The Arts Access Podcast is available on all major streaming platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music and Apple Podcasts. Below, you can also listen to the second episode, The art of audio description, with audio describer Judith Jones.
The following is a transcript of the interview.
The art of audio description
Sam Morgan: Kia ora, welcome back to The Arts Access Podcast. In today's episode, I speak with Judith Jones, who is a visitor host at Te Papa museum and an experienced audio describer. We get to listen to one of her audio descriptions, and she also shares some advice for anyone who is interested in learning the art of audio description.
So what is audio description?
Judith: Audio description in its absolutely simplest form is using words to give people an impression of what's happening visually. So for example, we are in a grey box here. If somebody was coming into this grey box and wasn't able to see it, there are things that I would use, words to explain to them such as what the cover over of the grey walls is – a soft kind of felty thing. I feel like I want to go and run my hands down and just double-check that grey floor. That kind of stuff.
So it's a way of using words to explain what people are not able to see easily or see at all. And it could be that you're using words that are about the feel of something, which they're not able to reach out and touch, but that I can see and make a guess of.
So it's a range of different possibilities, but always coming back to the fact that you can't just use words to tell somebody about a visual thing. You can't say to them it looks like something that, you know, they haven't already experienced, so you need to find ways to make the words meaningful in a slightly different context.
So it's not just as if you're talking to someone on the phone, someone who you have walked down a certain road with, and you've both seen a certain house. It might be someone you've walked down a certain road with and you've spoken about the smell of the rosemary on that particular hedge. That's the kind of slightly different reference point.
Sam: When and why is it used?
Judith: I think people have always used audio description. I think people have always used words to explain things that people haven't been able to experience visually for themselves.
So for example, I've come back from hunting the mammoth, and I had found there’s a huge rock fall up a certain kind of river, and I'm gonna come back and say to people, “This is the rock fall. The rock fall is this big, you’re going to need to go up and around.”
So people have always used words to describe things that people aren't "visually present" with, if you like. It's a new expression I've just come up with. I think people have always done this but increasingly, it's become an artform and an artwork in itself, I think as we've used more things like television and films and the digital presence.
So, it’s for people going to a film that are not able to follow everything that's happening in the film simply by sound.
Whereas if you are listening to a book being read to you, you're on the same page, literally, as anybody else listening to the book being read to you. So I think, and particularly in America where the legislation has required that films and streaming things have audio description, which explains in gaps in the dialogue in movies or television, what's going on.
It's just become increasingly usable for people. And people in the blind, low vision community have been saying, “This is really helpful we want more of this.”
So places like museums where I work, theatres, for live theatre, people who are creating work in the disability community, in particular, driving those kind of broader accessible platforms for creating audio description as part of something, or to go alongside something.
So I think it's become more of a professional kind of space, and that means it's happening in more and more different sorts of places. So if you're going to a film in the States, there are some places where you can just link into the audio description that's there through some wonderful tech wizardry and if you go to theatre here, you may find there's a live audio describer.
So it's become more of a profession and more of an intentional artwork and intentional practice over time.
2011, Denise Bachelor, Aotearoa New Zealand, courtesy of the artist.
This moving-image artwork is projected high on to the west side of Te Papa, facing the Taranaki Street wharf. The image is 16 metres long and nine metres high. This work is shown without sound.
This museum wall is clad in grey and yellow stone panels. Below the screen is a huge, round window. The museum will be closed to the public, but some light may show through this. Between the wall and the wharf area, there are the trees of Bush City, and the wall surrounding it.
The work is almost three minutes long. I’ll be describing from the perspective of someone facing the screen – so, our right, our left.
The work begins.
Out of dense darkness, the head and upper body of a bird, front on, appear. It looks down to the right edge of the screen. Then turns swiftly to look to the left, in profile.
Its feathery head swivels down to our right, until it’s side on, it’s tilted almost 90 degrees.
It’s Ruru, Morepork.
The head and upper body of this little owl almost fill the screen. We can’t make out where it is, except for the reflections of trees and some muted light in its pupils.
Ruru slowly straightens a little then tilts its head to our right and gazes downwards. It hears something, perhaps, and smoothly twists its head to our left. In profile, its beak line shows as a curve, the top half hooking over the bottom tip.
Tiny, barely perceptible movements across its body indicate its breath, in and out.
Then it faces forwards, stares out calmly. We seem close enough to hear the soft breath through the tiny black-rimmed nostrils near the top of its beak. If it knows the camera is here, it makes no sign.
Brown speckled feathers cover its head and body, blurring the lines between. It seems to have no neck, its head blends into its shoulders as the feathers layer lightly, as if they’re growing on the rounded top of an egg.
Its huge, round yellow-green eyes each have a huge, round, black pupil. These are night hunter’s eyes, these pupils respond to the smallest change in the level of light, dilating and contracting as the bird shifts its head. They stare ahead constantly, not moving within the sockets, even when Ruru moves its head.
Greyish feathers frame each eye in a disc shape, growing outwards across the head plumage, almost like a mask, under a V of an overhanging brow, with the top of the beak at its point. The beak is small, yellowy and pointed. A few stray feathers fluff across it.
