Descriptive Audio

Jon Five years ago, descriptive audio (aka descriptive video services, or audio description) started showing up as an option at movie theatres for the movies I was seeing. My eyes can’t always see what’s on the movie screen very well. My parents used to have to whisper to describe some scenes or action to me as the movie played. Now descriptive audio tells me what is happening on the screen. Descriptive audio is an extra audio channel with someone describing what’s happening in each scene. At the theatre, it’s provided on a headset that you ask for when you buy your ticket. It is for visually-impaired audiences, the way closed captioning is for hearing impaired audience members.

For example, the current Disney animated production logo is described this way:

In a logo, stars twinkle in the sky, our view drifts down through clouds to a river that winds past hillsides, a train crosses a bridge, as a flag waves on a castle’s tallest spire, a bright display of fireworks explodes in the sky, a glowing pinpoint of light arks over the castle, leaving a trail of sparkling dust. Words appear, Walt Disney Pictures.” 

It helps me know what’s going on on screen when I can’t see it, or when the action is too fast. Descriptive audio is being used more and more—it’s now being added to DVDs and Blu-rays and streaming services, starting with Netflix and now Disney+. 

Different movies use different people describing. Myles Neff did the first six movies in the Star Wars saga in a slightly comic book-y way, while friendly-toned Darrin Revitz did Crazy Rich Asians and Toy Story 4 and Forky Asks A Question. Disney was the first studio to commit to descriptive audio and doing a lot of its back catalogue, while it took a while for the others, especially Warner Brothers to add it regularly. Aardman Animations has descriptive audio in the theatres but whoever is distributing their movies in Canada isn’t including the descriptive audio track on discs or digitally. The animation studio Laika hasn’t started doing descriptive audio yet. Their movies could really use it. (Sigh.)

With my limited vision, descriptive audio adds so much. It is carefully written so that it doesn’t interrupt the characters speaking. Descriptions are added between lines of dialogue. For example, here’s a scene from the first Toy Story movie:

Woody: Hold still buzz.

Describer: The fuse lights.

Woody: Ha ha, ha ha.

Buzz: You did it! Next stop, Andy!

Woody: I just lit a rocket! Rockets explode!

Describer: Buzz and Woody hang on tight as RC streaks down two lanes of traffic.

I really enjoyed that part. Descriptive audio makes movies so much better for me.