How long does it take to audio describe a programme?

When I tell people I’m an audio describer, a question they often ask is “how long does it take you?” There is no easy answer to this, as the time it can take to describe different programmes varies hugely. This sometimes make it tricky when taking on new work, because you never know quite what you are committing to!

I joined Sky earlier this year and have worked on a wide range of titles from documentaries and movies to episodic sitcoms. We sometimes categorise content as being ‘dialogue heavy’ or not, as this determines how much description we will be able to squeeze in.

Some of the most time-consuming projects I’ve worked on have had long sections where nobody speaks, such as the movies Mythica and Acts of Violence, both of which contained a number of action sequences. These descriptions can take a long time to write, as there’s lots of different things going on, and certain sound effects that you want to try and help the listener make sense of by timing the description very precisely. However, they give the describer a chance to think creatively about language choices and really help the AD user to build a picture in their head.

The most difficult thing is when there’s no dialogue and not much action – then I have to get my thesaurus out and come up with new ways of describing the scene that will engage an AD user and ensure they still feel included. Although this can take a bit of extra time, I find that it forces me to look for things I hadn’t noticed before and often helps me to appreciate the finer details of the programme.

Shows with lots of dialogue are usually quicker to script, but pose a different kind of challenge. I’m currently working on Will and Grace, which is airing on the newly-launched Sky Showcase channel. It’s full of conversation and snappy one-liners, but also features elements of slapstick visual comedy. Jack in particular is a character who communicates with his whole body, and part of his personality is the way that he glides into a room or gestures flamboyantly (and sometimes silently). My job is to make sure that all the essential visual information is described, which might mean watching a section quite a few times to identify a long enough gap between the scripted lines.

New or standalone content also demands research – for example finding out the names for historic costume items, identifiable landmarks or the type of vehicle or weapon on screen. In contrast, when describing a whole series, you quickly become familiar with the settings and characters, which speeds up the writing process significantly.

When it comes to recording, longer descriptions tend to require more retakes, to correct mistakes but also to make sure the tone of delivery complements the soundtrack. If something sounds rushed and the sequence is meant to be calm and serene (or vice versa), I’ll spend time tweaking my script during recording, to better match the dynamics of the programme.

So, taking all these different factors into account, how long does it take? Sometimes I might complete the writing and recording for an hour’s worth of content in less than a day, but something else the same length might take me three times as long. The varied pace of work on different genres makes each project unique and definitely keeps me on my toes!

Jenni Elbourne

Audio Describer