I have been providing audio description for Sky programmes for over 15 years. It’s always exciting when a new, quality drama series comes along and Chernobyl certainly falls into that category, albeit only five episodes in total. However, the increase in dramatic intent is often matched by an increase in the challenges facing the audio describer. Characters may not speak that much, scenes may be shot in low light and with a high calibre of writer, director and actors involved, the close-up of a facial expression may be used to convey a multitude of thoughts and feelings. These challenges all applied to Chernobyl.
The first thing to do is watch the programme. If time is short, it can be necessary to watch, script and record in one go, which was the situation I faced when describing Twin Peaks: The Return a couple of years ago. It’s always easier with time to break things down. Sometimes, I may run a section with my eyes closed, so that I can hear just how much information is dispensed through the audio track. There is an added reason for being aware of the audio dimension in the case of Chernobyl as the score is an eerie and rather spine-chilling work by Icelandic composer and musician Hildur Guðnadóttir. It’s very atmospheric and an important part of the overall soundscape of the series. So, note to self, try not to talk too much!
Next, some research. This was a relatively easy task with regard to Chernobyl, because it’s based on real events. Most of the characters in the series are, or were, real people and there is a lot of information available regarding the events of April 1986 and afterwards. It became quite fascinating to match the events on screen with contemporary accounts from newspapers and magazines. A further piece of homework was to try to find the correct pronunciation of the Russian names of the rather lengthy list of characters.
So, time to write a script. It’s giving away nothing to say that, after a sequence set two years later, the main action of the first episode begins with the explosion at the nuclear power plant. I spent a lot of time trying to identify the characters in the power plant, as they were all wearing identical white coveralls and hats, plus the fact that after the explosion, there was only emergency lighting available. Ironically, this is a situation where members of the visually impaired audience could have the advantage over the Describer, as their hearing abilities may be more acute and therefore individual voices may be more easily identified.
Nothing is perfect, so I did make a few changes to my script whilst recording episode one. Some things suddenly become clearer to understand, or it may be that the focus of a description would be better on something else, rather than the event that seemed to be paramount at the time of viewing and scripting. Anyway, a couple of hours and over 150 cues later, I finished, feeling reasonably satisfied.
Chernobyl is not the easiest programme I’ve ever had to describe, but the challenges have been rewarding to overcome and the bottom line is that it is a very good series. If I’ve been able to help it reach a wider audience, then I’m happy.
Chernobyl is audio described on Sky Atlantic Tuesdays at the 9pm showing. Set series record to watch it back.