Joe Clark: Media access

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AudioVisionWatchThe Arrow


Updated 2001.10.13

Failures in audio description:
The Arrow

The Arrow is a 1997 CBC miniseries that offers a fictionalized account of the development and destruction of a made-in-Canada fighter aircraft, the Avro Arrow, in the 1950s. Though vaguely mawkish and overly patriotic in tone, the series was well-received critically and widely viewed on television.

Evidently The Arrow aired on CBC with audio description – by AudioVision Canada. The program is now also available on a double-VHS-video set with always-audible descriptions, which I have reviewed here.

AudioVision Canada produces not merely manifestly but miserably, infuriatingly inferior work. Despite receiving training by the inventors of audio description as we know it, Cody and Margaret Pfanstiehl, and by the Descriptive Video Service at WGBH (seasoned, reliable practitioners of this new form of accessibility), AudioVision’s work stinks.

Describers seem entirely unaware of basic precepts of audio description, like “Describe what you see” and “Don’t editorialize.” Throughout The Arrow and everything I’ve ever seen with AudioVision descriptions, describers repeatedly interpret invisible emotional states on our behalf, miss important details, and overwrite. Narrators are overzealous when they’re not old and creaky.

AudioVision fails to provide respectful, responsible access to television programming. Instead, relatively untrained and clearly underqualified describers impose their own personal impressions and display a notable inability to write concisely, accurately, and without hyperbole. AudioVision’s work is shameful and inadequate, and carries on the fine Canadian tradition of lousy accessible media: We’ve been putting up with inferior Canadian captioning for 15 years.

You want proof? I’ve got it.

The Arrow with audio description:
A thorough, maddening failure

First, and surprisingly, the reproduction quality of the videotape is poor – the sort of thing you’d expect if you dubbed the tape yourself from an EP original to an SP copy on a home VHS VCR. It’s like watching second-generation porn. The graininess, the posterization, the colour shifts all serve to make you more blind than you actually are. Also, the tapes are not captioned, and audio quality of the describer’s voice is often poor.

Here’s a rundown of AudioVision’s many failures in describing The Arrow.

