An Interview with Superfest Judge and Audio Describer Katie Murphy

Continuing our series of interviews with the folks who made Superfest 2016 possible , Grad Assistant Robyn Ollodort spoke with Katie Murphy, former Longmore Institute grad assistant and audio describer extraordinaire.  Katie's audio description is used for the film Like If..., in which an unlikely heroine emerges and attempts to save the world. Like If... screens Saturday, October 22nd at 6pm. Buy your tickets to Superfest now at: superfestfilm.com/tickets/ Katie Murphy, with red hair and black glasses, against shelves of books.

Robyn Ollodort: As a part of the Superfest 2016 judging weekend, I got to see your fantastic audio description skills firsthand. Tell me about your process in audio describing.

Katie Murphy: For the judging weekend, I was doing live, on-the-spot description without having seen the films before. So, that’s very different from creating an audio description track for a film. With live audio description, particularly for media I have not seen before, the process begins and ends when the film does. When I am watching, I make note of important details being conveyed visually and then wait for a moment of quiet in the film to describe those details. This is tricky when I haven’t seen the film previously, because I have no idea when those quiet moments will come up or how long they’ll last. As Cathy and Bryan, the two judges I was describing for, can tell you, this means I occasionally begin description only to stop after a word or two because the quiet moment was only one or two seconds long. Live audio description like this is very much in the moment.

Creating an audio description track that will be added to a film in post-production is much more precise, but also more time consuming. I start by loading the film into InqScribe, my favorite transcription software, and then using the timestamp feature to record all the pauses in the film. Depending on the film, any pause longer than 3 seconds is fair game for inserting description. I record 2 second pauses as well in case I get desperate for space later on.

The next step is rewatching the film and filling in the pauses with description. I do this in InqScribe as well, because it allows me to use hot keys to pause and start the film without having to toggle between a Word file and a media player. When writing, I time myself to make sure that the description fits into the pause. If it doesn’t, I revise along the way.

Depending on the project, I might send the finished script to the director for approval before recording.

Then I record, using my laptop and a USB mic. I probably do at least three takes (if not more) of each segment of description, because I’m a perfectionist, and the description needs to fit into not just the pause, but also the tone of the film. I don’t do funny voices or accents or anything, but I do change the pitch and cadence of my speech to match the genre and scene. If the characters are at a funeral, I’m not going to use my perky phone voice.

Once the recording is finished, depending on the project, I either send the audio file to the filmmaker or mix it into the film file myself.

Then I take a nap.  

RO: At the judging weekend, you were very transparent in linking having autism and being a good audio describer; why do you think that is, and what makes for strong audio description and a strong audio describer?

KM: Being autistic informs so much of who I am that it’s often hard to pick out how my autistic identity specifically impacts the areas in which I excel. If I am weirdly good at something right off the bat (like audio description) or completely helpless at a given task for no perceivable reason (like juggling), I tend to chalk it up to being autistic. For areas that I don’t excel, I’m typically compelled (either by myself or some authority) to explain exactly how being autistic negatively impacts my performance. For example, I suck at juggling because of poor coordination and motor planning--two autistic traits. It’s rare that I am asked to explain how being autistic makes me good at stuff, so thank you for asking.

In the case of audio description, a lot of things I already do help me be a good audio describer.

Creating strong audio description requires the describer to sort through a ton of audio and visual data to present the most relevant information. This is something people do in their everyday lives, but for many autistic people the process is much more deliberate. Since I have issues with sensory processing, my brain doesn’t automatically sort through external stimuli, so I have to consciously ignore irrelevant sensory information and focus on what’s important. Since I do this pretty much every moment of my waking life, I have years more of experience than your average allistic audio describer. Sorting through this much information requires a lot of mental and physical energy, so I’ve developed a good deal of stamina.

But I do give myself breaks to prevent sensory overload. One of the ways I do that is by listening to audiobooks when I’m out and about. I do not leave the house without my iPod, my big headphones, and an audiobook (usually sci-fi or non-fiction, because I’m a walking stereotype). As a consequence, I spend hundreds of hours a year listening to professional voice talent, absorbing cadences that work, cringing at poor production aspects. All that helps me when I’m recording. I know what makes something good. A dark office space, with tables arranged in a half circle to facilitate movie watching, with two people seated at each table. Photo is of the ten Superfest judges, during the judging retreat weekend.

RO: Audio description traverses the territory of objectivity and subjectivity, in that what and how you describe what you see carries with it an implicit assumption of what is important; how do you navigate choosing the 'important' things to describe?

KM: I try to balance what I believe the filmmaker is trying to communicate with what blind and low vision audience need to know to understand the film. And that changes with every project.

For example, I’ve done audio description for performance art pieces where the visual details convey the story or message in very intricate ways. So my description would include details that would not be so important in a narrative film. It might be really important for a performance art piece for everyone in the audience to know how many oranges are on the floor.

But for a narrative film, unless the oranges are an important plot point, I don’t have to go into as much detail about set dressings. Instead, I’d focus my energies on choosing language that best communicates the story and the characters. I get to imagine how I would describe the character or action if I was writing a novelization of the film.

Audio description is layers of subjectivity piled on top of each other. The description is the describer’s subjective understanding of the filmmaker’s subjective artistic message and the audience’s subjective desires. Poster for the film "Like If...". Top and bottom of the image list awards and film festival screenings in gold laurel leaves. In the canter, a black and white image of a woman in a wheelchair, with clear framed glasses and blonde hair. She looks off to her left wistfully. Over the image, in red cursive lettering, the title and credits of the film.

RO: So you audio described the Superfest 2016 film Like If...; is there anything we can expect to hear in that audio description?

KM: Come Se… is an Italian film, so in addition to me on audio description, you will also hear Jennifer Sachs (of the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired) dubbing the main character’s internal monologue. So you will have four straight minutes of three women speaking (one in Italian and two in English) in a science fiction film. Which is not something you hear every day in Hollywood.  

RO: You worked previously at the Longmore Institute; how do you think your time there has influenced your perspective?

KM: Thanks to my time at Longmore I am very intentional about the language I use in audio description. By screening films at Superfest with open audio description (rather than handing out headsets upon request), Longmore argues that audio description is an access feature as well as a text in its own right. As a creative text, it’s not above criticism.

I think with audio description there is a real risk of perpetuating the paternalism disabled people experience by assuming that providing audio description of any quality is good enough. There’s a risk of film and television studios patting themselves on the back like, “Oh, aren’t we being so nice by providing audio description to the disabled,” and not really caring if the audio description is actually helpful or aesthetically pleasing. Working at Longmore showed me that people do notice if the description is good or bad. People do analyze the words that you’re saying. They do consider how you are editing the description into the film.

And that really encourages me to push myself and approach writing description with the same thoughtfulness and precision as I would a speech or blog post.

RO: Do you see a career for yourself in audio description?

KM: I would love to keep doing audio description as a freelancer. I really enjoy the opportunity to work closely with artists and community organizations to increase access and make something that sounds good.

If you are interested in hiring Katie to audio describe your film, she can be contacted at: catherinekatiemurphy@gmail.com