Watching without watching

Graeme Turner
Summary 
Audio description allows a person with a vision impairment to follow the action in the film. After a film is made, a professional narrator records a description of what is happening on the screen. The narration is added to the film and can be heard by a person using a radio and headset in the cinema. If there is a fight or a love scene, a good describer tells the listener exactly what is happening. For example, "Jack punches Fred in the chest". Cinema chains are setting up more screens with the special equipment needed for audio description. But there is still a fair way to go before every movie has audio description.
Posted by: 
Graeme Turner on 30/10/2014
People in a cinema watching the screen.
people watching film

You don't want to miss the action.

How could a person who's blind possibly enjoy a movie? Some people may ask this question and yet why shouldn't people with a vision impairment be able to enjoy and share a film with their friends. And to talk about it afterwards as people like to do.

Audio description is a tool that people with a vision impairment can use to help them better enjoy and follow a film. It supplies vital information about onscreen actions such as a car chase or a character chasing another with a knife. Audio description is provided on certain DVDs but can a person with a vision impairment use this tool with others in a social cinema experience?

How does it work?

After a film is made, a professional narrator records descriptions of images that are happening on the screen. This narration is added to the film as an additional audio track, much like closed captions that display character dialogue in written form for deaf people. At particular film sessions this audio track is switched on. A cinema-goer with a vision impairment uses earphones attached to a portable device like the old radio Walkman or a pair of headphones with a built-in wireless receiver

A describer will tell the movie-goer what people in the movie are wearing and what their surroundings might be like. If there is a fight or a love scene, a good describer tells the listener exactly what is happening. For example, "Jack punches Fred in the chest". After all, you don't want to miss out on the action.

Cinemas

I once trialled this process at Cinema Nova in Carlton, Melbourne. Although the headphones and the built-in receiver were a little cumbersome, the experience was quite rewarding and the description excellent.

According to Lauren Henry from Blind Citizens Australia, the major cinema chains Hoyts, Village and Event have undertaken to roll out audio description since 2010 but access is still limited to screens that are fitted out with special equipment. This equipment is needed to decode the audio description track attached to the movie.

If a cinema chain has six screens in its complex, only one needs to have the equipment required to decode the audio track. When there are twelve screens, two must be provided with audio description equipment. More than 12 screens and three of these must be able to play a description track.

Because of these limitations screenings with audio description are not always as frequent as some would hope.

Beginnings

Audio description is often only provided on films from the six Hollywood studios. Clearly for budgetary reasons, independent filmmakers lag behind with audio description support. To make matters worse, rural cinemas outside the major chains are not always resourced to provide the right equipment for screenings.

Sometimes audio equipment malfunctions. Lauren Henry is advocating for that there be a signal at the start of audio described film trailers and movies to indicate to the user that the audio description devices are working.

The future

While the cinema chains have released audio description to an increased number of screens, there is still a fair way to run until the final credits roll.

I'm looking forward to the day when I can rely on a describer to help me share the thrill of a car teetering on the edge of a cliff.

Information on cinemas with audio description (opens new window)

Do you have any audio description experiences?

Comment on this article