  • What should be a standard copyright warning appears, though it’s obviously tacked on by AudioVision. Even though they wrote it, they can’t read it properly. “The contents of this program” is read as “The contents of this cassette”; “the express written permission” is read as “the express written consent.” Not a promising start. (And they do it all over again on the second cassette.)
  • Descriptions by Marco Sauren; read by Heather Gale. (Spellings unknown.) Gale’s voice immediately conjures an image of North Toronto frumpiness: With her creaky voice, vague British accent, and breathy pronuciation of Ts, she screams “overactor,” “amateur,” and “doing something good for those blind people.”
  • In the first onscreen warning, and in a subsequent warning disclaiming the picture as fictitious and based on composite characters, we are not told that warnings actually appear. For all the blind viewer knows, the describer is talking out of turn. Impossible? Of course not: Describers by definition talk out of turn, making up their own script based on stimuli blind viewers cannot see. The correct way to do it is – yes! – the DVS way: “A warning appears,” followed by the exact text. Or “Words appear,” in the case of the second disclaimer.
  • Things continue to go downhill. The title sequence takes the form of a flight through clouds, with the setting or rising sun partially obscured by cloud cover. A description like “High up in the sky, rolling white, grey, and black clouds extend into the horizon before us. The sun shines diffusely through a tall cloud on the left.” That sort of thing. What do we actually hear? “Clouds stream by.” That’s it. Clouds stream by every day. We can watch them from the ground, from a plane, from the 38th storey of a skyscraper. Where are we as the clouds stream by?
  • Descriptions are hopelessly overliteral during the title sequence. How? Titles are read aloud exactly when they appear. If there’s a prolonged blank space between titles, there’s a prolonged lack of description. AudioVision loses precious seconds it could be using to set the scene, as our view proceeds through mist and cloud toward blue sky. DVS does this right.
  • The describers, having already failed to heed the dictum “Describe what you see,” get it even worse, flubbing the complete name of the director of photography: It’s Rene Ohashi, C.S.C., not “Rene Ohashi.” Who said you could edit out his professional designation?
  • “The ground becomes visible through the clouds.” Oh, so we’ve been airborne all this time? Thanks for letting us know.
  • “As it roars past the control tower, the people inside turn to watch it go by”: Not really. The camera fixates on a tall woman, who watches with visible concern. She’s important. Why don’t the descriptions say so?
  • We can hear the jet roaring by. Why ham it up through the very strong and overdone emphasis on the phrase “roars by”?
  • “In the tower, the design-team members exchange worried glances.” We haven’t been told who they are yet. Yes, it is permissible in audio description, but not in captioning, to name people before they are naturally identified in the story, but not here. (Later, they do it right: “Air Marshal Curtis nods.” He comes up again shortly.) They blow it even worse shortly thereafter, though: “At Avro Aircraft headquarters in Malton, Ontario” – the location is not visible; AudioVision really goes overboard in this case – “a Cadillac sedan arrives with Crawford Gordon and his secretary Claire.” Gordon introduces Claire Connors five seconds later, and intros himself twice inside the building. Then two people in the hall discuss who Gordon is, and Gordon introduces himself to the design team. Can you say “unnecessary”?
  • Let’s see. The pilot attempts to take the CF-100 airplane supersonic. At one point the control stick won’t move and he uses two hands to move it, to no avail. “The control stick is jammed.” Well, we don’t know that. We know it isn’t moving and he’s using two hands to try to get it to move. “With both hands, the pilot struggles to move the control stick.”
  • “As the reporters watch in horror... [plane crashes] black smoke billows from the crash site.” Well, no. The reporters watch in horror. The plane crashes. Then the smoke billows.
  • “The reporters back up to the tractor and accost the pilot.” Well, there are only four reporters in the car, not all the reporters from previous scenes. “Accost”? How about “approach”? (They’re fond of that word, the AudioVision kids: Later, in a hallway, we hear “A man accosts them.”)
  • Correct use of the progressive aspect: “That evening, when Kate returns to her suburban house, her neighbours, Joe and Ruby, are relaxing on their front steps.” Incorrect use of the progressive aspect: “Floyd is on the phone.” No, he picks up the phone and dials. Further, he identifies himself to whoever he’s calling.
  • “Inside Kate’s house, the nanny is waiting to go home.” I see a middle-aged woman, in a beige suit, sipping coffee, her purse at rest on the table.
  • “Simulations show children responding to a nuclear attack.” How? By giving Ivan the finger? By crying and covering their ears? No, by ducking for cover or jumping off a bicycle.
  • Jim (previously introduced) starts sketching the wingless Arrow aircraft on kraft paper on Kate’s kitchen table. He uses several sheets, but we’re given the impression he keeps adding features to the aircraft on a single drawing. Moreover, we are’t told when Kate leans over to peer at the original drawing. There was plenty of time to say so.
  • As we found with the overly-literal timing of the opening credits, AudioVision seems to think it has to apologize for being slightly delayed in its descriptions: “Jim has shaped a nose cone out of clay and squeezed it over the mouth of the Coke bottle. Now he places the bottle inside the wind tunnel.” Why can’t you just say “Jim shapes a nose cone”? Descriptions usually happen while the action is taking place, but can precede or follow, and there’s nothing to be ashamed about. Yes, some low-vision people can keep partial track of visual goings-on, but that is less important than AudioVision believes.
