ALIENS () Audio Description
Writing independent audio-description for the sci-fi/action/horror film ALIENS.
by Brett Coulstock. .
So, I'm a sighted guy, and I love audio-described film and television.
From way back I was a huge fan of audio-drama: from The Story of Star Wars to Earthsearch 2 and The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy. Those were the days before we had a VHS player, and if you wanted something live-action that wasn't at the movies, or not showing on television, audio drama filled that gap.
Audio drama is not a passive medium, you need lean on your imagination to do some heavy lifting, and that's one of the things that draws me to it.
Even during the days of VHS, the tapes were expensive, and I wound up taping television and films onto cassette tape. Voilà, instant audio-drama!
I taped a lot of Doctor Who (and there is a long tradition of this among Doctor Who fans) and a few films. Ghostbusters was one of the films I remember taping. The Black Hole was another.
It's fair to say, if you asked me what my favourite film was in the late 80's or early 90's, I would have said Aliens, and that recording was by far, my most frequently-played tape.
In the 2010s I discovered Audio Description and I loved it. It was what I was doing when I was 10, only with someone filling in the bits I couldn't see, and it fits on my iPod instead of my bulky Walkman!
So when I discovered this amazing medium, it wasn't long before I went looking for Aliens.
I checked my DVDs and Blu-rays (I have 3 copies of the film). I checked the internet. What I found is that none of the current or historical releases of the film have an audio-description track. Further, to the best of my knowledge, it's not on any streaming services either.
There's a place on the internet that hosts the audio tracks of audio-described movies and television. For some titles, this is the only place they're available.
They don't have Aliens either.
Now, let's be clear about this: I enjoy audio-description because it gives my mind a movie to watch while I wash the dishes or shovel manure or drive to work, but it's a bonus feature for me. If I want to watch a film, I have the option — the privilege — of sitting down and actually watching it.
But for blind and vision-impaired people, this is not a nice extra thing to have, it's essential, it's how they watch movies.
My curiosity about audio-description, and my love of writing, lead me to start writing audio-description scripts. I started with some Doctor Who episodes from the 60s and 70s.
Sometimes I'd think about doing Aliens. It's a 2.5 hour film though with a lot of action: that's a big jump from 22 minute episodes of English actors talking to each other in space-ship corridors or on location in a quarry.
I don't think I consciously decided to start doing it. One day I just found myself 27 theatrical minutes into writing a script for it.
Writing the Script
To start with, I spent a ridiculously uncommercial number of hours writing and revising this script. It was very much a labour of love.
I think I started in May, 2023, and I was finished that month. I did the “writer thing” of putting it in a drawer for a while to get some distance from it. I know I started revising the draft . I'd been talking to another AD writer and narrator Kyle Warwick-Mathieu about the possibility of recording it. I have ambitions in that direction also, but I'm far behind him in experience and recording and producing 2.5 hours seemed daunting to me. I mailed him the first 15 minutes and he did a demo that blew me away.
I finished the script on , a few days before my 50th birthday.
It's all a learning experience.
That's what I told myself when I sent him my finished script, and then realised the timings didn't match.
See, we both have different versions of the film. I have a DVD copy, and he has a Blu-ray copy.
Now, one element of difference can be the fact they were ripped with different settings. The complex interactions of number of frames per second and other factors can be extremely subtle, leading to large differences.
Subsequent investigation of the covers of a couple of different copies of the film shows different running times: 152 minutes, 154 minutes and 157 minutes.
Of course, in commercial settings, this is never a problem. There is one and only one version of the film. But Kyle and myself we were using what we had to hand.
So for about 900+ cues I had to go and fix the timings.
Fortunately I'm also a computer programmer, and I write audio-description using subtitling software which saves in a structured, open text-format known as .srt. So I wrote a program to figure out what percentage of the film each cue appeared at, and then remap that to the equivalent percentage of the different version of the film. I kind of enjoyed the challenge of that.
After that, it was a matter of adjusting them by hand. That took about 2 weeks, and in some ways was a harder job than writing them from scratch.
(Let me clarify about the time-frame here: I have a day job, and I live on a farm and there's always something needing doing. I work in my lunch-breaks, and snatch 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there to work on it.)
The real silver-lining was essentially I had the opportunity to do another edit pass, and it really elevated the quality of the script. There were a few cues I wasn't happy with, and during the editing process I found the time and energy to rework them.
I'd also like, at this point, to thank Kyle who contributed some edits where I'd missed a word, or went plural on a singular, or just “sounded like writing”. A second pair of eyes, and especially someone who reads aloud every single word you've written, is invaluable.
I worried after the first draft that I'd over-written — always a danger and did the 2nd draft with an eye on trying to cut the word-count.
