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Close-Ups

Joel Snyder, Audio Describer

A pioneer of the field shares what it takes to make the lyrical qualities of audio description sing

October 15, 2019

The fab five on Queer Eye were talking so fast, it forced me to turn on captioning, which turned out to be serendipitous. There, I discovered the option “English – Audio Description” and marveled at the linguistic gymnastics it required for the audio describer (AD) to squeeze in a coherent narrative of what the show was depicting visually — all in the rare quiet spaces not otherwise filled by perky music cues or Jonathan Van Ness’s ice skating metaphors.  

Audio describers are tasked with using language to convey to visually impaired viewers what’s being portrayed on a stage or screen. It is unquestionably an art form, a feat of poetic efficiency. It’s also a relatively new field, debuting first on radio and then on public television in the 1980s. It wasn’t until the 1990s and 2000s that AD found its way into major theaters, television, and now, streaming.

Joel Snyder has been along for the entire ride. He helped pioneer the discipline, first with live theater at the Metropolitan Washington Ear and then into television and film by starting a description program for the National Captioning Institute. Since that time, his company Audio Description Associates, has been contracted by the American Council for the Blind to run the Audio Description Project, a large-scale initiative to promote the field. He also literally wrote the book on AD. His manual, The Visual Made Verbal, is a training manual for AD students worldwide.

In the interview below (edited for brevity and clarity), we discuss how audio description is one of the few booming fields for people with poetic sensibilities.

Kerry: What makes an audio description good, typically speaking, in film or television?

Joel: I've trained describers now in forty-some states and in sixty-some countries, and what we found is that genre doesn't matter so much. That is, there are going to be techniques you use when doing description for a film that that won't apply for theater. But there are four fundamentals. The basics involve skills in observation, being able "to see with exactitude," as Goethe said. Describers need to very actively look at everything they perceive with their eyes and consider it.

The second element is editing. You have to edit from what you see and select what is most important to an understanding — “he points to his head" — and an appreciation — "he has his hand on his heart" — of the image. You can't describe everything. There's no way you could possibly use words to convey everything one sees in the time available in a film or in a television show. You know, “pictures are worth a thousand words,” but people who are blind oftentimes say, "Yeah, but don't use a thousand words to describe it, please." You know?

It's a matter of using language that creates an image in the mind's eye.

And that’s also a concept in the third fundamental, which is language. We have to use language that's vivid, imaginative, that expresses an understanding of the use of a metaphor, simile, synonyms, homophones — all kinds of poetic techniques that allow you to create language that's fun to listen to and doesn't take focus because nobody goes to the movies to listen to the description. They want to experience the movie. If you describe the Washington monument and say, "It's 555 feet tall," well, I don't think that's a good description. You might say, “It's as tall as a 50-story building” or “It's almost as tall as two football fields stacked one on top of the other,” whatever. It's a matter of using language that creates an image in the mind's eye.

Then the fourth fundamental is vocal skill. A mediocre description can actually be made serviceable by a skilled voice talent. Unfortunately, what happens often is the reverse: You have well-written description, and the voice talent ruins it because they don't know what they're doing. One little exercise I use is the phrase "Woman without her man is a savage." Now would you agree with that, Kerry? “Woman without her man is a savage”?

Kerry: No, I guess I don't agree with that.

Joel: I guess you don't! I think most of womankind would probably not agree with that! Say that line back to me. Don't change it. Don't add, take away, or rearrange any words. Just with the way you say it back to me, the words could mean the opposite.

Kerry: Okay. Oh, right. “Woman. Without her, man is a savage.”

Joel: There you go. So that's just a silly example of how we use the voice to make meaning. It's aural punctuation.

Kerry: It's such a fine needle to thread, making the language poetic but also almost invisible. How do people train for this job?

Joel: I think in January I will have done my seventeenth Audio Description Institute. That's a description-training program that’s sponsored by the ACB. Today, there’s no formal certification for describers, but the Academy for Certification of Vision and Rehabilitation and Education Professionals (ACVREP) is developing a certification program. So, within the next year or two, if you want to be a describer, you'll have to demonstrate skill in description, that you've taken certain trainings, that you've a certain level of experience, etc. It’s really critical because there's a lot of bad description out there.

Oftentimes, I will say, “Better no description than bad description.” And the reason for that is simply that a person who's new to [using] description hears a person who's lousy, so they think, "Oh, [AD] is a terrible thing. They're getting in the way of the film. They're getting in the way of the play.” And then they never use description again.

