In the second and final part of our interview with Matt Jarman, we get deeper into his audio description work for films such as ‘Apocalypse Now’, ‘Terminator 2’ and ‘Parasite’.
Looking at the list of films you’ve done, I assume that ‘Journey’s End’ is your first audio description project. Tell us a bit more about that.
My first feature audio description project was ‘Journey’s End’, a very emotional feature set in the trenches of World War 1. I was terrified at the start and kept redoing the voiceover, section by section. Is it of a good enough quality? Am I lisping too much? Thankfully, I have a lot more confidence now.
I imagine a World War 1 film to be quite emotional, on some level. Would that be the most emotional one you’ve done?
In the film ‘Edie’, the final twenty minutes of the film depict the protagonist climbing a Scottish mountain alone. No dialogue. There are swathes of audio description I wrote describing the scenery that go on uninterrupted for entire scenes. It was very moving and I did a lot of research to accurately describe the landscape. When she reached the top of that mountain, I actually cried! I felt like I had climbed a mountain as well.
You touched on ‘Apocalypse Now’ earlier. Can I describe it as the most memorable or significant film you’ve done?
‘Apocalypse Now’ was significant for many reasons: its epic scale, its undisputed milestone status and the influence it had on my album. Other memorable films were the early ones, like ‘Terminator 2’ and ‘The Commuter’ with Liam Neeson, as it was here I developed my technique of blow by blow descriptions of fight scenes, with the description timed to fit around key sound effects.
Yes, I wanted to ask you about the audio description of action scenes…
Many audio descriptions you hear describe fight scenes much more generally: “They fight.” I prefer to say exactly what happens where possible. This technique was pushed to its limit when the manga samurai film ‘Blade of the Immortal’ landed on my desk, especially since, in addition to the description, we had to voice all the subtitles as well!
Looking at your ‘Terminator 2’ scenes, it seems that they require more words packed into a shorter period of time. How does this affect your diction and pacing?
Yes, the diction and pacing has to match the pacing of the scene. I say as much as I can without it becoming unintelligible or irrelevant or distracting. This is helped a lot by my method of recording as I go through the film. Otherwise I might write something into the script and never be sure if I’ll be able to pull it off. For ‘Terminator 2’ I was lucky enough to stumble upon a website that listed and named every single gun used in the film, so I was able to describe the guns accurately, giving them character status of their own. #funfact
Speaking of fun, what about scenes of tenderness or of lovemaking?
These require a very different voice using very different language. I like to think I have a special tone for these scenes that imparts not just the information but also the mood, without drawing too much attention to itself or intruding on the sexiness. Sex scenes and fight scenes are definitely my favourite. Can you tell?
They’re everyone’s as well, if they’re honest enough. What about documentaries?
I did the audio description for ‘Prophecy’, a documentary following the creation of a painting by Peter Howson, from conception to completion and its subsequent sale. There were lots of time-lapses, watching the painting take form, and I really enjoyed painting the visuals through description. I don’t know if any visually-impaired people will have bothered with this one, but if they did I have done my best to help them ‘see’ the painting. The film also inspired me to dig out my paint brushes and have a go at some art. I highly recommend the film if you’re interested at all in painting techniques, and Peter Howson was an engaging character to spend time with.
To be honest, I’m actually more interested in some of the aforementioned classics you’ve done. Is there a high demand for such films from years ago to be audio-described?
No, I don’t think there is. These two films were described as specifically for re-release in the cinema. ‘Terminator 2’ got the 3-D treatment and so needed a new description, and ‘Apocalypse Now’ was presented in its final cut format for its anniversary.
Having said that, I don’t know how many visually-impaired people are interested in attending a 3D film. I also don’t know how many audio descriptions of versions of these films are already in existence. I put a lot into both these descriptions, though, so I hope they end up doing the rounds, as these are two films that will never go away.
What you mentioned about ‘Edie’ earlier: do you get emotional working on these films?
