by Kira Yager
The following program is available with Described Video.
We’ve all been watching TV and at the beginning of a new program, have heard the announcer say, “the following program is available with Described Video”. Perhaps you hadn’t thought much of it when it was said, but did you know that, as with Closed Captioning, you can select from the TV set’s menu to turn on Described Video? You can also choose the Described Video option while streaming Netflix, and other streaming services.
If you are blind, partially-sighted, or have low vision, Described Video (DV) is likely nothing new to you. But if you’ve never used Described Video, you may have wondered about it. While closed captioning allows those who are Deaf or hard of hearing to enjoy television and film even though they cannot hear the accompanying audio, to those who are blind or partially sighted, Described Video is the answer.
In this blog, we’ll go over several aspects of what Described Video is all about, and we’ll also talk to one of Canada’s leading entrepreneurs working in the Described Video industry.
What is Described Video?
The best way to understand Described Video is to watch a program or film with DV on. It inserts narration in between the dialogue, in order to give a blind or partially-sighted viewer a greater understanding of what’s on the screen. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) website explains Described Video as such:
“Described Video (DV), or video description, is a narrated description of a program’s main visual elements, such as settings, costumes, and body language. The description is added during pauses in dialogue, and enables people to form a mental picture of what is happening in the program. Described Video typically uses a separate audio track.”
Why is Described Video important?
Our world is slowly but surely waking up to the importance of inclusion and accessibility. On its website, the CNIB Foundation (Canadian National Institute for the Blind) explains the importance of inclusion in its relation to Described Video:
“For the 1.5 million Canadians who are blind or partially sighted, Described Video levels the playing field by enhancing the viewing experience and bringing everyone into the same conversations about popular culture. Additionally, Canadians who are blind or partially sighted pay the same subscription rates as other Canadians and as such are entitled to a viewing experience that meets their accessibility needs. Similar accommodations have been made for audience members who are Deaf or hard of hearing.”
Regulatory Standards for providing Described Video in Canada
As with Closed Captioning, over the past several decades, Described Video has grown in popularity and importance, and in Canada, is now regulated in the broadcast industry, and its use is imposed by a set of standards implemented by the CRTC. Here is what the CRTC website states regarding Described Video requirements:
“Broadcasters must provide audio description for all in-house productions related to information-based programs. All conventional broadcasters, as well as certain French and English pay and specialty broadcasters, must offer four hours of Described Video per week and are encouraged to make described programming available online. Broadcasters are expected to display the graphic which represents the Described Video and to make an audio announcement before the start of a described program. They are encouraged to repeat the logo and audio announcement after each commercial break.”
Delving Deeper into Described Video
Now that we’ve gained a better understanding of Described Video, let’s delve a bit deeper into someone’s perspective on, and experience with, Described Video — someone who works in the very heart of the Canadian Described Video industry.
From Toronto and now living in Nova-Scotia, Kat Germain has been, for the past 20 years, helping provide Described Video for television shows, films, theatrical presentations, plays, training programs (in-person and online), and many other types of media.
An entrepreneur who started her own Described Video production company called KG Inclusion: Access and Disability Justice in Arts & Culture, Kat has many roles within the Industry. She is an Inclusion Service Provider, Trainer and Consultant in Audio Description. Kat is also the Director of Development of CCS’s Described Video division where she provides leadership, training and mentorship to a group of over 10 Described Video Professionals.
Kat strongly feels that accessibility is an important part of inclusion in the community, and that diversity and inclusion should always be considered when releasing any type of media content into the world, and that’s exactly why the natural evolution of her work led her to Described Video.
An Interview with Kat Germain, A Described Video Expert
Kat has always gravitated to acting and the more she became integrated into the arts and theatre communities around her, the more heightened her awareness became of the lack of diversity on theatre stages, as well as in television and film. As she continued to work in theatre and other acting forums, she continued to actively seek to work with people from diverse communities.
All this led her to Picasso Pro, an organization, based in Toronto, dedicated to supporting artists with disabilities, as well as Deaf artists, who wish to pursue acting, singing, filmmaking, dance, and other avenues in the performing arts. “I started helping them facilitate workshops for artists who are disability identified or Deaf,” she explains.
Then, Picasso Pro received funding to offer an Audio Description (Descriptive Video) course. She applied, auditioned, and was chosen to participate in the course. And so began her journey as an entrepreneur and provider in the audio description industry.
Here is my interview with Kat:
Q: You have your own Described Video company — tell us about getting started in audio description.
A: “I’m an activist, I’m an equity seeker, so I search for places where I can support communities. I just felt I could support and help disability-identified communities. A colleague and I have kind of built the [live Audio Description] industry in Toronto. We just started knocking on doors. We work closely together. Because I prioritize communities that have been marginalized, word gets around to other equity seekers. We’ve just kept at it essentially, and it has grown from there.”