Ruru observes, and listens to its surroundings. It tilts its head on that alarming for us humans angle, to one side and then right over to the other.
It watches, witness to a scene we cannot share. Fiercely alert. Every so often its grey eyelids interrupt its solemn regard for a nano second.
The bird moves its head about gently, at times the top of it is off the top of the screen. Twice, three times it opens its beak, its mouth is pink inside, moist and pale, shaped at the front with the outlines of its narrow beak. It has a thin, pink tongue.
Ruru shifts its gaze slightly down and to our right. Its chest feathers rise and fall as it breaths gently. Watches on, intensely, deep into the dark.
Sam: So we just listened to Ruru, a short film.
I watched the film after listening to it and I couldn't really imagine where I would start if I was to audio describe it. How do you choose to do that? You've talked a bit about describing the vibe?
Judith: Yeah, that little owl is such a sweetheart and when it was on the side of Te Papa, it was huge, really, really big and sort of loomy. So it was important to describe physically where it was just to begin with and looking at the film and thinking, do I want to describe every single thing that that bird is doing all the way through? And how would that be interesting for someone who couldn't see that or see it easily?
I decided that I would give a sense of the vibe of it rather than every single move that the bird made because sometimes it would repeat things. I spent quite a lot of time trying to think about the words for the feathers and the colour and the way its eyes were and whether or not a bird like that has shoulders, for example, or a neck, because it seems to go just almost straight down like an egg.
So I spent quite a lot of time thinking those things through and writing down words that struck me as I watched it over and over and over again. So I tend to spend quite a lot of time watching something, pulling out the things that it makes me think about and then remembering to strip out the kind of visual references.
So if there's a textual reference or something, to use that instead. So it's just a matter of spending a large amount of time looking at something and if I'd been describing that, it would've been really neat to have something like the shape and feel of that to go alongside that.
So audio description can really be enhanced when you're doing it in person because people can ask you questions if it's not making sense to them. And that's the best bit of audio description, for me is to be able to use audio description as part of an experience delivered for people in person.
But when you can't, you've got to be so much more precise and you've got to kind of strip it out to give that explanation to the widest range of people as possible, so the numbers of people who are walking by and turn on the audio description to experience that film or stumble across it somewhere online and listen to it from Iceland or somewhere, it's a slightly different model.
But I spend a lot of time thinking about what I'm doing and even if the audio descriptions are only a couple of minutes long, sometimes I've spent hours getting to a couple of minutes; sometimes shorter is so much more difficult to do than, you know, wombling on at length.
Sam: So what are the different types of audio description?
Judith: So you can have audio description that is written after something has either been created or performed.
So you might have a film and you might send the film to an audio describer and ask them to audio describe it as a separate track to the film and if the film has got dialogue, then the audio describer will be taking the moments where there's a gap in the dialogue to basically triage to the absolute key things that need to be described.
It's interesting because increasingly people are suggesting that something that you could do to add to that, or to any film would be to have an introduction to an audio described introduction of the things that people are wearing, the kind of people that they're going to be in there. So that's one way you could do it, or you could think about audio description from the beginning. So for example, if you were creating a film, part of your dialogue could include some references to what's happening around people that people who are watching the film can see, but others can’t and sometimes that can be really easy and naturally done. So, “Hey, I really like your grey hat”, instead of “Why have you got the hat on?”, you know, something on that sort of line.
So there are ways that you can think about adding more of that in, so the experience of the person who comes, who is low vision or blind, has the same experience as everyone else.
So there's a big push towards integrated audio description. And in particular, across the disability community, that's the kind of audio description that people are involved with trying to put that in so that everyone gets the same kind of experience.
If you are a theatre maker, you can certainly have audio description within some of the work that you're doing. I dance with Wellington Inclusive Dance and our recent performance had some integrated audio description. So making sure that we were able to say in advance, this is the kind of stuff that's going to happen.
The sorts of movements. One of the dancers had people talking about themselves about how they felt and how they were dancing and their moves were in connection with that. It was simply a matter of saying the way that these dancers move will reflect how they feel about themselves and it's the voices and the way they were talking about themselves, it was important.
So then you could have a Sign Language interpreter for that as well. So there's lots of different ways that you can do it. But the key thing is, think about it first.
It’s the same, I guess, with captions, if you've got a script. Think about how your captions are going to work as well from, from then too, but think about access right from the beginning.
Think about audio description at the beginning. Do you want to have a separate track that people could then click onto? Do you want tohave it as part of what you're doing? The ideal would be, it's going to be part of what you're doing but it's not always going to be possible.
And it's not always going to be a really rich, meaningful experience for everyone. But think about it from the beginning and start to listen to ways that other people have done it.
So there's plenty of examples of audio description for film and theatre and performance around that. You can start to think “This is how I would like it to go for me.”
Sam: What are some of the key elements of audio description?
Judith: First off, know why you're describing the thing. What is the point of you telling somebody about this thing? So understand the context in which this thing is going to be described and then talk about the whole thing.
