An interview with Alice Sanders, audio describer to the stars

Saturday December 22nd 2012

Most people’s experience of Audio Description extends no further than glimpsing the initials AD in a cinema brochure and assuming they’re there to acknowledge the sheer quantity of adverts that now precede any given film. But for blind and visually impaired film enthusiasts, it’s an invaluable service giving them access to a visual world the rest of us all too often take for granted.

I asked Alice Sanders, who writes and records audio description for film and television, a few questions about this often-overlooked resource.

(In the spirit of accessibility, you can also listen to me reading the interview aloud here.)

How difficult is it to get the hang of audio description?

Writing a soap is pretty simple — there’s so much dialogue that the AD is just giving the basic info like where the characters are, or any major actions that are important to the plot — so that’s not too difficult. But to do a good job at writing the AD for a drama or a film is different. We try to fit in with the tone of the film. For example, if it’s a comedy the descriptions should make the blind audience member laugh where the sighted one would laugh. If it’s visually stunning, our descriptions should conjure up that world. That takes a while to master. I think to do audio description well you need to have a fairly high standard of writing — in terms of grammar, editing and also creative prowess. Voicing just requires a few tricks like not getting too close to the mic. I found recording difficult at first because I was a bit nervous, but now it’s second nature!

Can you think of any films that have been particularly challenging?

YES! There are two particularly difficult genres: dance films and made-up-o-world films. Dance films are SO difficult to describe because the point of dance is that it is a whole other medium in which to express yourself without words. Turning it into words is clumsy. I find that it is easy to turn it into either a long list of actions: ‘he spins, he skips across the floor, he raises one hand’ etc. which makes the dance sound very dry and dull, or to overuse metaphor and simile. This might be okay if you’re describing a ballet, but if you go overboard on the metaphor in a street dance film, it just sounds wanky. Also, they take forever. The key is to pick out of a few of the key moves, instead of trying to describe everything. You should get across the overall mood of the dance (staccato/aggressive/fluid/romantic/robotic etc.) and use a smattering of well chosen metaphors.

Made-up-o-world films are difficult to describe because you have to start from scratch. By made-up-o-world films I mean anything sci-fi, fantasy, not set in ‘normal’ life. In a soap, there’s no need to describe outfits in great detail usually, because they are normal everyday things. If we say ‘she picks up the kettle to make tea’ we don’t need to explain ‘the kettle is a metallic receptical plugged into an electrical socket on the wall’. But in made-up-o-worlds you have to describe things in detail, stripping them down to their component parts, and outfits are so out-of-the-ordinary they warrant mention. It is often fun to do this, because you get a bit more creative licence, but it is challenging.

And finally, in a category of its own, the film INLAND EMPIRE, which I described this year. I didn’t have a script for it. The film is non-linear. It has a film inside a film, and several of the actors play two parts, making it pretty unclear when they are one character and when they’re another, which gave me a big naming issue. A lot of it is in the dark, or the shots are wilfully obscured or blurred — this means that as a describer you’re not sure what to describe, and in the end I chose to call attention to camera angles and shots, because it felt like that was all purposeful on the part of the director. It’s three hours long. It has random scenes with anthropomorphosised rabbits and canned laughter. It has images layered on top of other images. It took me about 1.5 weeks and 14,000 words to describe that film. I even broke the fourth wall because I wanted to say that Laura Dern and Justin Theroux were two different characters and that I wasn’t always sure when they were which one! I’m still not sure what happened, and whether I think it is the biggest load of rubbish I’ve ever seen, or utter genius, Lynch’s masterwork. I don’t know. I’m a massive Twin Peaks fan and I want to believe in Lynch.

How do you approach sex scenes?

Sex scenes are like any other scene – you try to fit in with the mood of the piece. If it is a sensual or romantic scene, you can get a little Mills and Boon about it and use phrases like ‘alabaster skin’, and ‘tender caresses’ and all that. But if it’s something a little more brutal you have to be true to the scene. We can’t use out and out swears like ‘fucking’, but I have used ‘screwing’ before. For example there’s a sex scene in The Sweeney and the description goes a little something like ‘he shoves her against the cubicle door and they screw’. If it’s serious and meaningful, or ridiculous and funny you have to get that across, and obviously you have to say what you see. You can’t censor a film for the blind audience!

Does this mean you’re part of the 1% of movie watchers who actually know the names of the principal characters? Quick, what was Jude Law’s character in The Holiday called?

Only 1%?? Yes, if I describe a film I will definitely know the names of the main characters! I didn’t describe The Holiday. But both of Laura Dern’s character names in INLAND EMPIRE are Susan and Nikki, and Justin Theroux’s are Billy and Devon! I don’t necessarily retain this knowledge forever though. As an audio describer you get very good at remembering character names and knowing exactly what is going on very quickly. Not exactly a superpower, I know, but good for explaining what’s going on to your mum.

How might you describe this scene?

One shaven-headed guy playfully jabs his shaven-headed brother in the guts. His brother hits him back. Grinning, they continue to play-fight.

This time, the second brother punches the first slightly harder in the shoulder, and he retaliates with more force.

They duck and weave, holding up their fists. The first one jabs his brother and the fight escalates. The second one punches his brother in the face.

The first one holds onto his brother and hits him in the belly.

They fight again, the first one shoves the other one backwards.

The first one ducks a punch, pushes his brother towards the sink, then lifts him up, his arms around his chest. He puts him down again and they struggle again.

They both grin.