  • Black-and-white footage is used extensively in the full-colour program, but we’re never told that. And B&W has different applications: To show what a newsreel camera operator sees; a newsreel itself; a sort of background footage while the design team beavers away at a prototype. (And one B&W newsreel contains a yellow title at the beginning, a continuity error that should have been noted.)
  • In certain limited cases, I think AudioVision actually gets away with the following, but the fact remains AudioVision has too strong an impetus toward overinterpreting facial gestures. Each such act has to be individually justified, in my opinion. “The lieutenant is surprised, and favourably impressed, by this progress.” In reality, he stands and breaks into a smile and looks around excitedly (one could say). AudioVision does a bit of mind-reading in this case. And impermissibly so.
  • It gets worse: “Jim Chamberlain finally gives in to frustration. He sidesteps Kate and her sympathy and walks off by himself.” No, he’s standing tensely and mutters “Damn it!” We’ll draw our own conclusions, thank you very much. For all we know, Jim just now realized he’d forgotten something. Kate had a sympathetic expression, maybe, but sympathy per se is not visible. Jim also knocks over a tripod, which we hear but are not told about.
  • Yet seconds later, AudioVision does it quite right: “Kate exchanges a look with Woodman... and then watches Gordon’s Cadillac drive away.”
  • “That night, Kate watches the news with her sons.” Who says it’s that night? We merely know it’s nighttime (visible through the windows). “A few days later, they arrive at Langley Air Force Base.” How many days later? Who says? And where are the signs identifying the location? All I see is a gate and a guardhouse. “Next morning, outside Kate’s house”: It’s actually plausible here, because Kate heads to work to find Jim where we left him the night before. Moral of the story: You have to be able to prove that a specific time has elapsed.
  • “As the airspeed gauge climbs past Mach 1” – but wait, you haven’t told us the scene has changed and we’re back in the testing lab. Weren’t we just watching C.D. Howe chew out Crawford Goron in Howe’s well-appointed office? (This happens over and over again. “...from the fuselage halfway along to the wingtip. She looks back at Jim in wonderment. The modified model is poised on the rocket at the launch site.” Could you tell that the scene changed right before “the modified model”? It did.)
  • Dialogue: “What do you mean, ‘no’? What the hell are you trying to prove?” Kate asks Jim as he sabotages a safety system and watches the wind-tunnel gauge climb. He didn’t actually say no; he waved his hand, and at that moment AudioVision decided to stay silent. Not only was there room to speak, they’d just finished doing so. Nice.
  • “Woodman has booster cables.” Yeah, and he’s attaching them to Kate’s car’s battery terminals. Why not say so?
  • “Kate’s reporter friend, June Callwood, is surprised by this rumour.” Funny, I don’t recall her being introduced. “Surprised by this rumour” seems to link too closely to an invisible event. And really, she just raises a brow. (Obviously, the old fogeys at AudioVision thought it important to I.D. June Callwood, a famous Canadian essayist and social activist. Describe what you see, not cutesy little details you think we need to know – especially details a sighted person would not have noted.) Same with “Joe smiles, pleased with his contribution.” No, he just smiles. How do we know he didn’t make a bet with his wife that they’d buy his idea?
  • “The centrepiece at the celebration party is a model of the new plane.” There’s a lot more going on, which they don’t really have time to describe, but the description should have read: “In a large hall, dozens of people sip drinks and dance near a centrepiece – a two-metre-long model of the new plane.”
  • Mary, Crawford’s wife, more or less tells Crawford she will oppose a divorce, and in any event their son stays with her. “She walks away. He drinks.” Yes, she walks away. Crawford, wearing a swimsuit and seated by the pool, frowns, casts his gaze downward, and takes a long drink. AudioVision gives us mawkish, overwritten inferences of emotional state everywhere else and doesn’t even bother to describe the largely objective facts of this emotional scene. “He drinks.” How? Blithely? Uncaringly? Unmoved?
  • “October 4, 1957”: Tell us that a title appears saying so.
  • AudioVision spends next to no time at all describing the first prototype of the Arrow. They’ve got a full minute of dialogue-free, swelling music to do so. This is the culmination of the entire program thus far: The show is about the building of the Arrow, and here we see the first and only full-sized plane.
    • Apparently the describers were too busy being blown away by the grandeur of the visuals, too moved by the orchestral score, to actually tell us what the hell is going on. All we get is: “Gleaming white with black trim, riding high on its landing gear, the jet plane looks incredibly sleek, swift, and powerful!” gushes the Rosedale narrator. “The crowd stands to acknowledge the majestic aircraft, with its maple-leaf insignia.”
    • And that is it. This failure alone should disqualify AudioVision from the entire business of audio description. Astounding. Contemptible.
    • But it gets worse! Later, after the news of the Sputnik launch, Kate has a Ridley Scott moment with the gleamingly-backlit Arrow prototype: “A little later in the hangar, Kate O’Hara walks slowly under the Arrow, one hand raised to caress its gleaming skin. She pauses under the long, elegantly-pointed nose, and looks up at the marvel she’s helped to create.... Dreamlike, the Arrow looms beside her, poised for flight.”
      • Dreamlike? There’s smoke on the set, and it makes the light rays visible. A standard, indeed hackneyed, cinematographic technique. Whose dream? Do fighter jets dream? (Well, anything’s possible – the AudioVision amateurs apparently can read human minds, so reading an aircraft mind must be a snap.)
      • “Poised for flight”? It’s locked in a hangar!
