For decades, blind movie fans have relied on frame-by-frame audio description. Now, a blind scientist and a band of amateurs are questioning who decides what they see.
The Riviera Hotel & Casino, a vast, chiming monument to air conditioning and untrammeled tattoo artistry, was full of blind people last July. Thirteen hundred or so had come to Las Vegas for the American Council of the Blind’s 53rd annual conference; never had so many dogs roamed so many slot machines. In a small, windowless conference room on a Wednesday morning, though, just a dozen and a half people sat silently listening to a bird chirp.
It was totally a bird. But then came some faint … whirring? Water? Wind? Then … seagull cries? Next came human breathing, followed by grunting and a kind of labored scraping. The circumstances suggested by this recording were becoming hard to conceive. A chicken squawked. A chicken?
If you are blind or have low-vision, or if you’re pretending to be for a two-minute exercise — most in the conference room were sighted — listening to a movie feels less like entertainment than a protracted aural grope. Or at least it did before audio description, a bland-sounding, life-changing tool that conveys what’s happening onscreen: a dubbed-in voice explaining that Han Solo is reaching for his blaster, or that Orson Welles has furrowed his brow.
Or that a child has found a fallen fledgling on a forest floor. After speculating about the chirping and whirring and grunting, the students of the three-day Audio Description Institute listened to the recording again — this time alongside its narration. The scene was a pivotal one in Majid Majidi’s The Color of Paradise (which happens to be about a blind 8-year-old Iranian boy). Those scraping sounds had come from the protagonist as he struggled to climb a tree. Following the cries of the bird’s siblings, we were told, the child returned it to its nest, and a smile spread across his face.
The exercise was striking, all the more so for occurring in the presence of a master. Joel Snyder is a round man with a booming voice that, if your vision is impaired, you might know intimately. In 1981, the young actor stumbled into the nascent field of audio description — he’d been volunteering with a Washington, D.C., group that was exploring ways to make local stage productions accessible to the blind. What began as an experiment grew into an industry, or at least a sub-industry, appended to Hollywood as well as live performances, museums, national parks, even cruises.
Snyder, meanwhile, grew into a godfather of description — a powerful voice, figuratively and literally, in how millions of Americans absorb a vast sweep of information. “Description is a literary art form,” he told the group. “A kind of poetry.”
If that sounds like a stretch, just watch a movie. Each scene presents an entire world to sift through, parse, and translate. Describers, then, must do the work of actors and also of set designers, choreographers, costumers, and the ominousness of those gathering clouds at the edge of the frame. They must do this without underexplaining or overexplaining or stepping on dialogue, or getting all that right but missing the tone. And no matter what, don’t say “close-up” — jargon, Snyder warned, punctures the suspension of disbelief.
Quick clarification: Blind people watch movies. Lots of them, plus TV and YouTube and all the other garbage and non-garbage we hunker down to each day. For the nation’s 20 million blind and low-vision citizens, these entertainments are just that. They are also a valuable cultural tether. Among adults reporting significant vision loss, less than 38 percent were employed in 2012. Isolation is huge.
Snyder wears his mantle of cultural authority with gusto. He’s a hammy guy (“I’m here all week, ladies and gentlemen”) who turns serious contemplating the impact that he and his colleagues have had. (After recording the first description of Sesame Street, he told the group, his company received a grateful letter from a blind mom who could finally follow along with her sighted child.) Snyder has been hired to describe everything from Mrs. Doubtfire to President Obama’s inaugurations. Along the way, he has helped elevate description to a genre all its own.
The Vegas workshop walked aspiring professionals through technical and philosophical challenges, but Snyder kept returning to the central pillar of his approach: objectivity. Instead of declaring a character furious, mention her clenched fists. A sunset isn’t beautiful, just deep orange. Qualitative judgments have no place, he insisted, and he rapped a table with his pen for emphasis. Later, Snyder told me that if he were God, he wouldn’t allow anyone to describe a movie without first taking his workshop. “I’ve seen blind people just pull their earbuds out,” he said. “I’d rather a film had no description than bad description.”
I pondered that remark. On its face, it reflected the authority of someone who has spent years refining a skill whose execution means a lot to a lot of people. But I also heard a drop of defensiveness. At that very moment, forces were gathering to disrupt Snyder’s carefully crafted fiefdom. Whether he was referring to them or not, I can’t say. That’s the thing about interpreting. It’s tricky sometimes.
On a brisk summer morning in San Francisco, at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, in another windowless conference room, another group was discussing audio description. This conversation was decidedly less reverent.
A bearish young blind man ridiculed the narration of a recent Game of Thrones episode. “‘She performed a sex act,’” he said, in a stuffy imitation of a professional describer. “That’s it! Just from the audio I could’ve told you 17 specific things she did. But more important, in the subtle way he rebuffed her, we learn that he’s gay. And we got none of that. This is why I don’t even bother with professional description anymore.”
