Audio Described films

We have a database of audio described films and other programmes on DVD and VHS. You can find the list here.

Access to DVDs by Richard Orme

The information in this article, the advice presented and recommendations made are drawn from comments from blind and partially sighted users, our own technical research, industry experts and material published on the web. We particularly benefited from several groups of blind and partially sighted school children, students and working adults who visited our centre in Birmingham to try out ten DVD players and many DVD titles. Thanks go to Dixons and Richer Sounds for providing the equipment for this evaluation.

We don’t recommend a particular player- the models we tested were probably superceded within a couple of months. However, we do offer some guidance, based on comments from users, that may help you in making a choice.

The article covers three main areas: Firstly we give a background to DVD and Audio Description. Then, in Choosing a DVD player we offer some areas to think about when looking for a DVD player that works well for you. The most expensive players don’t necessarily offer more, and our testers were most interested in the very cheapest models. Finally we look at choosing and playing the DVD titles, which can be great fun, but is a frustrating experience with some discs.

About DVD

DVD (Digital Versatile Disk) players are becoming as common as videocassette recorders and are now as cheap as Ł40. Video rental stores such as Blockbuster have more DVDs for rental than videocassettes, and DVD is the format of choice for many people who want to buy a film or TV series. A great variety of material is now available on DVD, including films, television series and instruction and hobby topics.

DVD is popular because it provides far better picture and sound quality, and the flexibility of multiple sound tracks and subtitles on the same disk. In the same way that one can skip between tracks on a CD, different parts of a DVD can be jumped to quickly, rather having to fast forward a videocassette. The disks have the same physical appearance as CDs and so they are convenient to store and handle in comparison to VHS tapes.

Many of these benefits are attractive to blind and low vision people of course. In addition, DVD also offers the capability for films and programmes that are generally available in high street shops to carry audio description. Indeed, many sighted people with a DVD collection will unwittingly have titles that include audio description for blind and partially sighted viewers.

This article explains audio description, suggests some considerations when choosing a DVD player and then highlights some issues concerning playing and enjoying DVD titles. Finally the possibility of using a PC to play DVDs is considered.

About Audio Description

Films with audio description have a professional narration explaining what is happening when the characters aren’t speaking. Facial expressions, body language, scenery, anything that helps people understand the film is mentioned by skilful narrators who have to arrange their script around the main film soundtrack so that it does not interfere with the original film.

Films with audio description can also be seen by renting or buying special editions of video tapes, or at cinemas with special equipment. This article is concerned with DVDs that are on general release, but information about video tapes and cinema screenings is given at the end in the section entitled “More Information”.

Five reasons to watch audio described videos (as described by blind and partially sighted viewers, taken from the RNIB Descriptive Video Services catalogue 2003)

    You can watch them on your own...
    It is liberating to be able to watch films independently without having to wait for someone to be available to watch with you and without the frustration of missing so much if you are forced to watch alone. (Judith Furse)
    ...and then talk about them afterwards!
    We really enjoyed the audio description of ‘Braveheart’. Without it we wouldn’t have known why our friends were laughing when the Scots bared their behinds to the English before the battle! It’s great to be able to follow films more fully and, as a result, talk about the films everyone else is watching. (Mr and Mrs Baines)
    Audio description really brings films to life...
    The audio description of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ gave me a completely new perspective on a film that I thought I knew well. Despite having seen it many times before I had still missed so much. The only trouble with seeing an audio described film is that I now realise what I am missing out on when I watch non-audio described versions. (Malcolm Matthews)
    ... and helps you to follow the plot.
    So much of ‘The English Patient’ is visual, with frequent switches from one time zone to another. Without the commentary, it would have been impossible for me to follow it completely. With the audio description, I was able to enjoy it immensely. (Mrs S. Foder)
    Children can enjoy them too!
    I enjoyed ‘Peter Pan’. My favourite scene was when Tinker Bell sprinkled the children with pixie dust giving them the power to fly over London to Never, Never Land. Tinker Bell was my favourite character and as she doesn’t talk, the audio description was important in helping me to keep track of her. (Stefi Dryja, aged 10)

Choosing a DVD Player

This article does not make recommendations for particular DVD players, as there are none that stand head and shoulders above the rest in terms of ease of use and accessibility. There isn’t a “talking DVD player” for example. However, there are a number of areas that prospective buyers might want to consider when thinking about a purchase. Our evaluations highlighted three areas: the remote control, access to DVD player menus and audio feedback.

