In April 2021, I was awarded a Develop Your Creative Practice (DYCP) grant from Arts Council England (ACE) to explore the intersection of audio description (AD) and filmmaking in my artistic practice. My ambition is to create a space where I can look at innovative modes of audio description for narrative and non-narrative work, and begin to incorporate aspects of these into my own filmmaking and audio description practices.
A little background
I came to audio description organically, having worked with blind artists, describing for them in situ (workshops, rehearsals, real life), and also from audio describing my own work. It was only once I was doing this for a while that I started to audio describe work for other artists’ projects. To date, this has included independent video works, visual arts exhibitions in galleries, performance and live art, cabaret and even panto!
My own filmmaking practice includes a mix of narrative and non-narrative work. My 2016 short Awake, featured actors Alex Bulmer and Margo Cargill, who are both blind. The film was well received and won awards – the chemistry between the characters, Anna, a depressed and ill woman with a bleak sense of humour, and Doreen, an upbeat Jehovah’s Witness who won’t take no for an answer, is surprising and enjoyable. The film was seen as groundbreaking in its lack of focus on the characters’ impairments. The characters are blind but the story is about something else.
My non-narrative work comes from a place of intuition and play. Rarely do I set out with an idea of some meaning or message I want to convey. Rather, these shorts evolve through a process of discovery: looking through my video archive, choosing clips, juxtaposing them, adding some music and soundscapes and seeing what interesting connections and resonances emerge.
Interestingly, when audio describing my own work, both narrative and non-narrative, I have defaulted to quite standard and/or conventional modes. There is still something to be said for this – sometimes access can get too gimmicky and intrude on a non-sighted person’s enjoyment of and involvement in the work itself. At the very least, the goal should be to provide basic access.
With this DYCP grant, however, I wanted to examine and expand my practice. Working in consultation with writer-director-actor Alex Bulmer, my programme of work is divided into three parts: 1) in conversation with AD users, academics and describers, to look at current examples and find models of innovative practice; 2) to go back to my own previously described films and develop alternate, more creative audio descriptions and then compare them to the originals; and 3) to create a new work that combines both narrative and non-narrative elements and lends itself to a non-traditional, innovative approach that is conceptualised from the start as part of the film.
Just as I was starting the research for my project, I saw an advertisement from VocalEyes who were linking audio describers up with more experienced mentors as part of a Digital Mentor scheme, in association with the UK’s Audio Description Association (ADA). VocalEyes is one of the UK’s premiere companies rolling out audio description, advocating for widespread practice, and facilitating training for describers.
I thought this would be a great opportunity to bring an additional person on board, a sounding board with whom I could review my plans and progress. I described my goals in my application and Matthew Cock from VocalEyes linked me up with mentor Louise Fryer. I was thrilled! Louise is at the forefront of audio description research and practice. Her book, An Introduction to Audio Description – A Practical Guide, is the go-to text book for describers, a work I studied that has continually influenced my AD practice. Her recent work includes Integrated Access in Live Performance, a survey of integrated audio description (with Amelia Cavallo) in performance. Another key influence on my thinking around AD for film has been Louise’s work on the film On Blindness, which offered a standard AD track as well as an alternative, enhanced version that included additional audio material and dialogue. People in the UK can watch a short film about the process behind this here.
I had an initial Zoom conversation with Louise, in which I outlined my plans and the questions I wanted to research. I was impressed by her generosity and support as well as her flexible thinking, and Louise helped me to solidify my plans for the research and practical work ahead. Despite having written “the text book” on audio description, Louise remains curious and welcoming to new ideas and continues to explore new practices.
New Directions in Audio Description Technology
Two people Louise suggested I talk to were Ben Shirley (University of Salford) and Pablo Romero-Fresco (University of Roehampton), and she helpfully provided introductions. I followed up in Zoom sessions with each of them, after doing initial research, reading their articles in academic journals and Googling projects with which they are involved.
Researching Ben Shirley’s work and then talking with him on Zoom sent my head spinning with possibilities for creative innovations in AD. Much of his work has explored “object-based audio”, that allows audiences to choose individual levels for different audio “objects” such as dialogue, music, and background ambience, adjusting the balance of these to create one’s own optimum AD experience. In 2019, some of these techniques were incorporated into an episode of BBC’s Casualty.
Further research has explored the personalisation of AD including looking at and experimenting with factors such as: the speed and style of delivery or AD voice; the location of the AD voice relative to the action; using alternate devices (more about this below); and information richness (how much detail to include).
As I discussed with Ben, I find this area of research extremely exciting and provocative. However, that’s tempered by the relative inaccessibility of cutting edge and experimental technology for an independent filmmaker. I’m looking for strategies that I can employ in my own work, and that can be rolled out to viewers without expensive equipment or super complicated processes. Many of these innovations are still in development stages. Thinking creatively, how can they be adapted or implemented in DIY format? Immediately!
One possibility is developed in another project that Ben Shirley spearheaded: The Vostok-K Incident.
The S3A project team (researchers from the Universities of Surrey, Salford, Southampton, and BBC R&D) developed a way of “using speakers in devices that people already have at home—mobile phones, tablets, and laptops—in order to unlock immersive audio experiences for many more listeners. It’s like a surround sound system, but without the hassle of cables and expensive loudspeakers.”
