Researchers at Anglia Ruskin University in the United Kingdom are attempting to develop an alternative to the traditional – and widely used – audio description techniques for blind and visually impaired filmgoers.
The research team’s long-term goal is to provide a more immersive, inclusive, and entertaining film experience as they explore ways to tell a story on film without the need for visual elements or an audio description track. The proposed format, called “audio film,” focuses on innovative sound design techniques and the creative use of surround sound instead of a conventional audio description soundtrack.
The foundation for this innovative audio research, entitled The Design of an Audio Film: Portraying Story, Action, and Interaction through Sound, was initially reported by Dr. Lopez and Sandra Pauletto, Ph.D. in the Winter 2009 edition of The Journal of Music and Meaning (JMM). JMM is an online peer-reviewed journal for multidisciplinary research that challenges the conceptions of music and musical phenomena.
What is Audio Description?
From the American Council of the Blind Audio Description Project:
Audio Description involves the accessibility of the visual images of theater, television, movies, and other art forms for people who are blind, have low vision, or who are otherwise visually impaired. It is a narration service (provided at no additional charge to the patron) that attempts to describe what the sighted person takes for granted – those images that a person who is blind or visually impaired formerly could only experience through the whispered asides from a sighted companion.
In theaters, in museums, and accompanying television, film, and video presentations, Audio Description is commentary and narration which guides the listener through the presentation with concise, objective descriptions of new scenes, settings, costumes, body language, and “sight gags,” all slipped in between portions of dialogue or songs.
About “Sound Film” Audio Research
Excerpted from New research project makes sound sense: Anglia Ruskin expert designs alternative to audio description for people with sight loss, via Anglia Ruskin University:
An alternative to traditional audio description, which is added to TV and film for visually impaired audiences, is being developed by an audio expert at Anglia Ruskin University.
Dr. Mariana Lopez, a researcher at Anglia Ruskin’s Cultures of the Digital Economy (CoDE) research institute, is carrying out a pilot study to explore how a story can be told without the need for visual elements or an audio description track.
By focusing on new sound design techniques and the creative use of surround sound, Dr Lopez hopes the format – called “audio film” – will become a standard part of the filmmaking process and eventually both sighted and visually impaired audiences will enjoy the same soundtrack.
Sound effects are used both to represent actions and as “soundmarks” to help the listeners identify the different spaces in the narrative. Artificial reverberation is employed to provide each space with a characteristic sound, and surround sound is used to suggest the layout of the spaces as well as indicate the movement of the characters.
Her prototype has been tested with the collaboration of volunteers with sight loss at Anglia Ruskin’s Digital Performance Lab. Initial trials have been successful, with the majority of participants recognizing all key plot elements and indicating that the story was easy to follow. Importantly, they also found the experience to be entertaining.
Says Dr. Lopez, “One of the problems with traditional audio description is that it is not part of the creative process, which means that the interpretation of the film provided in the audio described track does not necessarily represent the artistic vision of the filmmaker.”
“This study investigates ways in which audio descriptions could be incorporated into the production and post-production workflows used in film and television. My aim is to create an enhanced version of audio description that allows both sighted and visually impaired audiences to experience the same soundtrack and, as a result, bridge the gap between the two and encourage social inclusivity.”
More about the Original “Sound Film” Audio Research from the Journal of Music and Meaning
From The Design of an Audio Film: Portraying Story, Action, and Interaction through Sound (with full version available online):
Film, television, theater performances and museum tours use audio description to enable visually impaired people to access these forms of art. The inclusion of these descriptions has as a consequence, however, that visually impaired audiences cannot access the work directly; they have to rely on a describer.
The aim of this project was to design an alternative to audio description for films… In this project the term “audio film” was chosen for two main reasons: firstly, because the final work is to be experienced in a cinema environment, and, secondly, because certain elements of the filmmaking process might be adapted for the conveyance of a story through sound, creating an experience equivalent to the cinematic experience.
