Audio Description Quality and Excellence: Tom Cruise, Bernadette Peters, and Bedtime Stories
(What is Audio Description? Read the first article on Medium)
Over 3000 TV shows and movies have Audio Description narration. And Audio Description has many moving parts.
After narrating Audio Description for over 450 tv shows and movies, I love reaching out and interacting with audiences, vendors, and others directly involved with the process. Along with Audio Description narrator skills, there are many other decisions that impact the experience of Audio Description. I’ve found some commonalities that sit well with an audience. Based on those commonalities from many different perspectives, here are a few worth sharing.
The writing, casting, directing, mix, narration, and access are all essential to the Audio Description.
The writing quality. The core of Audio Description. This writing is more than just the words used. It’s also the amount of words used, which affects timing. Bad writing can impact even the best narrator. Bernadette Peters is considered a brilliant actor, but I sure wouldn’t want to see her in a production of the play I wrote in High School. Besides, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. And brilliant Audio Description writing brings out the story in a way that enhances the visual intent of the producer and director.
The choice of narrator (who is cast to read it) plays a huge part. For example, if Tom Cruise was cast in the lead acting role of a “Pippi Longstocking” remake, he would have been miscast. It’s a similar comparison with Audio Description. There are many thoughtful considerations in casting. Some people may strongly disagree with the final casting! It’s an important decision.
The directing of Audio Description. A narrator could be directed to read a line in a way that keeps the audience in the story, not rushing it or putting unnecessary cadences, or even pushing too hard on the emotions or pulling back too much. A director can tell the narrator to pull back, and give some space to a line. So, just like on-camera direction, it’s the job of the Audio Description director to make sure the narrator maintains her audience’s emotional connection.
And now, the narrator’s skills or talent. If a narrator’s voice is flat and empty, it may as well be a digitized voice. But when it comes to stories told in movies or TV shows, the great narrators are a part of the story; not too much “into it” — but certainly not flat. It hurts my ears when I hear a narrator read a line with absolutely no intention during a scene of a movie. It also takes me out of the story when a narrator reads it too dramatically. There needs to be a very subtle balance, particularly with this unique kind of voice over.
Similarly, a narrator may make someone feel uncomfortable, but you might not really be able to put your finger on it. For example, have you started listening to a favorite book on audio, and the voice was annoying? I bet you didn’t listen to the rest of the book. That could also happen in Audio Description — even when the writing or mix is pitch perfect. One possible reason is what I call a “musical” read — as if the narrator is telling a bedtime story to a child in a way that “talks down.” They read it with a sing-songy cadence that can come across as condescending, which is disgusting and demeans both the audience and the quality of this work.
The final mix (how loud or quiet, among many other audio considerations) makes a world of difference. A great mix can help the Audio Description ride along the movie so that it’s balanced, it doesn’t stand out. But if you are straining to hear the Audio Description, or having to turn down the audio description, it’s sure to take you out, like listening to a loud commercial after experiencing an emotionally intimate scene in a TV show.
And finally, how easy or difficult is it to access the Audio Description? Does the TV show that had it on broadcast carry over to the streaming service or downloaded purchase? I’m a big fan when the Audio Description for the movie travels from the theater, to the tv, then to the dvd and to the streaming service, keeping it’s Audio Description with it. I’ll call it “pass through” — where Audio Description goes along with production, from cinema to streaming. Having to ask “Does my downloaded purchase even have it?” or “Is Audio Description on this streaming service?” means that inclusion is still in process. Thankfully many companies are making significant steps toward this end, if they aren’t there already.
All of these examples (and more!) substantially impact the final Audio Description. A lot of professionals take great care in making these decisions on casting, writing, directing, narrating, mixing, and access. Ultimately, I trust Blind and Low Vision audiences to say, and get, what they want. It’s great to know that more productions are listening.
So when it comes to Audio Description for movies or TV shows, we’re now beyond “does it have it or does it not.” This can now be seen seen as a part of the production: it’s a profession, involving many thoughtful decisions, for delivering the best to all Audio Description audiences.
A little post script: lots of companies, streaming services, broadcasts, and networks recognize the value of Audio Description for their audiences, which also impacts their bottom line. Netflix now requires vendors, narrators, and writers of Audio Description to each be named in the credits of their shows. When I speak with producers of movies who might be unaware of this part of their production, they lean in, interested. And no doubt why: it’s a serious market share, currently 26 million blind and low vision Americans.
This article is based on my own experiences in working these projects, and also in many conversations with audiences who use Audio Description. I’d love your feedback on this, particularly from blind and low vision audiences who use this service. I’ll update this article as feedback comes in, but please leave up to 50 claps below if you find this article useful or helpful in elevating the quality and excellence of Audio Description.
Read more interviews from Roy Samuelson about Audio Description here.