Q: You started out providing Audio Description in a theatre setting. How does that work?
A: “I sit in the theatre booth and I will speak into a mic, with a transmitter, and people sit in the audience and listen live, in real-time, through an earpiece and a little receiver. Before the performance, an announcement is made that a description for the Blind, partially sighted, and low vision community is part of the production.”
Q: How does your company take a piece of work, such as a film or a TV episode, and turn it into a piece of work that features Described Video?
A: “We’re producing media that runs in tandem, and is based on the thing that we’re describing. Before we start writing, a lot of research often goes into the project. When possible we speak to the production team and do the research on how the performers/ personalities personally identify, and we use the words that they use. There is also research about pronunciations of names and places, as well as research into the cultural aspects of the show to ensure we call things by the correct terms, and how to best describe everything using words the community would use.
With that research, we have somebody who writes the Described Video script. It will then be dramaturged (script edited), then an AD-using community professional comes in to consult on the script (sort of like “audience testing”), revisions after each step, then narrators come in.
Sometimes there will be a director and/ or location sound recordist with the voice actor. The Described Video script gets recorded, then it goes to a sound engineer who does all of the mix, sound ducking, etc. Finally there is the quality control stage to ensure everything is lined up and appropriate.
You’ll usually catch little things. So they get adjusted (including any narrator pickups) and then it goes to the client.
For Subtitles, or a significant amount of onscreen text, there will usually be one or more additional voices to read the text so it’s easier for Described Video listeners to differentiate between on screen text, and in-time descriptions.
On top of all of that, someone organises and coordinates the whole thing.”
Q: With your company, do you also provide the narration?
A: “I am taking a bit of a step back from that these days… We’re finally getting to a place where Described Video is more popular and we are getting enough requests for it, that we can really diversify the people who are not only narrating but also writing it. And that includes people who are blind, partially-sighted, and low-vision coordinating, narrating, sound editing, etc. In the future I see myself more as continuing to support, mentor, do quality control, and teach.”
Q: What was the last project you worked on?
A: “A TV program called Unsettled* with CCS Inc. It has 10 episodes, a half-hour each. I am grateful to have a large number of people in my life from Indigenous communities so I was able to consult with them for this particular project.”
*Unsettled, for APTN and TVO, follows an urban Indigenous family who loses their fortune and must move from Toronto to a Northern Ontario First Nation. Shot almost entirely on Nipissing First Nation, Unsettled is the first dramatic series to be funded through the CMF Aboriginal Language Program. Podemski’s open casting call resulted in over 50 Indigenous community members landing roles as principal actors, actors and background performers; out of 55 roles, 50 are Indigenous characters played by Indigenous actors. (source: www.tv-eh.com)
Q: What are you currently working on?
A: “I’m working with a couple of organizations that have asked me to teach them some basic description skills. One of them originally also wanted me to describe a series of 10 short films they would be presenting. I decided the most meaningful approach was to work with them on how to best describe those films and support them in their descriptions.”
Q: What is the most challenging aspect of Described Video work?
A: “Finding the right words! Which one is correct, which one is closest to the community that the show is about? That’s often a challenge, navigating the correct language to respect the community. Also, In film and television, the time we have to describe anything or anyone is very limited (because the descriptive narration is being inserted in between the actors’ dialogue).
Oh, and credits. Credits are a beast.”
Q: What is the future of Described Video?
A: “I have been fighting for, and having more discussions about, including identities/ diversity in descriptions. There has been a tendency to not describe “ethnicity” or “race” (among other identities). I have fought to have them described. From my perspective, omitting these descriptions continues the historical silencing and erasing of marginalised voices and stories from our stages and screens. People need to know who is, or who is not, represented in culture and media. This means describing “race” every time, and of course it includes mentioning when someone is white.
It takes a lot of work to stay up to date on current language, socio-political trends, and the performer’s own words they use to identify themselves. But frankly, most performers are proud of their culture(s) and identities, and happy to be asked!
I recently won a grant to conduct a National survey on what users want for Audio Description, and how presenters from diverse communities want to be described, so I’m hoping that will inform future directions of the industry.”
Q: What advice would you give to those wanting to work in the Described Video industry?
A: “[As a narrator], the goal is to fade into the wallpaper. I joke to my students, it’s not the “you” show, but you don’t want to sound flat. You need to blend in with the vibe of what’s happening. There are nuances between genres. You also have to be flexible. It depends on the show and the budget of the show.
The industry is inconsistent, so be patient. These days, having home recording equipment — having a home studio [could be advantageous].
Keep the description users front and centre. Your choices are their bridge to the piece being described.
The next group of people that I will train is going to be culturally and gender diverse, and/ or disability-identified in hopes to increase representation in the industry.