VW: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Sean! I’m excited to have the opportunity to ask you more about your book, Reading Sounds: Closed-Captioned Media and Popular Culture. I think we agree on a lot of issues about captioning, but your book made me think about some of them differently and, in some cases, more deeply.
For instance, I liked your succinct five guidelines for thinking through the question of significance (pg.123):
1. Captions should support the emotional arc of a text.
2. A sound is significant if it contributes to the purpose of the scene.
3. Caption space is precious. It should never be wasted on superfluous sounds that may confuse viewers or diminish their sense of identification with the protagonist(s).
4. Sounds in the background do not necessarily need to be captioned, even if they are loud.
5. Every caption should honor and respect the narrative. While a narrative does not have one correct reading, it does have a sequence and arc that must be nourished. [All emphases by VW.]
And I think the echo effect you created for the captions from The Three Musketeers (see still image below of captions in a poisoning scene) honoured those points. Actually, I’m going to write an article later about creative captioning which I meant to do before now, and I polled some D/deaf and hearing followers on social media about it (separate polls). Now I’m kind of glad I didn’t get around to that post before reading your book, which made me see them in a more positive light. But more on that in another article!
Copyright Sean Zdenek. Do not reproduce.
You may have seen my interview with Tessa Dwyer about her book, Speaking in Subtitles: Revaluing Screen Translation, and I was interested to see a political discussion in your book, too: linguistic imperialism, or the idea that “only English matters” (pg.271). Jon Christian’s outing of Netflix a few years ago started off a more frequent public discussion about captions on VODs and in broadcasting; more recently we’ve had Karamo Brown’s calling out Netflix on Twitter about wanting intralingual verbatim captioning and that got some coverage recently. What’s your POV on what’s happening to the online discussion these days around captioning?
SZ: As you’ll recall, it wasn’t too long ago—circa 2010—when Hulu and Netflix were scrambling to offer any captioning at all on their streaming content. The National Association of the Deaf filed a lawsuit, which was settled in 2012 when Netflix “agreed to caption all of its shows by the year 2014” (Mullin 2012). Around the same time, Hulu was only captioning about 5 percent of its online programming. I wrote a blog post in 2009 to call attention to the small percentage of captioned programs on Hulu and to show my support for what would become the “21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act” (CVAA), signed into law by President Obama in 2010. The CVAA “requires video programming that is closed captioned on TV to be closed captioned when distributed on the Internet (does not cover programs shown only on the Internet).”
Autocaptioning, which Google debuted in 2009, is an important part of the history of online captioning, too. It has received some well-deserved criticism over the years but also, more recently, some praise as it continues to improve and evolve. (See Rikki Poynter’s 2018 blog post, Are automatic captions on YouTube getting better?) No doubt the ubiquity of autocaptioning on YouTube, despite (or because of) its limitations, has been crucial in shaping the public’s understanding of good and bad captioning.
Today, digital captioning is having its viral moment, finally. The best example: Nyle DiMarco wrote a series of tweets in February 2018 following a bad experience with movie theater captioning. His story was picked up by a number of news outlets and written up as an op-ed for Teen Vogue. Other popular writers and bloggers, including Ace Ratcliff and Rikki Poynter, have called attention to access barriers and problems with captioning.
VW: Yes, I was interviewed on CBC Radio One’s Metro Morning show about open captioning [transcript here], and the conversation began with the host talking about Nyle’s tweets: his reach was international!
SZ: What we’re seeing with these stories, I think, is the power of social media to elevate to viral status the needs of people who require quality captioning. We’re seeing captioning break into the mainstream in ways it hasn’t before. Popular personalities (celebrities, models, YouTube bloggers) are driving compelling stories that seem tailor-made for viral media.
The online landscape has changed radically in the last decade too. Video rules the web. By 2021, according to Cisco’s projections, most internet traffic—from 80 to 90 percent—will be video, “up from 73 percent in 2016” (Cisco 2017). Netflix alone is responsible for more than one-third of all internet traffic in North America (Luckerson 2015). A decade ago, online captioning was a technical problem to be solved. Today, viewers demand quality captioning and lean on the power of social media to call out instances of poor captioning.
