An image of two woman, projected onto the side of buildings at night
Still from Sign Night. Image by Cathy Mager

Audio Description as a Creative Catalyst

Here at Unlimited, we believe access is not an afterthought and that accessible content can be approached in a creative manner. So we asked artist, curator and cultural programmer, Cathy Mager of the award winning Culture in Quarantine short ‘Sign Night’; a little about how audio description can enhance the creative process and how to best include audio description in your work.

Until last summer, I had no idea how much audio description could enhance and deepen the artistic process. As a deaf person, I’d never listened to an audio described film before. It was an entirely new world for me.

But then I learned that my experimental short film Sign Night had won a Juror’s Choice award at Superfest, and they wanted an audio described version of my film.

At first I was daunted by the festival’s high expectations of audio description, but then inspired by the challenge.

Emily Smith Beitiks, Associate Director of Superfest explained how they perceive audio description as a creative and generative force: ‘Many of our filmmakers find that the process of adding audio description results in versions of their film that they actually like better.

When I first embarked on the making of Sign Night, supported by BBC Arts and The Space, I wanted to inspire new perspectives on how sign language could be portrayed both authentically and fantastically. I also wanted the music to interplay with the emotion and rhythm of the sign language in a way that was powerful and enhanced the experience.

Having put so much emphasis on music and visuals, I wanted to ensure that the audio description was approached with equal ambition.

To help me achieve this, I worked with the incredible Michael Achtman, an experienced audio describer and filmmaker and coincidentally, a Superfest alumnus himself. Michael understood my brief straight away and recruited a team to support the process. This included casting an actress of colour, Mae Munuo, to voice over Vilma Jackson’s performance and enlisting the services of Margo Cargill, a blind actor, to review the draft audio track before the final edit.

As Sign Night has music throughout as the old silent movies once did, I didn’t want to interrupt this with continuous description, so that blind and partially-sighted viewers could access and enjoy the music too.

Michael advised the best solution was to have an audio description introduction. This is a short intro to the film which provides a rich and detailed description of the setting and describes the characters. Then as the film begins, an audio description recording interplays sensitively with the spoken narrative and music, setting the scene for what’s to come.

The audio description should be scripted and voiced with the same energy as a performance or film. I was blown away at how Michael’s scripted introduction, which is voiced by Elyssa Livergant, beautifully captures the film’s use of projected light

‘… highlights of warm golden colour within the frame; sometimes it’s the skin of the performers faces, arms and hands, at other times the burnished surface of a building or an incandescent globe of light that the performers pass between them.’

I loved watching my film with audio description. It gave me a fresh perspective on my film, and I wish I could be there to see it in the cinema at Superfest.

Here are my top tips for planning audio description:

  1. Embrace audio description as an artistic extension of your project as well as an access requirement
  2. Recruit an experienced audio describer to write the audio description script – you can source one here.
  3. Employ actors that authentically reflect the diversity of your cast to record the audio description, this also applies for casting the voice-over of BSL performances
  4. You can add an introductory description to the film/or performance to help achieve an enjoyable balance between music, narrative and description
  5. Test the audio description on a blind or partially sighted person(s) before the final edit to give feedback

Sign Night is being screened at Superfest October 15th-17th 2021 and marks Superfest Disability Film Festival’s 35th year. Superfest celebrates cutting-edge cinema that portrays disability through a diverse, complex, unabashed and engaging lens. The festival will also feature two films (Lobster and Still a Slave) which are created with the primary purpose of exploring what audio description can add to the medium of film.

Two figures projected onto the sky in purple and yellow, with buildings below them.

About Sign Night

Sign Night is a poetic conversation in sign language between two star crossed lovers, projected onto buildings in central Bristol. The deaf performers share their dreams for the future from building to building, across the night sky.  Sign Night is inspired by the balcony performers of Wuhan and Lombardy, this time using British Sign Language (BSL) – the vital, visual and versatile language of British deaf communities.

Intriguing and sensual, the film explores communication barriers caused by mask-wearing and the social isolation which has been experienced by many deaf people during the pandemic. Starring Vilma Jackson and Sophie Stone, the work brings to life the vision of artist / director Cathy Mager, who worked with the team of deaf actors remotely in lockdown to generate the performance inspired by her own poetry. The performers were recorded in a socially distanced film shoot in a green screen studio.  The footage was then projected onto buildings at Bridewell Island in Bristol over the course of one night.