Cinema Technology

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Cinema Technology



All about audio description
and captioning too...

Jim Slater went along to a recent ‘Lunch and Learn’ session arranged for a wide range of Warner Bros staff at their London HQ to learn about subtitling and audio description of movies.


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From time to time Warner Bros arranges lunchtime seminars for all levels of its HQ staff, with the aim of enabling them to find out more about what is happening in the wider reaches of the company’s business. A buffet lunch is provided beforehand, and staff are encouraged to come to the WB Preview Theatre for an hour or so to ‘lunch and learn’. The session to which I had been invited had been arranged by Richard Huhndorf, UK Technical Director of Warner Distributors Ltd, as well as Vice-Chairman of the BKSTS Cinema Technology Committee, and whether it was the high calibre of the five speakers he had persuaded to take part or merely the prospect of a free lunch, he had certainly succeeded in filling the luxurious WB preview Theatre with an enthusiastic audience.


After opening the proceedings as you might expect, with an exciting clip from the recently released Speed Racer, Richard introduced the speakers in turn, ending with Trevor Franklin who had suddenly gone blind a few years ago.

With the announcement ‘This is what Trevor used to experience when he went to the cinema’, the house lights dimmed, the tabs opened to reveal a blank widescreen, with the sound taken from a carefully selected clip from Speed Racer, which had disconnected pieces of dialogue and lots of low level sound effects which were completely meaningless without the accompanying picture. This certainly set the scene for the day, explaining clearly and dramatically the need for audio description, and the other speakers, in turn, then told us all about how the descriptions are prepared, delivered, and shown.

Audio Description

Audio description has been described as the technical equivalent of ‘a friend whispering in the ear of a blind person’ to explain what is happening on a TV or cinema screen. It is a special commentary which provides a carefully crafted description of actions, locations, body language and facial expressions seen on screen. Effectively, audio description helps people to hear about what they cannot see, and it is provided only in the gaps between the normal programme dialogue, so as not to interfere with the normal sound.

It began with TV

It was back in 1990 that I first became involved with Audio Description, as broadcast research engineers tried to find ways of squeezing an extra audio channel into the tightly packed frequency spectrum that already carried an analogue TV picture, mono analogue audio, digital stereo audio channels and hundreds of teletext pages. We knew that the same technologies that were being used for the digital mobile phone market were good at producing reasonable voice quality at very low bit rates, and managed to demonstrate how the tiny amounts of spare capacity available in the digital stereo channel and in the vertical blanking lines used to carry teletext could be used to carry such a low bandwidth speech channel. The experiments worked, and in 1994 an ambitious trial of a full

‘Audetel’ service operated on peak-time ITV and BBC television, delivering over 6 hours of described programming a week to 140 receivers throughout the UK, mostly situated in the homes of visually impaired people. The service was carefully monitored to record practical engineering, logistical and editorial experiences as well as to generate a wealth of feedback from the users on receiver ergonomics and on the quality of the descriptions themselves. The trial was an overwhelming success, demonstrating not only the practicability of regular broadcasts, but also the enormously increased comprehension and enjoyment among blind and partially sighted viewers.

But as digital TV was already on the horizon, and promised to make available more digital capacity for an extra audio channel it was decided that a full Audio Description service should wait until the coming of digital TV. Organisations such as the Royal National Institute for Blind People successfully lobbied politicians very hard to ensure that The Broadcasting Act 1996 carried a requirement that digital programme services should promote the understanding and enjoyment of programmes by sensory impaired people including those who are blind and partially-sighted, requiring that a minimum proportion of digital television programmes must be accompanied by audio description.

The UK broadcasters met all the requirements to broadcast AD, and were also very positive about its development. They paid for extensive pilot trials at the end of the 1990s, in which I was personally involved in installing prototype AD equipment in the homes of blind people, a humbling experience watching just how well most of these supposedly ‘disabled’ people quickly learned to cope with both the new digital TV receiver boxes and the added complexities of the add-on AD equipment.

