Dear VODs: Stop Blindfolding Deaf People!

Close-up of CC #NoMoreCraptions button. CC logo in black and white on button, pinned to black leather bag. VWells image of Rikki Poynter button.

I often can’t hear sound effects in shows and movies, so I use captions so as not to miss anything. Because I mostly use Netflix to stream (I don’t have a TV; I sometimes rent/borrow DVDs), I was curious to know how other VODs (video on demand [streaming] services) fared in the application of and care taken with subtitles and captions. It’s not just the D/deaf/hard of hearing who use captions for same-language film and video, and access to global programming is making good subtitling a must more than ever.

This is my survey of captions and subtitles on some common VODs. As in my survey of cinema access for the D/deaf in Toronto, when I contacted these companies about problems I was transparent, with Reel Words info in the email signature. I also approached this as an everyday user. Where necessary, I paid out of pocket to get the services. I’ve assigned a star rating system for overall application and treatment of captions/subtitles.

D/deaf people who sign have the right not to have their hands and arms restrained because it prevents them from communicating. What I discovered is that these providers might as well be blindfolding the D/deaf/hard of hearing. They can’t see the content that isn’t provided for them.

Google Play 

I had heard that The Silent Child (2017) was on Google Play for $2.99, and I obviously wanted to see it for the storyline and use of ASL. It turned out the film could only be placed on a wish list for when it was made available on Google Play in the future. YouTube Movies says it is not available there.

I searched for some free movies and tripped upon the sociologically fascinating (although perhaps not intentionally…)The Creators, made “in conjunction with YouTube” and boy, did that ever show!

It was a sort of advertorial documentary about young YouTube phenoms in the UK making their living through that platform, all with different…talents. Here are two I’d never heard of, Niki and Sammy, branded online as NikiNSammy. Not quite sure what their talent was aside from having sprung from the same egg, but let’s focus on the captions as they were used throughout the doc. Here’s an example of YouTube’s idea of accessibility:

Young adult twins side by side, incomplete captions are And that's really; Which is amazing
Screenshot from The Creators on Google Play

 

NikiNSammy’s captions were split, both left-aligned (which is not helpful for twins…) and these two titles containing 36 characters was only up for one second. Now, the most current Netflix guideline is 20 characters per second. While it was a UK-filmed short doc, the spelling used was both British and American. The worst offence was that it seemed they really did use YouTube automatic captioning because there were constant errors, such as captioning react for interact and real for raw. The caption bands jumped all over the screen, as if placed for the cool factor—with absolutely no understanding of what captions (CCs) are intended for. A professional titler was not employed, and no QC person could have reviewed it. Clearly the producers didn’t give a hoot about accessibility. Thoroughly appalled at Google/YouTube.

Amazon Prime Video ★★

The Silent Child wasn’t listed on amazon.ca’s Prime Video.

So I decided to take the 30-day free trial to watch another example and promptly cancelled to avoid the $79CAD/yr fee.

I decided to go with Robin Hood (Ridley Scott, 2010), a choice influenced rather arbitrarily by my recent participation at an axe-, knife- and archery-target place. I wasn’t sure if the captions used were made for this stream or were from a previous production and distribution. As is common, the captioner was not credited.

The font was crisp white on black below the screen or with a shaded dark band for a top line placed above that on the film. But there were great inconsistencies: [ALL SCREAMING] vs only [CHEERING] when all were cheering; poor and inconsistently styled offscreen speaker IDs; poor choices in deciding on the most relevant sound effects, such as dogs barking but not men yelling in attacks or falling off walls; the King of France (should be king if not using a personal name); Jimmy boy as a name (should be Jimmy-boy or Jimmy Boy). In short, the usual problems that I see constantly on Netflix. Visually accessible but not textually accessible, which is a huge part of the game! As I often comment, unedited titles cause reader stumbles, which cause the user to lose concentration and thus comprehension.

Group shot of warriors and brigands under a tent at night. Caption: When you had us herd 2,500 Muslim men, women, and children together, (incomplete)
Screenshot from Robin Hood (Ridley Scott version) on Amazon Prime Video (amazon.ca)

 

Here, two and a half thousand should have been used, but space was tight; however, space could have been made by forcing an earlier and split title. Not great, but Russell Crowe did not say “twenty-five hundred.”

