What does falling in love sound like?

The other week we read with some interest this article on the BBC website  about research into technologies to replace the audio descriptions that help visually impaired people enjoy TV shows and films.

The theory is that audio descriptions, whilst explaining what is going on, are not part of the creative vision that the writer/director/producer had for the film. In fact, the two things are completely separate and are more often than not independent of each other. According to Dr Mariana Lopez from Anglia Ruskin University, who is leading the study:

“The interpretation of the film provided in the audio-described track does not necessarily represent the artistic vision of the film-maker. Audio description has been around for a few decades and since then we have had some wonderful sound techniques and audio technology but we are not applying them for accessibility.”

The article talks about using surround-sound, sound effects, sound-layering and other acoustical information to explain the context of what’s going on. This makes perfect sense to us; surround sound, binaural recordings and object based audio are all concepts that we love and add emotional depth, and we’ll bore anyone who asks about it.

But we also thought: isn’t this radio? That’s not new, is it?

We’re no experts, but we do know someone who is, so we asked Polly Thomas, an award winning freelance director and producer in radio and theatre and who just happens to live close to Calrec Towers in Hebden Bridge (she is pictured in the photos below while recording on location…Polly is in the bath with the writer!)

Polly spoke to stage/audio writer Alex Bulmer and sound designer Eloise Whitmore about it too. Turns out we were sort of right, but as we usually discover, things aren’t quite that simple.

Bathtub producing

Polly Thomas, right

“From a radio drama point of view, audio description of films that gives more prominence to FX and Foley is an exciting development. Radio is all about sound, obviously, but it is significant sound, sound that tells a story the way we want it to, rather than sound as it occurs in real life. Having once created an air glider crash out of the sound of a stick of balsa wood being snapped in half, plus a judicious touch of rustling audio tape, I learnt long ago that the actual sound itself isn’t always the right sound. We use audio to create a moment, move the audience in a certain way and of course, make clear what is happening.

bathroom location

Sound recording on location

“This new initiative is exciting because it shifts all the importance from the spoken word. Where we differ is that radio drama is usually made from a script designed of the medium; audio description is by definition an audio interpretation of a piece that was written with a visual component.

“Alex Bulmer, a leading stage/audio writer who is also blind, is intrigued by the concept of audio film but wonders how it will work in practice. For example, if a couple are in a jungle falling in love, we can tell the listener we are in a jungle with a touch of parrot/wild animal sounds and, that perennial radio favourite, rustling audio tape……..but if a key point of the drama is the melting moment when they fall madly in love, gazing deep into each other’s eyes, how does Foley achieve that? What kind of sound do loving glances make?!

“You are right that one might argue that audio film already exists as radio drama. We work as much with sound as we do with words, and the radio drama producer and sound designer are close colleagues. Eloise Whitmore, award winning sound designer, has an enormous library of FX, gathers new ones to order and creates powerful combinations of words and sound. The best radio writers (like Alex Bulmer) think as much in sound as in dialogue, and we would hope that our radio dramas would be enjoyed as much by sighted as blind audiences, as is the ambition of the research project.

“But cost will be the determining factor. Whilst a radio budget of any kind is miniscule in comparison to a television budget (we can make 15 minutes of radio drama for a mere £5,200, which probably wouldn’t even buy you one minute of television), radio drama is the most expensive of all the BBC radio programmes, and the university research is still seeking full funding to progress. Hopefully, monies will be forthcoming, as any initiative which highlights the power and efficiency of sound is a good thing.”

You can get more information about Polly, Alex and Eloise from pollythomas.fourfour.com, www.linkedin.com/pub/eloise-whitmore/19/56/172 and www.alexbulmer.co.uk

12/03/15