In the first of a two-parter, we chat with Matt Jarman about the process of making audio descriptions, how he got into it, and why his music career has played an important role in doing so.
Hi Matt. Thanks for agreeing to this interview, and hope this finds you well.
Hi Fikri. Thank you for having me here at Thoughts on Films. It’s great to be here. The literature is good and you have comfortable chairs.
Yes, DFS was having a fire sale. For those who do not know you, how would you introduce yourself?
In answer to your question, I would introduce myself as Matt, and then tailor the rest of the answer according to who I am talking to. I wear a lot of different hats you see, like we all do in media these days, but most people prefer you not to go on about yourself too much, so you usually just pick one or two hats to wear quickly and then let them speak.
Today I am very pleased to be chatting to you because a quick look at your questions suggests that I will be putting on more than one hat for this interview, although it will be hard to not go on about myself too much, so please be heavy with editing. That was the long answer.
What is the short one?
The short one is this: I am a 40-year old freelancer, and I’m married with two kids.
I want to add the term ‘sound recordist’ in there somewhere, because I first met you for an audio-description project. For those who do not know what it is, how would you define it for them?
Audio description is accessibility service that allows visually-impaired people to understand what is happening visually in a piece of artistic content, that they might otherwise be missing because of their visual impairment. Usually audio description accompanies a film or a television programme, on a screen, but you also get audio description of theatrical performances and museum exhibits, amongst others.
How does it work?
Audio description works through the use of voiceover, where a person or machine reads a description of the visual content. In the cinema, the audio description voiceover is played out over headphones that the visually-impaired person wears. At home, it is played out as an alternative audio track that can be selected by the user.
The way you described it, it actually sounds quite straightforward.
Some people think audio description is boring or annoying, something they switch on by accident and can’t get rid of, but visually-impaired people benefit massively from its creation, and, I think personally, it has potential to be respected as an art form in itself. At its best it turns films into audiobooks, only with the best voice actors and highest quality sound available.
Yes, when I tried to describe it to my friend, the first thing he said was, “Like an audiobook.”
Film is the peak art form of the human species, in the sense that it can contain within it so many other genres of artistic expression. When done correctly, audio description makes the director’s vision of a film accessible to everyone, and even adds some flair of its own. When done badly, however, it can ruin a film.
What is the process like? Do you start from the script of the film (which seems to me like a useful starting point), or do you start from scratch, going through the film scene by scene to create your own description?
The first stage for me is always to watch the film as a normal viewer and get a feel for the characters, the plot and the tone of it, without thinking too much about the description at all. Each description is different, it has its own tone of voice, and I think it should be the directors tone. I kind of need to know what tone I am going to use before I start describing what I see.
That’s fair. What’s next?
After that, I go scene by scene, recording voiceover as I go, instead of writing the whole thing first and then going back to read it, which most describers do. I prefer it like this. I feel I can capture the moment better, and really get to grips with the phrasing, rather than reading a whole massive script in one go, which can sound tired and unengaged. It’s also a lot more efficient this way, which helps since I don’t get long to do each description, usually only a week.
That’s quite a compressed timeframe.
Yes. When I reach the end of the film, I go back to the start, and make any adjustments, changing the pacing, losing some unnecessary detail and correcting any mistakes. Sometimes I learn a lot more about the film as I continue describing, and I like to go back to the start and add emphasis to certain elements that become significant later. Sometimes a sighted viewer might miss certain visual cues when watching a film for the first time. I have to try and make sure I don’t miss anything myself.
So, nothing from the original film script, then?
You don’t always get the script, and if you do it is often only dialogue, or something so different from the final version of the film itself to be pretty unhelpful. However, sometimes you get a shooting script that has detailed descriptions of the scenes almost exactly as they play out in the film, which is very helpful indeed. As mentioned above, I don’t get a very long time to write each description, and can sometimes get quite bogged down trying to describe something correctly, or figure out exactly what the film is trying to say.
How did you get into this line of work? Was there a particularly moment that you could identify and share with us, when you felt that this could be a consistent profession for you?
I fell into audio description by accident. Not being visually-impaired myself, I was aware of the service but had never paid it much attention. However, my wife, Sigrid Larsen, was working in the subtitling department of a media company called IBF, and since they were providing subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, they also decided to expand into creating audio descriptions.
When was this?
It was around 2013, I think, and there must have been a shift in the British film industry that stipulated audio description as a necessary requirement to receive British Film Institute (BFI) funding, so more clients had started to request it.
At the time the manager of that department was Steve Ford, a subtitling expert, and he became very interested in audio description. He began to train first himself and then his colleague, Eamonn Lee, in its creation. Steve was very much the initiator of the project, but it was soon discovered that Eamonn has a great talent for descriptive language and the ideal BBC-style voice for the job.
How did you enter the picture?
I used to run a music recording studio called DSI Studios at the time. Eamonn would work on his audio description scripts at IBF, then bring them to me to record in the vocal booth. Mostly we were working on British films because of the BFI funding. The recording setup was less than ideal as we were situated in the basement underneath a bakery, and would have to stop recording every time they switched on the industrial dough-kneading machines, but we got results.
I suppose that’s how you ‘rise’ to the occasion.
