What is audio description and how is it created?

Author: Regina Mynarska

Often, people who are just learning about the accessibility of public spaces for people with disabilities feel overwhelmed. They ask themselves, how do we remove the huge number of barriers? If you are an accessibility coordinator at a cultural institution, a film producer, a cinema owner or maybe a manager at a corporation and you want your organisation to be more accessible - we have good news for you! There are solutions that make it possible to implement both the legal requirements and the reality change that comes from understanding the importance of an inclusive culture.

Information accessibility

ne of these professional solutions is audio description. According to The Accessibility for Persons with Special Needs Act, W kontekście ustawy o zapewnianiu dostępności osobom ze szczególnymi potrzebami from 2019 is a service in the area of information and communication accessibility. Let us recall here that the Act also defines two other key areas: digital accessibility and architectural accessibility.

Information and communication accessibility addresses the needs for communicating different content. This includes groups such as people with visual impairments, people with intellectual disabilities, people who are deaf and hard of hearing, as well as people on the autism spectrum.

The specific nature of each of these groups requires adapted content development in terms of merits, language and technical delivery.

Audio description addresses the needs of people with visual impairments. It is the communication of essential visual content in words.

It is therefore good news for all audiences with visual impairments, as well as for all visual artists and organisers of public spaces. Both those working in the cultural and business fields.

Anything can be described: architecture, a landscape on a hiking trail, a painting, a print, a sculpture, a photograph, as well as a film, a play, an advertising spot, a sporting event. You can and should describe the office space, the access to the building from the nearest bus stop. You can describe the products. You can describe yourself and others as an interviewee/interviewee or speaker/speaker or a rock star's fancy stage costume. You can describe slides in a presentation and photos or graphics on social media.

How to prepare a good audiodescription?

The question is how to make this specific description functional to fulfil its tasks. And these tasks are different and concern different areas of life:

  • providing information on visual content for equal participation in society

  • allowing you to form your own opinion on hot topics in the media

  • creating the opportunity to spend an enjoyable/interesting time with a diverse group of friends, family at the cinema, theatre, on a tourist trip

  • enabling the imagination of an image relevant to the initial visual content

This last task already touches on purely communicative issues. It stems from yet another definition of audio description as a translation between the visual sign system and the verbal sign system, i.e. words. These systems are very different. Visual content reaches the mind of a person using sight in very large numbers, in a very short time. A proverbial glance at the room a person is in, for example, is enough to gain important knowledge. Is this room large or small, is it decorated elegantly or simply, is it clean or neglected? What is the furniture in it, what are the colours? Does anyone else stay in the room? Language needs a lot more time to convey this kind of information. This is why audio description is the art of selecting the most important content.

Once we have chosen them, the next question arises: in what order do we give them? For the process of imagining, this is fundamental. Therefore, the principle from the general to the specific is very important. In this way, we create a mental framework that we gradually fill in with details.

The devil is in the detail 

ling in the details is a very important part of the audio describer's workshop. Above all, there should be order in this. When we describe a room, we adopt some rule that is clear to the viewer. For example, we describe it from right to left. Or from left to right. This is insanely important - not because of some bureaucratic requirement... It stems from the way our brain processes information. When given in an orderly way, the elements line up in the imagination like bricks in a properly built wall. When they are given chaotically, it is akin to bricks being scattered around a building site :)

There must not be too much detail. This will overwhelm the viewer and, as a result, obscure the picture. On the other hand, it is very important to be as specific as possible. This means a precise choice of words. The sentence "a woman lifts a vessel" will make the recipient imagine a bucket, a glass, a cup, a pot or a jug. And yet, the woman is certainly lifting a particular vessel. If the auditor chooses the right, specific word - the recipient will not be lost in guesswork.

A good sentence is a short sentence

Audio description narration is the art of formulating short, single sentences. It is also important to connect them logically with each other, the result of one from the other. Sticking to the masonry metaphor, this can be referred to neat bricks in opposition to big heavy stones. Such overly long and convoluted sentences for a person who has to build up an image very quickly in his imagination are too hard to process. The ability to dispense information is therefore invaluable in the profession of the audiographer.

A good audio description is a short audio description

Audio description is a time-sensitive text. The discipline of time applies both to the description of static objects and to dynamic arts, namely film and plays. In the case of the latter, time is imposed by the work itself. The audioguide has to fit in between the actors' lines or significant sounds. Sometimes it is only two seconds. But how much important content can be conveyed in two seconds! "He fell over", "He fell down", "She dropped her dress", "They are kissing".

In the case of static objects: a painting, a sculpture or the appearance of an office, temporal discipline is also very important. It stems from the need to take into account the reception of information and the endurance of the audience. A fifteen-minute description of a painting will contain too many details, in the thick of which it is easy to get lost. In addition, a visitor to a museum with, for example, 15 audiodescriptions lasting 15 minutes each, would have to spend almost four hours in the institution, wanting to get to know the whole track! Meanwhile, research shows that the average museum or gallery visitor spends a maximum of two hours at an exhibition. So we must not tire our audiences with too long a description.