Other than trimming a word or two here and there, I decided that Aliens is not a film about people sitting in offices and kitchens talking. It's a long film, it's set in a number of locations that aren't every-day and need description, with new technology and creatures which also require description, and it's a fast-paced action film for most of the last third or so.
I found some support in Louise Fryer's excellent book An Introduction to Audio Description - A Practical Guide () where she writes about Action Films:
Films that come under the explosion/fire subdivision of Rasheed and Shah’s action film category are likely to take longer to script by requiring more description and being more difficult to time than romantic films. In both types the soundtrack will be important, but for different reasons. Action movies will have a louder soundtrack and description will need to be threaded through bursts of gunfire, explosions, etc
So I'm confident that the length is what's required to tell the story.
The final script weighs in at 8,905 words (including credits), and is 974 cues.
I think I've watched Aliens for the last time in a long time. In the last 2–3 months I've watched it over and over and over, too many times, back and forth and out of order in 5–10 second chunks.
I think I'm done.
Reflections, Challenges and Regrets
I always say about audio-description, you can only do what you can do.
You do the best job you can, but you have to acknowledge that it's an imperfect art and you'll never capture the complexity and nuances you want to.
It means, you might want to describe an impressive cave with a high ceiling, beautiful arrays of stalactites and stalagmites, and describe the way a flickering torch casts a warm light over a frozen cascade of flowstone ...
But all you have time to say is the appallingly rudimentary “a cave”.
So here's a few notes on things I couldn't quite manage, and the things I thought worked well.
Burke and Ripley
Burke and Gorman visit Ripley in her tiny, utilitarian apartment to invite her to participate in the mission. It's a minor thing, but Burke adds milk to his coffee while he's talking, and he also fiddles with Ripley's stuff and she's irritated with him and snatches it away. It's a little thing, a nuance of characterisation that's not in the script so probably came from the actors. It's not essential to the story, and there was no space for it in the scene.
Naming The Marines
One of the guidelines/rules of audio-description is that you're generally not supposed to name a character before they are named in the production. Unless the film-makers have contrived to have a character explicitly named early on, they can wind up going through a larger part of a film as "the bearded man" instead of "Joe" — 4 precious syllables rather than 1.
This is, I think, one of the areas where film-makers could make a small but meaningful difference in the quality of audio-description — make sure, where possible, characters are named early. Even if it's just a flash of a security-pass or something.
Aliens has a large-ish cast, and even as a sighted person, it's hard to identify and distinguish all the marines from each other. Even after 30 years I had to look up Crowe and Wierzbowski up on a wiki to see who they actually were (of the two, only Crowe has one actual line of dialogue). The early scenes introducing the Marines are heavy with dialogue, banter and non-verbal communication, showing the marines are an integrated unit.
So I've technically cheated a little and generally just flat-out named characters in the interests of helping people distinguish the cast. Certainly there was not much space to describe many of the characters — I could never fit in Ripley's leather jacket, or Vasquez's red bandana, or the graffiti on Hudson's armour.
I say technically because the marines are all explicitly named on a computer-screen as part of their revival from hyper-sleep.
It's Bill Paxton's Hudson who typifies the arrogance and hubris of the marines, but he's a clown and a loud-mouth. Vasquez is a more serious (and I think, more interesting) character, but she shows the same attitude only she expresses it differently.
In response to Ripley's distress at describing her traumatic experience, she interrupts her stammering account and says "Look man, I only need to know one thing: Where. They. Are." and she mimes shooting a gun. I wish I could have put that little mime in.
The power-loader scene was, far and away, my favourite scene to describe. Cameron's characterisation of Ripley — establishing that not only can she use this futuristic forklift but that she's skilled at it — is fantastic. I love the way Apone challenges Ripley, not in a hostile way, but in a sense that he's happy to have help, but doesn't need someone who needs supervision getting in their way.
The methodical way Ripley straps herself in and starts up the machine — a scene that is all “show” and no “tell” — is a gift to the audio describer.
The Adult Aliens
The adult aliens are distinct creatures with a unique aesthetic style, one that is complex to describe. In the first film Alien the creature largely keeps to the shadows but when it's on screen director Ridley Scott keeps the camera nailed to it. Aliens is largely an action film so the aliens move and the camera never dwells on them the same way. Overwhelmingly, you get a sense of their numbers, like a wolf-pack running down prey. I found myself using the word “skeletal” and “insect” a lot, relatively impoverished adjectives that fall somewhat short of original concept artist H.R Giger's distinct biomechanical style.
It's those kind of circumstances that an audio introduction would be useful for.
The other thing was I wasn't able to really describe was the massive muzzle-flares of the smart-guns, or even the pulse-rifles. It's a huge part of the visual language of the film, and they're loud and dominating and they're less a sound effect and almost their own kind of dialogue. Describing over the top of them robs them of their power.
