This episode was written & produced by Miellyn Fitzwater Barrows.
Did you know there might be a track of audio on your favorite movies and television shows that describe all of the actions on screen? This technology was designed for the visually impaired, but it could be used for the masses. It’s still not as widely provided as some would hope. Meet the consumers and activists fighting for a better-described tomorrow. Featuring Tommy Edison, Robert Kingett, and Colleen Connor.
MUSIC FEATURED IN THIS EPISODE
Washedway by Evolv
Unspoken by Am Architect
Joining Hands by Evolv
Clear Blake by Ewing
You Are Not What You Think You Are Evolv
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View Transcript ▶︎
From Defacto Sound, you're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz... The stories behind the world's most recognizable and interesting sounds. I'm Dallas Taylor. This is the story behind a cool hidden audio track in movies and TV.
[The Matrix clip]
Tommy Edison is a successful film critic. And there’s one famous movie he just couldn’t ever get through.
Tommy: Everybody was like “Oh, you gotta see The Matrix. It’s the greatest movie in the world it’s so great, blah, blah, blah.” And I must of watched it half a dozen times and got nowhere. Maybe 10, 12, 14 minutes in and that was it.
But Tommy’s movie going experiences tend to be different than most.
Tommy: I’m known on Youtube as the Blind Film Critic.
That’s right, Tommy is blind and a well known film critic on Youtube. When he discovered audio description, everything changed.
[The Matrix clip with audio descriptions]
That was from the audio described version of The Matrix. When you watch a movie online, you usually have multiple audio options. These audio options can include different languages like Spanish or French. But in this case it’s a track describing what’s happening on screen for those with visual impairments.
Tommy: Then I understood what made this movie so great. And what was so special about it. That was the thing that really turned me onto audio description. It sort of changed my life. For example, [Daredevil clip] Daredevil I tried to watch the first couple of episodes without audio description and I could not have been more lost. And then they got it together and got the audio description on. And like I knew the flashbacks were happening, all different kinds of things and it made so much more sense. Plus the descriptions of the fights are incredible.
[Daredevil audio description clip]
Many online shows don’t have audio descriptions. And even Daredevil, a Netflix original series about a blind superhero, had to have activists rally to have it described.
Robert: It was kind of strange because I thought, you guys are making a show that features a blind character, why is it not accessible to the blind?
My name is Robert Kingett. I am a journalist, author and essayist. I was legally blind until my last birthday, when I had a glaucoma attack. Now I don’t see light, I don’t see shadows, I don’t see anything at all. You tend to rely a lot more on your vision than you might realize, so I kind of have to learn everything over again.
Whether it’s your everyday life or while consuming entertainment, when you’re blind, your understanding of what’s going on can hinge completely on your sense of hearing.
Robert: Hearing is everything. The first time I watched a TV show with description, it was That 70’s Show. And from then on I was hooked. I was like, “Oh now I get why my sighted people around me are laughing, ok.”
Federal law requires major television networks to each provide 50 hours a year of visually impaired accessible shows. But that’s only in the top sixty markets. And there are no requirements at all for online streaming platforms like Netflix or Hulu.
Robert: I don’t have cable in my house, I have an Apple TV. And I had to hunt and hunt for a movie that has audio description. In about ten years or so I don’t think many people are going to be actually watching TV, I think everything is going to be online. So, let’s try to get ahead of the curve and make things accessible for streaming platforms. And the law is not in the twenty first century as of yet.
More and more people are tuning in online. And even the shows and movies that had audio descriptions elsewhere, like on broadcast for BLU-Ray, didn’t offer the track during streaming.
Robert: I was trying really hard to at least say, "Okay, well here's the TV show that has has audio description. Why can't you just reach out to the studios and get the track and then layer it on as a separate track on your service?"
And for years they said, "We did not have the technical means." They said that, "We don't know where to begin."
Regardless of how much people at a company might want to help, cutting through all of the bureaucracy to get any corporate entity to spend money can be difficult.