Remote Control

DVD players are often crammed with features, and this is reflected in the number of buttons on many remote controls. The remote controls are not always on display in the shops, and the first time people realise they are the new owners of a remote control with 35 tiny buttons is when they unpack the box at home.

The majority of interaction with the DVD player is through the remote control, so do choose one that is well designed. Depending on the level of sight you have, issues you could consider are:

For those with low vision: There are a number of alternative remote controls on the market that are intended to replace the devices that come as standard. These are on sale in most electrical retailers with names such as “One for All”. They will control more than one device, so a single remote might operate the TV, video and DVD player. Because they are designed to operate with a range of devices, they can be a bit of a compromise. For example, it is common that some features unique to the DVD player can only be used with the supplied remote control. However, most common functions should be supported, so they do offer another option if you have a device with a remote that you find very difficult to use.

We have recently become aware of a big button remote control and a talking remote control. We hope to evaluate these products shortly.

Our top tip if you want to enjoy audio description is to choose a player that has a button on the remote to select the audio track. You can read more about how useful this is in the section entitled “Audio Description”

Access to DVD Player Menus

Here we are considering the menus for the DVD player itself, rather than those that are on the DVD disks.

Most DVD Players now have on screen menus that are used to select features such as screen format, audio output and parental controls. These are often called “on screen displays”. The menus are rarely needed once the player is set up, and are really for accessing special features of the player. There is no standard way the menus are presented, so if some features are important to you, visit a store that has some DVDs players available for demonstration and try them out. Several will allow some control over the background colours so contrast can be maximised.

Playing CDs

DVD players will play audio CDs with the sound coming out of the TV, or they can be connected to a Hi-fi in the same way as a separate CD player. Like a CD player, they can be fairly simple to use with little or no sight, once the main buttons on the player and the remote have been learnt.

Some DVDs also indicate that they play MP3s. This means that they will play a CD, created on a computer, that contains music or other audio stored in the popular MP3 format. (This is a feature most users would not use, but if you intend to, you will find it most accessible if the MP3 files are not stored in folders but all in the root of the CD).

Audio Feedback

A useful, rather than essential, feature of one of the DVD players we tested was that it beeped when it received a command from the remote control. Since some functions will result in a few seconds silence before anything happens, this was reassuring.

Menus on DVD Disks

Almost every DVD title comes with its own fancy menu to allow access to the extra features that are offered over the VHS format. These “extras” might include: The flexibility of the DVD medium means that producers can be very creative when developing these menus, and the menus can become short films in themselves. The menus are sometimes presented as a series of simple text choices or they could be cartoon characters or animations. A menu might be recognised by a blind user as a section of audio that repeats itself each thirty seconds or so, but they could be completely silent.

A sighted user will typically navigate the menu with left, right, up, down and enter keys on the remote. Pressing these direction keys moves a highlight between the images or word on the screen, and enter will select that option. Sometimes a basic graphic is used as a highlight- in “Chicken Run” it is a chickens foot that you move around the screen!

There is certainly no standard format for presenting the options that are common to many DVDs. Consequently, the way that a viewer actually starts their film playing will vary from title to title. Sometimes there are several copyright notices that appear with no audio before the first menu, and so the viewer may be faced with 30 seconds of silence before anything happens. The discs are usually produced in a way that prohibits the viewer from skipping past these screens.