      • Why turn this scene into soft-core porn? “Caress its gleaming skin”? “The long, elegantly-pointed nose”? These excesses are particularly offensive given that The Arrow revolves around the contributions of a pioneering female engineer. We already know that fighter planes are phallic. (The dialogue itself inadvertently acknowledged this later on: “Hurry, honey, we’re going to see daddy’s plane fly! Finally getting it up!”) Why is that the only thing AudioVision’s male describer chooses to talk about? Why hasn’t AudioVision bothered to tell us anything about the appearance of the airplane to this point?
      • “The marvel she’s helped to create.” You’re not the screenwriter. Get with the program: Tell us what’s visible and don’t act like an English teacher interpreting a Shakespeare play for a bored Grade 8 class.
  • A very well-described passage: The first flight of the prototype. Boy, is this an exception to the rule of overzealous editorializing and overlooking the obvious throughout The Arrow.
    The engineers and assembly workers rush out. So does the office staff, jostling each other in their haste. Out on the runway, Lt. Woodman climbs into the cockpit of an observation plane. He pulls on a helmet with a camera mounted on its crown. Then he looks over at Zurakowski, who is surrounded by reporters and photographers. As the test pilot climbs a ladder to the Arrow’s cockpit, Woodman gets strapped in. Orenda Engine Division manager Edward Critchley is approached by members of his staff. As Woodman’s plane is towed out to the runway, Zurakowski settles into the Arrow’s cockpit. Woodman takes off.
  • They do, however, miss a nice little detail: “Kids and neighbours all hurry to watch.” And a tricycle, alone and without a rider, rolls down a driveway right into the street. Lots of time to mention that; the camera does spend four seconds watching it happen.
  • AudioVision also neglects to describe some particular details, like the specific way the landing gear “retract” (another long period of silence and specific camera attention). (The wheels, on short metal stalks, lever inward and disappear behind a panel that folds shut after them.) It’s so important that they actually show, and dialogue mentions, the descent of the landing gear.
  • We aren’t told about the parachute billowing behind the Arrow as it taxis back to the hangar. “Everyone applauds the plane and its successful maiden flight.” Please. Everyone applauds. They could be applauding because the engine they built didn’t blow up as they had secretly anticipated. Describe what you see, not what you assume.
  • “Joe Paloffski peels into his driveway in a brand-new family sedan”: You didn’t tell us the scene changed to the “nearby suburb.” The make of the car is visible on its side, but not readable, due to the miserable reproduction quality of the tape. Joe merely drives calmly into his lane. And the car is pink and white! Oh, and later, Woodman “peels off” in the Arrow. An echo, that.
  • “Kate wonders briefly if she’s done the right thing, then shrugs, and smiles.” How do we know what she’s thinking? Did the Amazing Kreskin fill us in?
  • Bit of an echo: “Next morning, suited up and grinning, Woodman strides past the waiting Arrow.... He finds Kate in the locker area suiting up.”
  • “He looks at her in chagrined disbelief and then walks off.” [Sigh] Give it up, kids. “Chagrined disbelief.” Please.
  • “Gordon has invited U.S. Air Force Colonel Fairchild and Air Marshal Curtis to watch the flight.” We don’t know that. We just know that Gordon, Fairchild, and Curtis are all situated in the control tower. They could have shown up by themselves, peremptorily, as it were.
  • “Woodman puts the Arrow through some basic manœuvres.” Like?
  • “The captain hits the scramble alarm.” No, he presses a big red button.
  • “On the radio in the Avro lounge, the team listens to the prime minister’s address to the nation.” Wow. Now AudioVision is interpreting disembodied voices. This isn’t captioning. How about just “In the Avro lounge,” plus a few descriptions of Kate’s smoking or what everyone’s wearing?
  • “Smye, far from reassured, sits down anxiously to wait.” Yet again, how do we know?
  • “Over the plant’s P.A. system, the news is made public by Fred Smye.” This isn’t captioning, it’s audio description. In reality, “Smye sits in an office, speaking into a large grey microphone, as staff talk among themselves in a nearby corridor.”
  • “Joe sits in their new, un-paid-for car, utterly dejected.” Gosh, I’d almost forgotten the extensive dialogue between Joe and his wife about how they’d afford the new car. “Un-paid-for”: Such an elegant turn of phrase. And it was so considerate of AudioDescription to tell us how Joe feels, because, as we all know, blind viewers cannot figure out emotions for themselves.
  • But we’re not done yet! “Breaking down, Ruby cries for both of them.” She does? Who says? Did Joe tell us?
  • “He too can only watch in deepening despair as the grim work proceeds.” Looks more like resignation to me, but AudioVision is not interested in letting us make up our own minds.
  • “Finally, the military police carry the crates away for disposal.” No, they just take them away. We don’t see what happens to the crates.
  • “Diefenbaker jolts awake in bed, wide-eyed in fear.” Wide-eyed, yes. Fear, no.
  • The Arrow “does a slow roll as a farewell salute.” No, it does a slow roll. We don’t know the purpose.
  • A closing title appears, and it is actually introduced properly (“A title appears”). It’s not even read verbatim. I’ll spare you the details.
  • Of course, having flubbed the reading of multiple title cards, they have to outdo themselves. Characters in the film are “reprised” at closing with close-up shots and onscreen titles describing their lives.
    • The title reads: “Kate O’Hara: Is a composite character inspired by the women engineers at Avro who worked on the design and production of the Arrow.”
    • The description states: “Kate O’Hara: She is a composite character inspired by the women engineers and personnel at Avro who contributed to the building of the Arrow.”
  • However, AudioVision was required to abbreviate some later titles that described the ultimate fate of the Avro Corp. and the careers of unsung Avro engineers. Yet AudioVision lets half a minute pass by at the conclusion of the program without reading out credits; that time could have been used to read at least a selection more, including the copyright declaration. AudioVision does, however, take the time to plug itself – twice.