Good points: the ability to rewind OR fast forward by 10 seconds, and three subtitle format options (the fourth was black on black…).

Netflix ★★

Netflix’s captions and subtitles were the raison d’être for this survey. I was curious to know if other VODs were as ineffective and disregarding of Deaf/HoH needs as Netflix. (You can read a lot about my feelings on Netflix on my website on the blog tab and see various #CraptionFails on the Gallery of Fails tab.) No point in repeating it all here, but suffice it to say that despite (or perhaps because of) having the monopoly on VOD, this machine has grown too big to have serious quality control of captions and subtitles. The failure of the Hermes Test, the lack of qualified QC (“Master-Level Quality Control”) editors, and the low pay leave it just a step above YouTube craptions. Really and inconsistently poor. I’ve only had about four or five examples in my portfolio of well-done captions with this provider. See my website and blog posts for many illustrated examples of the problems and how they should have been avoided.

Sundance Now 1/2★*

This  check started with a series of emails to customer service because I couldn’t find the CC/ST button on the interface for some movies I wanted to review. Also, the overall platform is clumsy and annoying to navigate; the only good point is the ability to rewind 10 seconds but—unlike Amazon Prime—there’s no option to fast forward by increments.

The customer service rep kept insisting they were there if only I would use a supporting device and look in the right place, but they weren’t. His final email said in part: “I checked Off the Rails and Julia, and unfortunately we don’t have captions available on those two titles right now—- [sic] while the majority of our content is now captioned, we’re still working on updating our catalog.” Now this may be true. I didn’t check all of their catalogue. But my random selections of movies did not have captions.

Incidentally, I used the search box to find films with the keyword deaf and was provided with 13 suggestions on death content.

The usual problems with missing words, wrong words (Yeah for Yes) and letters, speaker IDs, punctuation. Overall it was very sluggish. Read: inaccessible. Note these captions, all of which lagged, from Broken Flowers (2005) with a terrible line break.

Exterior shot, two men speaking seriously. Captioned A few years ago now, mate; Yeah, well, you'd hope so; She's dead you (incomplete)
Screenshot from Broken Flowers on Sundance Now

 

The worst part was that, no, I didn’t read all 17 pages of the Terms and Conditions. I had stopped at the part that says [sic]: “7 day free trial, you can cancel anytime” which, due to the lack of copy editing, I read as you had seven days free and you could cancel anytime. NOPE. $59.00 down the tube. You can “cancel” your subscription but you’re free to watch for the rest of the year. In other words, you’ve cancelled a renewal next year. The only reason I’m not freaking out about the $60 is that I thought This Close, even at six episodes (and six “discussions” post-watch) was worth the money, especially if season two comes out within my subscription year.

So overall, the captions were terrible. But here’s the thing: for This Close, they were flawless. Not only that, they dealt with a bilingual show creatively and effectively. This show saved them from getting no stars.

Sub-survey: This Close as an example of captioning as it should be.

Here the captions are placed according to the speaker:

Michael and Kate in bookstore, talking, with ASL interpreter to the right, bookstore manager to the left. Captions: Can we get out of here? Okay, I need you to deal with the emergency.
Screenshot from season 1 of This Close on Sundance Now

Bookstore manager in background, Kate and Michael blurred in foreground. Captions: You can't tell me what to do. They're talking business, right?
Screenshot from season 1 of This Close on Sundance Now

 

White letters and, in fact, a different font are used for the ASL translation, and white on dark grey bands is for the oral dialogue. This is particularly helpful if you’re like me and following both sets of captions, listening to the hearing speaker and trying to follow the ASL or watching the fictional ASL interpreter sign and interpret! It was actually doable with this thoughtful crafting.

And when they do have to include an offscreen line, it’s correctly IDed and formatted to the side.

Kate in front of a bookstore's shelves, a finger pointing at her. Left caption: You can't tell me what to do. Right captions: [Morgan] Yeah.
Screenshot from season 1 of This Close on Sundance Now
 

And sidebar, I loved this scene where Michael’s hands are restrained as he is removed from a plane, and Kate says they can’t do that to a deaf person:

Kate yelling on an airplane: He's just trying to communicate, you fucking audist!
Screenshot from season 1 of This Close on Sundance Now

 

So, really clear, almost always perfect renditions of the audio (except for the odd Yes for Yeah). Although, I’m not sure what’s up with the three lines, especially when they are so short. Perhaps to ensure the titles are large enough to be visible for low-vision users, since Sundance Now doesn’t allow viewers different caption-display options?