Yes. I get very emotional at times. Sometimes I start to worry that I am giving the film the wrong flavour, or that I have misinterpreted a visual cue. But you have to just get your head down and get on with it, scene by scene. Eventually I know that I’ll reach the end of the film and I’ll go back and often be blown away by what I’ve done. That sounds arrogant, I’m sorry, but when you are focusing on every tiny detail, you can lose sight of the scale of what you’re doing, so to listen back and hear all those details one after another can feel really good.
I don’t think that’s arrogance. It’s an acknowledgement of the work done.
On the other hand, you can often end up kicking yourself, pronouncing foreign names wrong, focusing on the costumes when the important detail is in the scenery… it all gets ironed out in the end.
Maybe it would be useful if the original filmmakers get involved. Are they a part of the audio description process, or is this largely the purview of the distributors or other parties?
I work alone and unsupervised, and I get nearly zero feedback on my work. It’s very frustrating. There’s no direct line to the directors, of course, and you’d never be able to ask questions like “What does this mean?” or “What’s the significance of this?”. You just have to decipher every film by yourself. I don’t even have colleagues to discuss the job with.
I did get to hear that Idris Elba had personally listened to the audio description for ‘Yardie’ and was happy with it… and that I’d described a gold Ford as a yellow coupe or something similar. I like to describe cars accurately but I’m no car buff. Luckily my neighbours are obsessed with classic cars, so I send them a lot of screenshots, which was very helpful in describing ‘Yuli’, set in Cuba. I’ve gone off topic…
No, it’s part of the process. Different perspectives can be important.
It would be fantastic if filmmakers took an interest in disability access. I would personally like to be able to make audio description-only versions of films where I could take the liberty to extend certain scenes, to give time to properly describe things. Obviously, they couldn’t play out at the same time as the normal version in cinemas, but they could be streamed from a website, perhaps. Some films are very intense in the dialogue, constantly talking all the way through like in ‘The Day Shall Come’, and you get almost no opportunity to fill in the details. I can’t see why filmmakers would object to accessible versions of their films, but as of now, there’s been no conversation about it.
More recently, you did the audio description for the film, ‘Parasite’. Being a Korean film, I wonder what it was like providing the audio description for a work whose language is probably not something you’d be familiar with.
This was actually the most fun I’ve had creating an audio description! Eamonn from the Engine House actually read the description I wrote whilst I concentrated on voicing the subtitles. Many films that Eamonn and I worked on featured sections of subtitled audio. Whenever the subtitled content is a significant percentage of the whole we use a different voice for the subtitles.
Was that the first subtitled film you voiced?
The first subtitled film we voiced all the way through was ‘Blade of the Immortal’, already mentioned above. As the film was more about action than dialogue I decided to include as much of the original Japanese as possible, offsetting the English translation, voiced by Eamonn, who did the translation and created the subtitles.
I’ve not seen ‘Blade of the Immortal’, but I would imagine ‘Parasite’ to have less by way of action…
Parasite was different, as there was so much dialogue that there was no opportunity to offset the English translation from the original Korean whilst still leaving room for any description in between the dialogue. How then would the listener be able to distinguish one character from another? For this reason, I made a creative decision to dub the film into English first, acting out each character in a different voice.
It was just you doing all these characters?
Of course there was no budget to hire different voice actors, so I assumed all the roles, from the young girl to the old man. As the film is quite comedic I felt this would be OK. I am eager to find out whether the same approach would work for a more serious film. Would it be ridiculous to have a middle-aged English man voice a teenage Korean girl in a very serious role? Discuss…
That would be a short discussion. A longer one would be ‘Parasite’ and its fairly complex structure. In particular, I am referring to the montage in which the entire Kim family are eventually hired by the Parks. There’s a bit of time bending going on there, with the present and the future mingled together. How did you go about audio describing that?
That scene was a nightmare! They are rehearsing a conversation at home and it is intercut with snippets of the actual conversation happening later. I was worried that it wouldn’t make any sense at all. There was only time in the description to say “rehearsing the speech at home” and “Ki-woo plays Yeun-kyo”, but, once all the voices were recorded I think you can tell the difference between the two situations because the characters are using a different tone of voice.
Was that the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your audio description career thus far?
