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5 Things to Consider When Adding Audio Description and Captioning to Your Documentary Film

By Sally Márquez

Getting Real ‘20, our biennial conference on documentary media, happened from September 9 through Oct 3. On the opening day, we joined “Expanding Expression: Audio Descriptions and Captioning in Film.” The makers and artistic collaborators of Vision Portraits and Crip Camp discussed the creative process behind their use of accessibility features such as audio description (AD) and closed captioning (CC). 

Moderated by Brenda Coughlin (Director of Producing and Impact Strategy, Sundance Institute), panelists included Crip Camp co-directors Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht; Vision Portraits director Rodney Evans and audio describer Erin deWard; and audio description producer Michele Spitz (Woman of Her Word). This session was supported by the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA).

Here are five key takeaways:

1. Audio description and open captioning should be a standard part of the documentary-making process, not a one-off or strictly limited to disability-centered films.

As Nicole Newnham so clearly articulated, “Filmmakers pour so much blood, sweat and tears into every frame...Why would we ever want to have an experience where a whole group of people is watching our film and they are experiencing it in a way that we have not put that same kind of love and care into it?” Filmmakers must make sure that they are engaging in dialogue with a variety of audiences, to make sure ALL audiences can fully experience a film as the filmmaker intended.

Jim LeBrecht further emphasized that by creating accessible films, filmmakers will attract new audiences who are seeking media that allows them to participate in the cinematic experience in a full way—not as an afterthought.

2. Filmmakers should be involved in the audio-description process in order to appropriately share their artistic intent.

It is usually the norm to send completed films to post-production houses that churn out AD and captions that do not involve the filmmaker’s input. Rodney Evans worked closely with audio describer Erin de Ward on Vision Portraits, and the resulting ADs they created in tandem allow those who are blind or low vision a completely different experience—bringing to life what is happening on screen. 

Filmmakers must be a part of the post-sound process in order to make AD and captions that showcase their artistic vision. As Brenda Coughlin stated, “Let us not send our films to factories.”

A captioned film sitll from 'Crip Camp'

3. Creating audio descriptions and captions is an art unto itself

As established above, AD and captions cannot be given factory treatment. “You have to think about audio description not as a textbook, but as a beautiful novel” said LeBrecht. Both AD and captions are not just totally functional, but have an important artistic aspect involved that is very important. Newnham discussed how captions were designed for Crip Camp to highlight the poetic use of language of the subjects and heighten the audience’s sense of who they are as people. The Crip Camp team placed the captions exactly where they wanted people to be looking in the scene, as opposed to detracting from the experience. This approach differs from the standard subtitle treatment of captions at the bottom of a screen, and more seamlessly integrates accessible viewing while also being beautiful to look at. 

4. For the greatest impact, include budgets for audio descriptions and captions at the beginning of your project.

Many audio describers don’t always have the opportunity and luxury of working directly with a filmmaker early on in their creative process, however in some cases when they do, it certainly makes for a wonderful learning curve about accessibility, and in turn results in an integrative and collaborative process. Michele Spitz, an audio description producer and accessibility grant provider, recommends that producers and filmmakers build advance funding in their budgets to create the AD and captioning assets early on when making their films.

Costs usually range on average from $25 per program minute for AD and $7 per program minute for captions. However, it varies quite a bit depending upon the actual film content as well as the assigned post-production vendor creating your media accessibility assets for your film. Spitz also recommends that you build in additional money to assign someone in your company the explicit task of managing and trafficking the accessibility assets to ensure that your media is accessible anywhere and everywhere by end users.

A documentary already equipped with ADs and captions can be very useful on its journey to film festivals, as well as when distribution is secured. The filmmaker should inform all parties representing the film that both accessibility assets are implemented on all distribution platforms.

5. There is a range of possibilities for the future of accessible filmmaking.

Spitz noted that the film industry is still in the process of becoming more accessible every day, and that we have made tremendous progress over the past few years. For example, all movie theaters were mandated last year to provide headsets for AD, and captioning bars or glasses for CC. Some theater apps are also being utilized to accommodate accessibility. DCPs for cinemas often come equipped with the AD and CC.

In the privacy of a home setting, accessible media can be experienced very easily. For example, you can select broadcast programs by utilizing SAP programming or toggling on the open AD or open captions on video on demand (VOD), subscription video on demand (SVOD), DVDs and Blu- Rays.

While many people are considering distributing their films in multiple languages in multiple countries, filmmakers would be wise to consider first automatically creating the language of captions for hard-of-hearing and deaf audiences, as well the language of AD for low-vision and blind audiences. Each foreign film market will likely also create the same accessibility assets inherent to their innate language.

Additional Resources

Sally Márquez is the IDA's Associate Communications Manager.