Roy Samuelson may not be a name and face whose is easily recognized outside of the Hollywood entertainment industry but his voice is one that most people have heard over and over. Whether narrating for the visually impaired for a film or series, delivering promos on the radio, adding his voice to scenes on your favorite program, Samuelson’s talent embodies the pinnacle of success in the Hollywood world of voiceover artists.
In my ever-growing ability to meet new people, explore new and wonderful means of interviews and to boldly go where no other journalist has gone before, I’d like to introduce you to Roy Samuelson. I had the distinct pleasure and privilege to talk with The Voice of Hollywood, Roy Samuelson.
We spoke on a number of topics from Audio Description, the Late Great Don LaFontaine, Roy’s humble beginnings and a bunch of topics. This will be an interview that will not only inspire you but, give you the ability to hear the interview, feel our passion and get to know Roy a little more. I hope that through ‘listening’ to the interview, as well as reading it, below, you’ll be able to understand how a blind or low-vision person can enjoy a film and I’ve included two links to Roy’s site that have a small clip from Pulp Fiction. One is without and the other is with Audio Description. Then and only then will you be totally immersed into the dialog and action and see how over the past 30 years, Audio Description truly gives a person with vision disability the “ability” to see by hearing.
THT: Hi, Roy how are you? Thank you for allowing me to interview you today.
ROY: “Hey, I’m doing great. Thanks so much for having me here. Good to be here.”
THT: I read about what you do and Audio Description. This is great because I have a 4% hearing loss from the United States Navy and use the Sennheiser Headset to hear TV better. And so my wife doesn’t have to put up with the volume so high. So, to start out with, Roy how long have you been doing voice overs? When did you start and what got you interested in voice overs? Finally, why is it so important to connect hearing loss with sight loss?
ROY: “Well, my own background in voice-over started back in Orlando Florida, actually, with a theme park attraction for Disney World. It was a, imagine…like a movie theater with about 60 seats or so, that would go through scenes of movies with animatronic characters from all sorts of movies. As a host, I would have a mic and point out. “Oh, here’s Gene Kelly singing in the rain” or “here’s Indiana Jones” or whatever it was but it was all timed to certain audio cues and visual cues as well as other things, so it was kind of like live audio description in the sense.”
“But it was my first paying job that kind of got the ball rolling. Most of my work is now in Los Angeles and has been varied in the world of voice over, whether it’s commercials or video games and a lot of announcer and narration work including audiobooks. This work has kind of transitioned to the audio description passion maybe about 5 or 6 years ago although I still do all kinds of voice-overs. But that’s the one I’m most excited to talk about.”
THT: How is it important to connect hearing loss to sight loss? I think that’s something I read in your you’re a brief that I got from Anthony.
ROY: “Well the cool thing that’s happening with media, specifically TV and movies, is access for people with different kinds of disabilities. So for example, with your experience with a Sennheiser, it’s amplifying the audio so it can help include you with the with people who have, who are able to hear a little differently. With closed captioning, I think, it’s a great example with a lot of people. It’s no different from Facebook, Twitter or even Instagram accounts. You see videos, there’s a lot of content that already has closed captioning. It’s become common. So for those who do have hearing disabilities, like yourself, and they have their mute on their device whether it’s a laptop or a smartphone or tablet they’re able to enjoy the content without hearing it.”
“What’s happening with audio description, however, it’s a similar kind of inclusion for those who are blind and low-vision so that people that can see the visuals, are being able to be included in the conversation about what’s happening. If I can dive off kind of in here, the idea that disability is not something to shy away from but it’s something to: Okay, well here’s a disability and here’s how we’re going to include those people with disabilities, to be able to be a part of the conversation, enjoy the content, the story and the producers intent in a way that, for example, a sighted person would be able to enjoy it. I can get into the details later but that’s kind of the gist of where things are going there.”
