When it comes to AD, a name can be, well, just about everything. There’s really no way to describe things without naming them, and this applies to people too. I recently described a film where, for stylistic reasons, the writer had chosen not to give the characters names, letting their appearances and roles identify them from start to finish. I’m sure it must be tricky to stick to that concept as a writer and navigate all the communication between characters without one person ever addressing another by name, and yet this particular writer clearly thought it worth the effort to maintain the namelessness of every character in the story. Unwieldy as this task may be for the screenwriter, however, it’s almost impossible for an audio describer to forge ahead through an entire film without ever identifying any of the characters by name.
There are certainly films that are essentially two-handers, like the award-winning Irish film ‘Once’, in which the two leads are credited only as ‘Him’ and ‘Her’, but that’s less difficult when there are only two characters to distinguish between, and gender helpfully does that job already. It becomes much more complicated when there’s an ensemble cast full of nameless characters, such as the one I recently described, and it’s just too unwieldy to repeatedly refer to them by a particular attribute they have, for example, ‘The bearded man turns to the woman with glasses and whispers something, pointing at the older, bald man at the window.’ It might work for a line or two, but it gets tedious and time-consuming scene after scene, and I believe it actually detracts from the viewer’s enjoyment of the film by interrupting the flow. Naming unnamed characters by their role can be similarly jarring, and it effectively limits the character to that particular aspect of their personality as well, eg. ‘the mother’ or ‘the gardener’.
So what can be done? In the case of the particular film I mentioned, I asked permission of the production team to use the names for the characters that they’d been given in the film’s pre-production script, and when I explained how much more fluently this would allow the AD to run, the producers readily agreed. In a case where the film-makers have never envisaged names for their unnamed characters, I think it would still be preferable to devise some sort of working title for each major role to allow for improved ability to do the film justice in the audio description. Sure, by giving characters names in the AD track that they’re never given elsewhere in the film, the AD-user is privy to information that the sighted viewer never gets, but on the other hand, the AD is there because its user doesn’t have access to the same visual cues and clues that the sighted viewer takes for granted, and so the visual information in the film is always going to have to be represented verbally by the describer. Concise descriptors are key to a good AD script, partly to allow as much other information in as possible, and people’s names are possibly the most concise descriptors of all.
Next time you’re appreciating a film, a TV drama or a piece of theatre, just take note of when each character is introduced by name. You might be surprised how often even quite pivotal characters aren’t named until very late in the piece, and some not at all. It’s something that screenwriters and playwrights could certainly bear in mind, and I’m sure as their awareness of AD increases, so too will their eagerness to introduce their characters nice and early! Although I’ve been describing for a long time now, I never fail to find a little glow of satisfaction in putting a name to a face.