Robert: The American Council of the Blind jumped in so... in a settlement, Netflix has agreed to describe all of their original content, and they will make efforts to get the tracks from movies and TV shows, if they exist. And now that it is on Netflix, Hulu should have no technical problem. If it's on Netflix, then it can occur on YouTube and other places.
The demand for audio descriptions is finally on the rise. But it’s a relatively new technology and there are still no real standards for it. But that’s beginning to change. We’ll get to that, in just a minute.
Audio descriptions are becoming more and more common in media, but it’s still a relatively new development with little standardization. Fortunately, people like Colleen Connor are working to change that.
Colleen: I started a business called Audio Description Training Retreats with a woman who has been a describer for about 10 years. We are training people to be audio describers for media and art for the blind. We want to create a certification. We want to create at least a standard of audio describers coming up with some sort of rules and some sort of curriculum for practice.
And of course, that starts with quality.
Colleen: Something that makes a good audio describer or a good script is being able to pare down your words. They don't have to be complete sentences. The person can still hear what's going on. You have to think of it as what is the dialogue cover? What is that sound effect cover? If the phone rings, you don't have to say, "The phone rings." Because we just heard it. So, it's a different way of thinking about things. You have to be observant as a describer and the best description is something that eventually, about 15 minutes in, you don't even notice it anymore. It becomes the narrator of the story.
[Frozen audio description clip]
Good audio description will get you set up for whatever emotionally needs to be conveyed, but it doesn't try to describe absolutely everything, so that you can have your own conclusions for things. Audio description is not there to interpret. You are not belittling your audience by interpreting anything. You wouldn't say, "Mary is really, really sad." You would say, "Mary cries."
You don’t want to distract from the action. You're being someone’s eyes and filling in that visual picture so that they can follow along with the rest of the experience.
Having access to the movies and television shows that influence our culture is important for all of us. And many people who are blind can sometimes feel isolated from the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, the biggest hurdle for this technology is simply, awareness.
Colleen: If the studio and the directors and the people writing this content, if they're not aware of that audio description is existing, they're not going to put it in the contract. It’s so important to focus on the positivity and have it be a positive thing for everyone. It’s such a cool service.
And this service just doesn’t have to be for the visually impaired. Think about it, you’re listening to a story right now, not watching it. How cool would it be to catch up on your favorite TV shows and movies on a road trip or on your morning jog or while doing the dishes?
Storytelling empasses all of our senses. There are times where seeing something tells a story or hearing something tells a story. Touch, taste and smell all tell a story. Even if you’ve watched a movie or television show in the past your mind might unlock something new simply by hearing it.
Audio descriptions were created as a tool to aid in accessibility, but this is simply storytelling. And it’s a huge win win for all of us.
Twenty Thousand Hertz is presented by Defacto Sound. A sound design team dedicated to making television, film and games sound insanely cool. Find out more at defactosound.com. This episode was produced by Miellyn Fitzwater Barrows and me. With help from Sam Schneble. It was edited by Miellyn Fitzwater Barrows and mixed by Nick Spradlin.
Special thanks to Tommy Edison. He has some really cool videos on Youtube that you should definitely check out. You can find him on Youtube under The Blind Film Critic. Also, a big thanks to Robert Kingett and Colleen Connor.
All of the music in this episode is from our friends at Musicbed. To find out more, check out their website at musicbed.com. Also, if you open your browser right now and go to music.20.org, it will take you to a playlist of tracks that we used in this episode and past episodes. I think you’ll really enjoy hearing them. We’ll also put this link in our show description.
Thanks is always to Mast who created our artwork and Pocketknife who built our website. In addition to building the Twenty Thousand Hertz site, they also recently rebuilt the Defacto Sound website from the ground up. And it’s packed full of some very cool projects.
So, if you want to peek behind the curtain and find out more about the people behind this show check out defactosound.com. Be sure to tell your friends in the TV, Film and Game industries all about it.
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Thanks for listening.