THT: I get that because as a screenwriter, I’m reading the action and that’s when I listened to your sample that I got the feeling that, you know, he said, “He walks over to the counter, puts the briefcase down, fumbles with the combination and flips it open.” That’s really cool because that’s just action but it’s really brief, but enough to give the listener the intent to say, “Wow! I’m really immersed in this thing,” right?
ROY: “Yeah, and that’s a great word immersed. As sighted people, we absorb that and this is a way for the blind and low-vision audiences to absorb that same content and still remain [immersed] in the story and in the emotional connection that’s happening in the story.”
THT: The late great Don LaFontaine (the Voice) did the voice over for my disc jockey company which I ran on my website until his death. Then with his widow’s – Nita Whitaker – permission, I was allowed to run it for a couple of years after that. I sent it to you and it’s still up there but now as a memorial to him. I know Joan Baker and Rudy Gaskins and Joan told me once that Don did the voice-over introduction to the 2007 Promax BDA marketing conference for her. She said it was funny as hell. Did you ever get a chance to meet and work with Don and what did you think about him as a voice-over artist?
ROY: “He brought professionalism and elevated a standard of excellence that is pretty much second to none. In the Screen Actors Guild there’s a SAG-AFTRA foundation and it has the Don LaFontaine Voice-Over Lab which has professional studios, coaches and experts come in and teach, mentor, train and work out and play with the voice-over techniques.”
“That’s a part of his legacy that he left for other performers like myself and to be able to hear you say how much you’ve been touched by his contribution, well, it’s just another beautiful story to hear of his care and connection with people. It really wasn’t just a one-sided but he genuinely, from the experiences that I’ve heard from you, and the actual contributions he’s made, it’s real generosity. That’s no wonder he was such a success, you know, I think those two things are tied.”
“I’m sure with your experience it wasn’t just exclusively his talent and exclusively the excellence that he brought. Also, I got to say the word connection. He seemed to authentically connect with you in the way that you described him and your excitement, even in the words, in how you’re bringing it up…it’s just a delight to hear.”
THT: You know, it’s really true because Don’s last email to me was August 15th, 2008. He was so kind. I simply asked him: How much to do the voice over for my DJ company? I sent him the ad copy and what he sent me back was unbelievable. He said he changed one word into two and the MP3 was a gift. I first heard him on the Geico commercials and I simply reached out. His last words in his email to me were: “I deeply appreciate your taking the time to write to me. It means more than I can say.” I’m getting the chills while I read this. How did much did he inspire you personally?
ROY: “Well, I think the example of the talents and the connection that he brought, as an expert in his field, helped him to do his best and that best was always growing. That’s a living legacy that any person, regardless of the field that they’re in, voice-over or otherwise, can follow. It’s hard for me to think of a time where he’s ever compared himself to someone else or made it as if it was a competition against someone else. His legacy was to do the best work. Maybe this is my limited understanding of what he’s done, but to be able to see, again, through the Don LaFontaine voice-over lab in the SAG-AFTRA in the foundation. This is something that he gave back. So it really was two-way street with him as it continues today. That influence and being able to see how he modeled excellence, how he modeled quality, how he did his job in a way that continues to elevate this industry to this day, I think that’s something that we can all get something from and it’s definitely something that I take personally.”
THT: Well, that’s fantastic, you know and it is people like that who really inspire us to do great things. He inspired me. I just was so touched, man! A total stranger. He just did that for me without even a second thought. He was like an angel. Unbelievable. Let’s get into audio description from a moment or video description as they call it.
ROY: “It’s what they call it, yeah.”
THT: I listened to the sample…
ROY: “It’s true. There’s a bunch of different terms. I like to default to the audio description just to keep it consistent, but you’re right, there are other terms that describe the same thing. Yes!”
THT: I listened to the sample without the audio description and then with it. What a massive difference, you know? Like I said earlier, being a screenwriter, you can hear the action that you actually write. It really makes a difference. So tell me about what got you into doing this besides what you already said and can you elaborate more importantly about persons with a disability and blind and low-vision audiences. I think you already touched on it, but can you just get into it to a little bit more, please.