VW: I’ve shared with you that my in-house captioning experience was eye-opening on several levels. In Canada, even with the upcoming AODA in Ontario, the on-paper standards are basically moot, and as you say, it does seem like CCs are provided to “placate government requirements” (pg.xv) and that they’re seen as “mandatory…as a condition” (pg.80) of broadcasting. Even in accessible projects, captions do indeed seem to be added on at the end “after the real work has been completed” (pg.291). There’s only one full post-secondary study program in accessible media production in Canada, at Mohawk College, that addresses captioning, although I see other schools starting to pick up the idea. You mention hoping CCs will be addressed in the scholarly realm more frequently and seriously. What’s the state of captioning studies as a discipline or even a program in the US? Because, as you say, there is a lot of power and responsibility in the hands of captioners (pg.53), but that’s pretty scary when production isn’t regulated and the craft isn’t even fully taught!
SZ: Academic interest in captioning continues to grow, especially in the humanities. I think the biggest hurdle, from the humanities side, is that captioning has usually been viewed as purely technical or objective, a useful skill or trade but not a complex array of theories or deeper questions of meaning and user experiences. When I refer to caption studies, I intend to link the study of captioning to other humanistic pursuits in writing studies, sound studies, graphic design, art, accessibility, universal design, rhetoric, and more. In fact, I would argue that captioning unites these disparate areas and offers the perfect laboratory for studying questions of digital access across multiple fields of inquiry. A small number of scholars in my own fields of rhetoric and professional writing have taken up the subject of captioning, often in the name of disability studies, which has grown into a vibrant, interdisciplinary research program.
The term caption studies is performative: it doesn’t really exist (yet), but I was hoping to bring it into being in the act of naming it. In my opinion, we need a label that reflects the complexity of the subject itself, one that also aligns with the humanistic inquiry that is at the heart of other studies (e.g. sound studies, gender studies, science studies, etc.). Names matter, of course, which is why I prefer captioner to captionist: the latter sounds too much like typist or transcriptionist (with connotations of direct copying), while the former sounds like (or invokes) writer (with all the agency and creativity that being a writer entails).
VW: Exactly where I’m at with caption and subtitle editing! I’m trying to raise awareness that just as books don’t just get published as written and editors are integral to the publishing process, so to must caption editing be part of production. Someone summarized my work the other day as “fixing typos,” and I was quick to point out that editing is not just proofreading. It’s a craft, science, and art rolled into one that I’m trying to shed light on because until now it’s been ignored, or at least underserved by so-called quality control. I often make about 150 edits to 60 runtime minutes captioned by a professional captioner or subtitler, not because they aren’t good at their job, but because they’re like book authors and my making the text more clear and correct for the user’s full immersion in the content is a separate skill set. Most of the captioners and subtitlers I work with get this and thank me for what I bring to the edited timed text. Sounds like we both have an opportunity to show the academic and lay worlds that captioning is a humanistic study, as you say, and the holistic, performative aspect goes way beyond avoiding the popular #CraptionFails we see posted online.
SZ: I’m currently teaching an undergraduate course called Web Access for All this semester. It covers several topics, one of which is captioning. As far as I know, it’s the first and only course of its kind at my university. It complements other courses and programs in interactive media, professional writing, and disability studies. But by no means is caption studies a formal program of study in higher education. One way to get there, I think, is to fold the study of captioning into courses on digital access or multimedia design, and then fold those courses into disability studies minors.
Academics and practitioners also need to work together. I’m fascinated by the important work that captioners do but have never worked as a professional captioner. I’ve interviewed captioners but have never observed captioners at work. A full-bodied program of study would support collaborations among multidisciplinary teams of researchers and practitioners from academia and industry. Workplace studies of captioners are vital if we want to call attention to the forms of labor and creativity that captioners provide.
VW: They’re also vital to demonstrate to captioning houses, departments and companies that how they’re supposedly training people doesn’t work. It’s not just about being a fast typist, and you can’t be a good captioner with baptism by fire. It’s got to be taught—as in pedagogy—with a view that goes beyond having a facility with subtitling software functionalities. Like writing and editing courses.
You correctly discuss how producers don’t work with captioners (pg.77) and that there’s a disconnect between producers and captioners (pg.290). My experience is that we’re definitely an add-on and that the only feedback is about frames and other technical elements. Whether subtitles or captions, I really think production houses just don’t understand the nuances of captioning (see above) and are just concerned with getting out quick and cheap CCs to meet requirements. It’s kind of depressing sometimes! Do you have more you can add about this that didn’t make it into your book?
SZ: For me, the problem was summarized nicely in an email I received in 2012 from a professional captioner as I was beginning to work on my book. Her email (which I posted anonymously on my blog with her permission) was full of provocative claims:
- The main factor that drives quality captioning is what clients are willing to pay for it.
