by Lolly Lijewski
The recent explosion of audio description (AD) on streaming services, broadcast television networks and in the movies has brought about an awakening within the blind and low vision community. The realization that blind people can perform the various aspects of AD has enabled many blind and low vision people to take the plunge to learn how to write, voice, perform quality control (QC) and engineer audio description tracks for TV, movies and even the ACB AD Gala.
So what does it take to become an audio describer? I recently interviewed three community members about the joys and challenges of AD:Chris Snyder from Phoenix, Robert Kingett from Chicago and Nefertiti Matos Olivares from New York City. Chris is the veteran of the group, and Robert and Nefertiti are newer to the work. Here is what they shared. (These interviews are lightly edited for brevity.)
Lolly Lijewski: Describe the various aspects of audio description that you are involved in. How long have you been in the field?
Nefertiti Matos Olivares: I have been a consumer and a student of AD for a long time. My background until recently was in assistive technology, but I burned out on that, so I decided to make a living through one of my passions by professionalizing in voiceover work specific to AD. Of the multiple roles, narration is my favorite, but I also perform QC, and I take on writing projects selectively. I have been involved for just about a year.
Robert Kingett: I perform QC and write and edit scripts for TV and movies. I have been in the field for four years, but I have been an advocate and consumer of AD for much longer.
Chris Snyder: I am a voiceover artist, audio engineer and producer, trained audio QC expert and voice talent director. I have been in the field for 20 years.
LL: Describe the process you use for doing your work.
NMO: First I learned about digital audio work stations (DAWS), and specifically which are most accessible with assistive technology. I researched the hardware necessary to do the work. Networking is key, so I tapped into the blind vine and chose people who I felt I could trust to teach me about accessible products and workarounds. I enrolled in a voice acting academy and then practiced becoming comfortable behind the mic. It helps to have a background in writing to perform QC as well as to have a general understanding of the art and science of AD and know what makes for good AD.
Writing AD is perhaps the most controversial aspect of AD for a blind person to do. I hire a visual interpreter service like AIRA. The visual assistant does not do the work of writing the script.
RK: Writing AD is a very involved process. I take the file from the client and listen through it several times for sound cues, cadences, tone of voice and other things that could lead to AD later in the process. I bring in a trusted friend and/or co-worker or two and they give an amateur description. Then I tell them what I think is happening based on sound cues and effects. Then I cross reference all of the data I have collected, synthesizing it into a script from my own interpretation.
When performing QC, I take notes on the script to make sure what’s in it matches up with what’s on the screen and ask lot of questions. I want my work to be exemplary. I read extensively and draw from that experience.
CS: I get the script and listen to the program while reading the script, then check time codes to see where AD belongs. I make sure the words used in the description conjure accurate images in my mind and consult with the description writer to ensure what is happening on the screen is what is happening in my head. …
For narration, I use a braille display or an ear prompter. The display ensures I have the words in front of me so I don’t miss anything. For time-sensitive projects, the ear prompter is best. Narration should be an integral part of the piece. Too much emotion in the read can be just as jarring as a flat, clinical read. Sometimes language doesn’t fit with the tone of the story. It may be awkward to say for the voiceover artist, or may not be age-appropriate for the piece.
On editing and engineering, “Depending on how the voiceover is recorded, it could be a challenging edit. I need to edit out the background noise and mouth sounds. … When mixing the AD track with the program, many companies use automated technology to mix the tracks. The machine decides how far to bring the sound of the program audio down to make room for the AD narrator. It’s never good. The human touch is important. … I try to put the description on the action, not before or after it when possible.”
LL: How did you learn that doing AD was possible for you as a blind person? If there were people who helped you along the way, please share those stories.
NMO: I educated myself, networked, and I identified blind people I admired in the field and interviewed them. They were willing to stay in touch if I had questions. A couple have become mentors. I knew there were already blind people breaking barriers, so I knew I could too.
I want to give a shout out to Roy Samuelson, a voice actor in the field. He’s great at advocating for blind people to do this work. I had an opportunity to write the script for “Say His Name: Five Days for George Floyd.” Roy was the producer with an all-blind team.
The incomparable Thomas Reid has provided a lot of guidance throughout my process. We described the ACB AD gala together.
RK: It came about when I examined the roots of ableism in society. It’s an industry I am passionate about. … I know I’m a good writer and can contribute, and I take in the same information as someone sighted, just through different means.
Roy Samuelson was the first to put it in my head that I could write AD. He didn’t say how, just that he was sure I could do it. I also want to thank the Social Audio Description team for their encouragement and support.
CS: My grandmother asked an important question: What is it that makes you happy, and what do you see yourself doing in 20 years? What do you find yourself doing at 4 in the morning? The answer was sound design. I went to Digidesign, the developer of Pro Tools, and asked if it was accessible. They referred me to Rick Boggs, who is also blind. Rick, Slau Halatyn and others helped to make Pro Tools accessible.
I applied to the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences, and when the board of admissions learned I was blind, they rejected my application. John McJunkin was a board member who disagreed with the decision and offered to teach me on his own time. I wouldn’t get the degree, but I would learn how to do the work.
Rick Boggs showed me how to use Pro Tools with the outSPOKEN screen reader, and I became an intern with his business, We See TV. …While working on “Toy Story,” Boggs asked me to narrate the description. I’ve been doing voice work ever since.
LL: What advice do you have for other blind people who want to learn the various aspects of audio description?
NMO: There’s so much to be gained by connecting with other professionals who do this. It’s not just who you know, but how you go on to leverage those contacts. … Be sure to learn the technology. Can you emote without overdoing it? Can you read at speed using a screen reader or braille display? … Keep up on what’s going on in the field. Connect with others in the field on social media like the Audio Description Twitter community.
CS: It’s not a field where you’ll make a lot of money. Television and movie producers want AD that is good, cheap and fast, but you can only have two of those three things. For aspiring writers, the Audio Description Institute is a good place to start. Be open to feedback from the blind audience. Read to build your vocabulary. Understand how language sounds when spoken. Take some voice classes. Learn how to use a braille display and an ear prompter. Determine which one you are best at, and then work on the other. Invest in some good equipment to do the work. … Don’t give up. The prevailing attitude is that this is a service for blind people. Keep going until you get a “yes.”
LL: Is there anything else you want people to know about working in this field?
NMO: It’s competitive. Pay is all over the place. Some companies are in it for their own reasons that don’t always benefit the consumer insofar as producing a quality AD experience. Maintain whatever passion you have and don’t be bashful about putting yourself out there.
RK: Focus on networking, not so much your expertise. If you can, work with a team. AD is a team effort. … The conversation is shifting from “what has AD?” to “who was that great narrator I heard last night.” Shifting from quantity to quality. … Embrace diversity. It would be interesting someday to see a writer who is deaf or hard of hearing with AD.
CS: You have to prove yourself to be capable. Blind people have to work twice as hard in this and other fields. It’s neither right nor fair, but it is true. Always do your best and keep your mind and ears open.