As an audio describer of TV programmes, I sometimes feel I have one of the most interesting and unusual jobs of anyone I know.
In the course of my working day, describing a programme’s visual content for a visually impaired audience, I might be called upon to talk about pretty much anything under the sun (or beyond if we’re talking Doctor Who). Be it the beauty of Attenborough’s natural world in Life Story, what the cakes look like in Bake Off or explaining the couch gag in The Simpsons, if it’s been seen on telly, chances are, in the 14 years I’ve been an audio describer, I will have translated into words those images that a sighted TV audience can take for granted.
Using a love of language and one’s voice to tell a story is creative and rewarding, and can also throw up many challenges when it comes to research. Just as there are countless things that can be seen, so there are limitless possibilities for what you might have to research, both on and offline, in order to tell an accurate story.
Apart from always having a thesaurus to hand, usually, the first port of call is the production script – invaluable for the “who-what-where-when” of a programme. But scripts are not always readily available in advance of transmission and can vary greatly in detail and accuracy.
If you walk past a describer’s desk, you will often hear them muttering, “Who or what is that?” when someone or something suddenly appears on screen and they have absolutely no idea who or what it is. In these situations, the best place to start is with colleagues. Borrow their eyes, email them a screen grab, and chances are someone will know. When I was describing the sci-fi comedy filmPaul, a woman walked through Comic Con in a slave-girl costume. I knew there was more to it, but I simply didn’t know the exact cultural reference. An email to my sci-fi literate workmates was met with incredulity: “What, you’ve never seen Princess Leia in Return of the Jedi before?!” Trust me, I have now.
Another common area of research is when people or place names appear as text-on-screen but aren’t actually heard in the programme itself, for example, in the opening credits of a feature film. These can pose real problems for the describer trying to pronounce them correctly. There are a few linguists in the department, so we probably have the more common European languages covered, but if a programme is set in, say, China, our research might take us further afield to online pronunciation websites.
It can take time to get things right. A film’s opening credits can pass by in no time at all, but if the names of the actors that appear on screen are uncommon, their pronunciation can take quite a lot of research. The BBC has its own Pronunciation Unit, a team of professional linguists who will research pronunciations for us. For other clients’ programmes, there are pronunciation websites, but also YouTube is a very useful resource, where you can often hear people saying their own names, so you know it’s coming from the horse’s mouth. We’ve even been known to phone actors’ agents in the past, or tweeted someone, to make sure a name was pronounced correctly.
Research can also take you down some strange alleyways and have unintentional results. An innocuous web search to find details of what a senior policewoman’s uniform might look like (as worn by Gillian Anderson in The Fall) throws up some very saucy costumes indeed! I’ve found myself describing childbirth for One Born Every Minute before my breakfast’s had time to digest. Or in last year’s Channel 4 spy drama Complicit, when I found myself researching, then describing in detail, the internal components of a bomb, whilst also looking up place names in Afghanistan that appeared on a map the bomb was sitting on, I thought to myself, from the outside, my browser history could look very dodgy indeed!
So the role of an audio describer is not just a case of “saying what you see”. It can involve detailed and varied research into pretty much anything you can think of. And even though sitting alone watching TV with headphones and speaking into a microphone can be a pretty solitary endeavour, it’s the research that makes the job collaborative, interesting and, ultimately, unique.
Marie Campbell, Audio Describer.