This tells me one thing. VODs basically don’t care about Deaf/HoH access unless the executive producers (and guest stars like Nyle DiMarco in this case) of the show are Deaf and get the need! So, yay them, but that’s a fairly easy win, and boo Sundance overall.

Back to the show’s “Now The Discussion” segments. These featured cool young people sitting around a lovely studio drinking beer and chatting about the previous episode. Thankfully they had a Deaf/HoH participant in one I watched, and they also interviewed Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman after the last one. BUT but but: they applied post-production dubbing of an interpreter to overlay on the signers’ speech, rather than using the real-time interpretation they’d have had to facilitate the convo with the hearing people. So it struck me as a bit disingenuous: a bit like sim com, trying to create a false syncopation or an aversion to causing unwanted pauses in group dialogue while the signers’ words were finished being interpreted. Ew. As if waiting for a Deaf/HoH person to be orally interpreted was a problem or awkward. This struck me as ironically ableist/audist.

Also, these chats allowed expletives to be kept in the audio track but then captioned them with two hyphens, which is not only bad practice but also reinforces that the Deaf/HoH audience is not deserving of full and correct content. When characters swore/used vulgarisms in the show, the f-bombs etc. are shown fully spelled out. I thought this was another unfortunate dichotomy that spoke volumes.

As for the show itself, who doesn’t appreciate it when #DeafTalent is used, such as RJ Mitte, who has cerebral palsy? And the occasional use of loud static and other noises to obscure dialogue reinforces the challenges faced by some deaf people, in case we hearies get complacent in our viewing.

*So This Close gets ★★★★1/2  but Sundance Now itself gets only a half star.

Hulu (star rating not applicable, but see Reel Words home page image)

I’ve wanted to watch The Handmaid’s Tale since the get-go, as it is one of my favourite books. This time I did check the 17-page Terms which do allow for cancellation at any time, for reelz… I wanted to sign up for the $7.99 Limited Commercial plan ($11.99 for no commercials: isn’t that the flipping point of VOD—no commercials?)

I had trouble signing up due to not having a US zip code but a support chat told me “Our services are actually not available outside of the US unless you're a US military member living on base. Would you happen to fall in this category?”

Okay, over to:

CRAVE TV ★★★

Sub-survey: THE HANDMAID’S TALE

I went with the $7.99 monthly after 30-day free trial because I really, really wanted to see the show and didn’t mind paying for month two if I didn’t get through it all. (Who was I kidding? I binged it!)

Sidebar: as I’m sure you know, this was filmed in Toronto and around/near the GTA, so if you’re interested, here are links to the locations details.

https://torontoist.com/2017/06/where-the-handmaids-tale-was-filmed-in-toronto-part-one/

https://torontoist.com/2017/07/where-the-handmaids-tale-was-filmed-in-toronto-part-2/

If you go to my website home page, you’ll see a screenshot from Hulu from a trailer for the show. I discovered that they hadn’t done anything to address the issues of captioning since it was bought by Crave, and here are some of the more problematic captions as they appeared in Episode 1.

The Handmaid’s Tale has some parts of captioning done right, but then there are the usual inconsistencies that creep in. Sometimes [indistinct radio chatter] is heard and captioned as a very important part of setting and mood for the show, but at other times it is not captioned when clearly heard and significant. This does not provide full and complete access. And that’s supposed to be a standard in this country, but it is not enforced.

The show starts with a bang, with sirens blaring before the first visible frame, but [SIRENS BLARING] only shows for one second (nonstandard practice) and does not continue with the action, even though this is important to set up the mood and story.

This show is often based on the unshared thoughts of the heroine, Offred, and what she does dare to utter aloud. But these are not differentiated. (That’s Captioning 101, by the way.) In this scene, she was mocking another character internally but vocally answered Yes to her.

