Talk Description to Me

Episode 71 - Audio Description Shorthand

October 02, 2021 Christine Malec and JJ Hunt Season 3 Episode 71
Talk Description to Me
Episode 71 - Audio Description Shorthand
Show Notes Transcript

When tight for time, Audio Describers often use shorthand phrases to sum up rich or complex visuals. Today, Christine and JJ expand on expressions like "futuristic" and "well-dressed" to help description users fill-in their mental pictures.  Prompted by online conversations with fellow description users and creators, Christine asks how Describers handle repetitive imagery,  antiquated language, B-movie continuity, and even eyebrow acting. 

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JJ Hunt:

Talk description to me with Christine Malec and JJ Hunt.

Christine Malec:

Hi, I'm Christine Malec.

JJ Hunt:

And I'm JJ Hunt. This is talk description to me where the visuals of current events and the world around us get hashed out in description rich conversations.

Christine Malec:

This episode is going to be slightly self reflexive because we want to talk about some of the the conventions and tropes and complexities of audio description. And I love what Roy Samuelsson says that he wants to he wants there to be audio description snobs, he wants us as users to be critical and inquiring and to have opinions because there's enough audio description out there. Now that we can do that. And so JJ and I thought we would have a bit of a more of a kind of conversational style episode around some of the the tips and tricks of description and some of the complexities and the shorthands that get used. And so I think that for us that one of the seeds of this episode came months and months back probably near the beginning of when we started doing this, this podcast and the words that describers use when they have three seconds to convey a panoramic scene that includes a ton of stuff that the viewer is supposed to just digest and make sense of. And so for me as a science fiction fan, I'm sure most everybody who listens to us knows I'm a science fiction fan. And so a word that gets used a lot is futuristic. So we thought we would start there because there's a lot to, to dig into there. And also, I mean, if that word got used in the 1960s, it meant one thing if it got used in the 1980s, it meant something else if it gets used in 2021, it means I don't know any of what those words mean. So we're just meant to sort of go Oh, it's the future. But, JJ, can we talk about some of the styles around futuristic? And when would you use that word? And what would you mean by it?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, it's a great starting point for this conversation. So you're going to use a word like futuristic, when you have to sum up a big concept, right? Basically, when you don't have time to describe all of the reasons for reaching a conclusion, a describer is just going to have to jump straight to the conclusion. So adjectives and adverbs, they tend to be conclusions. And and, you know, futuristic is a fantastic example of this. So you know, the ship lands in a futuristic city. That's all you got time for most describers would love nothing more than to describe all of the design elements that led them to that conclusion, right? They'd love to describe the architecture, the clothing, the technology that's visible, describe all of those visual clues, that tell a sighted audience member that this scene is set in the future, right? But we've got three seconds. So we summarize with futuristic. And in terms of what futuristic actually looks like, you're absolutely right. It really depends on the era. And it's important to remember that visually, our ideas are almost always rooted in the idea that we are already living in. So the materials and tech that we already have the styles of the day. So for example, like 1979, Buck Rogers, which was supposed to be set in the 25th century sabak dressed in like really super wide open collared shirts and bell bottoms. Because, yeah, it was futuristic, but it still said in the late 70s, right. So in early sci fi, like the 1940s 50s and 60s, futuristic might mean like shiny metallic surfaces, maybe blinking lights, or for some reason there was this thing where citizens we're all wearing matching uniforms. That seemed to be a futuristic idea. So that's gonna be what, what the 40s 50s and 60s look. This is really broad strokes, right? I can't describe every movie, but that's it, shiny metallic surfaces. That was a big deal in the 40s 50s and 60s. In the 70s and 80s, now we're entering into the into the era of plastics, so smooth surfaces with rounded corners, and Synthetic clothing polyesters that that was the future, right? So see synthetic surfaces, with with with really smooth, rounded everything that was 70s and 80s. And now these days where futuristic is more dystopian, that's the kind of future that we're currently looking at. I can't imagine why but this is what we're getting at. And so most describers probably wouldn't label that kind of world futuristic, like, if you're if you've got a big, you know, pan shot or establishing shot of a dystopian world, most describers probably aren't going to jump to futuristic, they would probably use dystopian instead because futuristic denotes an optimism that isn't in these settings. If you're talking about futuristic, now, you're probably going to be thinking about one of two things either really sparse and minimal. So you want to illustrate that we've moved beyond the cluttered world of our current screens and phones and computerized everything and our just overall commercialized way of life. So you're going to create a futuristic world that is sparse and minimal. That's one version of futuristic, you might see now, or maybe you're going to take that aesthetic to the extreme right with screens, our current aesthetic with screens everywhere, holographic billboards, virtual people, virtual products, it's completely saturating the environment. But again, typically that kind of world gets to look more dystopian because we tend to associate that with kind of squalor as visual overload. So you're less likely to hear that kind of world described it with a blanket term like futuristic probably you're gonna get more like dystopian.