- Most clients see captioning as that mandatory last step that has to get done as a condition of their materials going on air.
- The vast majority of clients do not care what the captioning looks like, as long as it gets done in time for the stations to receive their captioned masters.
- Clients will often choose to go to cheaper captioning houses who promise to get their feature film captioned in a day.
- When a captioning company charges low prices on high volumes of work, it’s because they hire lots of people at low wages. [All emphases by VW.]
It’s hard to imagine a collection of more depressing claims for captioning advocates. I’d be curious to get your take on them. It’s also difficult for me to imagine a harder problem to solve in caption studies.
VW: This is my experience completely, and I see it echoed on closed social media groups for captioners everyday. I also hired one of those cute-kitty-typing-ad captioning services to double check the reality. I sent in a one-minute video and the caption file came back inaccurate!
That’s largely why I’m turning to the nudge paradigm with an initiative that will be announced shortly. I just don’t think that 30 years of demands for accessibility has worked: there’s some progress in quantity but not quality. I think it needs to start with a change of view and attitude in filmmakers, since they’re where everything starts. But more on that later…
SZ: Carefully and creatively subtitled films do give me some hope. The English subtitles in Night Watch, for example, were produced under the director’s supervision. As I wrote about the film in a blog post:
In an unusual move, director Timur Bekmambetov “insisted on subtitling [Night Watch] and took charge of the design process himself,” as opposed to having the Russian speech dubbed into English or leaving the subtitling process to an outside company (Rawsthorn 2007). He adopted an innovative approach: “We thought of the subtitles as another character in the film, another way to tell the story” (Rosenberg 2007).
Several subtitles in this movie are painstakingly integrated into the aesthetic of the film. They reinforce meaning and mood by blending form and content. Meaning is expressed not only through the words but how they are visually designed (color, movement, dimensionality, transformation). When objects temporarily cover or block the subtitles, we are reminded that the subtitles are part of the scene itself (instead of an add-on or afterthought).
VW: This makes me teary-eyed…
SZ: Night Watch inspired me to explore non-traditional forms of captioning. My experiments with color, icons, typography, and effects were intended to be disruptive and controversial. But I think we need to push against conventions that are limiting and constraining. I published seventeen of my experiments as an online journal article entitled “Designing Captions: Disruptive Experiments with Typography, Color, Icons, and Effects.”
VW: Dear readers, the fact that you’re reading this interview means that you will find “Designing Captions” fascinating. And Sean, I’ll have to check out Night Watch! Whenever I see a show or film with excellent captioning, I always get on my social media soapbox and sing their praises. It’s so rare that filmmakers a) get it or b) care.
As that captioner said to you, in terms of value, “quality is what clients are willing to pay for it” (pg.80) which, depending on the genre or product type, is next to nothing. That was my experience in-house—most of my training cohort quit because it wasn’t a livable or predictable wage, more suited to students wanting part-time work who could drop everything and show up last minute (we stayed in touch and discussed our takes on it). Even now, I get inquiries about rates from filmmakers who’ve been told that they need captions in order to submit their projects for consideration in film festivals, and they balk at professional (not exorbitant) rates. I’m always banging the drum about filmmakers needing to plan for this minuscule percentage of their overall budget so that it’s not an unexpected submission issue… Aside from educating the content producers and production houses, how else do you think we can create a shift in thinking about the need for excellent captions (not just “good enough” ones) and the potential increase in distribution and profits by making them accessible to another 10+ per cent of the population (D/deaf/HoH/other folks who need accessibility)? My upcoming initiative aside, that is.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the entertainment industry is rooted in ableism.
SZ: You’re asking the hardest question of all. Advocates and organizations have worked tirelessly on behalf of individuals who need quality captioning. So many of us care deeply about captioning. It does feel, at times, as though the message isn’t breaking through.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the entertainment industry is rooted in ableism. Movies are made for people who can hear and see—it’s as simple as that. Stories about inaccessible, or accessible but not usable, movie theater captions remind us that movie producers are not really thinking about the needs of people who are deaf or hard of hearing. They are satisfying legal requirements and, in most cases, doing the bare minimum at a fraction of the movie’s budget. Captions come last because, to be frank, the needs of people with disabilities have historically come last (or not at all).
