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Hong Kong audio describers bring films to life for blind and visually impaired cinema-goers

Narrators give a verbal blow-by-blow of what’s happening on screen, ensuring the cinema experience is accessible to all. But in Hong Kong, these special screenings only take place a handful of times a year

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 January, 2018, 7:42am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 January, 2018, 8:50pm

In the opening scene of The Empty Hands, a relationship drama about a martial arts prodigy, a character named Mute Dog, wearing a karate uniform, is fighting a large man inside a boxing ring. Mute Dog is punched and is thrown to the ground.

At a normal screening, Lee Tak-yuk and her cinema-going friends would not have been able to follow all the action – that’s because they are either partially or fully blind. But thanks to something known as ‘audio description’ – a verbal narration that gives a blow-by-blow account of what’s happening on screen – they are able to follow the story. 

“Movies are a source of entertainment for us, and gives us a common topic with our friends. It helps us know what is happening around the world,” says Lee who is completely blind. She and several of her friends who are also visually impaired, often attend shows, exhibitions and cultural events together with the help of volunteer audio describers. 

This Sunday morning, Peter Leung Ho-tat is the audio describer. Speaking into a microphone as the film plays, he describes the sequence of shots that appear on screen, pausing when the characters speak. Leung is a volunteer with the Hong Kong Society for the Blind, which introduced audio description for films in 2011. Volunteers have to watch the films in advance, often several times, to write descriptions that will be read out to the audience during the screening.

Given the limited resources, the organisation is only able to hold public screenings of four films each year. In addition to training and recruiting volunteers such as Leung, they face challenges in negotiating with film production companies as well as theatres.

Writing an audio description is no walk in the park either. More than 80 hours of work went into preparing the description for the 87-minute feature The Empty Hands. That included watching the film around four times. Being a karate-themed drama, Leung had to spend extra time researching and understanding the various practices of martial arts, so he was able to translate the jargon into words the audience could easily understand. 

According to Michele Chung Lai-kwan, founder of The Human Commons, an organisation that provides a broad range of services to make arts accessible to people with disabilities – including audio description – there are several key factors that go into presenting visual content through spoken word.

“There are only three questions you need to ask: what do you see, what do you have to see and how do you communicate,” she explains. 

“The first one is often the hardest. You have to learn about the science of seeing things. Most people take it for granted. A lot of people describe images they already processed with their brains. But to write an audio description, you have to understand what function you are replacing. 

“We are supposed to be just the eyeballs and the hardest part is distinguishing what you see from what you interpret.” For example, instead of saying “a photographer”, an audio describer would describe the character as “someone carrying a camera”. 

The second key is to understand what the audience needs to know. “Our eyes and brain are receiving a lot of visual information in just one millisecond. But using our experience and background, our sensors help us eliminate things we don’t have to see. As an audio describer, we also have to perform that function,” says Chung. 

Knowing when to stop talking is just as important as knowing when to speak. While people with visual impairments often have a heightened sense of hearing and can process speech at much faster speeds, audio describers need to speak at a normal rate and should not fill every pause, so as to leave room for imagination. 

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They also have to avoid talking over dialogue or sound effects. That means how much time they have to actually describe the action on screen is rather limited.

This is relatively easier with drama films where the audience simply needs to know what is relevant to the plot. But for art house films, the audio describers need to be familiar with the director’s style, meaning they have to do plenty of research beforehand. As for action flicks, they are easy to describe but difficult to narrate, requiring the speakers to deliver with great precision and accuracy to match the fast-paced movements on screen.

It amazed me how something so simple can make such a huge difference to those who cannot see.
Peter Leung Ho-tat

It helps to remember that the visually impaired person is not watching the film in a void, says Chung. “The film itself is a multimedia art – it has music and sound effects which they can hear. They are in a cinema among the audience, so they can feel the vibe. They are all clues to the plot and what’s happening,” she says.

The last key is the style of writing. Describers need to keep the description colloquial and not over-polished. “Writers are often tempted to think of their writing as a piece of art. But your art is how effectively you can communicate and create access for people with visual impairment,” says Chung. 

“If you are too indulged in the process, embellishing your language and using technical terms or difficult vocabulary, your audience would not actually understand.”

Audio description is not limited to films, with the service helping the visually impaired access other visual media and performing arts as well. 

Leung first came in touch with audio description years ago after watching a documentary about a Hong Kong woman who recorded daily readings of newspapers for the blind. “It amazed me how something so simple can make such a huge difference to those who cannot see,” recalls Leung. 

Though, to present visual or performing art through words, narration is sometimes not enough. For example, when Leung had to narrate Stephen Chow Sing-chi’s comic science fiction film CJ7, he first passed a plush toy of the green alien around the audience, so through their sense of touch, they would know what CJ7 looked like. 

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For dance performances, organisations sometimes hold pre-workshops, where they explain the significance of certain moves or even have the participants try out the dance moves themselves. 

Overseas, technology has enabled huge strides to be made in making arts accessible to the visually impaired. The first system of audio description was developed in the 1980s by two pioneers – blind activist Margaret Pfanstiehl and her husband Cody, who applied it to live theatre, museums and national parks. There are now mobile apps through which people can pre-download audio descriptions and listen to them when they are in theatres in Thailand and Sweden. 

In the US, audio description for television has been made mandatory through different anti-discrimination laws The most aggressive of all is perhaps the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), signed off by president Barack Obama in 2010. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been gradually implementing the new laws.

From July 2018, television broadcasters in certain areas in the US are required by law to provide audio description for 75 per cent of their content. The FCC aims to have all television programming described by 2020.

Aside from television, several lawsuits in recent years also resulted in improvements in audio description services by cinemas as well as internet steaming services. After being sued by several people with vision impairments, AMC cinemas agreed in 2017 to improve its audio description equipment, which often had technical issues. 

People are still not aware of, or are well-trained in audio description, so the quality – whether for films or for other cultural events – really fluctuates.
Mak Wai-ching

Advocacy groups have also brought cases against both Netflix and Hulu, forcing these subscription streaming services to add audio description to their popular titles. 

In Hong Kong, progress in this area is slow. While some cinemas in Europe have long since introduced state-of-the-art audio description systems, Hong Kong is still lagging heavily behind in providing the most basic audio description for both television and the silver screen. 

Although The Human Commons complement major advocacy organisations by providing audio description for niche movies, such as films screened at the Hong Kong Human Rights Documentary Film Festival, there are still very few options for the blind. 

“People are still not aware of, or are well-trained in, audio description so the quality – whether for films or for other cultural events – really fluctuates,” says Mak Wai-ching, who only has partial vision in one eye. 

Her friend Lee Tak-yuk believes that art is a way for people to connect and it is not just between audience members, but also between the artists and the viewers.

“They allow people to review their own lives and understand this world,” says Lee. “So why do people with visual impairment not have the rights to access art?”