Christine Malec:

I'm interested in the ways that these tropes are used intentionally and I'm thinking back to our episode on the SpaceX launch and I believe that you described the interior of the dragon as futuristic looking with the it is very self conscious way you use that word?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, yeah. And it plays into some of this, those things we've just talked about, right, some of those smooth surfaces, rounded corners, there's there's a the synthetics, it's in a way it's very 70s and 80s. The everything's got a sheen, a plastic looking sheen to it. Even the uniforms had smooth panels of fabric that were synthetic looking, these didn't look like natural wools and whatnot. They looked like polyesters because it's Space Age fabrics and whatnot. And you know, we like a little bit of retro in our futurism. So that worked really well for that design.

Christine Malec:

Let's talk people. So for example, if you as a description user, you might have a character described in, you know, because there's only three seconds, expensively dressed, can you break that down as someone who you know, gets their clothes at the Salvation Army and the Goodwill store? That's me? What would it mean to say, a character is well dressed or expensively dressed?

JJ Hunt:

Yes, again, those are right, we need to, we need to give you our conclusion, because there's just no time. So there is a cut to a suit. And it's really hard to describe how and why we know visually in an instant, if it's a if it's a good suit, or a bad suit, or you know, a really fancy dress or just an average, you know, off the rack dress. Some of it's about the way it fits the body. If that outfit is perfectly in line with the body, it hangs on the shoulders, well, it sits on the hips in a certain way. That's one way that you know, it's an expensive cut. There's something about how everything matches Is it really the case that the tie is perfectly matched to the suit and the belt and the shoes are of the same material and shade of brown or black you know, that might be a way so how well matched and how meticulous are all of those details. That's going to have a lot to do with why and description user or frankly, anyone walking any sighted person walking down the street is going to be able to see pretty quickly if someone is well dressed. Then there's also the the fabrics themselves, right? If you've got if you've got silky fabrics, if you've got furs, if that's your bag, you know those types of things are pretty clear signifiers. And then there are some things like in a man's suit, you might get a bit of detailing like if it's a pinstripe suit that's going to have a different look than if it's just a flat you know, a flat gray or something like that. So some of those details are going to be that are going to be the clues and honestly, a describer if they've gotten if they've got three seconds they might maybe they're just gonna say "well dressed". If they've got four, maybe they're going to throw in fur trim. Or maybe they're going to throw in the description of just a little thing. They'll pick something like a cufflink. Because if I can describe the cufflink, that's enough of a trigger, I've given you one little detail. And hopefully that's enough in that one extra second, to squeeze in a little bit of specificity so that you can paint a better, more clear, more accurate picture yourself as a description user, that's what you hope for sometimes describers will take every single second they can just to get a little bit something more in there for you.

Christine Malec:

Is part of that product placement? Would you typically see, you know, a woman with a handbag that has a name on it that I wouldn't even know what it would be but you know, someone who's more in the know culturally would, would go Oh, that kind of handbag cost $800. So do you see that kind of product placement?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, I've done that. I've certainly seen others -- there are some organizations, some production houses have policies about not including product placements, and others don't others say, Hey, listen, if it's on screen, we get to say it. And so I wouldn't necessarily refer to a brand unless it had a close up. And that happens a lot. So if someone has a Gucci bag, and they put down and they put their Gucci bag on the on the their desk or on a coffee table with the the logo facing camera, so that it's, you know, it's front and center, I might refer to it, you know, she places her Gucci bag on the right, whatever. I'm more inclined to do that if I can read a whole name, or if the logo is obvious, if I've got to look it up. Probably not gonna throw that in there. But if it's like just part of the popular culture, yeah, I would use that.

Christine Malec:

Now, you might totally hate this question. But a describer. And I don't grudge any describer who does this will say, a good looking woman or men. And so for a body type, I can get that that means fit or muscular or well proportioned. But sometimes you just get a glimpse of somebody's face or, and it's almost as though there's this category. Okay, that person is a good looking character like it's, it's seems like a shorthand almost. And is there any way to break that down in a way that's going to make sense to a non visual person.

