Voice actors have the power to transport audiences to other worlds. A particularly meaningful type of voice acting—audio description or description narration—is vital to making television, movies, theater, YouTube content, and museums an accessible experience for all. The audio transcriber’s work might include film releases, buzzworthy Netflix hits, and the latest Broadway sensations.
Audio description uses verbal language to paint a vivid picture of visual images in a movie, TV show, stage performance, or digital media.
Like closed captions help viewers with hearing loss follow a performance, audio description helps those with visual impairment. “Audio description is a service provided for the visually impaired that describes the action between the dialogue,” explains voice actor and audio description narrator Sri Gordon, whose recent projects include Netflix’s “Squid Game” and “Hustle.”
“Imagine you’re sitting next to your friend who cannot see,” Gordon explains. “You’re watching this show, and you’re describing it for them.” Just as you would provide insight and details into the show for your friend, the audio describer does so for their audience.
Audio description includes additional commentary and narration that covers crucial visual details like setting, lighting effects, props, costumes, physical actions, sight gags, facial expressions, and body language. It fills in plot information but does not interfere with the dialogue or soundtrack. Audio description writers provide a meticulously timed script so it doesn’t impact the filmmaker’s work. This script is then recorded by the audio describer and synchronized to match the movie or TV show.
The audio description process shares similarities with automated dialogue replacement (ADR) and dubbing since narrators must match the script to what is onscreen.
- Read through the script beforehand: You’ll be provided language, style, and delivery guidelines by the audio description writers. The script should have cues to let you know exactly when to speak. It will also include a buffer to account for audio dips between the original audio and the additional track.
- Be prepared to cold read: Although relevant information such as pronunciation should be provided ahead of time, “You have to be able to cold read,” Gordon says. Read our guide to mastering the cold read to ensure you’re ready for any last-minute script changes.
- Do pick-ups: As with any recording performance, there will be moments that might need to be re-recorded, called pick-ups. Reasons for pick-ups can include mispronouncing a word, stumbling on a phrase, dropping a letter, or not hitting the timing cues. “Another huge skill you need aside from cold reading and stamina is you have to be able to catch your own pick-ups,” Gordon says. “It saves everyone time, because this way you don’t have to stop and start, you get into a flow.”
- Check for quality: After you record the narration, an audio engineer will mix it. The audio description should fit “seamlessly with the sound of the film so it’s not jarring to the listener and so we’re not stepping on the dialogue,” Gordon says. If quality control notes any continuous issues, you may need to re-record.
The path to audio description varies, and the sheer variety of voice acting work can open up different doors in this industry.
- Study acting: Acting classes helped sharpen Gordon’s audio description capabilities. “I took the Voice Over Tune Up class with Stacy Seidel and Paul Liberti,” she says. “I highly recommend [it]. I learned my technique, and that was it.” Acting and voiceover classes can help you refine the clarity of your voice, ability to hit precise timing cues, inflection, and storytelling skills.
- Connect with the right people: As with all things in the industry, it’s less what you know than who you know. Gordon says that a dubbing job for a Mexican horror movie led to her being recommended for an audio description opportunity. Based on this recommendation, Gordon auditioned and booked the gig. Now, four years later, she has done almost 80 projects. Try working in dubbing and expressing your interest in audio description to follow in her footsteps, or attend industry networking events such as the Audio Description Project conference, VocalEyes conference, and Enhancing Audio Description events. Organizations such as Audio Description Los Angeles (ADLA), Audio Description Coalition, and California Audio Describers Alliance (CADA) also provide resources for aspiring audio describers.
- Self-promote: Reach out to agents, agencies, and casting companies with a link to your professional website, which should have your demo reel, contact information, and any experience relevant to audio description, such as voiceover and dubbing.
