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Sunday, 15 April 2012

Audio Description (2): Be careful where you sit!

My first experience of audio description completely changed the way I think and feel about film. My second experience was underwhelming to say the least. Last night Simon and I went to see The Hunger Games. I was looking forward to seeing how audio description would work in a fast-paced film set in an unfamiliar world. Would it be limited to the most essential information: 'Katniss is running away from a wall of fire', or would there be time to fit in some of the more interesting details: 'Katniss uses one of the silver arrows she took from Glimmer to shoot a groosling perched high in a tree'.

I will never know. At the beginning of the film I switched the headset on and was met not with the friendly voice of the previous visit, but with a disconcerting wall of static. By the time the film had started I didn't want to stumble around in the dark trying to find an employee so I quickly gave up fiddling with the controls, watched the film as best I could (helped immensely by the fact that I had read the book) and nudged Simon in the ribs each time there was something I needed him to explain.

At the end of the film I told the staff that the headset hadn't worked. Without a trace of irony, the manager explained to me that audio description works best when you sit towards the back of the auditorium. Hmm. I don't think they have thought this through. I politely pointed out that since I don't see very well, and since we were in one of the smaller screens (Screen 4, Odeon George Street, Oxford), I needed to sit near the front. In fact I always sit near the front - the middle of the second row is generally my preferred spot - and, as I also pointed out, when I went to see Bel-Ami the reception was fine from the front.

Ah. Apparently, each screen is different. So how, I wondered, am I supposed to know where to sit for each film, or even if it is worth trying to see particular films on particular screens at particular cinemas? The manager was reassuring. All I need to do is consult with the technical team on arrival at the cinema and they will tell me where best to sit. But what if they point me towards the back of the auditorium? Do I choose to have audio description but a less good view of the screen, or no audio description but a better view. Why should I have to make this choice? Surely the whole point of audio description is that it enhances the cinematic experience. I don't want it instead of the film itself: in that case I might as well save the money, stay at home and listen to the radio. Also, I like buying tickets in advance on my iphone. It saves queueing and means I can make sure I get the seats I want. Why can't I book in advance from the comfort of my sofa AND be guaranteed audio description?

I could tell the Manager was getting perplexed. I don't think he had ever really thought about the point of audio description and it certainly hadn't occurred to him that someone with some sight might use it to give an extra dimension to the film. Especially not someone who can use an iphone. I think he was probably beginning to wonder why an (annoyingly vociferous) blind person would even want to come to the cinema in the first place. Running out of options he suggested, again without irony, that next time I try the premium seats. Apparently reception is always best in the middle of the auditorium. I pointed out, as patiently as I could, that I didn't see why I should be obliged to pay more to guarantee that I get good reception.

As stalemate seemed to have been reached at this point I went off to find Simon and the tandem. On our way home I enumerated the differences between the film and the book. I might have missed some of the film's subtleties, but I had noticed that some significant changes had been made. At the moment I still prefer the book. I wonder if audio description would have changed that?

1 comment:

  1. Audio description still seems to be rather hit and miss at the cinema (my partner uses it regularly, and has done so for a number of years now). We've encountered the issue you describe on a number of occasions (along with staff whose awareness of AD is less than stellar, and faulty headsets).

    I wish I could tell you that the AD for The Hunger Games was superb, but alas, the film eluded us. One of the biggest cinema chains (Odeon) apparently had no audio described screenings at all, and were under the impression that it carried no AD track.

    On the whole, it's definitely improving, but I think cinemas still need plenty of feedback from users.

    Good luck with your future cinema trips!