JJ Hunt:

So this is a tricky one, the idea of good looks, I probably... Personally, I would use things like handsome and beautiful and but I use handsome and beautiful, hoping that an audience member is going to understand that I am using a bit of shorthand. So it's a good opportunity to tell people what my shorthand is when I've used handsome and beautiful because I don't know if it's been coming across all these years. So if movies and television actors in general, they're all good looking ever you're not writing them on screen if they're right, right, once good looking. So to constantly identify it is I mean, first of all, doll, but secondly, not particularly helpful. The problem is, with a lot of script writing, especially if you're talking middle of the road television and the you know, mid 2000s. And earlier. Being handsome, or being beautiful is kind of the only element of this character. It's the only notable thing about them. And quite possibly, it's a plot point that they're good looking.

Christine Malec:

Right, right, right.

JJ Hunt:

If I can find anything else to say about them - are they sexy? Are they gorgeous? Are they stunning? Are they whatever, if I can find anything that's going to move that description into something personal, I'll, I'll definitely take the opportunity to do so. But if I'm saying that they're beautiful. What I'm trying to tell you is they are generically beautiful. This is a person who is beautiful in the way that every actor who had their headshot in the stack of the casting agents desk, they were all beautiful. And so they chose one of the beautiful people and here they are, it's a generic description to fit a generic beauty in my in my mind, because I have to mention it because it's probably a plot point in that sitcom that the beautiful woman comes to the door and you hear the audience go. So you've got to know that that this person is beautiful, but so I tried to match my generic description with the generic beauty. I don't know if that's how all describers do it. And I'm curious if that would come off from an audience member. Like if if when you hear someone described as beautiful, how does it how do you respond to that?

Christine Malec:

Kind of like you said, I take it as that's a plot point. Like it's relevant to how the Plot on false that this person is particularly good looking and so the characters will react to them based on that fact.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah. I'll take that. I'll take that.

Christine Malec:

So here's one that's a little more complex and difficult, exotic. And I don't hear it so much anymore. But for sure, you know, the the elevator door open, someone walks into a party and the word gets you so is that a word you would ever use?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, I don't like exotic at all. But you're absolutely right there. There has been a time when exotic was a very effective shorthand. Unfortunately, what it's an effective shorthand for is usually this is a person who's of mixed race or this is a person who's Asian. That is often what exotic beauty you know, gets boiled down to I don't I don't like it. I've been I've been in situations where I've known that's exactly what I'm expected to say in the situation. But I try and avoid it. I don't I don't use it at all anymore. But you know, even when I was doing more regular TV work yeah, I the scene you mentioned is exactly the setting that I've had I remember very clearly it was it was that the elevator doors open a character steps out and what you see is a room full of antiquities and and interesting objects from around the world. And the crowd is really diverse. And you know, and fancy and there's a woman who is who walks right past the camera, gorgeous woman tight dress, and she's of mixed race, I'm guessing Asian and white. And, and I knew I was supposed to say an exotic bio, like, I don't want to do that I just don't and I didn't and then my producer you know, change the script and put exotic in there in the end anyway. That was how that goes you know, that's at the time this was probably mid 2000s it was not as out of fashion as it is now as a term. And frankly, and this is why stereotypes exist as long as they do, for a significant portion of the audience it was effective in describing the visual. You know, I don't like it, but it's true.

Christine Malec:

What would you do so in a situation like that where you had just a couple of seconds to say, you know, this landscape of antiquities and expensive stuff and diverse crowd and a beautiful woman who makes it what do you do then as a describer if you want to try and avoid the kind of colonial words like that.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, so in that specific situation, I would try and choose something that is as informative about that character. And as obvious the problem is a lot of the time if it's if it's the only thing that's presented about that character, it's hard to come up with anything else to talk about, right but this was a woman in a tight fitting dress with a you know, a body that it fit quite well. So yeah, I went with that, you know, I went with trying to describe that element of her of her beauty and, and sex appeal, as opposed to the exotics element of her of her look, which I... yeah.

Christine Malec:

Yeah. One of the areas that I think is so interesting is if a describer is in the position of describing an old piece of art, like an old movie or an old TV show, and again, I go back to my sci fi roots where, what if the special effects are terrible, and what would what would you do in a situation like that Do you because I as a described as a description user, I kind of want to know that the the special effects are laughable but it's not really nice to say that in a in an audio description script, so how would you handle something like that?

