If you wondered what I thought I'd say, here it is.
Today I’m going to talk about writing audio description. This is something required since 2010 for a set number of hours of broadcast material on the major networks. Meaning that lots of TV shows and movies have to include AD whether they want to or not. Details of the law can be found by searching for the 21 Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA).
Since this is required by law and not something TV shows and movies elect to do, it often has very low budgets and the quality standards can vary. Some larger companies will include AD in their budgets as an incentive to get more higher paying work from clients. So like if you hire us to do all of the dubbing and subtitling, we’ll throw in AD on your project for practically nothing.
What is it?
AD is a spoken track on a TV show or movie which provides audible information to explain action for visually impaired consumers. Just like with closed captions for hearing impaired, there is another track you can access on your TV which will play the AD alongside the original program. Since this hasn’t been a requirement for very long, there are still some variations in how companies approach the writing of the AD.
Basically, you go through a TV show or movie and create placeholders between the dialogue where a narrator will have time to talk. Then you go back through and put in descriptions of the action in these gaps between dialogue and sound effects. After you write the AD, you need to go back through and actually speak the words, since it doesn’t really matter how great your writing is if no one could reasonably say it in the time allowed. Because you have to speak out loud, or at least mumble the words quietly, this can be annoying to your coworkers if you are in an office and not working from home, but there’s no way around it.
Here’s a brief audio description of some video shot around my house.
Orange feral cat Trapper and grey tuxedo feral cat O’Keefe sit on a table chomping on cat treats. House cat Hot Lips plays with a rock on the ground and then scratches herself. A pink hibiscus flower sways in a gentle breeze.
The companies I know that do this work are looking for writers - meaning they are looking for people who identify as “writers” and they are probably actively hiring right now. Since I haven’t been on the hiring end of this, I’m not sure how they determine someone’s writing skills. Also, since the written document is eventually going to be read, I would imagine they wouldn’t be sticklers for things like exactly correct grammar which are needed in some of the other English jobs, like DL and SL creation. And since this is targeted to native English speakers and not going to be translated, there is more leeway on writing informally and using slang terms than there would be in documents given to translators.
Tests and Training:
I trained to do this for one company. They required 4 days of tests, including reading of guidelines documents and watching examples. Since the four days didn’t have to be sequential and you had to wait for feedback after each day of testing, for me this spanned about a month of going back and forth to get ready to be hired for my first project.
I was recommended to the head of that department by a former coworker, but I imagine you can find job listings for AD writers and just apply.
So. I did one episode of one TV show - still as sort of a test, but this time I was getting paid and then getting feedback on my work. For me, the pay was atrocious. It didn’t even matter how good or bad my work was, there is no way for that pay rate that I could justify accepting a second episode. This was pre-pandemic, but I think even with the loss of steady work during the pandemic, I couldn’t afford to do this.
Part of me feels like I let the company down or left them thinking I couldn’t handle the notes or adapt my writing style, when really I just couldn’t do this and afford to feed myself and my cats. If that was my only choice of work, I’d go back to answering phones at a temp job, pretty much anything else I could figure out.
Now, I’m not saying this will be the same experience for everyone. If you can afford to get through the training - for no money - and can hold out with the extremely low-paying work long enough to get really fast at writing the AD, this might be a good job for you. As with all freelance jobs, you are paid for the project and not based on how long it takes you to do. If you can devote a whole week to making $200 for several months at a time, you might be able to eventually get your speed up to the point where you can do that amount of work in a day instead of a week, even though there might not be enough work to then keep you busy for the whole week. At least it won’t be a tremendous waste of your time. Or, if you can get a staff job writing AD it might work out better where you would then be paid hourly.
This section (underlined) didn’t make it to the video: I’m going to go on a little tangent now, though. In California, there was a law called AB5 which went into effect in 2019 which has really messed up a lot of freelance work vs. full-time work. The law was meant to target companies like Uber and Lyft, to force them to give better pay and benefits to drivers, but it has ruined the lives of many other freelancers. It left a lot of companies with two choices about freelancers - either everyone who does a certain job, like writing AD, needs to be freelance, or they all have to be staff with no freelancers doing that job. Or, maybe, if there are a few staff people they can hire freelancers as long as the freelancers don’t reside in California. So I’m not sure if there are many staff writing jobs for AD left and if there are, they might be limited to part-time only. I really don’t know, I just know that AB5 has not helped anyone.
So, my advice, if you can find a full-time staff job doing this, it might be worth it. Otherwise, it is a lot of work and training for, at least in the beginning, a non-living wage.
The downside for me was the pay. Just not worth it for me to do more than the one job. I should have asked the pay during my training time, but didn’t and got stuck having to do a job that made me feel cheap and unappreciated.
This section (underlined) didn’t make it to the video: And, I just have to add this rant, one of the notes repeated during training was to not use the verb “to be.” If you’ve taken a screenwriting class, you know this usually means “don’t write in passive voice, avoid verbs ending in -ing.” This turned out to not be what they meant. The person who proofread (and changed every line I wrote) on my one and only assignment, added lots of words which ended in “-ing,” but literally didn’t put the “to be” conjugation with them. So instead of saying something like “The rabbit is jumping and grooming its ears,” it would say “Jumping, the rabbit grooms its ears.” I found this note to be contradictory and it really bothered me. I will always have a problem with this and hold a grudge.
So, AD writing is out there, and because it’s the law, it will continue to be out there. And it might be something you would excel at, it just wasn’t a fast enough fit for me for the money.
If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them below. Don’t forget to subscribe so you can see all my videos and learn more about what people in Los Angeles who aren’t rich and famous do.