Offred leaving sumputuous grounds of house; captions: You wanna come along? Yes.
The Handmaid's Tale exterior

Below, a character who is losing it says I want my mom. and is comforted by Offred with a gentle Okay. We can barely see this dark scene, so a caption-dependent person might well be confused by the lack of speaker ID.

Dim shot of woman's head. Captions: I want my mom. Okay.
Screenshot from season 1 of The Handmaid's Tale on Crave TV

 

Netflix’s style guide determines that vulgarisms are to be spelled out (see my discussion of this around the 45-second mark on my Craption Eyerolls series on YouTube), and the same problem arises here. I’m not sure if the captioner wasn’t savvy or was applying their own personal values to not using the spelling cum. Either way, QC should have caught this. Crave certainly lets the f-bombs drop in captions, so I don’t think it was an issue of conservatism.

Offred lying on a pillow in moonlight in a dark room; caption: I can feel the Commander's come [sic] running out of me.
Screenshot from season 1 of The Handmaid's Tale on Crave TV
 

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a new-order society which has retro values. Church bells toll frequently, driven by plot and mood. But I kind of think using thrice is a bit over the top. Since it’s not the first time that church bells toll in the episode, space could have been saved by shortening the subject thus: Bells tolling three times. We would get that they are church bells from episode history, context and connotation.

Looking down from window to SUV in a driveway by a garden. Caption: (CHURCH BELLS TOLL THRICE)
Screenshot from season 1 of The Handmaid's Tale on Crave TV

 

Sometimes, captions are moved up to avoid covering a speaker’s mouth to make it clear that the person on screen is the speaker. But here Offred is not speaking; Aunt Lydia’s words should be italicized both as offscreen and over an amplification system. It also just looks weird.

Offred looking down, distressed. Caption: As you know, the penalty for rape is death.
Screenshot from season 1 of The Handmaid's Tale on Crave TV

 

Just as we need to see the speaker’s mouth moving, we need to watch Offred’s eyes carefully, as they reflect so much of what she may not say aloud. The cinematography in the series includes a lot of close-ups, particularly of Offred, to make us feel sympatico with her. Here, she is appalled by the speech, but we’re distracted by the titles actually touching her eyes proper rather than pondering her reaction. I talk about the need to facilitate audience immersion, rather than distract, frequently on my website. Breaking or preventing that immersion is one of the main ways to fail the caption or subtitle user, and it’s a key focus in my posts. This scene was made less evocative by careless captioning. And again, this show has been bought and the captions could have been improved by the new provider, but they either didn’t check or didn’t care.

Close-up. Offred looking up, pensively. Caption: But we cannot wish that ugliness away. Caption coversher eyebrows and upper parts of her eyes.
Screenshot from season 1 of The Handmaid's Tale on Crave TV

 

I really dislike the way VODs treat music, songs and lyrics. The presentations are not helpful, the rules don’t make sense, and they’re inconsistent. And they need to change.

Credit for director Reed Morano. Caption (YOU DON'T OWN ME BY LESLEY GORING PLAYING)
Screenshot from season 1 of The Handmaid's Tale on Crave TV

 

Here, for clarity, I would have styled the caption like this:

[♫ You Don’t Own Me ♫ by Lesley Gore]

It’s obvious that it’s playing—by the fact that the caption is there—and it’s obviously a title of a song, as indicated by the addition of customary musical notes. Had the house style not been to use ALL CAPS for sound effects, styling this like I have would have made the text clearer as a title, too.

And now, the pièce de résistance, the type of reason this show is on my home page:

Credit for Samira Wiley. Caption: alt code gibberish Don't say I can't go with other boys alt code gibberish.
Screenshot from season 1 of The Handmaid's Tale on Crave TV

 

Every musical caption has these—what I can only guess are Unicode cut-and-paste issues. This says We don’t care enough about accessibility to create acceptable captioning for our users.

And this is the crux of the matter. Communication is a right, and bad communication is a breach of that right.

Kate pointing angrily offscreen; caption: You can't hold a deaf person's hands like that.
Screenshot from season 1 of This Close on Sundance Now

 

As people in the cultural-content and entertainment industry, people who use captions and subtitles (basically everyone at some point or another) are our everything. The reason we have jobs. The reason we will always have work. And if there is one theme that is prevalent on my website, it is that the audience deserves better, and we should be ashamed of delivering less than excellent. Sure, human errors happen. We do our best. But when we deliver a product at subpar quality because it doesn’t matter to us personally or we are ignorant of issues of accessibility, we fail our fellow viewers.