ROY: “Sure, I’d love to but I think like you said it’s the experience as a sighted person, to have a scene from a movie or TV show without the context of visuals its, ah…there are blanks. And there’s almost a hunger to have those blanks filled in. I’ve never used this example before but the first thing that comes to mind is: If you’ve ever been in a public setting where someone is having a phone conversation whether or not they’re talking loud, there’s something that’s missing and it’s the other end of the conversation.”
“You’re only hearing one side and there is this vacuum. It’s an ache, almost to want to know what the other person is saying, even though you have no interest in this conversation whatsoever. It’s like, to fill in that gap. I’m wondering if we can make a leap to audio description specifically with audio description, I like to make the analogy for sighted audiences that haven’t been familiar with it, that people who listen to a sportscaster, on the radio giving a play-by-play of a game.”
“That gives a sense of what audio description does for movie or TV show. It’s not the minute details of every single thing that’s happening in the game, but it’s the play-by-play like, what’s the story? What are the things that you want to hear what’s happening in the game? That’s a similar comparison to audio description and as you said, it’s with audio description, I do read from a special script. It’s been meticulously crafted. The writers of audio description are called Describers and those Describers take original content, they watch the video and they hear it and they may even have a produced it.”
“Take one of your screenplays, for example, they [the Describers] read along with the TV show, documentary, or movie and they fill in the blanks of what’s happening visually. The challenge is that they’ve got a limited time, usually it’s in between dialogue and they do a really good job of not trying to overlap what’s actually being said in production. Then they take the essential elements, that I believe, are the producers or directors intent, visually and communicate those with a script that I narrate. It’s because of that, that fills in the gaps visually, for the blind and low-vision audiences. I can keep going, you can hear I’m getting excited.”
THT: You know that’s great and you kind of, ‘did’ leap into my next question. Who was the very first voice over artist to start audio description, when was its actual launch date, and how many voice-over artists are participating in this medium?
ROY: “Great questions. I’ve only been involved in the audio description for about 5 or 6 years as I said, but the actual work of audio description has been around 30 years. What’s happening, I think, in the last 10 years, is that there’s an awareness that’s growing not only in the entertainment industry but also in the audiences. So more blind and low-vision audiences are becoming aware of this opportunity. Even sighted audiences are becoming aware of it in the sense that people who live in Los Angeles and commuting can be a challenge.”
“This is another form of audio entertainment that you can catch up on your TV shows while you’re driving. Keep your eyes on the road and listen to the audio description and you get the sense of what’s happening. If you’re cooking at home, you can keep your eyes on the baking or the mixing and still be able to be a part of the conversation. So, this kind of work is not exclusively for a blind and low-vision and but that’s the intent. That’s the inclusion that we’re talking about. But in the same way that people use closed captioning that don’t have hearing loss the low-vision and blind community can also enjoy audio description. This is the benefit of all kinds of audiences.”
“One of the more prominent examples of audio description happened about 14 years ago. Stevie Wonder had a video called “What the Fuss.” And an audio track was created and was narrated one of the smoothest audio description narrators and it’s done by Busta Rhymes. The entire video has so many visual elements that Busta Rhymes does talk over all the lyrics. So with a video like that, you can hear the song by itself or you could hear the audio description track, which is also part of the video and it brings you into the world. It’s the vibe. It’s a feeling. It’s the emotional content and you get the gist of what’s happening visually and that was 15 years ago!”
“So there’s a lot of stuff that’s happening even now! Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu are going to be fully compliant by 2020. Amazon and some of the new services that are coming out like Apple TV Plus just had an announcement that they’ve got audio description, I think, for multiple languages as well. So this is a really growing field.”
THT: That’s really interesting and you know, I find it an incredible asset to what is out there now because we are now becoming more inclusive to people with disabilities and I think that’s vital to our community. I think it’s really a fantastic thing that we’re doing. Please tell me about your work at Walt Disney World’s Great Movie Ride and with Todd-AO post-production sound facility. What was that experience like?
