AD: The Importance of Delivery

When I joined Sky, a key piece of advice that a colleague gave me was to try and make sure my voice always sounds engaged and interested in the programme. While audio description is supposed to be un-intrusive, the wide range of different programmes that we work on has taught me just how important a ‘fitting’ vocal delivery can be.

Even a short phrase can be delivered in many different ways. For example, the description “he kisses her” might be voiced to indicate that this action is surprising, or funny, or romantic, or threatening. A programme can be frantic and exciting one minute, then tender and poignant the next; demanding a change of pace and a more sympathetic tone to the describer’s voice. In the new Sky Original movie Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break, a pivotal sequence with no dialogue follows Paul’s emotional journey from the numbness of grief to the intense and rage-fuelled moment where he decides to take revenge on his enemies. I recorded this a few times to make sure that the pace of my delivery matched the changing feel of the overall soundtrack, in which the background music builds to a dramatic crescendo.

The movie is a dark comedy, featuring blood ‘n’ guts but with a distinctly light-hearted tone, which brings its own requirements for both scripting and delivery of AD. Descriptions might be voiced with a little more gravitas for a serious thriller, but can benefit from a lighter, bouncier approach when accompanying a more playful or spoofish scene. I’ve also worked on comedy that’s filmed in front of a live audience, who can be heard laughing and whooping throughout the show. Seeing as the audio description will be interspersed with this soundtrack, it could be quite jarring if the voice delivering it sounded overly serious, or even bored.

Intonation is important too. For example, a rising intonation can indicate setting or changing the location (“At the shopping centre….”) and a falling intonation might be used to describe an action that ends a scene (“She smiles, and waves goodbye”). Sometimes there might be a visual gag after the last line of dialogue – like a character falling over, running away or reacting to whatever’s been said - in which case the audio description of this feels a bit like the punchline of the whole scene – and the right delivery is absolutely essential.

The importance of delivery is one of the reasons why the same audio describer tends to script and record the AD for any given show. During recording, I jump from one cue to the next, without watching the whole programme – but I’ll usually watch a few seconds before I record each line of description, to remind myself of the context and what comes immediately before and after. And I use the knowledge that I have from the scripting process (where I always watch the whole of the programme) to inform the way I deliver the AD.

I really enjoy the recording process, and sometimes find myself retaking a line a few times until the delivery ‘lands’ better - however I don’t see the audio describer’s role as being an actor or performer. I’m not trying to deliver the AD in a way that will patronise the listener or detract from the on-screen dialogue. I prefer to imagine that I’m watching the programme with a friend, and I’m telling them what’s happening, from my audience-eye view. My hope is that this results in descriptions that are un-intrusive, yet still imbued with warmth and humanity, allowing the listener to feel invited into the visual content of the on-screen world.

By Jennifer Elbourne, Audio Describer