Los Angeles, CA, Dec. 16 – “Our view remains back by the crash site, watching as they venture out across the permafrost in the gloomy ice tunnel. With the child tucked in his arm, Mando follows the labyrinthian path as it winds around frosty kraggs, lit softly in a blush tint by sunlight that finds its way in through intermittent gaps above. The infant’s wide, curious eyes take in the sublime, arctic environment.” – Audio Description (AD) from Episode 2, Season 2 of The Mandalorian
That is just a small taste of the fantastic audio description for Season 2 of The Mandalorian. Season 1 of the show received an award from the American Council for the Blind for their outstanding audio description in July of 2020. Season 2 kept up the quality of the audio description and is genuinely vivid and beautiful.
In case you are unaware, audio description is a service that can be turned on and off similarly to closed captions. It describes the visuals of a scene in between dialogue lines to help viewers with low vision get a better sense of the stage. Although the audio description is not as widely known or utilized as closed captioning, it is just as important. Most major streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and Disney+) currently offer audio description on most of their original content.
What makes the audio description on The Mandalorian so good? First of all, the descriptive language they use is impressive. They manage to describe the world of Star Wars in vivid detail correctly. The Star Wars universe typically involves aliens, creatures, ships, planets and other sci-fi elements of all shapes and sizes. The majority of these elements do not exist in the real world, which one would think would make them hard to describe to people with low vision. The team behind the audio description of The Mandalorian seems to tackle these descriptions with ease, making them clear, concise, and graceful as if the words came from a book.
Although I’m not entirely blind, I am visually impaired; I usually watch media with audio description to help me understand quick cutting action scenes and text on the screen. The Mandalorian has plenty of quick-cutting, space-western action that the team describes fantastically. I specifically remember in Season 1, the audio description said, “He delivers the coup de grâce.” I didn’t even know what that meant, but now that I know it means kill shot, it has become part of my vocabulary. The audio description writers must find the balance between description using visual terms and using accurate Star Wars terminology for alien species, ships and vehicles.
Nicol Zanzarella is the narrator of the audio description for The Mandalorian.
“Working on the AD for the Mandalorian, really just drives home how high the quality of writing can be for AD, the kind of thought and depth that can (and should) go into it,” she said. “Not every program will need the same kind of attention to detail, but I really think this should serve as an example even for the most basic programming. It flows, it doesn’t pander, but it also gives enough information for the first-time viewer – all while staying true to the feeling, the history, the mythology of the entire franchise.”
Zanzarella’s voice fits perfectly into the show. She is never hard to understand, and the narration is entirely seamless. She also does a great job of not filling every moment of silence with narration. Instead, she gives the audience enough time to enjoy the fantastic soundtrack that accompanies the space western.
“As a narrator, you just want to make sure you are honoring all of that with the same level of care and storytelling – all while hoping to be a seamless part of the program, and not interrupt it.”
I typically watch The Mandalorian with friends who do not have low vision. Still, the audio description is so good for the show that they don’t mind watching it with the description turned on. The narrative often points out things my friends didn’t even see. Like me, they are in awe of the audio description.
When asked about helping to make The Mandalorian and the Star Wars universe more accessible, Zanzarella says, “as far as accessibility, I think it meets the many possible meanings of that word.”
“Certainly, I hope that audio description will become as widely available and mainstream as closed captioning. The entertainment industry is doing a severe disservice to itself to ignore a hungry and enthusiastic part of its audience. Art is for everyone.”
The Mandalorian is setting the bar high for what audio description can and should be. It goes beyond the bare minimum of describing a scene’s actions and beautifully describes entire worlds in vivid detail. This is truly “the way.” The Mandalorian is currently streaming on Disney+ and has its Season 2 finale on Friday, December 18, 2020.
Alex Howard is a Communications Fellow in RespectAbility’s National Leadership Program for Winter 2020. This past year, Howard was diagnosed as one of only 17 people in the world with a rare mitochondrial disorder called MePAN. One of the most significant symptoms of MePan is limited vision. Howard is proactive in finding ways to use technology to overcome his disabilities and is a passionate advocate of audio description for all media, everywhere. Howard’s ultimate goal is to help those with any kind of disability enjoy films and television so that, hopefully, more people will be able to connect and share a love for entertainment.