TV set and set top box manufacturers were slow at first to provide receivers with AD capabilities, but as the later generations of chip sets were developed it became simple and inexpensive for the new receivers to incorporate AD. We are now in the situation where AD is standard on many digital TV receivers and set top boxes (although not all, so it pays to ask), and on Sky satellite and Virgin Media cable services.

Audio Description in the cinema

Audio description for the movies might have seemed an obvious benefit, but the cinema industry lagged behind TV, many people having the attitude, although perhaps unspoken, of ‘why would a blind person want to go to the cinema?’ The answer to that, of course, is that going to the cinema is a normal part of many people’s social lives, and that if ways can be found of making it possible for blind people to go along with their friends and enjoy movies, then going to the cinema could be one of the means of helping them to take part in the same activities as everyone else. It is also important to remember that audio description can be useful for the large numbers of people who have various forms of sight problems, but who wouldn’t actually categorise themselves as blind. With 1.7 million people actually registered as blind, plus many more who could benefit from audio descriptions, AD could be commercially attractive as well as a social imperative.

The first time that cinema audio description was reported in the UK was at the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, which used a distinctly low-tech but nevertheless effective technique where live script readers read out the descriptions. I remember seeing a Harry Potter movie with Audio Description in early 2002, and being amazed at how the extra commentary gave me so much more understanding of what was going on, enabling me to keep up my street-cred with a ten year old enthusiast who already knew it all! In 2002 ITFC, a company which had been involved in producing audio descriptions for TV programmes for many years, [see Image Technology Oct.2002] audio described its first film for cinema release, Ocean’s 11, and since then the number of films that are accompanied by descriptions has grown rapidly.

David Pope of DTS gave some interesting facts and figures about audio described movies, saying that there were none just eight years ago but there are currently some 10,000 audio described screenings each month in cinemas in the UK. He showed a timeline of how cinema access services, both subtitles and audio description, had developed, and explained how the DTS CSS (Cinema Subtitling System) enables any movie to be given captions, without having to provide special copies of films where the captions have been ‘burned’ in by a laser, as had to be done previously. The CSS system adds the captions to films actually in the cinema, using an inexpensive auxiliary digital projector which is fed with the captions which are stored on a CD-ROM. If you don’t want the captions, you simply don’t turn on the subtitle projector.

David Pope

David Pope, DTS

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David explained how this system fits in well with the existing DTS film sound system, which uses time code on the film to synchronise with the audio which comes from a separate CD-ROM, which has the capacity and the bandwidth to provide the best possible audio quality. Working from this basic system it then became relatively straightforward to add other facilities.


DTS-CSS Cinema Subtitling System

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The subtitle file is stored on a CD-ROM which is loaded into the CSS player. This takes in the film serial number and timecode from the reader on the film projector and enables synchronised captions to be shown from the auxiliary projector. In a similar manner the audio description files are supplied on a CD, which can be the same CD as the captions, and the resulting signals are fed via a conventional infra-red sound system to wireless headsets. Projectionists find the system very easy to use, and since you only receive the AD channel if you wear the special headphones, AD can be made available at all performances without affecting other cinemagoers, unlike subtitles, which some people feel detract from the images on screen and so are usually restricted to special showings. [I recently came across a new method of providing subtitles/captions via the infra-red transmission system in cinemas, which can provide captions on special glasses which receive the infra-red signals. This might turn out to be an excellent way of providing a captioning option for all showings, and I am currently seeking more information for a future article in Cinema Technology - Ed.]

The first film using the DTS-CSS system had been Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in December 2001, and after that time DTS worked with ITFC who brought their immense experience of describing TV programmes, making it very much easier to develop a regular process for describing movies. The rollout of AD was also encouraged by the UK Film Council which in October 2003 offered grants to provide exhibitors with 50% funding for the purchase of access equipment. At the present time there are some 270 UK screens equipped with the CSS system and more than 500 movies have AD on CD-ROM.

