Audio Description in Visceral Films

By Cameron Tennyson

During our class discussion on audio description in television and films, I started thinking about AD’s relationship with film specifically. If audio description is done retrospectively, then the director’s vision is left entirely up to the company that is paid by the studio to do the AD. This means that the experience of a film for an individual who uses AD is left up entirely to the company that provides the description. The rules for audio description are the same for every film that is described, which leaves no variance in a creative field where variance is much of what it spectacular. A film like La La Land is described in-line with the same rules of a kid’s movie, though the artistic value is obviously different. For films that rely specifically on visuals to tell the story, rather than dialogue and narration, is there an approach to AD that is different from the current description standards that may increase understanding of the “visual aesthetics”?

In order to answer this question, I needed to learn more about audio description in general. My ultimate goal for this project was to use the movie The Neon Demon to see what an AD of a film that relied almost solely on visuals sounded like. Unfortunately, there is no such track. The Neon Demon is completely inaccessible to any visually impaired or blind individual. As I searched Amazon Prime Video’s store some more, I finally found a tab that said “Movies and TV Shows with Audio Descriptions”. When I clicked on it, a total of only 110 results. Of those 110, I counted only 15 films and television shows that weren’t Amazon Originals. In order to make sure this wasn’t just an error with the categorization, I clicked through about 10 random films in the Most Popular section, and sure enough, not a single one gave the option for Audio Description.

This prompted me to check out other streaming websites to see how accessible their content was. To my surprise, HBO flat out doesn’t offer AD for any of their content, whether it be original (like Game of Thrones) or contracted content (like La La Land, even though there is an audio description track of the film in existence). HBO is entirely inaccessible to visually impaired individuals. As I did more research, I found an article depicting the irony of HBO’s lack of AD. In late 2018, a series titled My Brilliant Friend was released by HBO. The television show was about a blind woman, and it was entirely in French. An article on the Huffington Post criticised HBO because not only was there no AD track for the show, there wasn’t even an english dub; A show about disability and blindness is inaccessible to those with that same disability.

Next, I went to Netiflix to scope out the AD situation, and it’s clear that of all the major streaming platforms, Netflix has the greatest collection of non-original content with AD tracks. Almost all of the originals had AD, but as we saw with the Fyre Festival doc in class, it wasn’t necessarily the best AD. Additionally, it seems that all of Netflix’s original content has AD, and this is largely due to backlash the company received after backlash with the release of Marvel’s Daredevil in 2015. Just like HBO’s My Brilliant Friend, this show with a main character who was blind was bound to be inaccessible to blind and visually impared viewers. Unlike HBO, Netflix announced that it would start releasing AD tracks for all of its original content in order to be more accessible. A step, yes, but as we discovered in our reading, audio description itself has issues with fulfilling the exact descriptive needs of the viewer.