I’m not the only one who thinks like this. I noted this Gamasutra post for its candour, and it reminds me to try my best to make my work accessible:

“I never have forgot the feeling of of depriving someone of an experience just because I didn't think to add a button”

Ian Holstead, Ubisoft

By providing craptions, VODs are preventing all but primarily D/deaf/hard of hearing viewers from accessing content—analogously blindfolding them.

I think we can do better than an average of 1.7★ out of ★★★★★ in caption and subtitle content on VODs. Industry standards are 95–98% accuracy, and in these five services I have found a 34% rate of success.

Please share this widely. And please leave a comment about your experiences in other countries.

Coming soon: Apps for ASL Learners; Creative Applications of Captions and Subtitles: Yay or Nay?

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How Uncaptioned Movies Are Like Old-Fashioned Vegetable Peelers

Old-fashioned vegetable or fruit peeler, with bare metal handle, against a mottled grey backgroundWould it really kill us hearing folks to go to the movies with open captions?

No one complains about sidewalk curb ramps or the bumpy yellow warning strips at TTC** subway stations: they’re just…there. We don’t tell folks in wheelchairs or scooters to use regular-height curbs and in the evenings only, or folks who are blind they will have safety during rush hours only. Then why the flip are we insisting that captioned movies (the few that are provided with captions) will be shown only on certain days, schedules and cinema screens?

I propose that we caption all movies and make them available at all times.

Now, before you whip out your I-hate-subtitled-foreign-films argument or your I’m-a-details-person rhetoric about how captions will block your view of the mise-en-scène, just grab a handful of popcorn and hear me out.

Humans don’t tend to love change. But generally, we do adapt. That’s why images like this are amusing:

Old fashioned produce peeler with bare metal handle; post says: did-anyone-ever-use-a-peeler-like-this-one-shareWe think, Wow, I can’t believe I used to put up with that! It’s ugly, it’s uncomfortable, it’s inefficient, and not everyone can use that thing effectively.

Eventually, we can barely remember what life was like before a new, improved version and, usually, we even realize that the old way wasn’t that great after all.

That is what would happen with open captions on movies. (Open captions are those that don’t leave the screen—you can’t decide to “close” them and watch video/TV/movies without. They’re ever-present.) We would become so used them that we wouldn't even remember what it was like not to have them. Non-users would tune them out; users would enjoy content more easily.

Not only would about 10% more of the population be able to go to the movies, individuals could broaden their social horizons by being able to attend a film with D/deaf or hard of hearing friends. As I mentioned in a recent article, I couldn’t attend a movie with more than two deaf friends due to the undersupply of assistive equipment (never mind captions). My more cynical side doesn’t understand why movie producers and cinema mega corps aren’t embracing this—aren’t they supposed to want higher box-office takings?

When surtitles*** were introduced to the opera world (by a Canadian company, by the way), people went bonkers. Opera would be ruined, the companies wailed. Opera had to be kept pure, cried the audiences. Guess what happened. More people started going. And most of them were young people. I LOVE surtitles and find they have enriched my opera experience. And if I lose interest or there’s a repetitive text being sung, I just look away. They’re placed in opera houses in such a way so that they don’t distract the disinterested eye but are quickly adjusted to when used. I don’t have to use or pay attention to them if I don’t want to.

But wait! you may interject, you can skip reading boring repeats in opera, but you can’t skip dialogue in a movie or you’ll be lost! Aha! rejoin I. Welcome to the world of the D/deaf and hard of hearing: the dialogue is integral to film. You’re aiding my argument.

And if you’re going to tell me your eye never leaves the multiplex screen for 92 minutes and you have taken in every object in a film, you must have a photographic memory. Most of us aren’t taking in the whole scene—in fact only about 12% of it (Sorry, directors!)—and research suggests that subtitles (and presumably captions) improve the visual experience of film or TV content. Or we look down when we drop popcorn, check our phone for the time, note the green or red exit sign, look at the couple two rows down who won’t stop talking, etc. We already are distracted. If anything, the research suggests, captions will hold our attention to the visual, not adversely affect it.

