreign language with subtitles. The rule is, quite rationally, that we have to convey what’s being said. However, that pretty well precludes any other proper description being given. Then, there are the other rules - never using phrases such as “We see”, for example, for obvious very good reasons. Others are less obvious. Until relatively recently we were constrained by an embargo on using colour words. Happily, once, at a meeting with representatives from the RNIB, they said – “No, give us as much colour as you can!” Likewise, cinematic terms describing camera angles were a no-no – which, among many other things, made the incessant aerial shots of American drama series a nightmare, but also denied blind and partially sighted audiences nuances achieved through techniques such as the close up or the slow camera pan. Orthodoxy is changing on that front now, and those cinematic terms felt to be in common use are starting to be permitted if used judiciously.

Most films or dramas throw up at least one quandary I’ve never faced or considered before. However formulaic a series might be, no two episodes are ever the same. Audio-description is a constant judgement-juggle – which is what I find so interesting about doing it. It’s also why, as I mentioned before, you’re never going to please all of the people all of the time.