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As an independent filmmaker you’ll be well versed in the challenge of balancing an often-limited budget with your creative aspirations.  As well as making decisions which affect the artistic integrity of your project, you also need to consider costs associated with the compliance and delivery of your film.  Access services, and audio descriptions specifically, are becoming an increasingly important part of the delivery package that independent filmmakers need to consider. Here’s everything you need to know about them to make an informed decision.     

What is cinema audio description? 

Cinema audio description makes films accessible for visually impaired audiences by providing an additional narration track that describes what is happening on the screen during natural pauses in the dialogue.  The audio description track is normally accessed in cinemas via a personal set of headphones so that other audience members can listen to the original soundtrack uninterrupted.    

Do all feature films have to include audio descriptions? 

While the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Equality Act 2010 don’t specifically mention cinema audio descriptions, this legislation does require movie theatres and other service providers to provide facilities for disabled audiences.  

According to the UK Cinema Association, the UK cinema sector goes beyond what is legislated and is recognised as a global leader in supporting and welcoming disabled audiences.  This is backed up by figures from Accessible Screenings UK and the Royal National Institute of Blind People which report that 135 out of 202 English language films released in the UK in 2017 were available in cinemas with audio description and nine out of the top 10 films each week had audio description.  

The independent film sector is recognised for being especially passionate about providing accessible experiences and funding applications that include these services can be given preference.  In a nutshell, not all feature films include audio descriptions, but the majority of them do.   

Are there different types of cinema audio descriptions? 

Audio descriptions across all feature films have the same purpose and the same basic principles but AD can be quite stylistically different in different genres of film.  This is because audio descriptions are written and voiced to match the style and pace of the film so, while children’s features may be described with a fun tone and relatively fast pace, a horror movie’s descriptions will be more deliberate and will leave more audio gaps for the all-important soundtrack to build tension.  

How do you produce audio descriptions for feature films? 

Different service providers will have their own unique workflows and tools for producing audio descriptions, but the basic process includes; 

Scripting 

AD scripting is both an art and a science.  There aren’t any formal regulations that dictate how AD are scripted, but various partnerships between the industry and organisations for the blind have produced guidelines  detailing how audio descriptions should accurately explain the visuals in an objective way that matches the style of the production.  AD scriptwriters have to be skilled at writing descriptions of characters, actions and expressions that are accurate and neutral, but which elicit an appropriate emotional response – without telling cinemagoers how to feel.  

The script has to be succinct enough to fit into the gaps between the original film’s dialogue, so scriptwriters have to prioritise describing what is necessary for the audience to understand and enjoy the film.  Descriptions need to be accurate, but they also need to help immerse the audience in the story, which a list of facts wouldn’t achieve.  

AD scripts also include technical elements to make recording easier.  Pronunciation markers provide time codes for where key names or words are spoken in the dialogue to assist voice artists with their pronunciation and buffers have to be allocated between the original dialogue and when descriptions start to accommodate audio dips.  Script timing is essential to ensure that descriptions sync with the actions they describe rather than pre-empting or lagging behind them.   

Voice recording

AD voices are normally recorded with specialised technology that automatically inserts countdowns and accommodates the dips and fades necessary for the description track.  Many AD voice artists do their own recordings and are often experienced AD scriptwriters that are able to refine the script as necessary during recordings. Using synthesised voices provides a more cost-effective alternative and is becoming more accepted as the technology improves.  

Delivery

Cinema audio description files are delivered as part of the DCP (Digital Cinema Package.)   The industry standard format for cinema AD recordings is an ESEF file which consists of an .esf file and a set of individual WAV files associated with each description.  The .esf file contains all the information about how the individual WAV files should be used, including script data, in and out time codes, fade durations and depth and stereo pan data.  Depending on your film’s distribution you may also need to provide left and right STEMS to ensure that the AD track will mix in with the original soundtrack at the correct levels. 

How much do they cost to produce? 

As you can see, scripting, recording and preparing cinema audio descriptions are time-consuming tasks that require specialised skills and equipment, so audio descriptions cost more than most other access services.  Because different films will require a different amount of AD (depending on the ratio of dialogue to action) and because each genre requires a different style and type of voice or voices, it’s not possible to provide a standard cost to produce AD and each project needs to be costed individually.  

What is the director or client’s role in producing cinema audio descriptions?  

How involved, or uninvolved, you are in the production of your cinema audio descriptions is completely up to you.  Audio description service providers can take care of the entire project and simply hand over the final files for delivery or you can review and signoff scripts before recording, take part in the selection of voice artists and review recordings before they’re prepared for delivery.    

Where can you find out more about cinema audio descriptions? 

The Audio Description Association (ADA) was set up to meet the growing demand for a national organisation to promote and support audio description.  They offer training, support and advice for AD professionals and their website is a resource for users, providers and practitioners.  If you’d like to find out more about producing cinema audio descriptions, get in touch with Take 1

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About 

Louise is the CEO of Take 1, a transcription metadata company that provides transcripts, access services, translations, and post-production scripts to production companies, studios, localisation vendors and networks across the globe. She’s a fluent Spanish speaker who splits her time between the UK and Chile and is happiest spending time outdoors with her husband and two grown-up children.