ROY: “Let’s start with that Great Movie Ride. I kind of gave you a little brush stroke about what it’s like as an audience member and what I was doing. But one of the greatest things about that particular attraction was that I played both the host and also a gangster, that kind of hijacks the vehicle and gets blown up every 7 minutes. Both of those experiences were on mic and it was the same show over and over and over again. You know, as a kid, I was doing this and it got kind of repetitive after the first few times of doing it.”
“The novelty wore off and so I started challenging myself say, like, okay, well, here’s the same script, what can I do a little differently? Like how is this going to work with the audience? And I’d try something out and it might fail. It failed in the sense that people didn’t like it or maybe it didn’t feel right when I did it or it came across as condescending to the audience or people just weren’t paying attention. Whatever, and each time I did it, I tried to find a different way that would adjust my message of the story of what the narration was. If you remember Karate Kid, and Mr. Myagi with wax on wax off and practicing the same motion, right?”
ROY: “So that wax on wax off example, instead of cars, it was the script, the spiel, and each time I did it, I tried to find a better way. That kind of training helped to build in the best way and it was fun to experiment and it was playing! It really got me charged up and it helped me learn. Once you do something it’s not like: Here we are going to plateau and that’s it! No, it’s like, what can we do that’s got to be a little better and being able to say: Well, we tried that and it didn’t work at all and maybe I can try this again in that context. That was such a great experience for me to be able to have that repetition and play with a with an audience.”
“As far as TODD-AO goes…I worked in the post-production sound company as you said and that was being surrounded with all kinds of sound experts whether it was the sound mixers or the sound editors and even a little bit of transfer of learning how assets move from one place to another. By being surrounded by the efforts that go into this essentially invisible thing: audio, and learning what works and what doesn’t, with all the specs, requirements, talent and actors coming in and re-recording their lines, I saw how they watched it on the screen and that kind of emerged me in the world of sound. In a way, that educated me to the bigger picture outside of just, you know, the voice over person standing in front of a mic. I learned so much!”
THT: Yeah, you know, you bring up a couple of points. I want to get to them before I forget and I want to unpack these because there are three vital things that you said that bring the up you attempting to find a new way to do something because it was so repetitive. You said I want to try something else and it failed or I want to try something else because that failed. It brings to mind two things: Tony Robbins says if something doesn’t work (hand clap) try something else. If that doesn’t work (hand clap), try something else and eventually you’re going to get there. You know what FAIL is, right? Simply put, FAIL = First Attempt In Learning. So you attempted to learn, you failed, you learned and then you adapted. Then you made it work! Then you adapted even more and you started creating these Neurolinguistic programming capabilities that Tony speaks of. Then, you really shined and that’s what brought me to that conversation. Have you heard of that before? Neurolinguistic Programming?
ROY: “Yeah, and my experience is a very specific experience of that. I’m sure obviously you’re aware of it, so there are hundreds of examples like that where people do find ways to be in a certain situation and I’m calling it ‘play’ and you did with the acronym FAIL, it’s that first attempt and making a new first attempt. There’s a resilience…resilience might be too strong, but you know what I mean, right?”
THT: Yep! And another thing that you brought up was the sound. Sound is so vital in a movie that when I listen to the: example without the audio description and just heard it, the dead space and there’s no music and I’m saying: Wow, this is boring. Then I heard the audio description and then it got more exciting. I was introduced to Scott Martin-Gerhsin by my friend Bill Knopf at NASA who was the head of the Cassini spacecraft mission that went to Saturn. Scott was the sound editor and designer for The Martian, Star Trek, Pacific Rim and worked at NASA for their sound…This guy’s a master in sound, he’s like amazing, and to the human, because it drives the entire story and by you doing this, you’re adding that component that’s missing.
So it’s truly an uplifting angle on how the professionals in the post-production side of the business are providing this inclusion and access to the blind and low-vision community. What advice can you give to our readers who are interested in becoming voice-over artists and how can they get involved with being a part of the audio description?
