Around 26 million people in America are either blind or experience low-vision, and whilst there are mandates in place to ensure increased access for these audiences to experience the culturally dominant shows and movies that appear on Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc., the awareness of modes to aid experiencing these programs, for those audiences, is increasingly important. Audio Description is an ever-growing part of the entertainment industry, allowing both visually impaired and sighted audiences another means of experiencing their favourite TV shows and movies. DN had an extensive chat with voice over artist and Audio Description narrator/advocate Roy Samuelson, who has provided narrations for everything from Us to Spider-Man: Far From Home, about the place of Audio Description in the industry and the important work that goes on behind the scenes.
A lot of our readers will be familiar with what Audio Description is, but for those who aren’t, could you briefly explain what it is and its purpose?
Audio Description is a special audio track, almost like an audiobook that lives on top of a movie. The intention is, similar to a sports announcer on the radio giving the play by play of what’s happening during a game, Audio Description allows blind and low-vision audience members to truly experience the producer’s intent, as far as visuals go. Obviously we can’t explain every single moment or every specific detail but it does a really, really fair job of giving brushstrokes to indicate to the audience what’s going on. It’s exclusively visual descriptions.
From doing some research, there are benefits of audio description for sighted audiences too.
In the same way that the closed captioning for deaf audience members are used frequently by people who aren’t deaf, people who might be scrolling through social media and have their phones on mute or someone who just wants to keep the TV low in the middle of the night to not wake their spouse up, they can still experience the closed captioning. When it comes to Audio Description it’s another option sighted audience members can use to enjoy the producer’s intent.
Using Audio Description, for a sighted person, when there are a lot of complicated characters or storylines that are a little more challenging to keep track of. That can help as well.
I live in Los Angeles and I have a lot of commute times, and during those commute times a lot of people are now tuning into podcasts or audiobooks, and Audio Description is a very similar experience that you can use to catch up on all your TV shows or all your movies. In a way that it still allows you to be along for the ride and allows you to keep your eyes elsewhere. I’ve also heard of some people using it when cooking or just when running some errands around the house. Obviously, there are certain kinds of films that do fully appreciate your sighted attention, if you are a sighted audience member, and these other experiences, you can still get the gist of what’s happening. One of my favourites is using Audio Description, for a sighted person, when there are a lot of complicated characters or storylines that are a little more challenging to keep track of. That can help as well.
When it comes to spectacle, I do happen to do a lot of action and adventure and some horror films for Audio Description. Most recently, this year, Glass the M. Night Shyamalan movie. There were a lot of flashbacks and other things that were happening, and being able to do the audio description gave me a better insight into some things that I would have missed as a sighted audience member. It wasn’t anything that was a big reveal but it was enough to just give that enhancement, just an extra little nudge, not an easter egg, but somewhere along those lines that makes you go “Oh, I missed that”. It helps focus the attention in a way that a typical non-Audio Description experience might miss.
Could you describe the process of providing audio description, are you provided with a script? Do you have any input? Do you record along with a scene? Can you talk me through the production process?
Great question. This is such a lead-in question because it really helps focus on the describers, the writers of the script. I am given a script, and for a movie that has six reels, a typical hour and a half long movie, each reel has 15 to 20 pages of a special Audio Description script and those scripts are written by describers who watch the original film and, if they have access to the original production script, go through the script and find the breaks in between dialogue to give the visual elements that are essential or important to the story. So, it’s such a crafted experience that these writers do.
I love this example, every picture is worth a thousand words and a typical film is 24 frames a second, so we’re already at 24,000 words and experiences just in a second, when you’re making a 90 minutes movie, there’s a lot going on and these describers really can pinpoint the brushstroke of what’s happening visually in a way that is so specific and so unique. When it’s written right it’s seamless and is a part of the movie and doesn’t stand out, in a way that can take an audience member out of the immersion of the story.
From my experiences as a narrator, because of licensing, privacy and NDAs, I show up, they give me a script and we start rolling. So, it’s an ice cold read. The script itself has cues that are time code based or dialogue based or visuals or audio and I’m given a certain amount of time to fit my narration between those so it doesn’t interrupt the dialogue of whatever’s happening.
While we’re on this, a quick tangent, I find it fascinating that the describers do go with the flow of the movie, so it’s not nonstop narration. They allow the film to breathe and allow those emotions the time that the producers and the directors intend. I think that’s also a really special skill that the describers bring, and I do my best to honour that. I pace it in such a way that rides the film, in a way that hopefully doesn’t interrupt it.
