Guidelines And Standards For LARRS Audio Describers
Describer – the person who writes/creates the descriptions, in advance or live.
Narrator – the person who speaks the descriptions. In the case of live description, the narrator and describer may be the same.
Product – the work being described – a parade, a play, a television program, a dance performance, an opera, a film, a painting, a display, an exhibition.
Audio Description – Audio description for low vision and blind people is the art and technique of using the natural pauses in dialog or narration during live theater performances to insert descriptions of the essential visual elements: actions, appearance of characters. Body language, costumes and settings, lighting, etc. Descriptions are delivered through a tiny earpiece thus permitting visually impaired people to sit anywhere in the audience.
Video Description – Video Description is the art of audio description applied to television, videos and motion pictures. In Video Description the credits and subtitles are voiced. Descriptions are delivered via separate audio channel permitting TV viewers and moviegoers to hear or not hear the descriptions according to their wishes.
A 1993 study conducted by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) for WGBH Educational Foundation with a grant from the National Science Foundation found:
Participants report that when they watch television they feel they generally miss information that is available to fully–sighted people. Adding description makes programs more enjoyable, interesting, and informative; description does not make programs more confusing. Having audio description makes the participants more comfortable discussing programs with sighted friends. They are more able to talk about the program themselves and are more able to ask others about it.
Participants who watched the described video version of the programs remembered what was presented in the descriptions. Further, one to two months later, they retained significantly more information from the programs. The participants prefer to have description for television programs in general and science programs in particular. They would seek out programs they knew would be described.
Highlights of a research project to study the viewing habits of blind and visually impaired people and the impact of video description completed in 1997 by the American Foundation for the Blind reports:
Blind and visually impaired people (approximately 3% of the U. S. population) watch television and videotapes about as often as those who are not visually impaired. In, addition, their households own televisions and VCRs, and subscribe to cable television, to the same extent as other households. The vast majority of those who have experienced formal video description say they would be more likely to watch a television show or video with description than without.
The vast majority of blind and visually impaired people who have experienced description say that it is important to their enjoyment of programming.People who have experienced video description feel that it affords important benefits, which fall into the categories of enhanced viewing, learning, and social experiences watching television and videotapes.
Among the benefits of video description cited most often by blind and visually impaired viewers are the following:
Gaining knowledge about the visual world
Gaining a better understanding of televised material
Experiencing social connection
Feeling equality with those who do not have visual impairments
Relief of burden on sighted viewers with whom they watch
LARRS Guidelines and Standards
DESCRIBE WHAT YOU SEE
This is the first rule of description. What you see is what you describe. The product is previewed with an eye toward including the key plot elements,objects, places, etc. not mentioned in the dialog or made obvious by the audio track.
Don’t interpret, explain, analyze or in any other way “help” the audience. Allow them to form their own opinions and draw their own conclusions.
Character’s moods, motives or reasoning are not the subject of audio description. If the conclusion is that a character is angry, describe what led to that conclusion –the gestures/facial expressions of the character.The careful choice of adjectives and adverbs is crucial. Choose only those words, which are not themselves subject to interpretation – “beautiful” says only that something is deemed not ugly. It begs the question “What makes it beautiful?” A few well–chosen words can enhance a scene considerably, but they must not reflect the personal view of the describer.
The dialog is telling the story and must be heard. This rule is broken only when the confusion by omitting the description is greater than maintaining the integrity of the dialog. This, of course, presupposes the description is vital.
Lyrics should be treated as dialog. If there are repeated choruses, you may describe over them. Whenever possible, the rhythm of the music should be matched by the description.
The dialog from radio, television or other speaking characters may be important to the story or may be considered background sound. If background noise, it is permissible to describe over it, again assuming the description is vital.
Do not summarize. Don’t take a series of specific, separate actions/events/images and describe them as one. “The attic is cluttered.” It is more interesting to name the items in the clutter if time permits.
Do not patronize. Don’t be condescending to the audience. Trust them to grasp the context. They may well know more about what you are describing than you do.
Do not Intellectualize. Don’t assume a lecturing or clinical tone. Some connection to the product is essential and is reflected in the describer’s choice of language. Neither should the describer avoid the emotional state of the product. A tender love scene should have appropriate vocabulary.