VW: Which is why I’ve been handwriting letters to directors and producers for quite a while now to ask them to be more engaged in the production and use of captions so that more people can watch their films; just because captions are made for bigger films doesn’t mean they’re well done, and usually the caption files are shelved because the cinemas claim no demand for them. So far, no one has replied, which is really depressing.
SZ: How do we “create a shift in thinking about the need for excellent captions”? I think we need to continue to write about and advocate for quality captioning from our diverse positions of expertise, as you have obviously been doing. Teachers can do their part in training new generations of accessibility-minded producers and consumers. As an educator, I teach my students about captioning and place accessibility at the center of digital design. I also advocate for digital inclusion on my campus. Promoting accessibility is one way for academics to speak to people outside of their narrow scholarly fields who will go on to work in many industries (including the entertainment industry).
VW: I agree. I write about it and I’m seeing an uptick in people in more countries, like Tweeters @deafieblogger, @lifeanddeafpost, @Limping_Chicken, as well as advocacy groups I’m a member of or in touch with, like CCAC and DC Deaf Moviegoers. I did write a speculative piece about how one day we’ll look back at this time of ridiculous exclusivity; I hope you and I are eventually proven right that advocacy will change the landscape.
Even in my work with my clients (who clearly do care about quality as they pay me to edit them, not just review them for typos), the attempt to keep things consistent within a series with a bible I’ll create for the captioners and implementation of extended style guidelines (I model mine on CMoS, too, (pg.161, 162) can still get ignored if I don’t advocate for change with explanations as to how it aids the users.
Even the oft-recommended resources are “lite” in scope and imperfect. (The Captioning Key, for instance, has at least one self-contradictory error that I can recall off the top of my head.) Do you agree with my position that, after 30 years, it’s time for an overhaul of outdated bits and pieces (language has changed since the 80s!) and for the creation of a robust and standardized “CMoS for captioning”?
SZ: Yes, I agree completely. The publicly available captioning style guides need work. I reviewed four style manuals for my book. It was challenging to try to reconcile and justify the differences among them. But more importantly, it wasn’t clear to me why some of the guidelines existed at all. Guidelines are usually offered up as facts with little justification in terms of usability and users’ preferences. For example, guidelines for styling speaker identifiers are conflicting. Do we put parentheses around names and place them on their own line? Or do we set names in all caps and use colons (which is standard in DVD captioning)? Why should we choose one or the other—the style guides are silent on this question. WGBH’s Media Access Group suggests styling speaker identifiers in all caps, but then presents an opposite example:
The Media Access Group’s convention is to show IDs in uppercase, rendered in Roman and set off with a colon. Parentheses or brackets may also be considered. For example, a bottom-center caption with an ID might look like this:
THE RIVERS RAN DRY
WITH DEVASTATING EFFECTS.
Guidelines like this one not only need to be corrected (so the example supports the guideline) but reconsidered entirely. A “robust and standardized” style manual would need to be deeply informed by user studies (focus groups, surveys, eye tracking) and theories of reading, typography, design, and perception.
A related issue is that captioning itself is often assumed to be simple—a matter of transcribing (narrowly defined) or copying down what people are saying. The online DIY tools are built for speed to allow users to quickly transcribe speech. But these tools can reinforce the idea that style manuals are not needed because captioning is straightforward.
VW: This brings to mind the guy who called me “simplistic” in response to my article, “Good Enough” Captions Aren’t. He was all about the tools, speed, and ease of application, and I think he felt threatened by the position I take.
I couldn’t agree more with your comments about who makes a good captioner. Just as book editors (my other hat) must be well-read, well-educated, and professionally trained in editing best practices, I think captioners do need to be mature individuals with a wide knowledge base and extensive cultural literacy (pgs. 22, 73, 221, 235). I was recently asked why I had sent back an edit to an experienced subtitler with a particular sentence put into quotation marks; in the narration, it was an unattributed quote, but because the person wasn’t of the age or background to at least twig that something had a different register and perhaps should be investigated, it had gone over their head. I’m not blaming them, but it just highlights the need for a certain type or age of person from the workforce—or at least, it validates my insistence that captions and subtitles need an editor. But sadly, typing speed and facility with software are what create the poor results from freelance-marketplace lowballers who are willing to transcribe for pennies. Aside from style standardization and formalization of training, how will we be able to create an understanding that captioning is a skilled profession requiring education (and perhaps accreditation) and to get away from untrained people banging out craptions?