- Create your demo: Most voiceover work requires demo submissions so that producers can hear your specific voice and capabilities. While you can record your demo at a professional recording studio, a home studio gives you a place to put together a demo reel. Follow our guide to creating a demo that’s natural, relevant, and showcases your voice, and then start searching for opportunities to submit it for audio description projects.
- Audition: Browse open casting calls for voice auditions to boost your chances of breaking into the industry, or add to the voice acting roles already on your résumé. Gordon’s entry into voice acting occurred nearly 20 years ago when she booked a voiceover job through Backstage for a startup, and from there, she went on to voice commercials. At one audition, a casting director recommended taking their class at Actors Connection.
ZipRecruiter estimates that the average audio description salary is $53,712, with a range spanning from $20,000 to $113,500.
When calculating how much you can make as an audio description narrator, remember that pay depends on the market, platform, and runtime. Rates vary, as projects require different amounts of audio description to match the ratio of dialogue to action.
Many devices, including cable TV, Amazon Fire Stick, Apple TV, tablets, and TiVo, allow users to access the user-selectable audio description secondary soundtrack. The FCC has rules in place to ensure manufacturers, TV stations, and subscription systems provide equipment and content for audio descriptions. Any television, set-top box, and similar devices manufactured after 2016 must factor in accessibility requirements. The FCC rules also require that bigger TV networks and streaming services provide approximately seven hours per week of audio-described programming.
Users access audio description using the “secondary audio” or “SAP” function. Streaming services such as Netflix, Apple TV+, Hulu, Disney+, and Prime provide the audio description function under the settings tab.
If watching at home, the track will play as part of the movie or TV show, but movie theaters and performing arts theaters provide additional equipment for the cinematic experience. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that theaters offer this equipment for accessibility purposes.
Audio description has changed over the years in response to audience feedback. “The acting for audio description has evolved quite a bit. They used to want you to give a pretty flat read, so there wasn’t any confusion to the listener,” Gordon explains. “They didn’t want your acting as a narrator to compete or conflict with the acting of the actual project.” While the desired tone for audio description varies depending on the project, these qualities consistently make for good audio description recordings:
- Good writing: “There’s a huge difference between OK audio description and exceptional audio description,” Gordon says, and the script provided by audio description writers is a significant part of what makes this difference. Audio description writing must match the rest of the project’s content to elicit an emotional response that matches what’s onscreen without pulling the audience out of the story. “You’re not going to describe someone in ‘Hustle’ the same way you would describe someone in ‘Squid Game,’” Gordon says. “The projects are completely different: one is a comedy, and one is violent. If you only have three seconds to describe something between this line and this line, you have to be able to decide what is the most important thing to convey in that second for the consumer.”
- Stamina: Recording times can vary, but Gordon estimates that she will record “about five hours for one day.” Long hours and the need to do cold reads makes stamina a necessary skill for audio describers. “It’s completely different from commercial VO and other long-form voiceovers because it’s cold. It’s not like doing an audiobook,” Gordon says. Practice cold reading and be sure to keep your voice rested between jobs.
- Range: You’ll likely need to demonstrate variety in tone and emotion in the course of a single project. When expressing emotions, let the feeling infuse your voice—but don’t go overboard, Gordon says. “You have to pull back on the tears because physically you cannot cry on the mic. You have to take all of that and pull it out physically and put it into your voice.”
- Speed: Matching the rhythm needed by the project is vital. As with all things voiceover, regular practice will boost your ability to keep up with the right speed.
- Technical elements: “You have to sound clean and precise. One of the extensive quality controls I usually go through is if anything sounds weird or flubbed,” says Gordon. Aim to give “as much of the richness of experience you have when you can visually consume the content,” she adds. Follow script cues that indicate when you should deliver your lines.
- Pride in your work: Keeping the audience in mind is a significant part of what makes a good audio description. “It impresses upon you how mentally damaging it is to be excluded. Ableism is just as damaging as all these other ‘isms,’” Gordon says. Take pride in your work to increase accessibility and let yourself feel it when you record.