Do not describe obvious sound cues. Mention who answers the phone, not that the phone is ringing.
What to describe
Focus on that which is the most significant and least obvious from the dialog/audio. Describing everything is impossible: describe what is essential in the allowable time. Describe what is seen, not what you think is going on or why. Give the audience what they need to understand the story.
How much to describe
Describe what is essential in the allowable time. If time permits, describe further. Details to include could be architecture, clothing style, technology, color, light & texture. Description, however, should not fill every available pause. Less is more. Audio description is not a running commentary. Too much description can dilute the mood of a scene.
The musical score is a vital part of the product; audio description over it can diminish its impact and enjoyment. The audience will want varying amounts of description. According to the Pfanstiehls, “the amount of narrative detail preferred often depends on whether an individual is congenitally blind (was born without sight) or is adventitiously blind (was born with sight but lost it at some point in life).”
M. Pfanstiehl explained the differences in preference: “The congenitally blind often have little concept of how very visual the world is. People who have always been blind from birth and have never has useful vision, and have a poor idea of just how much nonverbal communication is always going on.” They will say, “I don’t need it. I get everything I need. I can imagine all the rest … I want just the script description. If you’re going to describe to me at all, I don’t want you to say very much. Just a phrase here or there is sufficient to clarify things.” And then you have the adventitiously blind who are saying, “I’d like as much detail as you can possibly give me.”
If a character is in disguise, they become “the man” rather than “John wears a disguise.” Use a neutral term “the figure in red” when characters are disguising their gender.
Keep the language consistent. Use the present tense. The story is unfolding now, in the present. Time shifts (flash backs, or visions of the future) should be made in reference to the character – “Emily sees the dead girl playing”, “George sees himself much older.” Music and visual effects may further identify time changes. Use the same name for characters, places, objects, etc. throughout. Use the most descriptive words and concise sentence structure. Use language appropriate for the audience. Children’s programs would use vocabulary suitable for the age group. Product with violence, sex, and/or profanity should have matching vocabulary as well. The describer’s feelings about the content are not relevant. Use the correct terminology as long as that terminology would be commonly understood. Colloquialisms and slang should be avoided. Assume the audience is nationwide.
Audio description is not an opportunity to show off your education or vocabulary. Avoid metaphors, similes and similar literary devises. Read verbatim words that appear – “Words appear: One year later.” Likewise, read subtitles verbatim – “Subtitles appear: That guy’s the biggest jerk I’ve ever seen.”
If something is identified by name or has already made an appearance, the definite article “the”is used. If the subject or object is new, the indefinite "a" is preferable.
If someone’s name or location is about to be introduced by the programme itself, there is no need to put it in the description.
Use pronouns carefully. If there is only one female in a scene, then “she” is fine. If there are more than one, proper names will be clearer.
If possible, follow the action. Allow the sound effects to occur then identify the action. There will be times when leading the action is necessary. Colors have meaning and should be described. The dress is burgundy & puce; rather than the dress is red & cyan; more richly describes the dress. Avoid, however, unusual color words: cyan, cerulean, puce, dun, etc...
Use vivid verbs. People frequently “walk” but they also: “amble”, “stagger”, “shuffle”,“saunter”, and “stroll.” Choose the word that best matches the action.Use “while” and “as” to join two actions only if there is a connection between them.“John picks up the knife as Jill turns away.”
The introduction and description of characters differ in live and video description and are treated separately below.
The description of settings differs in live and video description and is treated separately below.
Standards Unique to Live Description Program notes . Unlike video description, live description provides a period before the performance for program notes.
The purpose is to prepare the patron by including descriptions that the describer will not have time to give during the performance. In addition to the credits on the playbill, the program notes cover descriptions of: the sets, with their entrances, exits, placement of furniture, etc.; the appearance of the characters, the roles they play, their costumes, any gestures or mannerisms they use repeatedly; any props that are significant. Because time permits, all these descriptions should be complete and detailed.