The process of creating an audio description

Accessibility, including the creation of an audio description text, is a team effort. An expert audio describer alone is not enough. A visually impaired consultant and, very often, a content consultant first and foremost enter the scene. In our team, we take co-creation very seriously. In our view, the consultant, as the native recipient of the audio description, so to speak, is the de facto co-author of the text. His or her perspective is very important and robustly discussed. This, among other things, is how high quality audio description is born.

The entire production process differs depending on the industry in which the operation takes place. This is due to the specific nature of the objects we describe.

The process of producing an audio description in a museum

In the case of static objects, for example in a museum, a gallery or in architecture, the starting point is the selection of specific works. A difficult decision has to be made as to which, for example, twenty exhibits will be described out of the hundreds and sometimes thousands of exhibits in the facility. Optimally, our team is involved in the process right from the selection stage. Our consultation will enable the client to get the perspective of the audio description audience right at the stage of creating the adapted tour. It is also at this point that a content consultant should be appointed from the client's side. He or she will initially provide materials explaining the significance of the works and graphic files with good quality photographs. If these are not available, we will make the necessary photographic documentation ourselves. We place great importance on getting to know the original exhibits live. Our audio description team then compiles the texts and submits them to the client for content consultation. After receiving comments, it makes editorial changes.

After final approval comes the stage of preparing the text for voiceover. Audiodescription, for obvious reasons, reaches the audience in this form. Sometimes it is the synthesiser of a sound software, sometimes the voice of a male or female reader. The quality of this delivery is very important. An irritating voice or incorrect reading can effectively disrupt and discourage the recipient. It can distract so that even the best-edited text fails to serve its purpose. In contrast, good voice perception not only helps to immerse the reader in the text, it even enhances the quality of life for people with visual impairments. Using sound software for a large part of the day, they are particularly sensitive to this aspect.

In the case of audio description in a museum or gallery, two solutions are possible. It will be to hire a sound studio to make a voiceover recording or to provide the audience with the text in electronic form, according to digital accessibility standards. In the first case, the final work for the client is an audio file, in the second a text file.

Jeśli jest to nagranie, nasz zespół przeprowadza jeszcze kontrolę jakości nagrania, sprawdza jego zgodność z tekstem oraz poprawność realizacji dźwięku. Dopiero wówczas przekazuje finalny produkt klientowi.

The process of producing an audio description in theatre

In the case of describing plays, in principle, the best practice would be to make all performances in repertory accessible. It is a good idea to start planning the audio description as early as the planning and budgeting stage of the premiere production. When a client orders an audio description, our team starts by viewing the play. Then we start working on the text. We receive a script file and a good quality video recording from the theatre. It is very good practice to appoint a subject matter consultant in the form of an actor/actress of the play being described. We have developed such an element of the process in collaboration with the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre and tested how visibly this affects the quality of the service. Once the text has been completed, the theatre plans an accessible performance using audio description. In this case, the voice transmission of it is done through a live reading, during the performance. To ensure that the voice is not heard by audience members not using the audio description, a system with a radio wave or infrared headphone transmitter and receivers is used. A separate reading room provided by the theatre is also needed. This must be acoustically isolated from the auditorium and have video transmission and a microphone. Our team can advise on how to plan the whole process, what equipment to choose, what technical details to include, so that the end result is as good as possible. The writer of these words also has a lot of experience in reading theatre audio description, so we can carry out the procedure from start to finish.

The process of producing an audio description in a movie

In the case of video, the process starts with the submission of a lightweight video file - in mp4 or similar format. Our team analyses the video, creating what is known as a timecode and text. The timecode is the specific places, defined to the nearest second, where it is possible to insert the audio description between acting issues or relevant sounds. Content consultation is rarely used for a film, but it is highly advisable. This role can involve, for example, the producer, director or a specialist from an industry or cultural area relevant to the film. The developed and approved text goes to the recording studio. In the case of a foreign film, both the audio description and the dialogue translation must be recorded. Necessarily in two different voices. The sound engineer then makes a file with the audio description track spaced according to the time code. Such a sound file is then checked for loudness in the context of the background sounds - music and sometimes other noises against which the audio description appears. For some forms of broadcasting, it is still necessary to edit the video with an audio description soundtrack. In the case of the film industry, our team will also carry out the entire process from start to finish.

The joy of creation

Audio description is also a type of creation covered by copyright law. The legal aspects of audio description are a rather broad topic worth discussing separately. Let us also mention that every creator has his or her own unique style. Everyone describes the same image in different ways. This is what fascinates us about this work. That is why it is not only our profession, but also our passion. We can have long and heated discussions about a single sentence or even a word. Would the phrase 'horses with flowing manes' or 'rampant horses' be better?

Audio description in practice

After this somewhat theoretical introduction, we encourage you to learn about audio description through examples. We have included some of our realisations below. Just click on the link and fire up your imagination. Note: provided examples are in Polish.

Enjoy listening!

Curious? We would be happy to tell you more.

We regularly create audio descriptions and alternative texts for our clients and provide training on the subject.