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“Jolt” for Podcasters Across Borders conference, June 21, 2008

(One of the organisers of Podcasters Across Borders asked me to be one of the people to present a “Jolt,” a five-minute talk without any audio/visual help which would serve the spark the audience’s attention with new ideas between the larger presentations. Among the great feedback I received for my Jolt, there were requests to post the text. So here it is. You can also click here to download the audio version from Canadian Podcast Buffet. My thanks to PAB and those who attended.)

I’ve been asked to talk about using visual media. But I don’t have a video podcast. I use visual media to create an audio podcast, which I’m told creates a sort of “theatre of the mind”.

The podcast in question I do is called Movies For the Blind. It’s basically taking movies and making them into audiobooks, and that’s done with a technique that was my day job for seven years: audio description for the vision-impaired.

I watch a tv show or a movie, then say, “okay, how can a vision-impaired person enjoy this as much as I just did watching it? What do I have to do to make that happen?”  The answers constitute a shift of mindset that might be helpful for podcasting in general.

I often get asked  “how do you know what to say? What do you pick?” Much like doing a soundseeing tour, surveying your surroundings and going “where the hell do I begin?”  In description, you’re also limited by time.  To fit between the dialogue or to finish describing something before the next action to describe comes up, you may have only five or seven words if you’re lucky. So the question becomes “where do I begin and end?” Podcasters are often asking that.

In the school of description I learned from, you begin with the story.  You are there to help tell the story.  So you start with the basics like identifying characters as they come to you, distinguishing them, saying where they are, at what point in time they are (later? Much later? At the same time something else in happening? In a flashback?). Depending on the movie or tv show, the audio gives you a lot – the sound effects are still there, the score is doing its thing, the actors are being their characters, the story is being told with sound. Sometimes minutes pass before you say anything. (I love it when that happens.) The describer fills in only when the sound is not enough, and only then.

You’re answering a blind person asking, “what’s happening now? Who is that I hear? Why are they yelling? Who just shot whom?” and you’re answering it before they need to ask – because asking them takes them out of the story, and that is failure for the describer.

So once that basic assistance is taken care of, you can start to colour in the lines a little, but usually you haven’t time to do that much, and doing too much, again, can distract from the story.  What I tend to do then is note the first couple things that come to my attention, because chances are, those are the first couple things that would come to the audience’s attention if they could see them.  Admittedly, this is most subjective part of the process, but you can only do what you can, and the first instincts tend to be the most reliable.

For example, for the movie I’m working on now, I was describing an establishing scene of a small town, starting with a church clock tower (which is one major setting for future scenes), moving to a bus carrying two important characters into the town around the town square which is another setting and is the centre of the geography of the film, and ends at a store which will be another major setting.  But there’s time to do more.  So I look again and ask, “Okay, what comes out to me?”  There are buildings around the square, very small-town New England-y buildings which have no other distinguishing factors. So I come up with the term “modest but stately”, because they are.  It also says something about the character of the people of the town, but I’m not saying that – it’s possible the listener will feel that after getting into the story. What else? Well, there are trees around, and they’re bare. I’m not saying why, because I don’t know why.  Could be early winter, or very late winter just before spring – I’m not making that call. But I can say there are bare trees.

So after the previous scene establishing the church clock tower and the name of the town, the description ends up like this:

Later, that church presides over the Harper town square, as a bus drives around it past bare trees and modest yet stately buildings. (Some time passes, music is playing…)  It pulls up outside a general store, where a man sweeps the sidewalk.

Anything more would be presumptive, and more importantly do the listeners’ thinking for them.  To me, I’m not really creating a theatre of the mind.  I’m just giving listeners the tools to create their own.

If you want to know more or see more of a demo, let me know. Thanks.