Cameron's script doesn't mention the muzzle-flash, but he clearly wants a fierce military visual for the weapons:
In the same instant Hicks' rifle slashes INTO FRAME. Slams Vasquez' barrel upwards. A STREAM OF TRACER FIRE rips into the ceiling.— Aliens by James Cameron, September 23 1985
I believe Alan Dean Foster carries the description of "tracer fire" forward into the novelisation. I toyed with the idea of describing it as such — it sounds cool, and is a nice equivalent visual, but ultimately, it's not in the film, and there's a certain responsibility to fidelity. By necessity we abbreviate, we omit, we shuffle, but what we cannot do is invent.
The genre of horror is sometimes one of subtlety, and sometimes one of demented and glorious excess. Horror evokes so many emotional states — revulsion, fascination, fear, and anxiety to name a few. These are primal emotions, and it follows then that robust and expressive language is required to bring the visual spectacle (no matter how stomach-churning it may be) to life. I'll confess to an almost giddy delight in finding the right words for a horrifying visual, like kids trying to gross each other out.
Here's three prompts from a scene late in the film:
806: A fat tube, articulated like an elephant's trunk, births an egg on the ground, dripping with slime.
807 : The ovipositor is at the end of something resembling an enormous, bloated length of translucent intestine, hanging from overhead pipes.
808: The sickly honey-yellow interior bulges with eggs.
It's always a good day when you can use the words “bloated” and “intestine” in a sentence.
However I should point out that all this is in the service of the story, and the mood, to describe as best as possible the impact of the appearance of the Queen. The guns and action and explosions come to an absolute screeching halt at this point in the film: this moment is a quiet moment, a stillness in the eye of the storm, and it needs the literal gory details.
Writers can easily fall into the “I've got a thesaurus” trap and liberally employ archaic and specialist language as a kind of showing off. This is a common enough failing that some of the Audio Description guidelines explicitly caution against this.
So I comb through my drafts looking for my ego slipping in a little showboating while I'm not looking.
In this case, the only word that gave me pause is ovipositor — it's a word from animal anatomy, and is an egg-laying structure mostly found in insects and fish.
I felt justified using it because partly that is exactly how it's referred to in the film script, partly because it gives the description an authority and specificity, something that helps make an entirely imaginary creature perhaps a little more real; but mostly because it's clear from the preceding prompt that that's what it is and there's no reason to avoid applying the most appropriate word just because it's not a common word.
One of my ambitions in audio-description is to write an auteur script, that is, use as much of the actual film script and other supplemental details in the description.
Cameron's script for Aliens is exceptionally well crafted, and as a writer-director it would have been fantastic to use that approach to bring his voice as much as possible to the description. I mean, consider the first line of the script:
Silent and endless. The stars shine like the love of God … cold and remote.— Aliens by James Cameron, September 23 1985
That would have made brilliant audio-description. But I don't think I have enough experience yet to skillfully weave the words from the script seamlessly in with the other connective-tissue required to make it work. And it would have taken even longer to write.
Another day maybe.
This is independent audio-description: that is the scripts are unofficial and not commissioned by Disney, 20th Century Fox, or any other corporation. I believe in cultural competency, inclusion and equality, and have attempted to describe the characters and situations fairly, without prejudice and without intent to offend. All information in the scripts are believed to be correct at the time of writing, but they have not passed through a quality control process, and the accuracy or correctness of this content cannot be guaranteed.
If you have any concerns about this content, please contact me.
Copyright and Licensing
Linked audio-description scripts copyright © Brett Coulstock.
Licence for all formats: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Read my reasons why I share audio-description.
This is for the blu-ray version of the film, running time:
- CSV format (for spreadsheets)
- RTF format (printable script for recording)
- HTML format (online script for recording)
- SRT format (Subtitle file for syncing text with video)
- WebVTT format (Web Video Text Tracks format)
The scripts feature a number of custom notations. They are:
- I found it convenient to divide the film into 9 “acts” and work on them separately. This cue indicates to my file-cutting and joining program where these segments begin and end.
- This indicates the audio should be “right aligned”. That is, it matters less about exactly when a voice-over starts, but it's important where it ends. Typically, a significant sound effect, music sting of piece of dialouge follows immediately.
- Pronounciation guide.
- [STEP] or [OVER DIALOGUE]
- Explicitly notes that the voice-over covers dialogue, and is not an error.
The map is not the territory. A script is not a movie. The timings are my best estimate. Unless it's a cue marked ">", or it would go over a crucial sound effect, music cue or piece of dialogue, it doesn't matter if the narration doesn't end precisely on my timings.
And always, if something else works better on the day in your edit software, do that.
- Aliens Shooting Script, Final draft, dated September 23rd 1985.
- Xenopedia: The Aliens vs Predator Wiki:
- Aliens vs Predator Galaxy forum