Well, that was probably it right there, voicing every single character in a two-hour film in a distinctly different voice. And writing a very fast-paced description on top! I wasn’t sure I could do it. I didn’t have much time and I haven’t done much voice acting in the past. It was a massive undertaking. I was worried I might ruin the film, upset the mood and make it sound too silly, ridiculous even. I was worried I would get the accents wrong or stereotype them. I was worried that the English dub would clash horrifically with the Korean.
Yeah, those languages don’t work in the same way.
There was also a very physical, sexy scene between two main characters, and I had to voice them both. The film kept switching location and launching straight into dialogue with very little time to describe the scene changes. But I loved it, and I would do it again in a flash.
Indeed. Particularly given how audiences worldwide have connected to this film.
Thankfully this film winning both the Palme D’Or and later the Oscar for Best Film meant that it was a very high-profile release. I was able to read feedback on Twitter from visually-impaired people who had listened to my description in the cinema, and interact with them.
What did they say?
They were very complimentary of my character voices. One woman in particular said her favourite was the old Scottish lady who voiced the housekeeper! I’d had a bit of practice doing a Scottish old lady as I use that voice when reading Harry Potter to my daughter for the character Professor McGonagall.
That’s the best practice. Speaking of which, what other satisfactory moments have you experienced in your career thus far?
Receiving the feedback described above was a very nice moment. As I mentioned before, I don’t usually get any feedback at all, and when I first started out I felt I couldn’t be fully satisfied with my work until I got the thumbs up from users of the service.
How often would that happen?
‘Parasite’ wasn’t the first time I was able to read someone’s review of my audio description work. Whilst attending the UKs first annual accessibility conference with Sigrid, I met an audio description consultant called Chloë Clarke, who also works as a playwright and is visually-impaired. I commissioned Chloë to review my audio description of ‘Blade of the Immortal’ and she gave it a very thorough examination, and a much needed thumbs-up, which gave me confidence in my style and ability.
She also made some great suggestions for improvement, for example she noted how my description had little use of colour (now of course added to my creative palette). More recently I received some unprompted feedback from a kind lady who wrote to me to thank me for my work on the country music film ‘Wild Rose’ with Jessie Buckley, which she had just rented from the library, I think specifically because the DVD had audio description. That is very satisfying indeed. The audio description did its job in making the film accessible, and the user liked it so much she found out who had done it and took the time to write to me. Thank you very much.
What is next for you?
My next booked audio description job has been put on hold, like so many other jobs at the moment, as the film release date has been put into question. Luckily, I still have some work on restoring some old classic Japanese monster movies, along with some corporate stuff.
Please say it’s Godzilla.
It’s the other one! His name is Gamera. I think he first appeared in 1965 and the last film came out in 2006, so he’s got staying power, somehow. He’s a giant turtle who breathes fire and can fly. It turns out Gamera was created by a rival studio as a direct box office competitor to the Godzilla franchise.
It sounds just as interesting, actually. What’s the most recent one you’ve done?
The last one I created, ‘The Secret Garden’, still has yet to be released, I believe. Its release date was postponed, and now I think it is coming out to stream instead. I sincerely hope the stream will include the audio description. As I mentioned before, they usually get lost on the train to Amazon!
What was that like for you?
It was a good one, the film was quite a visual feast, and the acting was good. I’ve read criticism of the film for being too heavy on the use of effects, with people asking “Why has it been remade at all?” But I thought the effects were good and I’ve described the ‘effect’ of the effect as best I can.
Beyond films, what’s next on your playlist?
Outside that, I’m using the extra free time to play and paint with my children, and also collaborate on a new music project with a bunch of top dudes dotted around Europe, isolated in their various houses. I’m not sure I would have been able to get the benefit of their time if it hadn’t been for the current pandemic, so for me this cloud has a very shiny lining.
Yes, the bright side of life.
Right now I’m going inside for dinner and a movie. The kids want to watch the ‘Teen Titans Go to the Movies’ film. Why not, I think they’re pretty funny. My favourite is Raven of course. How about you?
I just got my son started on ‘Star Wars’, so we’ll continue with that for now.
Ah, a padawan learner. May the Force be with you both.
Featured image credit: Medical Media Training