Users find that for feature films, they can usually get the film playing by repeatedly pressing “play” on their remote. This will select the first item from each menu, and that will usually result in playing the main feature with the standard audio track, usually English (though not the audio described track where this exists).

Some DVD players (especially the cheaper ones) provide a zoom facility. In practice this is a gimmick for enlarging part of the screen in a movie. We asked several owners of DVD players to see whether they were able to enlarge the menus. The results indicated this was unlikely to have much practical use. Most machines did not have a zoom function. Of those that did, the majority prevented zooming in menus (the feature would only work when playing a film). Others provided limited zooming in the menu but did not show the highlight. Consequently, it was difficult to use the menu in this mode.

Other than perhaps some limited ability to zoom on some players, there is no way to change the on screen display of these menus. Nor are there DVD players that make menus talk (but see the research section at the end of this article).

Many menus (though not all) will respond to the press of a number key on the remote. Pressing “3” for example will select the third option on the menu (even though the item may not be numbered, and in fact the options may be placed at various random locations around the screen). So by learning a series of numbers it may be that a blind user can get to part of a DVD that is otherwise hard to find.

See the Top Tips section for recommended ways to start a film playing.

A blind viewer can usually get a feature film playing, and with surround sound DVD films can be great for blind users, with the added benefit of audio description on some titles. However, DVDs of TV programmes, for example, can be more problematical. The viewer may need to use the menu to move between the different episodes and some viewers have reported that they have purchased a DVD title and have only been able to watch the first episode, despite pressing every button to hand.

Audio Description

A feature of DVD films of particular interest to blind and partially sighted people is that some are supplied with a soundtrack with audio description. As mentioned previously, most DVD disks contain extra features. These are rarely audio described.

As DVD players vary in their functions, the DVD disks themselves offer a method of choosing the audio track through the disk’s own menu system. However, as mentioned above, these menus vary from title to title, and do not talk, and so ironically it can be difficult for a blind user to select the features that have been included on the disk for their use.

However, many DVD players have a function on the remote controls that cycles through the different audio tracks available. This can be labelled as “audio”, “language”, or as a row of three circles intersecting each other. Once a programme or film is playing, this button can be used to work through the different audio tracks until the audio described track is located (there can be up to seven to choose from). When the film has started, press this button and you should hear the audio change after a very brief pause. On some players you need to press the button twice quickly, then wait for a moment.

Using this button then you might hear German then Turkish versions of the soundtrack, then a director’s commentary, then the audio description track. Repeatedly pressing this button will cycle through the tracks back to the first one again.

Having a player with this function can mean the difference between choosing and enjoying films from your audio described DVD collection at will, and needing sighted help to get the film started with the audio description playing.

Finding Audio Described DVDs

It is not always easy to identified audio described DVDs. The information is presented in different ways on the DVD cover, and the same film can be released in different versions, some with audio description, some without. The standard edition of Monsters Inc, for example, has audio description, whereas the two disc special edition does not.

RNIB publishes a list of DVD titles that have been identified as having audio description. These are titles that have come to our attention, may not be comprehensive. The list is published on our website, and available by request from our Technology Information Service.

Surround Sound and Dolby Digital

There are several technical terms to describe the different surround sound techniques, and it is beyond this article to describe them. It is worth noting that for many people one of the key reasons to get a DVD player is to enjoy the full effect of high quality sound tracks through up to seven different speakers, arranged around the room.

Steve, who is blind, told us:

I was watching Pearl Harbor on a home cinema system. It was incredible to hear a torpedo hit the water behind me, track it across the room and hit a ship with a huge boom, somewhere near my kitchen door
Clearly the immersive effect of full surround sound is very impressive. For those who aren’t keen to fill their rooms with speakers, there are some surround sound headphones available, at a high price.

Do note, however, that most audio described sound tracks are in stereo rather than surround sound.