David praised the large amount of effort and investment that Warner Bros had put into audio description, saying that they had been the first film distributor to add AD to a major movie, and that they had subsequently been the first distributor to provide AD for all their movies, providing a great example for the other distributors to follow. All the main distributors are now providing AD with their films, but it can be difficult for some of the small independents. He gave an indication of the costs involved, using a case study to show that it might typically cost around 7500 Euros to provide the AD and subtitles. To counteract this, however, it had been found that extra subtitled screenings could in fact bring in a minimum return of around 9000 Euro to distributors.

For some reason the UK leads the world in audio described movies, with even the USA having only about 250 CSS systems (although there are also 282 ‘Rear Window’ reflector systems to provide captions for deaf people), France and Germany having about 40, Australia 10, Poland 4, and New Zealand 3.

Finding movies with AD

Pointing out that it is important that people can easily find out which movies they can go to see that have AD, David highlighted the excellent work of the people who run the website www.yourlocalcinema.com and who were in the audience. This site allows you to find local cinemas showing subtitled and audio described movies, and is used by many visually impaired people with the aid of screenreader software that can read out the text of web pages.

Claude Le Guyader is Production Manager at ITFC, and she spoke about the process of captioning and subtitling movies. We were shown a subtitled movie without any accompanying sound, and this ‘spoke volumes’ about the difficulties of using subtitles to provide people with the same experience as hearing people get at the cinema - quite a challenge. She began by explaining that Teletext page 888 had been providing subtitles for TV viewers for many years, and that captions had been used since the early days of the cinema, before explaining some of the skilled arts of the subtitler / captioner. A captioned presentation is different from a subtitled presentation in that the caption information is much more explanatory than subtitles, describing sound effects as well as dialogue, which is placed on the screen to denote who is speaking and where the action is taking place.


Claude Le Guyader, ITFC

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Claude pointed out that not everything in the movie has to be captioned, you don’t want to spoil the enjoyment of the film. She also outlined some of the technical factors involved. Timing is vitally important and it is not always obvious - sometimes it is necessary to put in a caption before or even after an event so as not to spoil the dramatic flow of the movie. Some of the technical issues involved also include timing and synchronising factors, as well as the need to achieve a reading speed of no more than 180 words per minute, since you cannot read as fast as someone can speak.

James O’Hara is Managing Editor, Audio Description for ITFC, and he let us in to many of the secrets of his art. He said that from describing 23 films in 2002 ITFC had expanded its output to a situation where it currently audio describes an average of 110 films per year, and ITFC have provided audio description for more than 500 new film releases to date. The percentage of films audio described in the UK is in the region of 80%.


James O'Hara, ITFC

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He explained the whole process in detail, using the recently completed Speed Racer as his example, and told us that an action movie of 120 minutes can contain 11,335 words, equivalent to the output of an audio describer for 8 working days, or as a rule of thumb, you can estimate that an action movie would take some 15 times ‘real time’ to prepare.
Key steps in the process include:

Receive order from client
Source material received
Material encoded
Resource organised and project allocated
AD script written
Script approved
AD recorded
AD Quality Control checked
AD approved
Preparation of final deliverable
Delivery to DTS

James showed how special software from SOFTEL, which was developed in conjunction with ITFC, is used to prepare the descriptions and fit them in to the gaps in the existing film dialogue, and he explained the importance of careful timing, giving an example of how a description might be placed before or after an action so as not to interrupt a title sequence or music.

James said that the growth of foreign language films with English subtitles has involved fitting the subtitles around the AD rather than the AD round the dialogue, as would be more usual, and he provided several examples. I was also interested to hear that ITFC have done several audio descriptions in other languages, including French, and, as you would expect, this involved far more than just doing a straightforward translation job.

Joan Greening, development officer for AD at RNIB told how things had improved in recent years, saying that at the time of the first Harry Potter movie the AD process was so complex that they were still doing the AD after the movie had been launched, whereas 12 months later everything had come together, and now making descriptions for movies has become a well established process. She told the heart-rending tale of how before AD came along a young blind boy had gone to the cinema with his family to watch Harry Potter, and in spite of his mother whispering into his ear throughout the performance, which caused a good deal of anger from those in the surrounding seats, he still really couldn’t understand what was happening on screen, felt uncomfortable with the fuss going around him, and wasn’t able to talk sensibly with his school friends about what had happened in the film.
A few months later he saw the same movie with AD, and all was revealed - he understood what was happening as much as his sighted friends had done, and was able to play a full part when the movie was discussed. An excellent example of how AD really does work.