From the first recording I became fascinated by the process of audio description, and it quickly became my favourite work to do at the studio. I had ideas about how it could be improved by integrating the scriptwriting and recording process more, spending more time getting the timing right and doing more background research than the subtitling team had time for, being pressed by their subtitling work.
So when Sigrid left IBF to start her own subtitling company, The Engine House Media Services, I decided to push to take on more of the audio description work. I had already worked on around thirty feature audio descriptions by this point, and felt confident in taking over the whole process. I also quit DSI studios around that time and built a soundproof recording room at the end of my garden to continue the audio description work under the name Bad Princess Productions. I haven’t looked back.
I notice that you are also a musical performer in your own right, being a part of not one, but two bands, Void and Las Astas. I wonder what kind of influence that side of your career has on your film work.
Thank you for taking the time to notice my music projects. They are rather important to me, and sort of define who I am in a way, each one representing a different aspect of my character – a different hat if you will – expressed through an eclectic range including rock, electro and metal.
I ask that because it seems that the film side does influence your music career, with a number of music videos (like ‘The Hollow Men’ and ‘Intercepted’) being quite cinematic in their own ways.
I suppose my work as a musician, songwriter and sound engineer must have honed my aptitude for working in film. However, I think the story of how my work in audio description has influenced my music making may be more interesting.
One of my bands, Void, is an active band that performs in a metal style, but really doesn’t observe any traditional boundaries of genre, mixing up elements of electro, hip hop and jazz into the metal maelstrom. On our latest album ‘The Hollow Man’, which was to be released this autumn on the Norwegian label, Duplicate Records (but is now TBC, along with everything else in this upside-down era), we decided to take the blend of genres further and loosely describe a story or concept through the album.
This was strongly influenced by the T.S. Eliot poem, ‘The Hollow Men’. The plot is a tale of what happens to a man after reading the poem, beginning with a psychotic break and moving through harrowing chapters of deterioration, death, afterlife, reincarnation and ultimately a return to reality.
That’s quite a trip.
In playing with the subject matter, we examined its use in the film ‘Apocalypse Now’, and drew a lot of inspiration from Marlon Brando’s reading of the poem. We noticed that the film was about to celebrate its 40th anniversary, closely coinciding with my own 40th birthday, but I had no idea that I would be lucky enough to soon receive the commission to create the audio description for ‘Apocalypse Now’ final cut anniversary cinema release!
What happenstance! The universe truly aligned for you.
At some point in the process of describing this epic masterwork, I decided that I would use the process of audio description to add further detail and clarity to the story of our album, most notably the opening intro sequence, which describes a scene from a film very close to how ‘Apocalypse Now’ begins. Only now, it is an urban setting, rather than the Vietnamese jungle.
Another example of audio description influencing my music making occurred at the time of writing the audio description for the documentary film, ‘Kingdom of Us’. It is a very moving story about a man with six kids who tries to live an alternative life with his family, but suffers mental illness and eventually commits suicide.
That’s quite dark.
I was describing the montage sequence that plays after the suicide event, just saying literally what was happening on screen: “A kite dances in a sunny sky, above the rolling countryside… a figure reflected in the back door’s glass…” And then, with tears in my eyes, I found myself picking up the guitar and laying it over chords. This became the song ‘Kingdom of Us’ by Las Astas.
What kind of role does Las Astas play for you?
I’ve never really promoted the song or the project Las Astas itself. It’s just a place to put creative outbursts that have no other home. Perhaps one day I’ll do something with it.
Coming back to the audio description work, how do such opportunities come about for you? Is it a matter of the film producers or distributors approaching you for your services, or do you ‘pitch’ to such companies, convincing them that this a good way of introducing the film to new audiences?
Mostly I produce audio descriptions for The Engine House Media Services, who are owned by Arrow Films. They offer disability access as a package as explained above, but don’t have an audio description department of their own. So that’s me.
I probably should pitch to other companies, although the market is fairly closed and dominated by a few large players, so I haven’t been able to break the Netflix barrier, for instance. Having said that, I also like to have a good work-life balance and spend lots of time with my kids, so do I really want more work? Hmm.
That’s a great point.
Lately I have been fairly active in trying to get my audio descriptions distributed to more outlets and ads, as there appears to be a big disconnect in the industry whereby the disability access material is not always shared.
For example, my audio description for ‘Kingdom of Us’ never made it onto Netflix. It was for cinema only, and the same work I did for the films ‘Wild Rose’, ‘The Day Shall Come’ and ‘Edie’, amongst many others, are not present on the Amazon streams of those films, either. I haven’t been able to get a non-automated response from Amazon as to why they are not using the audio description. I can’t understand why, as it can’t exactly cost them much. It has already been created and played out in cinemas, but for some reason, the different departments aren’t talking to each other about audio description.
How unique is your position in the British context?
I don’t know. I think my situation is fairly unique in the audio description world, being attached to one small company and doing all their jobs. I imagine that freelancers generally struggle to get work; I know I did before I started in audio description. Freelancing is a full-time job, pitching to companies for work, and I am terrible at promoting myself. I’m very lucky to be doing the work I’m doing now.
Featured image credit: Medical Media Training