‘I’m A Storyteller’ - A New Audio Describer’s journey

‘I’m A Storyteller’ - A New Audio Describer’s journey

‘What is an audio describer?’ asks my auntie for the third time. I ponder for a moment or two and try again.

‘It’s like subtitles, but for the visually impaired. We fill in the blanks when the characters aren’t talking. Colouring in between the lines, capturing the important visual cues, setting the scene, or ambience’. She nods and smiles.

‘Well, I never knew it was a thing, but I think it’s fascinating’ she says. And so do I.

As a fresh-faced audio describer, cast into this exciting and important new world, I’ll ashamedly admit I didn’t really know what it meant to be an audio describer. I understood the idea; the execution; the skills required. It was an exciting opportunity, where I could use my talents and abilities, garnered over my life experiences and education, in creative writing and in using my voice. I was excited about the prospect of something new and challenging, and although confident in my abilities (perhaps somewhat naively), I was eager to get going. Ten months later, I finally feel like I’m just getting started.

We are described as a “translation service” – technically, that’s correct. We translate the visual information on screen for the audience at home, but I think that’s only the tip of the audio description iceberg. We are a creative team of individual writers and narrators. Every one of us sees and experiences the media we work on in different ways. We impart our emotions. Try to capture the director’s vision. Attempt to tell the whole story, often in very small, tight windows. It’s hard and also immensely rewarding and honestly, I didn’t know the half of it when I started.

I didn’t know how intimately you can become attached to the characters and the stories that you tell. Often, I feel like I’m a hidden character, part of the team, friends with everyone on screen. You live the bumps and turns, the twists and betrayals as you delve into each story and try to tell it with care and precision. It feels much more personal. You learn each character’s name – their quirks and relationships. You dig into their backstories and history, all the while narrating along their journey, like an omnipresent partner, guiding them along their preordained path. I’ll admit, it’s given me a new perspective to shows I watch – even nonfiction programmes and documentaries.

I didn’t know how much research goes into even the smallest of things. I once had to describe a bridge collapsing. Sounds easy right? But are you familiar with bridge anatomy? I certainly wasn’t. Now, I’ll never forget what the anchor is on a suspension bridge or the hangers holding the mighty metal cables that rise and fall over each of the bridge’s towers. Some things might sound simple, but I spent far too much time trying to find the right words to describe what was happening to that poor, collapsing bridge.

I’ve been surprised on many occasions by just how much visual information tells the story in cinema and TV. Having never really had to consider this before and absorbing the sights just as much as the sounds, its staggering how much is missing unless the writers and producers intend otherwise. Visually we take in a staggering amount of information in what could be a split second – so how do you choose what to say? What's more important to me, might be less so to someone else. I must decide what best tells the whole story and be very selective in what I include or don’t. This was something I found incredibly difficult early on. I would try desperately to fit in as much information as possible, to paint with every colour the story would allow. Flowery prose and lavish descriptions, where a simple sentence would have been much more powerful. I would sometimes rattle away, as if I was performing a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song, competing for the lead with a blistering display of vocal virtuosity and speed. I’ve learnt that often less is more and strangely that’s more liberating in our business – but it’s a fine line and one I am still learning to tread.

I think Audio Description is also quite a personal job. We work alone. Tinkering away in our little corner of the world, where we strive to create something to be enjoyed and or scrutinized with every single project. I don’t know if I speak for my colleagues or not, but I feel very attached to series’ or shows I work on – protective of them, even. Every time I sit down to write, I am creating something new. Although incredibly enjoyable, it can also be somewhat intimidating. Writer’s block is real (oh yes) and searching your mind and often a handy thesaurus for synonyms is part and parcel of keeping things fresh and fun.

I know I’ve got a lot more to learn, but each episode I script and narrate, each film I finish, I feel more confident in my craft. My hope is that as someone sits down to enjoy a programme with my audio description, I can become a friend to them. A storyteller. A voice to enhance their enjoyment of what ever programme or film they are about to consume. They don’t just get blank words on a screen; they get my interpretation. My description. My voice right there with them, in their home, exploring each epic adventure or torrid tale and I hope to do it justice.

‘What is an audio describer?’

‘I am a storyteller’.Yeah, I think that’s about right!

By Davide Arbisi