JJ Hunt:

So generally, first and foremost, you just describe what you see. And so if you have a way of slipping a little bit of that information in slipping a bit of the wonkiness or the cheesiness of old sci fi as if that's the you know, the example we're going for if you can get a little bit of that flavor into an accurate description of the visuals. That's fantastic. So you never want to break the you don't want to break the relationship you've got as a describer and and and like put a little aside joke in there. You don't want it you can't say you know, it hangs you know, the spaceship hangs on a string in even if you just don't want to do that. You don't want to do that because that completely takes you out of the moment. But if you can give a little bit of a clue. You know, one of the examples we we've used in the past, I think when we've done some panel conversations is the, you know, if the if, in the old sci fi, if a spaceship is on the string, and it comes, you know, supposed to be streaking across the sky, but because it's on a string, it's not really streaking across the sky, it's wobbling across the sky. That's a good way right? So I'm yeah, I'm describing the physical action I'm describing both the intention of the filmmaker and the the way that it's coming across to a modern audience, I hope that that's enough to give that information without completely taking the description user out of the moment, you don't want to do that you never want to do that.

Christine Malec:

I wonder about the changing sense of language. And I'm thinking about old films like a, I know, I watched Gone with the Wind with description many, many years ago. And I just wonder about I can't remember how, how people of color were referred to in in that movie, but is this something that you've ever come across in your work? Where it's either an older piece or you've known something to be redescribed? For a newer audience?

JJ Hunt:

Oh, that's a good question. I'm not sure I've ever heard of an old description being rewritten for that specific reason.

Christine Malec:

Is that a plausible thing that you would you would support?

JJ Hunt:

Oh, totally. I shudder to think of some of my early scripts. And some of the some of the things I was trained to do, that I don't think are appropriate, you know, when to describe race, when not to describe race, like I, there's a totally different mindset on that now than there was 20 years ago. So it completely changes your understanding of a movie, like Gone with the Wind, the white default that was surely in place, when some of those things were originally described, or any movie was, you know, described 20 years ago. It has it changes fundamentally how you how you an audience member interacts with that story. So I would totally go back. And if I could handle the shame of going back in my earlier scripts, I would I would, you know, fully support that for sure.

Christine Malec:

Repetition in filming, creates a certain effect. And for the visual for the sighted audience may be repetitious or tiresome. What do you do as a describer? When you're describing something that's just a bad movie, or a bad TV show? What kind of problems does that create for you as a describer?

JJ Hunt:

Describing bad movies is much harder than describing good movies. This is just absolutely true. Continuity in a bad movie is a mess, the sound design might be clunky. And as a describer, you can be put in the position of having to decide Should I correct this? Or should I massage my description script so that it makes sense for a listener? You know, I've written a few scripts, especially earlier in my career, when I was doing B movies and small budget TV shows, when I thought the audience is gonna think that I've messed this up!

Christine Malec:

Heh heh heh.

JJ Hunt:

'm the one who's -- b t it's not me. It's the movie! A d so sometimes, if there s something that's obvious, in t e in the continuity, you kno , some want some persons holdi g an object in one shot, and th n it disappears, and then it com s back again. I mean, you can ju t avoid it by not mentioning t e fact that it's disappeare , because it's going to come ba k again. But if it just appea s out of nowhere, it's like, ah, I haven't I literally don't ha e an option to add that n earlier, because it's just n t there. So I have to say, y u know, she's suddenly holding a it's just there's so though th t can be really tricky. A d repetition is so challenging. o repetition is really trick , because sometimes, repetition s used for different reason , right? So sometimes repetiti n is used by a describer. To l t the audience know that t e filmmakers are doing the sa e thing over and over again, th y might even be recycling the sa e shot over and over again. So a description writer might want o highlight the visual symmetr , or maybe maybe the filmmaker s trying to link you know, t o characters or two events at t e beginning of a movie or an e d of a movie. And so a descripti n user earned premier descripti n writer might use the same phra e or word to describe both scen s are both actions to help Wi h that link to help that link, e call this using sticky words. I love sticky words. And sometim s you don't notice sometimes it s just somewhere in yo r subconscious in the same w y that if a filmmaker is doi g their job, those links are n t so obvious that they hit y u over the head. But on so e level, you just know that th s is related to that earlier sce e in the movie, right? And y u want as a describer, to fi d sticky words that do the sa e thing. So that keys back to th t earlier moment, but doesn t annoy you and be like, Oh y god, they're using that wo d again. It's very, very, ve y subtle. The other ti e repetition is used is sometim s an actor will have a signatu e action, or an expression. It s kind of like a visual equivale t to a catchphrase so both so I got two eyebrow examples. n Stargate SG one, there's a character called T'ealc and T' alc used to he would cock is eyebrow you know that would be like someone would say someth ng until could want to hav a reaction and T'ealc reaction was always the you know the one raised eyebrow and so again 'ealc cocked his eyebrow and l ke at least once a script every ingle time Magnum PI described s ason after season of Magnum PI. loved doing that show and Magnum would waggle his eyebrows. So this was like the shrug the eyebrows up, down, up down and was the waggle. And by using that same distin tive word - waggle - I was hop ng that I was conveying to the audience that the same action i happening, you're seeing he signature action over and ove and over again.

