Awards season is in full swing but as Oscars weekend approaches there is one group of cinema professionals who will not be preparing to take their place on the read carpet: audio describers.
For blind cinema goers, audio description is a crucial part of any film. It is just as important as acting, cinematography and score. Yet many sighted movie fans have no idea that audio description even exists – and it is not a skill that is awarded at the BAFTAs, Oscars or any other of the countless film institute ceremonies around the world.
Have you ever seen someone wearing a headset at the cinema? Chances are they are listening to a detailed description of characters, costumes, locations and actions cleverly timed to fit around dialogue and sound effects. By including essential details, such as characters’ names, facial expressions and actions, audio description gives blind audience members enough information to understand and appreciate what is happening on screen.
But it is more than just a description of what is on the screen, it enables blind people to enjoy cinema just as sighted people do. It is a mixture of description, interpretation and conjecture which must quickly and concisely take into account the cumulative effect of the work done by all the other facets of the film. Without it, a film barely exists for a blind person, with it, cinema becomes an extraordinarily immersive experience.
When sighted spectators try audio description they are often pleasantly surprised. It provides information that sighted viewers may have missed, and tells them which shots are significant. Apparently some people like to switch on Netflix audio description so that they can consume box sets while cooking or driving as they would an audio book. During my recent trip to see The Favourite, my (sighted) companion found it hard to distinguish between Nicholas Hoult’s character Robert Harley and Samuel Masham, played by Joe Alwyn. I was delighted to be able to whisper clarifications to him thanks to the voice in my ear who named each character just before they appeared.
Audio description began as an accessibility aid – but since then it has developed into an art form which can quite simply transform the cinematic experience. I had my first experience of audio description back in 2012 and it really did feel like I was watching a film properly for the first time in my life. The artistic decisions made by the audio describer mean much more to me and other blind viewers than decisions about costume design and special effects.
As my research shows, audio description is a valid and valuable creative art. Why, then, are audio describers not even acknowledged, let alone awarded, at cinema’s most glittering ceremonies?
Making the first move to address this injustice, in 2018 the French Confederation for the Advancement of Blind People created an award to honour the writers of this essential component of the blind cinema-going experience. The first “Marius de l'Audiodescription” (named after Marius Pontmercy, the dashing young hero of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables) was awarded to Hubert Charuel’s Petit Paysan and the second was awarded this week to Pupille directed by Jeanne Henry.
To pick their winner, the jury of around 60 blind and sighted film fans, watched the seven films nominated for the best film César – awarded annually by the Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma – while listening to the audio description soundtrack. Everyone voted for their favourite description and the film with the most votes won. At the time of writing the 2019 best film César is yet to be announced but the 2018 winner, Petit Paysan, went on to win that prize too.
There is no doubt that the time has come to take audio description seriously as a key creative component of film. Audio describers are imaginative writers who use language in clever and inventive ways to translate between the visual and the verbal. As such they deserve to receive proper acknowledgement for their work from other institutions such as the BAFTAs and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It may be too late for this year but it seems only right that an audio describer is properly awarded at the 2020 Oscars.