We’re at the first-ever Describeathon, a daylong event that not only struggles with the usual frame-by-frame challenge of representing a visual world but questions who gets to create that representation in the first place. A dozen or so amateur describers were here not for a careful apprenticeship, but to dive right in — to record narration for as many videos as possible in the time allowed.
Presiding over the event was Joshua Miele, a grinning, palpably restless, curly haired man in jeans. Or he’s a blind Ph.D. scientist and inventor who sometimes carries a white cane and has two kids and lives in Berkeley. Or he’s the president of the board of directors of the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Spend time with describers and you start noticing the endless ways a person or situation might be characterized. That was the idea behind YouDescribe: a web tool Miele and a team of engineers launched earlier this year to let users record their own descriptions atop YouTube videos and rely less on a top-down (and largely sighted) description industry. “The people that serve people with disabilities are not always that well connected to the culture of disability,” Miele told me. “Often, sighted people think they know best. Even blind people fall into thinking they have nothing to contribute to their own solutions.”
In contrast to Snyder’s conviction, YouDescribe is an experiment — in crowdsourcing, in making description a dialogue rather than a decree, in tackling the insane proliferation of video content that otherwise will remain inaccessible to millions. Rather than hoping the pros get around to recording, say, a certain dishwasher-repair video, the YouDescribers envision a day when ordinary civilians do it themselves, Wikipedia-style. Sighted people would still do much of the work, but in concert with blind people, for a change. It’s all gleefully, anarchically subjective. They even use different terminology for their task, insisting on “video description” over the more conventional “audio description.”
“Giant rats in crowns,” a low-vision woman was saying into her microphone as a Monty Python sketch played on her laptop. The describers could choose videos themselves or take requests over Twitter. A sighted woman named Sydney and a blind man named Bill were collaborating on an educational video about a woodworking tool — limited emotional range, but the technical challenges were high. “Pretty frickin’ amazing tool,” Sydney commented. “OK with me if you say ‘frickin’’ in the description,” Bill replied.
Ripping up old rules invited conversations about new ones. There’s a minor character in Pretty Woman who is African American. Should her race be mentioned? To ignore the director’s choice seems disingenuous. On the other hand, noting that she’s black — but not that every other character is white — might be weird.
Miele was clear about what he thought worked and what didn’t. But he was also delighted by the mass of new recordings. The impressive attempts, the clumsy ones — he had faith that the crowd would gradually raise the overall quality. When I mentioned Snyder’s preference for no description over bad description, Miele laughed. “It’s fine for him to say as a sighted guy,” he said. “Me, I’d much rather have something substandard than nothing.”
Snyder, for his part, essentially says sighted people sometimes do know best. “This crowdsourcing idea — ‘Y’all come [try it], you don’t need to know how’ — that’s just crap,” he told me. “Josh might say, ‘Well, crap’s OK!’ and God bless him, but being blind doesn’t make you an expert in audio description. I’ve been driving an automobile for 44 years. Does that mean I can design a highway?”
I didn’t know. So I called Georgina Kleege, an English professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has written about audio description. The same week Snyder was in Las Vegas, Kleege, who is blind, attended Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, listening along on one of the theater’s headsets. She knew Anderson’s colors and camerawork were designed to underscore the artifice of cinema, but the description mentioned none of that. It was uninspired, she said.
“They do the best they can, but mainstream description services are limited by their own rules and standards,” Kleege said. “I respect them — they pioneered description — but ask a blind person how they want something described, and you get many answers.
“That’s why I’m so wholeheartedly behind the YouDescribe project,” she added. “In my imagination, there may be multiple people describing a video, and I choose this one guy whose style I really like. The idea that there’s one true description, one correct way of interpreting something — I can’t begin to say how wrong I think that is.”
Miele’s citizen describers face hurdles beyond occasional rancor from the pros. There are copyright issues to navigate and Hollywood studios to bring aboard. And YouDescribe needs describers, thousands of them — maybe an impossible number — if it’s to become something more than a thought-provoking experiment. But a few weeks after the Describeathon, Miele flew to Virginia to accept the FCC’s 2014 Award for Advancement in Accessibility. And later in the summer, the Justice Department moved to require all movie theaters with digital screens to offer description via wireless headset. Encouraging signs? False hope? Neither would be surprising to disability activists.
Anyway, there’s something larger on the line. At the heart of Miele’s mission is an absolute certainty that “absolute certainty” has no place in the realm of art or YouTube videos. That’s an idea bigger than video description, bigger than accessibility. The notion of a single, authoritative translation of the visual into the verbal is, he believes, laughable; the relentless pursuit of objectivity absurd. The Godfather’s essence emerges not from one perfect interpretation of it, but a thousand flawed ones.