Talking Subtitles.

My first experience of "talking subtitles" or audio described television programs came when I was still sighted. I was on iPlayer and noticed that there was an episode of "Walking with Dinosaurs" that I had missed on there. I also noticed that it was marked "talking subtitles" but that didn't bother me. I imagined something as inobtrusive and nuanced as normal subtitles had become. I was in for a shock. In between David Attenborough's beautiful commentary was a reedy woman's voice giving brief and perfuntory description of what was happening on screen. Sentences such as mother moves to nuzzle her young" and "young dinosaur starts to follow mother" shot across my consciousness. I tried watching for a bit with my eyes closed to see how that affected the experience. I found that there were many times when David Atttenborough's commentary and the sound effects would have been enough but this jarring annoying voice would cut across.

The sad thing was that all that was needed was a slight tweak to the original track with David Attenborough providing a fuller commentary and the show would have been perfectly accessible to the blind and partially sighted.

Instead there was this sterile undramatic voice shoehorning basic descriptions into whatever gaps could be found. I can't think of any genre that would survive this treatment without being diminished.

I'm a bit of a superhero fan and imagining 'daredevil' (might as well pick the blind superhero here) with audio description of the kind I have heard so far, fills me with dread. I'd much rather have the sound of kicking and punching WITHOUT "daredevil is trapped in the corner with multiple assailants".

Again. It could be done so much better. With a little recutting and an audio description written more like a narration from a work of fictoin could actually add to the drama in this hypothetical scenario so, say in daredevil's voice "I was cornered in an alley and they were all upon me at once. Instinct kicked in and my fists flew in every direction". Obviously the space given for the dialogue imposes some limitations but currently talking subtitles are not a creative endeavour. There's a kind of "that'll do" approach that leaves us with a supposedly more accessible program that, to my mind, isn't fit for purpose.

What does everyone else think?

Comments (5)

The Baron's picture

Reply to -InTheWorldOfTheBlind- by The Baron

On the whole, audio description is a useful option for those of us with a visual impairment. It supplies information that a sighted person can readily spot for his/her self. But of course, the amount of description that is useful depends on the particular sight loss circumstances of each viewer. It's almost inevitable that the system is limited to one description fits all. And the describers who provide the service should not be criticised for their reedy voices any more than we for our visual impairments.

If I am understanding you correctly, you appear to be offering an evaluation from some years ago when you had sight. On that basis, I am not sure that your comments are entirely constructive as almost invariably, sighted people are irritated by what is to them superfluous description. And your recollection(s) from some years ago might no longer be entirely accurate.

It is not clear whether you have experienced “Daredevil” with audio description or whether you are just imagining what it would be like based on your memory of Dinosaurs. But if your experience is genuine, maybe you have sufficient vision to read those critical texts or messages upon which the camera often comes to rest and that leave- me wondering.

That said, it may be that you experienced a very poor description because you should have been told that the commentator was Kenneth Brangh or possibly Avery Brooks.

All in all, I find audio description a very useful (and free) piece of assistive technology.

-InTheWorldOfTheBlind-'s picture

Reply to The Baron by -InTheWorldOfTheBlind-

I was sighted when I viewed "Dinosaurs". If I saw it again now, or if I viewed it blind or with my eyes closed I feel the effect would be the same. I think I may have even tried closing my eyes at the time to see if it worked better. It didn't.

I admit hyperbole is a bit of a weakness of mine so I'll self-edit and re-explain. The point about the reedy voice wasn't so much that it was reedy (although that made it more annoying) but that it was totally different from that of David Attenborough who could easily have done the job.

There's a reason why particular voices are chosen for radio. It is because they are more pleasant to listen to. I am not criticising the individual for their particular voice but I am criticising the BBC for their choice of reader particularly because her voice didn't go well with David Attenborough's.

Similarly where David Attenborough's description was nuanced and perceptive, the description written for the reader was merely functional. Were this an audio description provided by the BBC for a production by another company this would be, at least partly, understandable but it was a BBC production. The extra description added could easily have been worked in to Attenborough's description or (in some cases) removed altogether. This is not because the action could be seen but because some of it could be heard (in the same way as you would hear actions on a radio play).

I prefaced my description of my "Daredevil" example with 'imagining "Daredevil" ' so, yes this was something which I imagined based upon my limited experience of talking subtitles. It is limited because, even since becoming VI, I have found it painful to listen to and so have generally avoided it. Each time I attempt to return to it I am disappointed. I totally understand the need to describe signs. In fact in my earlier imagined description (version two) having the actor's voice saying "I saw a note on the table, it said 'come to 54th street, bring money" would be very helpful to me as, being partially sighted, those are exactly the kind of things I miss.

What I was basically saying is that the approach I've most often come across is to kind of shoehorn a basic description between the dialogue and sound effects. Approaching the whole experience by treating the sound track as if it is a radio play, or in the case of nature documentaries, just replacing the original description with a more descriptive form by the same narrator (where possible) is an approach which reduces the risk of detracting from the experience.

I don't think my view would change if I were to become fully blind. Before I posted my first post I asked my old Braille tutor who is fully blind what he thought of audio description. "I don't really listen to it", he said, "It's not pleasant to listen to, I'd rather listen to something else".

I am very grateful that there are people willing to adapt media for greater accessibility but I also see no harm in imagining it better.

If you know of any examples of audio description which already do what I'm describing or have another similarly creative approach to the media I'd be grateful to hear of them.

Sean Randall's picture

Reply to -InTheWorldOfTheBlind- by Sean Randall

Hi, a fascinating discussion. Personally, I'd rather have a sterile, unbiased description of what's going on (although I mainly watch dramas, thrillers, period pieces and science fiction shows rather than documentaries). For me, the audio-description is filling in the visual gaps, not telling more of the story. It's reading the printed signs, subtitles, changes of scene - all things either completely or partially inaccessible without a good level of vision. Yes, sometimes the voice of the describer doesn't fit the work. I'd much rather have description given to me personally in a headphone than coming through the TV to bother the whole family on occasion. But I'd certainly like to have it as it is if the only other option, as it is today, is to have nothing at all.

-InTheWorldOfTheBlind-'s picture

Reply to Sean Randall by -InTheWorldOfTheBlind-

I guess that when it gets to the level where it is all or nothing then that can be a problem. It's interesting that audio description breaks the action up more for the sighted than subtitles. I guess Subtitles are generally fairly inobtrusive whereas audio description can't help but be more so. I was on an "Understanding sight loss" course the other day (I work for the RNIB) and most of the panel that taught us were towards the severe end of the sight-loss spectrum. They spoke a little on talking subtitles and commented on the varying quality.

One example they gave was "Lord of the Rings" where there was one point where was loud sounds of fighting and the audio description was "The orks are fighting". I believe the comment made about this was "no s*** Sherlock!"

I think from what I've heard since my first post, that there may be some audio description I would like. I've just come across some poor examples of the genre.

What I would say is that if there's an audio description that was less than stellar then it should be commented on and feedback given to the broadcaster/publisher of the work. It feels still very much like a medium that is in its infancy and we'll never see improvements in the areas where the medium is failing if we don't let people know that is happening.

There's a new app out for audio description via phone (I think there's an advert for a trial of this on the "Play your Part" board) and it also does subtitles. This could be useful for what you mentioned and I'd love it to get to the point where this was the case with TV, Movies, Netflix, maybe even stage plays (although there'd have to be some very innovative live streaming audio solution for the last)

LelaPatterson's picture

Reply to Sean Randall by LelaPatterson

Agreed. I don’t use Audio Description as much as I used to.