Kerry: What are some ways that someone can be bad at this job?

Joel: Well, describing elements that don't need to be described. The typical example that people use is, "The phone's ringing." You typically assume that the person for whom we're providing a description can hear. Now, there are exceptions to that rule. For instance, [clang in background], what was that, Kerry?

Kerry: A clang in the background.

Joel: That's right. But if I was on camera and you're blind, the camera is showing what I'm doing. You hear it, but you don't know what it is. So that's an example where you would describe sound in the time available.

We’re in service to the people listening and to the art form.

There's another element that bad describers have not much experience with, which is good judgment as to what is most critical to an understanding. That’s a tricky one because you have to get in the head of the cinematographer. We’re in service to the people listening and to the art form. We have to understand the art form, glean from it what’s being discussed, focused on, and usually cinematographers tell us that by the way they use the camera. Most film is naturalistic. We're not going to mention the camera because then you draw attention to the artifice of filmmaking, and that's not the point of the filmmaker — usually. So, it's understanding how the artist creates his or her work and what's most critical given the time available.

Kerry: There needs to be a cultural intelligence . . .

Joel: Correct.

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Kerry: Does the audio describer write the script and voice the description?

Joel: It depends on what genre or format. Typically, in performing arts or live events, the audio describer developing the description is also the person who voices it. It’s the reverse for media people who write description. Typically, that description then goes back to the captioning company or the description company, and then that company has it voiced in the studio with professional voice talents.

Kerry: Is this a job with an upward trajectory?

Joel: Yeah, it's booming. First of all, the, the FCC requires at least seven hours per week of description for each of the top nine broadcasters, which are the four terrestrial broadcasters — ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox — and then the top five cable networks, which right now happen to be USA, TBS, HGTV, Discovery, and History. Those guys have to provide at least seven hours per week, which doesn't even come out to 1 percent [of all broadcasts]. In the UK, at least 10 percent of all broadcasts have to have description. But we're catching up, so it's going to grow for sure. Maybe not in this administration, but I feel certain that come 2020, if we have a different mindset in Washington, you'll see those required hours increased. PBS does a great deal of description. Some of those networks do much more than seven hours per week. It's on the upswing. All the films have it now. Not all the DVDs, ironically enough. So there's really a lot of room to grow, also considering museums and parks service sites.

Kerry: How long does a typical film or TV assignment take to complete?

Joel: A lot depends on the nature of the project — the film itself or television program — and a lot depends on the skill of the describer and experience level. But when I was at the NCI, we timed it out and developed a rough guide to developing description. It takes anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to write the first draft — just the writing of description — for five minutes of film. So add that up. That means a full day for one person writing description for a half an hour show, which is usually 22 minutes. If you're talking about a feature film, it could be a full week, but typically companies will have several writers working on a film. Then, of course, it has to be reviewed for consistency's sake. It’s a translation process as opposed to a transcription process, and that's just always going to take more time.

Kerry: How much does AD cost for a filmmaker, and who’s paying for that?

Joel: If you're talking about a feature film, the fee from the description company would probably be anywhere from $1,800 to $3,000 — just the writing. It used to be a lot more, but with the proliferation of work, rates went down.

So, who pays for it? It's typically the film producer. You know, it's a cost of doing business. They'll gripe about it and try and get the rates down, but feature films will spend up to a hundred million dollars just on PR. And they're gonna balk at $5,000 to make it accessible to people who are blind?

Kerry: Yeah. For a whole new demographic, you know, who wouldn't be able to access it otherwise. I was reading about when Daredevil was released, and a campaign was started for Netflix to provide AD. Now they seem to provide it for most of their titles. But that's not paid for by Netflix? That's paid for by the producers?

Joel: Well, it depends. Netflix, they do produce original programming. And when they produce the original programming, they're paying for the description and the subtitles. [For other films,] they will obtain the subtitles, captions, and description from back when the film was produced — if that's possible. It's only been around a limited period of time. So not everything Netflix offers is going to have description, but the question is, “Do they offer it consistently for the things they produce?” And the answer is yes because they finally embraced it. And part of that has to do with the ACB initiating negotiations with them to avoid a major lawsuit. And the same thing is going on with Hulu right now and others.

Kerry: So what are some of the drawbacks of the job?

