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Audio description gives visually impaired a new movie experience

Going to the cinema is for most people an easy-going form of entertainment.  For the visually impaired community however, it has long been simply more hassle than it's worth.

And yet with "audio description", which began as a government initiative a few years ago and has since been adopted by around 230 screens across Australia, their experience changed completely.

Anna Saxon, of  Lyneham,  and Cathie Morant, of Watson, enjoy a movie at Hoyts in Woden with the help of  audio description.
Anna Saxon, of Lyneham, and Cathie Morant, of Watson, enjoy a movie at Hoyts in Woden with the help of audio description. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Audio description involves users listening to a pre-recorded visual description of the film. This recording, heard through a set of headphones, is woven in between the dialogue of the film, and causes no interruption to the rest of the audience.

On Wednesday moviegoers at Hoyts cinemas in Woden watched Lasse Hallstrom's new film The Hundred-Foot Journey with audio description capabilities.

According to Bob James, from Kambah, the device simply allowed him to enjoy an art form that was previously inaccessible.

"It made the experience, because without it, I wouldn't be able to see anything, and wouldn't know the first thing about the action taking place on the screen."

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Normally he would venture to see a film with a well-known script, or a plot he was particularly familiar with, but this always involved his wife "whispering all the way what is going on".

"I always look for those movies that have audio description. It's done so very skilfully that the audio description never interferes with the actors' speech. It's very unobtrusive."

Another of the audience, Anna Saxon said she simply didn't bother going to see films before, for fear of disrupting the rest of the audience with her whispering friend.

She praised the audio description equipment for allowing her to see everything happening in her mind. While there were a few times she didn't know who was actually talking, the overall experience was "brilliant".

The people employed to record the audio descriptions, known as 'describers', often only have a few seconds between dialogue to portray the scenes unfolding on the screen. With this in mind, Vision Australia's National Audio Description Co-ordinator, Michael Ward, said that in order to remain succinct and objective, 'describers' were put through a rigorous training process.

"Powers of observation are important, and obviously you don't want to interpret what's happening – you're just a conduit of information."

For the user, he continued, the first time "can be a bit of a sensory overload", but people usually "tune in very quickly".