I’m hoping that my narration isn’t noticed by the audiences, in other words, if an audience is listening to an Audio Description track and they think “Oh my goodness, this narrator is so good” that’s a disservice to the audience because that means that I stood out. My goal is to be a part of the movie and to ride the emotions of the scenes in such a way that the audience members don’t notice me. Now, after the fact, or beforehand, they can talk as much about the narrator as they like, I don’t care about that, but when they’re in the movie, I really hope that they’re fully engaged and experiencing what the directors and producers intended, that’s the balance that I’m always seeking to find.
When providing audio description what changes do you have to make to your vocal delivery? Is it a case of providing clear, clean delivery or do you have to engage with the energy of the scene that is playing out?
It’s that fine line, that balance. When I’ve heard narration that’s done right, the narrator who’s able to deliver that, she gets it and she can deliberate in a way that does ride the emotion of the scene without becoming an audience member. I love how you said “the fine line” because that’s really the intent. It varies, there’s no exact rule or rulebook for every movie. Every movie has its own essence emotionally in each scene. Hopefully, the narrator understands that and rides it. As I said, the intent is to almost disappear as if it’s a part of the movie. An analogy would be with foley, if footsteps are too loud or non-existent it’s going to stand out, but when it’s done in a way that professional foley artists do, you’re not even thinking about it, those footsteps are as real as if they were happening.
Where do you find most of your time is spent at the moment? Are you mostly involved with Audio Description or are you working across other forms of voice work?
As a voice artist, I do have a lot of opportunities for different things, there’s a TV commercial right now that’s getting a lot of airplay, I do some video games, animation, and other types of narration. Audio Description is what I’m most focused on, as far as my passion goes, and that’s been my main advocacy, it’s something I really care a lot about so when the opportunities come, I take them but I find that Audio Description is really the one that gets me the most excited.
How long have you been involved with Audio Description?
I’d say maybe five to six years at this point. Audio Description has been around for more than ten, it’s surprising the number of people I’ve met online that have said that they’ve had VHS cassettes that had audio description on them.
A lot of the cinemas, near me, will have the odd film screening with audio description but when you look at everything they’re programming and you see Avengers: Endgame playing like a 100 times in a day or something crazy and you see that two of those screenings will have an option for Audio Description, you realise that there needs to be a balance here because it doesn’t affect the screening, but it provides an opportunity for people that need it to pick up headphones and have a better experience. So, what do you think people, companies, cinemas and film programmers can be doing to create more awareness and accessibility to Audio Description?
There are a lot of great directions that are happening on the technology side, obviously you mentioned headsets. Wireless headsets are, at least in America, available at almost all theatres that have been renovated after a certain time. There’s also an app called Actiview, that is for Android or iPhone which syncs with the existing audio of a movie and certain titles have signed up to have the Audio Description go through the headset of your own personal device, which helps a lot.
My goal is to be a part of the movie and to ride the emotions of the scenes in such a way that the audience members don’t notice me.
As far as advocacy goes, I’m part of the TV academy for the Emmy Awards, there have been a lot of events that I’ve been to where I’ve met a producer, share with them what I do and inevitably the ones that are not aware of Audio Description lean in and say “Wait, tell me more about this, what is this?”. So, there’s a genuine curiosity and a discovery of this other element that is a part of their film that they might not know about. I’ve found that those that are aware of it, of which there are a lot, find a way to make sure it gets passed through from cinema to streaming service and make sure that content travels. It needs a restructuring of a lot of systems to let that pass through to happen. There’s been a lot of work behind the scenes from a lot of caring people. I have a lot of hope that this is growing in a positive direction.
The catalogue of films you’ve provided audio description for is very extensive at this point, I’m interested to know if there were any films or television shows that were particularly tricky to provide description given the nature of what was happening on screen?
The describers that do the writing make it easy for me to say the words. There are some sentences that look on paper like they’re very easy. The best example I can think of, there was a scene where someone was looking with wonder and the describer had written “she looked awed”, and obviously when you say it the homonym is ‘odd’, she looked odd. So, it was something that was verbal and we switched to a look of awe. That was an easy fix. But they’re few and far between, the describers really take into account what the sound of the sentence and what the flow of the sentences are.
From my experience, most recently I did Spider-Man: Far From Home. It’s a jam packed action film with a lot of comedy and energy and some touching moments. To be able to do that film in a way that served the story, it’s almost a flow where it’s back to back page turning with timing cues and audio cues. My eyes were reading the script while I’m hearing and watching the film on a screen, so it’s almost like watching a tennis match. If I were to think about every step that I have to take to make the story come alive in a way that matches the emotion in a way that doesn’t interrupt it would be like juggling six balls at the same time. There almost has to be a flow to it, particularly with that movie Spider-Man, I found myself getting in that flow that was incredibly satisfying and I felt connected in a way that I hope served the story.