Joel: It's like anything. It takes effort; it takes time. For the writer, it shackles you to a computer screen, and that can be tedious. It’s a creative process, and obviously I'm speaking of the writing and then it has to be voiced and then audio edited and such. The other thing too is that — and this is a positive thing — you're filling a need for people with disabilities although I dare say many description writers haven't even met a person who is blind! And that's unfortunate; it can show up in their writing. That's why I do a good bit of work with understanding the consumer of description in my training classes before we even pick up a pen.

Kerry: How often do audio describers or audio description scriptwriters work in tandem with the director?

Joel: The answer is rarely, if ever. Description, subtitles, dubbing — these are post-production activities. These happen long after the director has said goodbye and is already on another film or two films. So oftentimes the director doesn't even know what description is. I've had this discussion with people like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Woody Allen, and they may have an awareness . . . but again, it's, it's very much a post-production activity.

. . . feature films will spend up to a hundred million dollars just on PR. And they're gonna balk at $5,000 to make it accessible to people who are blind?

I have a PhD in all of this from a university in Barcelona, because in Europe, this is all studied as audio-visual translation. In those academic settings, there's a lot of work on “unconventional AD,” which is looking at AD as an aesthetic innovation and incorporating it within the film or within a theater performance so that it's not just a special add-on that a blind person has to request. Instead, it's something everybody hears and appreciates because, as you and I know, people are sighted but don't observe. They don't really notice. And I oftentimes talk about description as a great thing for people who are in the kitchen making a sandwich while the TV is on in the living room. You don't miss a beat.

Kerry: I've also heard of AD being used by a truck drivers and runners.

Joel: That’s the theory, and it has been used that way, but it's not commercially available that way. Meaning, I would love if audible.com made available for a dollar per download or something the audio track of a film paired with the audio description just in one audio file. But instead what has been done is that some people have, to be honest with you, illegally ripped the audio track with description from a DVD and then it proliferates out there. The studios need to get on that bandwagon, and they could make a dollar or two out of it. I think the problem seems to be legal because when contracts are written for musicians and voice talents and actors, they were written years ago and don't say “audio description,” so it's not covered. I think ultimately they'll start building that in.

Kerry: Would it evolve the field if directors got more involved?

Joel: Yeah. Filmmakers, theater producers, need to start thinking of accessibility not as, "Oh, shit, it's a chore. It's a requirement," and embrace it for its possibilities as an aesthetic innovation. If you embrace sign language, for instance, you will incorporate signers within the stage picture so people don't have to be craning their neck to look at an interpreter over on the left and then look back to the show. If you incorporate it within the production, then you’ve done something for the art form. You've created something new. The same with description. Rather than having a describer in the theater somewhere in the back, create the role of a narrator who's on stage for everybody. Change the lines so that the characters are self-describing. It’s gotta be done carefully and creatively, but it works. There are Shakespeare directors that have decided, “If we're gonna have description, it needs to be written in iambic pentameter.” I don't think this is ever going to be typical, but it's out there and I welcome it.

Berl and Denise Colley listen to audio description via FM receivers.

Kerry: The AD users I've spoken to say there are consistently problems with the equipment. Like if they go to a movie theater, they'll get handed the enhanced audio headphones by mistake or maybe the batteries to the AD device have died.

Joel: Fairly recently, the FCC revised rules to say movie theaters have to train their staff to know about description. But I think what's on the horizon is that people will access description via an app that enables the user to hear the movie with their own smartphone. So, here's the movie, then you download the audio description track to the movie, and the app syncs the two. This way nobody has left equipment at the box office, anything like that.

Kerry: Actiview is the name of the app, right? From what I understand, they’ve started to do this but don't really have the funding yet to have a wide reach.

Joel: They don't. It's been touch-and-go, and they're holding on. I think what's going to happen is they will be picked up by a larger entity that has resources to really get the app out there and have it be a function of the motion picture industry. Part of the issue has to do with — forgive the expression — visibility, right? The general public knows what captions are because you see them in a bar or in the gym. But people are not aware of description because there's half as many people who are blind or low vision as there are people who are deaf or hard of hearing. It’s part of the reason why the ADP was born ten years ago: to build awareness, even among blind people.

Kerry McLaughlin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. In the past, she wrote and edited at various magazines and websites, including Allure, XLR8R, and Vice. In recent years, she’s worked in narrative and documentary film as an editor, script supervisor, and researcher. Besides that, she teaches a media literacy workshop to kids, volunteers with the homeless and developmentally disabled communities, hikes long distances, and climbs tall mountains.
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