So don't, for example, in this wonderful grey room, don't start talking about the piano that's over in the corner until you've spoken about the room, the whole room, because people want to be able to navigate through a space. You need to give them the idea of it, and then be very clear about what's important to describe. So for example, you and I are talking, we're not using the piano so maybe it's not the most important thing. The most important thing, if we were describing what we are doing here, would be the microphones in front of us and the desk.
So think about the big picture first, and then start to describe the things that are relevant and important and where they are. Think how can you use “it's like”, or “as if” kind of expressions but be cautious with those. So have a think about a mandarin and imagine you holding a mandarin in your hand, and you're gonna say to me, “It's as big as a mandarin.”
Now, in my hand, it might be one of those big mandarins. The big ones that you get that have got really kind of puffy skin and that pulls off really easily. So that's quite big. But in your hand, you might have one of those really tiny, very sweet ones, but you have to work really hard and get lots of orange peel from under your nails.
So we talk about mandarins but they're not the same. So you have to be, if you're using “as if”, you have to be really clear and when I spoke with the people at Puke Ariki who were training with me during their level four lockdown, and bless them, they were training even though they weren't in the museum and couldn't actually be alongside any of the things they were talking about.
We talked for a little while about a sheep and talked about how in Taranaki, if I said it's as big or as heavy as a sheep, it's a sort of idea to me but for someone who knows sheep they need more than that. They need deeper than that and it needs to be more explicit. So you might think about a weight of something in reference.
How heavy is a dog generally? How heavy is a cat? Generally, if you could say it's as heavy as a cat, an average cat, then you need to know what an average cat would be and it needs to make sense in that context. So don't just say “it's like such and such” and not be clear about what you mean.
I’ve been a storyteller and if I'm sitting against, or if my character is sitting against a tree in a story, then in my mind, I need to be really clear what that tree is and I need my audience to understand what that tree is because if they're sitting against a holly tree, for example, as opposed to a coconut tree, the story becomes completely different.
So you need to be absolutely explicit in many ways. When it comes to colour, people often imagine that people who are blind and low vision won't be able to do anything with the idea of colour, but we live in a world where colour is described and expressed and used to explain things so often. For example “I’m feeling a bit blue.” Or “look at that it's so drab” or “that's exciting.” “It's fizzing.”
So use words that are relevant to what that colour is showing you. What’s the vibe of that colour? Use words that are relevant to that.
Use things like body parts or things that most people are familiar with. If I used a milk bottle, for example, a glass milk bottle, that's probably not a reference point for lots and lots of people.
When we had a sensory tour at Te Papa yesterday, we were talking about the Silverings, which is a very large piece of large sheets, eight-metre square sheets of silver Mylar foil that are held up by a series of balloons filled with helium above them, but held down by a series of kind of guide ropes to the corners.
And I talked about how it reminded me of the handkerchiefs my dad used to use to make parachutes for us kids. And we had an interesting conversation about whether that was even a relevant reference any more because some of the people understood completely what I meant had been familiar with this and some of them hadn't.
So it's not just "What can I see?" and "What are the words I might use?" but "What do I know about it?" and "What am I sharing about what I know about it?" And that's what makes it different from just a bunch of words that say what you can see to give people a meaningful experience, to get a sense of what that work is about.
So there's some really useful physical things that you can talk about. How big is it? What might it sound like? Where are the lights coming from? All those sorts of things but they all need to have a really intentional, careful reference point. So you might write a two-minute audio description about something but it might take you a very, very long time to contain the experience in those words that are really relevant and contextual in a way.
Sam: So if I'm an independent filmmaker and I want to make my film accessible, maybe with audio description, where would I start?
Judith: Right at the beginning, start thinking about it before you've even made your film. So you've made a good start already.
Now the key thing with access ... It could be that you might want to add Sign Language to your film as well as a way of thinking of doing that, as well as having captions. You might want to have at some point a transcript of all the text and the sound effects that are going on as well but think about it from the beginning and take a moment to listen to audio description in action.
So find films that have integrated audio descriptions. So the audio description is part of what's going on and within the disability community, they're increasingly people who are trying to build audio description or sense of audio description in a really natural way within what they're doing.
If you get a chance to go and visit Susan Williams' work, Illegally Blind, a theatre piece, she is describing what she's doing as she goes along, it flows beautifully. It's completely relevant. It's totally do-able. If that's not the way you want to do it, listen to other audio describers, describe things and in particular, think about the audio describer who has been given a film that's been completed, but has no gaps for them to say anything useful or relevant.
That's not going to work. So think about how might you have a space. You can actually, in various techy ways, you can construct spaces in a completely separate audio described track. You can construct spaces but are there ways that you can just give people a bit more space to think about making a more relevant comment about what's happening during the film?
So have a listen to a range of different things and think about what would make the best, richest experience for your audiences. But start from the beginning and don’t just think about it retrospectively, cos that's not going to work very well. It's not going to be effective. It's not going to be meaningful. And it's going to be an add-on rather than a rich moment thought about from the beginning.
Sam: That’s it for today’s episode.
A huge thank you to Judith for coming on today's episode and also to the College of Creative Arts at Massey University for letting us use their fully accessible recording studios. Thank you for listening, Mā te wā.
You can read more insights about audio description in an article written by Judith Jones.