SZ: You’ve raised another excellent question. I don’t have any easy answers. I think we can continue to chip away at people’s expectations and assumptions about captioning (and about access more broadly). Above, I mentioned educating the public, both formally (in our classrooms) and informally (through blog posts, social media, interactions with clients). I am hopeful that our college courses—even when they are not focused on training captioners or even captioning per se—can create lifelong advocates for digital inclusion. More students than ever are being introduced to digital accessibility and universal design. My hope is that they will take their knowledge into their future workplaces and teach others about the value and importance of video access for all.
I hoped to be able to turn some readers into captioning and access advocates. Several have told me that they will “never look at captions the same way again.”
We can also continue to research captions and user experiences to disrupt the status quo. With Reading Sounds, I set out to show that captioning is much more complex, rhetorical, subjective, creative, and interesting than we have typically assumed. I had in mind a diverse audience (not just scholars in my own fields) because I hoped that the book’s message might resonate with students, film fans, and others who may not be connected directly to captioning. In other words, I hoped to be able to turn some readers into captioning and access advocates. Several people have told me after reading my book or attending one of my presentations that they will “never look at captions the same way again.” If we can find ways to get this message into the minds of more people, including movie producers, perhaps we can chip away at the assumption that the subject couldn’t possibly be rich enough to support a book-length treatment, that captioning is not a profession but a simple skill, that captioning only benefits a few people, and so on.
VW: That’s why I wanted to spotlight your book with an interview. It is not only accessible but fascinating and thought-provoking reading for anyone, not just academia. I think I’ve told you that if I ever get to teach a course in caption editing, it’s going to be required reading.
The feedback from the caption users you surveyed did not surprise me. They struggled with having to rethink content in bad captions (pg.67) and expressed a need and appreciation for excellent captions (pg.71), which reflects my articles and guest writers’ experiences. You’re open about your son being deaf and your subsequent interest in captions; I now rely on them due to the hearing conditions that affect my hearing. Do you think, with seemingly international pressure to legislate accessibility (despite my letters to Hollywood!), that all the different types of caption users, but especially the D/deaf/HoH, will ever see true access—and by that I mean high-quality captioning? It’s been three decades already with increased application but stagnant quality. What’s it going to take til craptions are basically a thing of the past?
SZ: The number of people who need or want quality captioning only seems to be increasing as the population ages. In an era of streaming global media, more people are reading movies as well. Netflix has introduced more viewers to the pleasures and challenges of watching foreign movies with subtitles and/or with dubbed speech. (Whereas dubbing is well-known to European audiences, it is not common in the US.) Media globalization is helping to normalize words on the screen for US audiences.
Universal design has also produced powerful arguments in favor of quality captioning for all. We know the claims and contexts so well by now that they’ve become stereotypes: watching TV in a noisy bar, studying a video lecture in a quiet library (without headphones), learning to read a first language (child) or a second language (adult), and on and on. Even nonhumans rely on captions: Google uses caption data to index the content of videos on YouTube, “but only if you upload your own professional captions. If you use the auto-generated captions that YouTube provides, they won’t be indexed because the quality tends to be very poor” (Dillman 2017). Another reason why autocaptioning is insufficient!
These developments do not eliminate craptions, but they do make captions and subtitles more visible, needed, and expected. As more users encounter and demand quality captions in more contexts, the calls for quality captioning will hopefully become more frequent and persuasive.
VW: There are so many topics you covered that I don’t think are considered even by current advocates: captioned irony; treatment of silences; nonspeech information; continue captions. And I learned a new term: captioned modulation (pg.200). Thank you for such a broad introduction to captioning theory and practice. I hope by the time your next book comes out (), rhetoric will have moved out of accessibility-focused circles and into the mainstream as a career option to fill a need and is given more than lip service. I’d love nothing more than to not have material for [intensifies], [indistinct conversations], and [music] craption memes!
Sean Zdenek is associate professor of technical and professional writing at the University of Delaware. His research interests include web accessibility, disability studies, sound studies, and rhetorical theory and criticism. Prior to joining the Department of English in 2017, Dr. Zdenek was a faculty member at Texas Tech University for fourteen years, where he taught undergraduate and graduate courses on a range of subjects. Dr. Zdenek's book, Reading Sounds: Closed-Captioned Media and Popular Culture (University of Chicago Press), received the 2017 best book award in technical or scientific communication from the Conference on College Composition and Communication (4Cs).
Vanessa will be speaking October 15–16 at #a11yTOConf on caption editing for accessibility. The title of her presentation is [dog barking in distance].