By attaching your laptop, mobile, tablet etc. via bluetooth, you can get different audio tracks from different devices, and place them wherever you want within a space. I thought that this could be a great application for presenting various aspects of the audio track for blind and partially-sighted viewers; so for example, the dialogue could come from your laptop, the AD narration from your mobile, and the background or ambient audio could come from your tablet. In this way, listeners can personalise and set levels on whatever combination of tracks works for them. Although this stage of the Vostok project is finished, the software is available for people to experiment with, and I’m sure we will be seeing it incorporated into further developments in artists’ practice.
I had an equally enlightening chat with Pablo Romero-Fresco over Zoom. Pablo and Louise have worked together on Media Accessibility research and I found his papers highly stimulating and relevant to my investigations. For example, the groundbreaking Accessible Filmmaking Guide, from 2018.
Like Ben Shirley, Pablo’s research has been about offering choice to AD and/or captions users – as opposed to a “one size fits all” strategy. Pablo, like Louise, is keenly interested in alternative, innovative and creative approaches, and advocates for audio description that is conceptualised at the beginning, and integral to the production of the work, rather than tacked on at the end. Like Louise, he is excited by new directions AD can take and interested in my explorations.
An ongoing question facing people who are looking at new modes of audio description is whether the AD experience should emulate (as much as possible) the experience that sighted viewers get, or whether the access strategies (AD, captions, etc.) can provide a parallel but different, even enhanced aesthetic experience. (e.g. Notes on Blindness, above).
One artist that Pablo refers to in his research really turned me on with her use of creative captions that take their own turn, creating a witty parallel narrative to the video. This is Deaf, American artist Christine Sun Kim with her video Closer Captions (with link to video description and transcript in the biog, or here).
What would a similar approach to audio description sound like? Might a playful approach engage viewers in ways that standard AD cannot? BUT can you get too creative with the access elements to the point where they are distracting? What about that viewer who simply wants access to the work, rather than a playful commentary on it?
Enhancing Audio Description
Another project that I encountered in my research was Enhancing Audio Description (EAD), headed by Mariana Lopez at the University of York, along with Gavin Kearney.
The EAD project explored ways to make audio description more engaging and effective, incorporating creative possibilities of sound design. The team surveyed blind and partially sighted AD users before, during and after their research, to stimulate active and practical methodology. Their work culminated in reworking the audio description for a short film called Pearl (dir. Hannah Palumbo) that the team used as a case study. Rather than simply trying to provide more detailed description, the researchers implemented three very powerful techniques:
- enhanced soundtrack for the film itself (additional audio cues and effects)
- binaural audio (to create spatial awareness of where the sound/voice is coming from, as opposed to traditional technique which places all dialogue at the centre of the screen), and
- a first person, subjective approach to the description (the I-voice).
I had a great Zoom with Mariana Lopez about her ongoing work, and she described the next stage of the project, Enhanced Audio Description part 2, which has just begun and which will explore these strategies further. Our discussion provided amazing food for thought as I consider what strategies to inform my own practice.
Finally, my work on this project has coincided with a series of workshops offered by VocalEyes on a series of topics for describers, a Covid-friendly CPD (continuing professional development) series. I participated in several, including one called Describing for Film that featured a presentation by Timna Fibert, an audio describer who discussed her recent project describing non-narrative art films for the Alchemy Film Festival. I found Timna’s description for these abstract and subjective films to be astute and skillful. In a subsequent Zoom conversation, I was impressed with Timna’s enthusiasm around the challenges of describing non-narrative films. Her expert description came from working directly with the filmmakers to understand their intentions and the meaning of visuals in the film. It was interesting to hear her say that, on reflection, she felt like she could have gone further. For example, she said, she could have used more poetic language, phrases rather than full sentences. It reinforced for me the idea that work in this area is an evolving and open-ended discourse.
Where Is All This Going?
So, informed by all this, I am inspired to start looking at my own work and coming up with alternative approaches to try out. I definitely feel like choice is key, that ideally you would be able to offer AD users a choice of standard approach, enhanced audio, different mixes of the various elements, etc. But how you can actually deliver alternate choices is still problematic. More complicated approaches and multiple options can be a technological barrier for users. It’s still early days for some of the approaches being developed in research environments to be rolled out to mainstream viewers. However, I do have a few ideas!
Through the past months, of course, work life has not stopped for me, and while I was engaging in this research I have also been creating audio description for some fantastic projects that have provided unexpected challenges and insights. These have included Cathy Mager’s film Sign Night, a dance film by South African artist Siphenathi Mayekiso called Echoes of Identity, and Bobby Baker’s performance Diary of A (Grand) Mother’s Experience. There seems to have been synchronicity in being invited to work on such a variety of projects that each pose their own questions and inspire me to re-examine my assumptions and methods around AD practice.
Let me know if you have any comments, insights or thoughts about all of this, and watch this space for further developments! I am currently planning and starting work on parts 2 and 3 of the DYCP project, and I plan to hold a webinar for invited audience at the end to share my research and show examples of newly created and revised works.