Also, captions and subtitles that have been edited should be of such a standard that we stop noticing that we’re reading them. So even if our eye does drift to them, they’ll allow us to be fully immersed in the storyline.

We have scent-free institutions for those with allergies. We have Braille on bathroom doors and other public signs. We allow service animals into restaurants. We keep peanuts out of schools. We’re starting to provide alternative-experience concerts for people on the autism spectrum. Do we have a fit about these accommodations? No. They have become part of the public fabric. Those who benefit from them, use them. Those who don’t, ignore them. So why the radio silence about open captions for movies? It’s like it’s not even up for discussion.

If you are such a purist cinephile who must see a “clean” version of a director’s oeuvre, buy the DVD with the director’s cut. (God knows it’ll be out soon enough.)

Or, even better, why don’t you invent some disposable eye gear like 3D glasses that will block out caption boxes at the bottom of screens? Or maybe a big tool, that looks like ET, to stick in your cupholder that will project the virgin film to your sightline alone? Oh…you…wait—why should you be put out so much when you’re just trying to see a movie?

That’s an interesting question, now, isn’t it?

 

 

 

* flickr.com, Grannies Kitchen, "Vintage Vegetable Peeler"

**TTC is the Toronto Transit Commission, which encompasses subways, buses, and LRT and hooks into regional traffic options.

***Surtitles is a trademarked version of supertitles, but as few people seem to know the latter term, I am referring to the former for clarity.

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“I wish I had heard all of my dad’s eulogy”: Hearing Aids as a New Lease on Life

Patricia MacDonald is one of a few editorial colleagues with a story to share about hearing. Hers is honest and hopeful. I'm taking her words to heart as I go to get my hearing retested later this month.

She also touches on how she uses closed captioning, reminding us that not all users are totally deaf or "hearies" using captions for other reasons.

 

Headshot of Patricia Morris MacDonald.

I can’t remember when I started noticing my hearing loss. I was probably in my late 20s. I do know the exact moment I couldn’t deny any longer that it was a problem: when I couldn’t hear everything my brother was saying as he was delivering my father’s eulogy. What a thing to miss. 

But still I didn’t get my hearing checked. I knew I needed hearing aids, but I didn’t want to wear them. Hearing aids are for old people, I thought. Everyone will notice them. So I struggled on for another few years, constantly frustrated when I caught only bits of conversations, wondering what I had missed when others around me were laughing at something I hadn’t heard. My husband bought me a cheap little device that amplified sound, and I used that a lot, especially when I was watching TV. It worked great but could only do so much. I was still missing out on a lot in real life.  

I did eventually get my hearing tested, and the results were as expected: significant hearing loss in both ears. The culprit? Otosclerosis. Basically there was a hardening of the bones in my middle ear, and they were unable to vibrate properly in order to conduct sound. The good news? I was a perfect candidate for hearing aids. The bad news? I was a perfect candidate for hearing aids. I still didn’t want them, and it was at least another year before I finally went for a fitting.  

The catalyst was an editing conference I attended in Ottawa in 2012. The sessions were fine because I had my trusty sound booster with me; socializing, however, was a different story. One-on-one interaction was okay for the most part, but put me around a table in a noisy restaurant and I was lost. I still ended up having a wonderful time, but it was a wake-up call. I needed to do something.  

So I took the leap and got two hearing aids. And suddenly I could hear all that I was missing—and it was a lot, trust me. I was very grateful for this new lease on life, although I was extremely self-conscious for the first little while, the first couple of years, even. To this day I’m still a little self-conscious. But I can hear better, and that’s really all that matters. 

Hearing aids aren’t the perfect solution, though. I often have trouble hearing on the phone and when I’m in a crowded room. I still miss some things.

Closed captioning has become a good friend, especially when I’m watching a show with fast dialogue or accents.

So there’s still frustration. But I can function almost normally again. And I must say that when I “take my ears out” at night, I welcome the quiet and enjoy a good sleep. It’s not all bad. :^) 

It’s taken a while, but I’ve come to terms with my hearing loss—I have a disability that fortunately I was able to correct. I just wish I had done it years earlier. I wish I had heard all of my dad’s eulogy. But I was thinking about how I would look instead of how I could hear. If you have hearing loss and are hesitant about trying hearing aids, for whatever reason, I urge you to give them a shot. It will change your life for the better.  

