Together! 2018 Disability Film Festival explores creative audio-description

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On the 6th and 7th December as part of the seventh annual Together! 2018 Disability Film Festival in Newham, Michael Achtman from Film Pro and blind film-director Raina Haig presented a 2-day audio-description workshop for filmmakers. Review by Stephen Portlock

Wheelchair-user symbol incorporating a movie-camera

Wheelchair-user with camera logo. Image © 104 Films

I didn’t see many new films at the cinema when young, but I read a fair few scripts. Growing up in a sleepy countryside market town with no cinema I was forced to resort to novelisations of films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Wrath of Khan and E.T. Even then it was clear that William Kotzwinkle’s adaptation of E.T. was both quirky and beautifully written, and so to me it was ‘real’ literature, telling the same story as the film, but in a different medium.

The relevance here is that it absolutely validates Raina Haig’s central contention about audio-description as a creative artform. Like Raina I am a former film buff and, as long as my sight was okay, I couldn’t wait to explore the world’s art house treasures that had evaded me before I moved to London. When I heard a number of years ago that RNIB were no longer renting out audio described videos and so getting rid of them, I rescued armfuls of them while leaving a donation.

For the same reason I have participated in a number of audio-description related projects for RNIB, Extant and for university students, and written on audio description for DAO. Yet what made the workshop so excellent was that it dramatically upturned all my previous assumptions about the art form.

Inadvertently I had bought into the ‘just the facts ma’am’ belief that audio description was about describing objective facts – actions rather than subjective emotions. I also assumed that like the movie soundtrack, the audio description should ideally be as unobtrusive as possible. That the audio describer had no personal involvement in the film or programme being described, I put down to the belief that they should seek to mimic the viewer entering the cinema with no preconceived assumptions. Raina Haig challenged these beliefs brilliantly.

During the course of a train journey, August Coppola (brother of Francis) had made Raina aware of the potential of audio description. It is a poetic art – not an add-on but rather a distinct art form in its own right. A closer analogy might be with the tie-in novel.

Raina’s contention is that if audio description is an art form then the best person to write the copy to be read out is not a voiceover artist, as is common practice, but a writer. Furthermore those written words are ideally best read out by an actor. The economy of language of haiku points towards a balance between precision and poetry.

Too often in films the assumption is made that it’s primarily a visual medium and in order to rectify that imbalance it makes sense to study radio scripts. Particularly it makes sense to allow for some ‘spaciousness’ in the dialogue – shades of Pinteresque pauses – in which audio-description can be inserted if necessary. The treatment rather than the actual finished product may also give the audio describer the best way through the script in order that the viewer can be led through the story rather than simply informed what clothes particular individuals are wearing.

The sorts of arguments made by Raina were commonplace in the nineties before they were suppressed by an emerging business model which resulted in the type of audio description exemplified by voice actor Veronika Hyks. In fact Raina had a run-in with Veronika over audio description of the former’s short film Drive

In my opinion the ‘business model’ is capable of conveying the idea of visual beauty – witness Veronika’s audio description of Zhang Yimou’s Hero – but its limitations were made very clear towards the end of the day when as a team we sought to audio describe the short film Awake. The film is notable for having an androgynous lead character and we discussed divergent approaches to the personal pronoun – only to hear the official version in which all acknowledgement of this problem was ignored – ‘just the facts ma’am’.

Earlier this year a blind friend made an aside that certain films can’t be audio described. I tentatively agreed but silently thought ‘for God’s sake don’t say that too loud!’. At the end of this day I was no longer sure that I agree with that assertion, and for that I’m really grateful to Raina and to her insights.