Gamebreak: Audio Description

Audio Description is, in my opinion, an amazing idea. It’s something that helps blind and low vision folks like myself enjoy entertainment that, in some cases, we couldn’t enjoy otherwise. You may be surprised to learn that there are blind people who hate audio description. Some prefer only to absorb what they can through context. There’s nothing wrong with that, but personally I love it, at least the first time watching something. I’d like to talk more about it in a kind of general sense. There is no specific theme or point to this other than that I want to discuss, and maybe educate folks who don’t yet know some of these things. So with that in mind, here goes!

There is an art to audio description. It’s simple to say that it’s a person in the background of a movie or show describing what’s going on. That’s true, but to do it properly takes skill. You see, audio describers do not wish to step on the toes of any dialog or sound effects that might be present in the show or movie, but at the same time they want to keep their descriptions relevant and informative so the blind person watching understands things they need to know. So, where description is necessary, they will step on sound effects before stepping on dialog. You cannot expect a heavy action scene to be audio described without some tromping on sound effects.

Knowing this, it’s interesting to listen to something audio described, and consider the details that are left out, often only for a short time. For instance, audio describers will often not tell you exactly what a person looks like immediately upon their introduction. New characters are often introduced during tumultuous times, and in those cases, there isn’t enough time to cover that. So an audio describer will instead wait until a moment where the character or characters are performing an action that is easy to describe, but takes time. An example of this would be something like, “Jessie looks out the window contemplatively. She has long, dark, luxurious hair, and smokey gray eyes. She wears awesome clothing, and awesome shoes.”

OK, so the describer wouldn’t actually say awesome clothing and awesome shoes, they’d go into full detail, but you get the idea. They use that contemplative moment, which would likely contain no dialog, to give the viewer more information than they had before. They still have to prepare for the next moments of action, but they learn to use the time they have. I don’t mean to harp on this so much, but personally I find it quite impressive.

Now the thing is, audio description actually used to be fairly uncommon, especially in the US. I remember being a kid in the 90’s, and checking out a couple audio described movies from the library. Yes, the library. You couldn’t find them at video stores, I never knew a place where you could actually purchase them, but the library had a few. A single shelf, to be exact. That’s where I first encountered audio description, and I loved it right away, but it was sure frustrating not to be able to find it on the many, many movies I watched over the years.

I’m pretty sure the UK were one of the first to get a clue when it came to audio description. As the years went by, I kept hearing from friends in the UK that TV shows had it. Then I heard that their movie channels also had it, meaning the movies I loved were being audio described, but over there and not over here. Man oh man, that was painful. I half-joked that I was going to move to the UK for that very reason. Yeah, it was only half a joke. I really wanted to, at the time.

I think it was somewhere around 2009 when the US finally started to figure out that audio description was actually kinda awesome. Some folks in the US had the right idea. Some TV networks like Fox did start supporting audio description before 2009, but I feel like 2009 was the year it really started to click. Suddenly, DVD’s featuring audio description were hitting store shelves. There weren’t many, but they were there, and I remember being shocked every time we found one. It was still in the early days then. A couple years later, iTunes released audio described versions of a few movies, all of which I believe were Disney films. Understand that these were actually separate versions of the movies, specifically made with the audio description track as the primary audio track. Separate purchases entirely.

Fast forward to today, and now I’m overrun with audio described content. iTunes got rid of that old method of providing audio description, and started adding the description audio track to the same versions of movies everyone else was buying. As of a check I did just yesterday, using the audio description project’s web site, iTunes now has a staggering 800+ audio described movies. Furthermore, they’re apparently averaging 18 new additions to their catalog of audio described movies per month. Ridiculous! Ridiculously awesome!

Just in case that’s not enough, Netflix is off and running with audio description these days. Every single Netflix original show and movie gets the audio description treatment, meaning we can fully enjoy all of their content on the day of its release right along with everyone else. To us, that’s a huge, huge deal. Amazon is also working on audio descriptions, but they have a ways to go before getting close to the amazing work Netflix has done. Netflix even goes out of their way to try and get the AD tracks for the licensed content they add every month. It’s quite awesome, and very much appreciated.

There’s even a little audio description project I’d like to give a shout out to, which you can find at youdescribe.org. The goal is to actually describe Youtube videos. Viewers can then listen to the described versions, and even request descriptions for videos that aren’t currently audio described. It’s all done by volunteers too, so anyone who is willing to help out can record an audio description for a video. Descriptions can be rated, though, to help avoid the haters who would record trollish things. It’s an awesome idea, and apparently has gained a lot of traction, as you can find quite a few videos there.

I think that about covers my current thoughts on audio description. In summary, I’m so happy with where we are with it right now. I’m overrun, yes, but that’s a wonderful, wonderful hing. Better to have too many choices than not enough. It’s a good time to be a movie fan. Thanks again for reading, guys, and continue to be awesome!