A cinema in particular has very distinct sound characteristics: it is acoustically isolated from the sonic world that surrounds it, the sound reproduction is conveyed in surround through high quality speakers with a wide dynamic range and frequency spectrum. The degree to which the environment provides acoustic immersion plays a fundamental role in how well the film captivates the spectator.
The concept and design of an audio film is of great interest for two related research areas: auditory displays and sonic interaction design.
Auditory displays focus on the study of how information (data, messages, feedback, etc.) can be portrayed through – usually – non-speech sound. Sonic interaction design concentrates on how sound can be designed to portray interactions between humans and/or objects in an informative way.
In both research areas the designer needs to address two very important aspects: the informative aspect and the aesthetic/appropriateness aspect. These are the same challenges faced by the designer of an audio film.
In an audio film the sounds (ambiences, sound effects, sounds of actions, vocal sounds, music, etc.) need to be informative so that the storytelling is effectively portrayed. Strategies are found to either use or overcome the ambiguities in meaning of non-speech sound.
Moreover, to maintain audience engagement, the aesthetic aspect of sound is considered in depth. One major application of an audio film is to provide an alternative to audio description.
But There Is More Research in This Area!
Although Dr. Lopez states that “One of the problems with traditional audio description is that it is not part of the creative process, which means that the interpretation of the film provided in the audio described track does not necessarily represent the artistic vision of the filmmaker,” two audio description research projects – in the United Kingdom and Central Europe – dispute this view.
Ongoing research supporting both projects has been published in the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (JVIB), the international, interdisciplinary journal of record on blindness and visual impairment. [Full disclosure: As a longtime editor at JVIB, I managed both of the following articles.]
The first project, entitled Auteur Description: From the Director’s Creative Vision to Audio Description, was published in the September-October 2013 edition of JVIB. Author Agnieszka Szarkowska, Ph.D., from the Institute of Applied Linguistics at the University of Warsaw, Poland, describes her innovative method for representing and incorporating the artistic vision of the filmmaker:
I present a new type of Audio Description (AD) for auteur and artistic films: auteur description, which incorporates the director’s creative vision in the AD script through the use of a screenplay (or other available materials, such as interviews and reviews) and thus gives the audio describer the artistic license to depart from the dictate of objectivism. The main function of auteur description is to immerse spectators who are blind or have low vision in the story world created by the film’s director.
Auteur description differs from conventional AD in the way the “who, what, where, and how” of the film are described. Departing from the notion of objective description, it eagerly embraces vivid and emotional language. The script can include additional information on the characters and their emotions, actions, and settings that are not necessarily visible on the screen, but are important from the point of view of the director and, as such, are included in the screenplay.
The second project, entitled Could Audio-Described Films Benefit from Audio Introductions? An Audience Response Study, was published in the July-August 2013 edition of JVIB. Authors Pablo Romero-Fresco, Ph.D. and Louise Fryer, M.Sc., from the University of Roehampton and Goldsmith’s College in London, describe their development of audio introductions (AIs) for Slumdog Millionaire and Man on Wire:
Each audio introduction (AI) comprised 10 minutes of continuous description incorporating information about the film’s visual style, fuller descriptions of characters and settings, a brief synopsis, and cast and production details. The AIs were tested with participants who are blind and have low vision.
Twenty-four visually impaired volunteers listened to the AIs before or after watching the films with audio description (AD), and gave feedback about their experience. Most participants felt the AIs helped bring the films to life and made them easier to follow. The majority of participants wanted AIs for other films.
AD guidelines discourage describers from mentioning camera work, yet most participants reported that this information in the AI was not too technical, and that the proportion of the AI devoted to visual style was about right. Only a minority felt that the AIs “told me things I could find out for myself.” This suggests that access to screen media for people with a visual impairment can be enhanced by additional cinematic and other visual information.
VisionAware will continue to provide updates on audio description research as they become available.