Joan Greening, RNIB

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Joan, whose interests cover AD on all media, said that 40% of UK cinemas now put on AD showings, and that 80% of the major films have AD on the day of release. In addition, the 240 screens of the DSN can provide AD. Warners have now arranged that all their UK releases on DVD will carry the AD track from the movie, and she pleaded to know the name of the Warner person who gives the DVD information to Amazon, so that she can ask them to include vital info about the availability of AD on that site. She said that so popular were these UK DVD releases that people in Australia, New Zealand and even the USA were ordering the UK disks in order to get the AD. She is currently working to see that the AD which has already been prepared for a movie is automatically used when the same movie is shown on TV, and she said that currently 13% of all TV programmes over 70 channels are currently described. An interesting current project is looking at how you describe a 3D movie for someone who cannot see, and some experiments are planned.

Joan stressed that many people benefit from AD, not just those who we think of as blind. Most blind people have been sighted for most of their lives and then either gradually or suddenly (like Trevor) lose their sight. Blind people are not a special breed, they are people like us and our families. She ended by commending Warner Bros for all their work on and commitment to AD, saying that all the WB employees should be proud of the work the company has done.


Trevor Franklin

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Trevor Franklin then explained how Audio Description had recently changed his life. He had been a film fan all his life, since childhood, and despaired when he lost his sight six years ago. With RNIB’s help he had been to a cinema with AD and this had transformed everything - it had given him back his love of films. I grinned as he described how when he now goes with his grandchildren they unthinkingly say ‘did you see..?’ and he says ‘Yes, I really did see the movie, the AD is so good.’ Trevor thanked everyone involved in providing AD for cinemas for giving him back an essential part of his life. He said that it was great that he could now discuss both films and TV programmes with his family and friends. Trevor belongs to a blind website community where they discuss all manner of topics with friends around the world, and UK cinemagoers are the envy of the world in having such excellent AD facilities. Trevor ended by saying that the movies he sees show AD at its very best, and, putting on his best Jack Nicholson voice - "It don’t get no better than this!"

We were then treated to a clip from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street which had subtitles and AD, showing just how much extra these can add to the understanding of a movie. All the speakers then came together for a Q&A session, and the audience of WB staff really did play a full part, with questions and discussions on how many countries are using AD, why WB in the UK had led the way, leaving WB in the USA so far behind, how digital cinema will affect the growth of AD? There was a fascinating question about whether different audio descriptions might be needed for those who had been born blind and those who went blind later in life - Joan said not, the describer must just describe, blind people will create their own images from the descriptions. There were questions about how blind people get information from websites, and how they handle DVDs. Joan said that some new DVDs now have talking menus, so that when you put them into a player they automatically announce "This is Harry Potter disk 1", and then give the contents and options list in spoken form. She encouraged all DVD makers to adopt this really useful format.

Why Warner Bros UK?


Richard Huhndorf, WB

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The last question of the day and its answer was particularly interesting for CT readers. "Why has Warner Bros UK led the way into AD and continues to do so?" The answer came from several panel members simultaneously - "Richard Huhndorf", and all agreed that it was Richard’s continuing dedication and support for AD that had led to UK cinema leading the world in helping to provide the full range of cinema access services to help people with disabilities. Richard, in his modest way, protested that his had only been a small part, and said that without the steadfast determination of RNIB’s Joan Greening and the unqualified approval and backing of his boss Steve Southgate, UK Audio Description would never have reached its current heights.

Jim Slater

Thanks to CinemaTechnology magazine
for permission to use the article:

Cinema Technology
Cinema Technology ctmag.slaterelectronics.com

More related news/media items HERE

Accessible cinema: www.yourlocalcinema.com