The program notes are also the place to define any terminology that might be used in the performance. In a period piece, terms of clothing or architecture might be expanded. Unusual props can be defined. The remaining time before the curtain can be filled with the director’s notes, articles about the playwright, the actor’s bios, the appearance of the audience, etc. At a parade, reading from the souvenir program would be desirable. At an exhibit or display, reading the placards and describing any promotional material designed for it bring the curator’s emphasis to the audience.
Live description may be provided for live broadcast programs: Presidential inaugurations, Space launches, and national disasters. Live description allows deviation from the expected. If something unplanned occurs, a live describer can respond. When a horse fell at the Rose Parade, the visually impaired audience could share the concern for the animal with the sighted audience because of the live description.
When the characters are first seen, mention their names as they speak, which identifies the name with the voice to the audience.
Do not use stage directions – stage right, house right, down stage.
We have established that we are at the theatre, so repeated references to the stage are unnecessary. Reinforce the magic of the “4th Wall.”
Short phrases during the pauses in dialog can be used in place of full sentences. At the theatre, an unobtrusive speaking style is preferable. While, at a parade, a more up–beat style would be preferable.
It is sometimes desirable to have two describers working to deliver parallel information: in describing a dance, the male describer voices the male dancer(s) movement and the female describer, the female dancer(s). In opera, one describer reads the super–titles, the other describes the action.
Standards Unique to Video Description
The pauses in the product may be brief for the placement of description. Use complete, concise sentences. Shorter sentences are also easier to listen to.
The narrator’s voice should match the product – it should be distinct from the characters in the product and mixed to sound as natural to the product as possible. The narration serves the production and should blend into it. Gerry Field, DVS® Operations Manager explained; “contrast is one of the most important things …we work very hard to make sure that the volume of the voice is not standing out above the program that it has to work with it.”
Unlike live theatre description where character’s names are in the playbill, characters in television and film may be introduced but unnamed. Some physical characteristic must be found to identify them until they are named in the product – “the bald man”, " the red headed boy.” Once they have received a proper name, that name should be used. Tying that name to the physical description once is desirable – “John, the redheaded boy…”
Since there may not be time for a complete description, choose that which is most revealing about the character. The age of the character may be reasonably judged by the sound of their voice. If that is not the case, mention their age. If they are dressed differently than other characters, that might be appropriate. Are they much taller, or shorter than everyone else? Are they the only blonde? Do they have blue eyes, when everyone else in the family has brown? Is their ethnicity important? The relationships between characters may not be apparent. It is the filmmaker’s responsibility to reveal these relationships.
Scene changes can be confusing particularly when the audio track does not indicate a change. Keep them simple and short. “In the bedroom”, “At the police station”, “Outside”.
It is not necessary to use the terms “now” when beginning to describe a new scene. It is assumed that what is being described is what is currently being shown on the screen. It is also assumed that time in the product moves later and later, so saying “later” becomes superfluous. The use of “later” might be appropriate, as in “Later that day” or “Later that evening” but it should be very clear by some visual clue that this is the case. In that instance, using the visual clue might be preferable.
There will be times when leading the action is necessary. Be aware, however, that leading the action is distracting for the non–visually impaired who also may be viewing the film.
Do describe the point of view when appropriate – “from above”,“from space” “moving away.”
We have established that they are watching television, so repeated references to the screen are unnecessary.
Treat logos as you would any other image to be described, and read the company name(s).
Credits and Disclaimers
Reading the credits at the beginning and end of films and television programs is an important function of audio description as it is an area in which visually impaired people feel they particularly miss out. Many broadcasters today prefer their announcers to talk over the end credits or to go straight into a trailer or ad break.
The opening credits often appear over an important action sequence and it may be necessary to compress them into a shorter space or to read them in advance of their actual appearance on screen, in order to be ready to describe the action as it begins. Disclaimers for televised films may or may not be required. They are generally difficult to read in the time allotted.
Audio Description is a means to an end. It is translation to the visually impaired of what is going on visually. The Audio Describer is a facilitator to the people who can’t see. No rule is set in stone; words like “never” and “always” need to be applied with common sense. Gregory Fraizer views description as an evolving art. When the art is well done it can have this response: “The description [of a movie] was so well done, I can’t remember if I saw it before I lost my sight or after, it was described so vividly.”