What’s the Best Way to Write Audio Descriptions for a Movie Trailer?

Accessibility Consultant | Atlanta, GA

As a fiction writer, I enjoy the challenge of writing audio descriptions for videos. Determining what to include and what to omit, what warrants more evocation and what doesn’t, how much time to spend on each element of the video’s narrative — these decisions are also essential to good fiction, and I enjoy thinking about these decisions in new ways.

Ian Bell, our video producer at Equal Entry, is the co-creator of a new horror film called Dead Body. The film recently premiered at the NYC Horror film fest to a sold-out audience, and received an excellent review from Fangoria. When I was tasked with writing the audio descriptions for the Dead Body teaser trailer, I approached my work with two questions in mind.

First, how can audio descriptions provide an engaging “movie trailer experience” to someone who is unable to see the video?

In my view, a trailer is meant to quickly communicate what’s interesting or exciting about a movie. It might seem like a good idea to make the trailer’s audio descriptions as detailed and lengthy as possible, in an attempt to provide people who are blind with an equally vivid experience. However, if I did this, I would need to add very long pauses throughout the trailer so that the audio descriptions could catch up with the video. I want to strive for maximum compression, which creates the kind of immediacy and suspense that’s essential to a great trailer. In my view, a trailer that lasts ten minutes is not a very good trailer. However, most trailers use fast edits and contain numerous images, which makes it nearly impossible to layer audio descriptions over the video in real-time. In the case of the Dead Body trailer, it was necessary to add brief pauses which provided room for coherent audio descriptions.

Length isn’t the only hazard I could encounter by providing an excess of detail. More detail often leads to more subjectivity. For example, consider the following image:

A young woman with a large cut on her forehead stands in the forest.

I might be tempted to describe the image exactly as I see it, and say, “A young woman with blue eyes and a slightly open mouth stares into the middle distance. Her hair is braided and tied with a blue bow at the end. She has a painful-looking cut on her forehead that’s probably from getting hit with something, and it’s not clear whether or not it was an accident. But the cut is clearly making her think hard about all the suffering in the world even though she doesn’t want to think about it.” While this description might create a vivid mental picture for a listener, it is highly subjective (she’s thinking about “all the suffering in the world”? Really?), and it’s filled with non-essential information (her hairstyle, the bow color, etc.). It would be better to say, “A young woman with a large cut on her forehead stands in the forest.” This quickly and concisely communicates the essential content of the image, which is all it needs to do.

The second question I kept in mind: In addition to providing clear descriptions of what’s happening on the screen, is there anything else that should be communicated to listeners?

In my view, the answer is yes: the way in which the trailer is edited. Editing is obviously important in film, but it is extremely important in a trailer. Because there’s no time to make substantive character introductions, trailers use careful editing to create striking juxtapositions between the audio and video, which creates an instant sense of conflict and drama. In the case of Dead Body, we have audio of a young man explaining the rules of what’s ostensibly just a game, but we have video of frightening things that suggest it’s not a game at all. As a result of this editing technique, the premise of the film and the circumstances of its characters are communicated in a matter of seconds. I needed to communicate this particular editing technique to listeners. If I didn’t, then listeners might be confused by my audio descriptions, which are often incongruous with the spoken audio in the video itself.

Below are two versions of the trailer with audio descriptions. One contains several brief pauses throughout, and another contains only a few pauses, but they are slightly longer. If you are sighted person, try listening to these videos with your eyes closed.

Dead Body: Teaser Trailer with Audio Description – Version 1:

Dead Body: Teaser Trailer with Audio Description – Version 2:

What was your experience? Did you feel as if you understood what was happening in each trailer? Which trailer did you prefer? In the Comments section, please share your thoughts.

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