For part 2 of my Develop Your Creative Practice project, I chose to rework the conventional audio description that I had previously created for two of my non-narrative films, flow2 and flying & floating. I had screened these films with AD, and received an overall positive response from blind and visually impaired people, but I still felt that the standard AD didn’t quite do the trick. Because there’s so much to describe, especially with quick cuts one after another, it felt like auditors were getting wall-to-wall description and never given a chance to relax into the mood and texture of the films. Soooo… I wanted to see whether some of the techniques, strategies and ideas I had come up with in my research could be applied to more interesting modes of description for these films.
Working with Calum
I have been very lucky to work with Sound Designer Calum Perrin. Calum is a sound and installation artist and composer working in radio, theatre and visual art – I first met him when he completed a filmpro online commission, Texture Recipes #1-3, translating domestic environments into printmaking images and audio textures.
Calum was keen to apply his creativity to audio description and it felt like we were equally excited about the possibilities of this work. We started talking about different tools that might be appropriate to focus on for each film.
flow2 is a succession of video images recorded in my travels around the UK and abroad. For me, as with many of my non-narrative films, its creation was intuitive. When at one point Louise Fryer asked me, “what do you want to convey with this film?” I had to stop and think. It’s about travel and fluidity, the contrast of bustle and restfulness in natural and manmade environments. But it’s also about a feeling of stop and go, of giving the audience a lot of stimulation and then space to relax, feel, be.
The first strategy I wanted to explore was to emphasize the ambient sound in each clip. In the original, the music often drowns out any location sound. Also, some of the ambient sound that I originally recorded was not that effective. Calum substituted more vivid audio of rivers rushing, birds tweeting, boats passing, and I thought, “Why don’t I always do this?”
Secondly, I was really interested in altering my describer voice to vary the sound of the narration as it was appropriate to each setting. Calum played with settings and filters to create interesting effects that a) differentiate one clip from another and b) reflect the tonal quality of that environment.
In a further tactic to differentiate the clips, Calum created a pulse or percussion sound each time the clip changes. This is subtle and I think works on a subconscious level as much as a conscious one, but adds an important non-verbal indicator that emphasizes the rhythm of the film.
I pondered writing the AD in poetic form, or adding personal reminiscences about what that year of heavy travel had been like. But actually that felt like a whole other film. In the end, we came up with the idea of a succession of single words, spoken sporadically through the film, that would give a sense of the material quality of the film, the textures and movements. When I was thinking about captioning the film, I decided to add a graphic for each of these words.
We also pared down the music. You hear it once at the beginning and once at the end, and then at other points you only hear echoes or traces of it, separate stems from the original track. This allows for more of the ambient sound to come through.
As for the description, hearing it again after several years, I tweaked the language, making it more active, and shifted the emphasis in some for some of the clips.
Here are the two versions of flow2, the first with the original AD, and the second with the reworked AD. (Captions are available.) What do you think?
flying & floating
For flying & floating, I wanted to explore a more radical approach, where the form of the description better suited the collage nature of the video. Pablo Romero-Fresco had played me a clip of some AD prepared by one of his students, a sung version of the audio description for Walt Disney’s Fantasia! Inspired by this, I wrote words and melodies for each of the images in flying & floating. Some of them use a subjective voice. For example, instead of describing the burnt-out Brighton pier as an observer, I sing in the voice of the pier itself.
Without saying “split screen”, I wanted to convey the split-screen structure of this video, where two images play simultaneously, reflecting and echoing off each other. We mixed the audio so that the tracks are panned left and right. Mostly, the focus alternates left and right but at times the two sides overlap. This can a bit challenging, when your ears are being pulled in different directions at once. But hopefully we have found a satisfying balance, where this effect mirrors the visual.
Here are the two versions of flying & floating, the first with conventional AD and the second with the enhanced AD. What do you think?
Following these reworkings, I have had several conversations with AD users, playing them the original and new versions and getting feedback. I met with performer and academic Amelia Cavallo, performer/director and AD consultant Chloe Clarke, filmmaker Raina Haig and audio describer Anne Hornsby to get their reactions.
The consensus seemed to be that the new versions show improvement and give the AD listener a better and richer experience. Of course there were lots of suggestions of what could be tweaked and areas for further investigation.
Raina Haig has thought long and hard about modes of audio description, in her own film work and that of others. Raina got very excited by the single word “textures” in flow2 – it actually brought her to tears! She felt that the new soundtrack created a sense of space and dimension and helped to orientate the viewer. “It filled in that area of the film that was missing before, the patterns that went from one sequence to another, or one shot to another.”
Anne Hornsby agreed (“One word can just say so much”) but emphasized that the single words dropped in worked best where there was breathing room around them so that they didn’t clash with the rest of the AD. Anne also really liked the filtering of the AD voice, so for example, where it sounds like it’s coming over a Tannoy system, and suggested this could be used in even more of the clips.
All of my interviewees agreed that the improved ambient sound was an effective, non-verbal way to draw the audience deeper into the videos, and most would have liked even more breathing space where you would are able to relax and absorb the ambience of that spatial environment.
Amelia felt that the new version of flying & floating, while an engaging experience on its own, did not quite orient the blind and VI viewer enough to what is going on visually and would leave people wondering. They suggested that a short audio introduction would be helpful. Chloe Clarke agreed, responding that the split screen effect was not conveyed to her clearly by the new audio description. She also felt that the music pulled all of the separate images together rather than differentiating the visuals into separate clips, as they appear to sighted viewers.
This made me wonder to what extent an audio description track needs to convey the precise visual experience to the viewer, and to what extent the AD version of a film could be its own parallel experience. Once again, the solution would seem to be CHOICE. Rather than an audio intro, I would like to provide alternate AD tracks so that someone could listen to both the standard AD, giving an objective or literal description, and the enhanced approach to get a more creative, emotional take on the film.
But I’m still working out what would be the best platform for providing alternate audio tracks, other than supplying multiple versions of each film. Currently, you can’t toggle audio tracks on either Vimeo or YouTube, although there are test versions running and I suspect this feature will soon be available.
All of this work has been exciting for me, but the more I’ve explored the more I want to try. I guess the biggest points of learning have been around how much further one can go with audio, not just for audio description but in my filmmaking practice as a whole. In this part of the project, I gave myself the challenge of working within the constraints of the original edits (with one cheat!) but in future, considering the AD at the start and giving more consideration to audio throughout will affect the way I structure and edit these non-narrative films.
And options! There’s no description that is going to suit everybody, and different modes of description for the same work have the power to interact and inform each other. My next step is to research platforms that can make this more accessible. And stay tuned for my short film Pessoa, where alternate soundtracks recur as an ongoing motif!