Describing Nature Documentaries

Describing Nature Documentaries

Nature documentaries are one of my favourite genres to audio describe. While there’s usually a narrator giving out factual information, the describer still has a job to do, ensuring that the programme is both clear and engaging for blind and visually impaired audiences. This means listening carefully to any descriptions that are already included, and complementing them with extra visual details that give context or colour to the scene.

Along the way, I get to learn all sorts of fascinating things about our natural world. I recently worked on ‘Planet Shark’, which featured various deep-sea beasts I’ve never seen before and could scarcely have imagined. I found out that Greenland sharks can live to around 500 years old! Just as I was scooping my jaw off the floor, the programme moved on to the pocket shark, one of the smallest in the ocean. While its name is derived from two ‘pockets’ beside its fins, it also seemed wonderfully apt for a creature whose body is the size of a man’s thumb!

‘Over Australia’ is my latest project, exploring some unique flora and fauna. One fascinating sequence introduces us to the replete ant (also known as the honeypot ant), whose abdomen can swell up to store nectar for the colony. While the programme’s narration gives a good explanation of this mechanism, I wanted the AD to give a sense of how bizarre this looks, by emphasising the balloon-like appearance of the expanded pod, and the impressive size different between this and the rest of the ant’s body.

As with most genres, a little bit of research always help to bring the audio description to life. I love finding out what collective nouns I have at my disposal. A ‘mob of kangaroos’ or a ‘squadron of pelicans’ adds some fun and flavour to the soundtrack. Sometimes, of course, it can be hard to know exactly what I’m looking at. I breathed a sigh of relief when the narrator of ‘Over Australia’ explained that an ant colony were ‘harvesting the dry kernels of a poached egg daisy.’

As I’m primarily aiming to paint a picture with words, I can also reach for metaphors that give a sense of how things appear – especially useful when it’s hard to confirm the name of a plant or animal. I described the various flowers that emerged after a spell of rain in the Australian desert as ‘sunny pom-poms and tickly feather-dusters.’

As always, the goal is to allow our audio description users to feel invited into the world of the programme – whether by simply clarifying visual details or finding moments to add colour and flair, I hope that I’m helping others to go away with the same sense of wonder that I get from watching these expertly crafted and insightful shows.

By Jennifer Elbourne