 

Patricia MacDonald is a freelance copyeditor in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, specializing in sports books and memoirs, guides for athletes and coaches, and textbooks for physical education and kinesiology students.

She can be reached at powerplayediting@gmail.com.

 

Photo courtesy of P. MacDonald.

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The State of the Caption: Deaf Accessibility in Toronto’s Cinemas

In December 2017, I contacted the main corporate and some independent film venues in Toronto to canvass their provision of access to hearing assistance for the *Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing. Cinemas are only able to provide captions when production companies include the files. But who has what capabilities?

Before you scroll away because you “don’t know any deaf people,” consider this: you may think you don’t, but a lot of people don’t advertise their deafness because a) it doesn’t define them and b) it’s frustrating to keep explaining it repeatedly to hearing people. Also, hearing folks do use captions: English language learners; people needing cognitive support with visual reinforcement; watching shows with heavily accented or audio-obscured speakers; and in noisy places or where the volume is off or problematic. To read about my personal experience using assistive tech in a cinema, read this article. But here’s my experience accessing information about captioning and hearing-assistive devices in eight Toronto cinemas and chains.

In my online contact attempts, my website-linked business name was in my email signature (providing transparency), and I asked only the following of each recipient:

Hello,

I've looked at your accessibility page, and I'm writing to get up-to-date information about the availability of listening assistance at your cinema[s], be it open captions or assistive technologies. I'm in Toronto. Can the Deaf, deafened or hard of hearing attend movies with full access? Do I just show up and any showing will just have assistance available?

Thank you.

 

Here are the fascinating results of my inquiries.

Exterior photo of the Cineplex Scotiabank multiplex in Toronto

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevenharris/3371960989

Cineplex

Not surprisingly for a large corporation, I was assigned a ticket to my inquiry and received an automated reply. It said:

- Please type your reply above this line -##

Screenshot of automated reply from Cineplex about caption options and how to access that information on their website

 

 

I replied,

If an individual reads my email, they'll see I've reviewed the website and am requesting up to date information—i.e., has anything about availability changed?, etc.

I'd appreciate a non-automated reply.

Many thanks.

 

Hello Vanessa,

Thank you for contacting Cineplex.

All of our theatre locations have the capability to present shows with Closed Captioning and/or Described Services. Ultimately we rely on the film distributors to provide our theatres with the appropriate files for each film so our guests can enjoy these services; because of this there can sometimes be a film without these features offered. You can always check the availability of these services by searching film showtimes online and if you see (CC/DS) underneath the film format your show will have Closed Captioning and/or Described Services. (see example below)

If you need more information on what each device does see the links below.

https://www.cineplex.com/Theatres/ClosedCaption

https://www.cineplex.com/theatres/described-services

When you go to your local theatre simply request either device from the box office and the staff will be happy to set it up for your show.

If you have anymore questions please let me know.

Have a great day!

Cineplex Guest Services

 

I thought the “there can sometimes be a film without these features offered” was gilding the lily a bit. I also felt the DS info indicated that they were copy-and-pasting and not writing back specifically with my question in mind. I wrote back,

Thank you again.

But would it be possible to implement a search function so that we can look for films with CCs rather than clicking through every possible movie and theatre to see if they have captions/assistance? I think I will also have to approach cinemaclocktoronto.com about considering adding a search feature, since most of us look for movies online in one place, not at the discrete sites of cinema corporations.

The answer:

Hello again

I will happily share your feedback with the IT team in the hopes they can add that functionality. Please note you can search individual theatres and their showtimes at the bottom of each of those links I sent you.

https://www.cineplex.com/Theatres/ClosedCaption

https://www.cineplex.com/theatres/described-services

Have a great day!

Cineplex Guest Services

 

Hm. I think a chat with Powers That Be about searches and increased access would be fruitful...if only I could reach them.