ROY: “I’d love to share that. I want to go back for just a second to Scott. The one more analogy that comes to mind and I did was excited thinking about this is that, as a sighted audience member, if you hear audio, let’s say footsteps. It’s folly. You see someone walking on-screen and if the footsteps are a little bit off or there are no footsteps; either of those extremes, whether it’s too much, not enough or if it’s off, that stands out so sharply. But when it’s done right, when there’s good folly, when you hear that, that crinkle of a jacket when someone moves their arm or someone’s walking down some steps, it’s just a part of film and you don’t even notice it. That is excellence.”
THT: Yeah, and what you hear is not really shoes walking across the floor. It’s like a little cup or something that they do with a tiny little piece of flooring.
ROY: “That’s an illusion!”
THT: That’s amazing!
ROY: “It’s so effective the illusion becomes real.”
ROY: “I started my work in the audio description as you know, that the conversation is changing it now not just about: does this show have it or does this network have it or doesn’t but now the audience, the blind and low-vision audiences are now saying, “You know what? I really have my preference. I like this narrator because this or I don’t like to listen to Roy. He sounds like my ex-boyfriend!”
THT: (laughs hysterically)
ROY: “It doesn’t matter! It shows that this nuance is coming out. As sighted people, we listen to an audiobook and it’s like, “Oh, I am not going to listen to my favorite book for 4 hours with that voice!” because it’s too much! Or someone else might say, “This narrator is so great. I love this book! What else is that narrator done that I can follow along with,” that there’s a way that it’s just pure connection and it’s all relative, right? I am not going to be everybody’s favorite narrator but when I am, it’s my hope, that what I’m doing is that I’m bringing the audience into the story in a way that they’re fully immersed.”
THT: Yep, yep! And Don did that when I remember. “In a world where both of our cars were totally underwater,” you know?
ROY: (laughing out loud)
THT: “And a new wind was about to blow!”
THT and ROY: (laughing joyfully)
THT: “This time I know it’s for real!”
THT: …and he takes his headphones off and the lady’s sitting there at the kitchen table, deadpan.
ROY: (cracking up) “Right?”
THT: He brought that nuance, he brought that…and the music is like, eerie! It’s like, it really added to the effect even though you were watching it. You can close your eyes and Don just gave you that experience and there’s my car and it REALLY IS totally underwater, you know!
THT: That was such an amazing experience.
ROY: “So that was crafted that and built in such a way that it just felt real.”
THT: I’ll be putting this interview up on the site for those who have low vision and those people are blind to enjoy our conversation and you and I are both putting our emotion into this so people will be able to feel…and hear…our passion. While you’re no expert on him, Don or the history about it…I apologize. I was reading something and I misquoted. So, please forgive me.
ROY: “Oh, no, no, it’s ok!”
THT: See, I’m being illiterate here. You can take away my gold star for today in class
ROY: (chuckles) “You’re great. I’m really enjoying talking to you.”
THT: It’s cool, it’s cool. Being a disc jockey, it’s fun and I’m a close-up magician. So illusion is another thing because it’s all sleigh.
ROY: (chuckles) “Sure, sure.”
THT: Can you share some of your other voice over experiences and what can you offer somebody who wants to do this outside of audio description…
THT: …who will just become a new voice over artist. What would I do?
ROY: “Yeah, so, I think when it comes to audio description, there are so many things. When it comes to inclusion, there’s one really simple step that everybody can take right now on social media. Whether it’s Twitter or Instagram and even Facebook. There’s something called ALT TEXT or Alternative Text. So let’s say it was…”
THT: YES! OMG! I don’t mean to interrupt you, but that’s important because as a web developer search engine optimization looks for all text or the title attribute in HTML tag for the image and that is the description that can be turned into…Audio description, correct?