Top Tips

Choosing a player: Buying or renting DVDs: Playing the discs: Alternatives to using DVD:

Playing DVDs on a PC

DVDs can be played on a DVD drive on a personal computer. There are at least two software packages that are known to work well with screen reader programs. These are WinDVD and PowerDVD, which are often provided with the computer, or with the DVD drive if purchased separately.

When you first launch one of the two software packages, it looks as if the program is completely unusable to a visually impaired person. There are, however, a number of shortcut keys that make the software very usable. The main menu can be accessed by pressing shift+f10 or by pressing the application key (to the right of the space bar on most keyboards). From the main menu you can choose different parts of the DVD menu, jump to chapters, sections and change languages. In this way you can find the audio described track if one is available.

Microsoft Windows Media Player 9 is available free and can also play DVDs. This is likely to provide an accessible way to play titles, but was untested at the time of writing.

With software players shortcut keys allow you to move backwards or forwards through chapters, fast forward and rewind etc. In this way DVDs can become fairly usable and you may find that some DVDs that you can't access on a conventional player are more accessible on a PC software based player, although the menus will not talk, even with a screen reader.

Future Developments

A great many films have audio described versions created for special cinema screenings. Unfortunately many films are released on DVD without the soundtrack included. This is frustrating as the hard work in producing the audio description has already been done.

With pressure from consumers and greater awareness in the industry, it is hoped that many more titles will be released with audio description as standard.

When you can’t see, getting around the visual menus on the disc can be impossible. Demonstrations of accessible menus have been produced and tested, and a small number of commercial products released with this feature, in the US and Germany. As these techniques are proven in use, we hope that studios implement them as standard, even on disks without audio description.

The next generation of DVD disks and players are in development. The main feature of the new technologies will be that the discs will contain even more information. There should be plenty of capacity on the discs for audio description in different languages or with full surround sound.

Producing DVD Titles

If you or your company produce DVDs, then we would encourage you to take steps to make them more accessible to all your customers. WGBH NCAM (see Contact Details below for website) have produced “"A Developers Guide to Creating Talking Menus for Set-top Boxes and DVDs", which is available to download from their website.

There is still some discussion concerning the first version of the guidelines, but this should not prevent the implementation of what is currently the most definitive guide to producing accessible DVDs.

The NCAM guidelines, which were published after the completion of this project, are detailed and specific. It was not the purpose of our project to create a different set of guidelines. However, for the purpose of completeness, the areas noted in our work with blind and partially sighted viewers included:

Menus:

If an audio description track is likely to be produced (perhaps for cinema), include this in your production schedule for the DVD.

In the UK, contact the RNIB Broadcasting and Talking Images team at broadcasting@rnib.org.uk or on 020 7391 2150.

These are points specific to DVD media. More essential information for broadcasters and filmmakers is also available from the RNIB team.

Further information

WGBH is a public broadcaster based in Boston, Massachusetts. The CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) is a research and development facility dedicated to the issues of media and information technology for people with disabilities. The guidelines for accessible DVDs is available to download from:
ncam.wgbh.org

Joe Clark, a Toronto based campaigner and technical expert devotes a large part of his website to DVD access. Visit his site at:
www.joeclark.org

The industry bible for technical details of DVD technology is the book “DVD Demystified” by Jim Taylor. He also runs a comprehensive website at:
www.dvddemystified.com

The Independent Television Facilities Centre is a leading producer of audio description for television and film.
www.itfc.com/audio.html

Information on the Tiresias screen font, developed by RNIB’s Scientific Research Unit is at:
www.tiresias.org

Big button remote control:
www.tekability.com

Talking remote control:
www.accenda.tv

This article is available from:

RNIB Technology Information Service
0870 013 9555
technology@rnib.org.uk
www.rnib.org.uk/technology

Buy Audio Described DVDs

The following links take you to products that are known to have Audio Description:

Chicago, The Hours and Frida

East is East, Brassed Off and Purely Belter

Mary Poppins, Sleeping Beauty and Robin Hood



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For further information, contact RNIB's Broadcasting team.