Christine Malec:

Now the yebrow acting reminds me that ou started a really lively onversation on the Facebook udio description discussion roup on this topic particularly ike what what things did escribers do or not do that sers like or don't like and it ot this funny discussion tarted about eyebrows and lips nd shrugging and so I wonder bout eccentric choices in anguage and how free do escribers feel to say something ike He shrugged his eyebrows or think there was an example she hrugged her lips were I What? hat what and so I know that here's enough describers riting description in the world ow that people can choose ccentric language or nconventional language and here do you fall on that?

JJ Hunt:

First of all, that was great conversation on Facebo k. I was so happy to have that, you know I love geeking out on d scription with other describe s description users I mean whe it comes to describing somethin like that like a shrug blip you know what i'm all for throwing those things out there we descr ption has been around long eno gh we have we do share a langua e we do have some of these, y u know, shorthand phrases. And I think description users ar fairly open to it in general. So something like you know, sh shrugs her lip maybe that doe n't add when you first hear it s a description user that may or may not connect with you dire tly, but then maybe after th movie, you'll be like what on arth was that shrug lips and then maybe you'll try it and y u'll kind of like what does a s ruggle a lip look like and mayb I'll try doing it a little b t yourself. Then you're like oh, okay, maybe I get that now and hen if you hear it another ime it's like okay, no, I guess get that a little bit more and maybe that does become part of he lexicon maybe that does bec me part of you know how we all u e so it might not connect ith everyone if it's gonna co nect with a civic signific nt segment of the audience I'm all for trying some of those things out you have to be a lit le bit careful you don't wa t to have you know half your scr pt be like head scratchi g descriptions. That's not gonn work. But yeah, throwing som of them out there, I'm totally down with that.

Christine Malec:

Casey on Facebook had a specific thing of interest which is when a describer says their expressions softens. Can you can you break that down?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, the softening of an expression or the opposite of stiffening, stiffening shoulder stiffen jaw tightens. Good actors can convey an awful lot, especially in on film or television, where you've got close ups, they can convey an awful lot with extremely subtle actions. And these tend to be.. sometimes it's specific, some imes it's the raising of an eyeb ow, and you can just pinp int and say that the char cter raises an eyebrow. But some imes it's not about one spec fic thing it's about. Ther 's something happens to the whol body, the whole expression the hole face, and saw muffins is a way for describers to let you now that, that there's a shif , there's an energy shift, righ ? And there is a physical thin that happens when an expr ssion softens. So maybe you' e gonna see an intensity in the lare that just the eyelids clos d just a little bit, maybe the yes were wider and the eyes clos d a little bit, maybe the jaw ine was being held tight. And ust for a nanosecond, you can ee that the jaw muscles, loos n a little bit and the smil maybe gets a little tiny bit armer, there's a whole suit of things that are happ ning. And in the end, what it m ans is that the face soft ns, the muscles get there, they loosen just a little bit. And gain, it's the opposite for stif ens, of course, right. And this happens, you'll see shou ders really tightened, and they get and they get, they get pull d in, they raised just a hair and necks and jaw line. So ther are you know, if it's if an a tor is thin enough, you'll see he actual neck muscles tigh en, and you can see that a litt e gripping in the jaw line wher the muscles just come toge her. And so there's no way that describers gonna have the time nor would it be appr priate to describe all thos little micro expressions. So t en we go with softens or stif ens. Honestly, that was such a great conversation onli e. About expressions and what ot. I think we could fill a whol episode with it. I really do.

Christine Malec:

Yeah, it's rich And I feel like the subt eties of facial expression are omething that if you've neve been sighted, you just have to take it as read. And it's where the cliche comes from reci er people say, what would you ant to touch my face? And we a l we all cringe ago? No, actu lly, I really don't. Beca se the subtleties are so pecu iar to vision, that, and even the number of faces you can reco nize and the subtlety of expr ssion that is recognizable. Yeah So Stay tuned, because I think this is going to turn into a bigger conversation.

JJ Hunt:

I think so for sure.

Christine Malec:

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