ROY: “It’s describing an image and you’re right. It’s a win-win for everybody. The website host, the person who’s hosting the image, gets the benefit of that extra, SEO, search engine optimization. Also, the blind audiences can participate in your Instagram feed and now all the sudden those memes that you post that are hysterically funny, get a little brush stroke in the ALT TEXT It could be a symbol of this elegant restaurant with a picture of my French toast and potatoes or this one is of two men smiling in front of the memorial. It’s like giving the essence of what the image is about. One of the cool things that I heard an interview that heard ALT TEXT referred to is conscious posting.”
“When you do post an image, you take that moment so you can describe to someone who can’t see it. Like what would I call this? It gives you a moment to say, “Why am I posting this?” “What am I trying to put there?” It allows you as an Instagram poster to give a little more thought to the ALT TEXT. This is how blind and low-vision people experience the internet and specifically with Instagram, which is a photo-specific platform.”
“This is how we can include our blind and low-vision friends and it’s so appreciated. Yeah, it takes like five or ten seconds. In Instagram, you tap additional settings, then tap ALT TEXT, you type a little thing, then you go back and then it posts. It’s that simple and that extra step is so cool and it’s so appreciated. It’s so helpful, obviously as you discussed, it helps the person who’s posting. Also, it helps the people who are there. So that’s something that everybody can do regardless of being involved in voice over or not.”
“And it’s that extra little gesture enough obviously for sharing an image, that is from a web link, you take a little extra, you know, you can do a little extra post and say and its description, in parentheses and then describe it. Making that more common is part of that inclusion is what you’re talking about. We’ve got the technology and it’s simply a matter of using it. Taking that extra simple step means so much. So, specifically for voice-over people, there’s a lot of things voice-over talent can do right now when it comes to audio description. If anyone who is super interested in doing audio description, obviously, you can listen to audio description on these platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu on a laptop or desktop browser.”
“Find a show and click on those three taps to turn on audio description and you’ll be able to experience it. Close your eyes and look away from the screen, if you’re sighted, and see what that experience is like. Then, watch it with the video and your excited. The other thing that’s really cool for voice-over talent that you can do right now is going to a website called You Describe. YouDescribe, kind of like YouTube, but it’s called YouDescribe and there are hundreds of thousands of videos that blind and low-vision that have been on that website and say, “Describe this video to me!” Could be a few minutes, could be 30 seconds and find some video that you want and you can do audio description, right now! This is not something that you have to wait for. Because there’s a need and you know, there are billions of videos out there so why not take some time and see how it goes. Then you can get the feedback from the audience. This is a win-win for everybody.”
THT: Absolutely and so it’s come to the end and I want to thank you, Roy, for your time, your dedication and your passion to the craft and for helping those persons with disabilities to be able to enjoy the entertainment that is created for everyone. Any last-minute words.
ROY: “I’d love to introduce people to Audio Description Projects. Just Google Audio Description Project. It’s a great site to find out all about the different content shows and have it and for those who are blind and low-vision, Facebook has a group led by a guy named Kevin called the Audio Description Discussion. And there are some really lively, positive, and focused discussions happening with all kinds of people with their third describers the writer’s other narrators, like myself and audience members. So those are the two things that come to mind right out the gate and you know, I’m on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, too. So thanks so much man. It’s been such a joy talking with you.”
THT: How can people find you?
ROY: “My website is www.RoySamuelson.com. Twitter is @RoySamuelson. Instagram is RoySamuelson and RoySamuelson on Facebook.”
THT: Thank you.
For More information about Roy Samuelson, please follow the links below:
Hear and Watch Stevie Wonder’s: WHAT THE FUSS narrated by Busta Rhymes in 2005.
Play it: Close your eyes and listen: Really, really listen. Then after it’s over, replay and watch it. Man, what an experience!
Click to hear a sample of Pulp Fiction scene without Audio Description
Click to hear a sample of Pulp Fiction scene with Audio Description
Here’s the link to What the Fuss: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDVZDclDjRM
Audio Description Project (ADP): Audio Description Project