British sports broadcasting legend, Clare Balding, namechecking you before you speak live on TV isn’t something that happens to me very often. But it did happen (twice, in fact), in 2016. At the time, the small, calm inner part of me clocked it, and thought, ‘That’s VERY cool,’ while the other 98% of me was inwardly quaking, knowing I was seconds away from going live to the UK on Channel 4’s 4Seven.
As I wrote in my previous blog post, I worked with my fellow Audio Describer, Scott, to provide a total of nearly SEVEN hours of live ‘Audio Described enhanced commentary’ for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
Pre-recorded Audio Description (AD) on TV in the UK is commonplace nowadays, but live AD, less so. As a rule, producing AD means we receive programmes to view in advance. We write and voice a suitable script to fit between dialogue, and deliver the audio for transmission.
How do the two styles compare?
You’re ON: Yep, and it was just us. We were given a clean feed (minus regular commentators) so that we didn’t have the logistical nightmare of trying to dodge them, or anticipate when they were talking. When I say we provided ‘Audio Described enhanced commentary,’ we had been tasked with doing live AD AND some commentary-style chat, as the usual commentary wouldn’t be available.
There’s no re-takes: For the AD commentary, I worked with my colleague Scott, providing the AD as a team. We’d worked together for years, so a good rapport (vital in any live broadcasting situation) was already established. We slowed down our speech, thus minimising any chance of us tripping over our words.
Be prepared: We received a media guide in advance so we knew roughly what would take place in the Ceremonies, and were able to prepare some stock descriptions describing actions and scenes we knew would take place. Our voiceover booth was AWASH with paper! Watching the action onscreen, often we could pluck from a cue card all or part of a stock description that matched the action, and read it out. It was a little less to worry about.
Go with the flow: Sometimes you were faced with something…and you had to describe that…something. Despite the hours of prep, a LOT of our commentary was improvised. We WERE having to think in the moment, absorb the information, and attempt to describe it as best we could. We made the odd mistake, because, like other broadcasters, we’re only human. Audiences are forgiving if you correct yourself and move on gracefully.
Expect the unexpected: Scott admirably described the moment when a torchbearer fell over and was helped back up. In the Closing Ceremony, tweets from viewers appeared on-screen. We weren’t prepared for that, but we also incorporated those into our AD commentary.
It’s you: And just you. With the luxury of re-takes (think Toast of London, because that’s who I think of if I end up on a tricky description and half a dozen retakes – YES!) and being able to leave your booth and get a hot drink to warm up your vocal cords. You’re able to watch the scene just before a description, to know what kind of tone you’ll need to deliver the AD.
Read the script: You might make the odd adjustment (removing a word, adding a few in) but you don’t have to think what to say, because the script has been written already.
Over and over: if I’m scripting a pre-recorded show, I have time to rewind, rewatch, and make sense of what is going on. Occasionally, I’ll have access to production scripts, which can provide useful information.
Do I have a preference? I think I like both. The thrill of broadcasting on live TV WAS amazing. Working on such a high profile piece of programming is a career highlight. Taking on the unique challenge of live AD, and executing it as best we could is something I took great pride in.
Working on pre-recorded AD is different, but having the time to craft a script and imbue it with meaning when you voice it is also rewarding.
Mary Sweeney, Audio Describer, Access Services