 

External photo of the Carlton Cinema in Toronto

Imagine Cinemas

Image: grainger via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carlton_Cinemas_Toronto.jpg

The much-loved local Carlton and its related cinemas have demonstrated commitment to accessibility for audiences and employees, which I have respected greatly. Plus, their staff are outstanding in their customer service, and their reply reflected some of that.

 

Hi Vanessa,

We have a few locations with assistive listening devices, however we often experience technical difficulties with them which is why they aren’t advertised. We also have a few locations that play open caption films on certain days/ show times.

I will forward your email on to our Carlton and Market Square locations as they are our DT [downtown] Toronto locations and would have a better idea as to what they actually have.

 

And further follow up, since I’d mentioned me needing to bring this up with cinemaclocktoronto.com:

 

Our Carlton location have headphones that amplify sounds but no open caption.

Our Market Square location has assistive listening devices but have expressed that they don’t work very well. They do however have 1 open caption movie a week (see screenshot on how it would appear). They are the ones that say OC. The upcoming week they are playing The Greatest Showman and the following week is Star Wars.

Cinema clock is a third party website so unfortunately we cannot control how they display content.

Hope that helps!

 

Customer service first prize to Imagine! They already show one captioned movie a week—not what I’d call fully accessible but certainly open and willing to improve. They admitted their lackluster customer feedback and communicated that openly to me. They were also the first company to reply—the same day I emailed and a week before the other replies began to trickle in. Small chain, bigger heart?

 

 

Interior photo of the Hal Jackman auditorium at the AGO in Toronto

Image: https://www.ago.net/jackman-hall-overview

Jackman Hall, AGO

I received this reply:

Hello Vanessa,

Thank you for your email.

At the moment Jackman Hall Theatre is not equipped with open captions options or assistive technologies. We are able to transmit, however do not have the devices in house. It would be up to the client to provide the film with captions built into the film as well as provide any devices or hardware. We are working towards upgrading our venue in order to be more inclusive. At this time we not able to assist with deaf, deafened or hard of hearing patrons with full access unless the film is subtitle or a client provides the assistive devices/hardware.

Please feel free to contact me if you have further questions or concerns.

 

I found this interesting considering that it is in the AGO, which is 33% government funded, and that the AGO Transformation, which included the renovation of Jackman Hall, was completed in 2008. The $276 million project couldn’t throw in some hardware then or since??

 

Exterior photo of the TIFF Bell Lightbox cinema in Toronto

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image: https://www.ticketmaster.ca/TIFF-Bell-Lightbox-tickets/artist/2270943

TIFF Bell Lightbox

Bell TIFF Lightbox’s reply was interesting in several ways.

Hello Vanessa,

Thank you for your email and interest in attending films at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Hearing Assist (which raises the volume for visitors with slight to moderate hearing impairment) is available for all of our screenings as it is provided by our theatre.

The availability of Closed Captioning and Descriptive Audio is dependant [sic] on the copy provided to us by the distributor. If we have films that come with Closed Captioning or Descriptive Audio we will display that information on our Website.

Please refer to the example below. (SUB = Subtitle, CC = Closed Captioning, DS = Descriptive Sound, TBLB 3 = Cinema #3)

When you arrive at the cinema please inform Box Office staff that you require additional equipment and the staff will be happy to assist you with the set-up and procedure.

Hope this information helps.

 

They said Hearing Assist was used as an amplifier but a phone call confirmed the brand was Listen, so this doesn’t seem to be updated info as requested.

Note, too, the use of the term “hearing impairment,” which is interesting terminology from a charity purporting to be “committed to a strategy that works to remove barriers to interacting with our programming” (TIFF, 2016: http://humber.ca/makingaccessiblemedia/modules/03/09.html). The echo I experienced was still a barrier. And being non-hearing is not considered an “impairment” or disability by the so-called afflicted or disabled. (http://cad.ca/issues-positions/statistics-on-deaf-canadians/)

I’ll also add here that during  December, as a TIFF member, I received nine donation-dunning emails between the 13th and 31st, with clickbait-worthy subject lines like “You’re on my mind” pleading for access to our thoughts about connection and access to members’ wishes. I am seriously considering cancelling my membership. It will be dependent on the response I get when I email them. If they’re really serious about “want[ing] to know what you think,” they may bite.

I wrote back asking about a search function for CCed films.

 

Hi Vanessa,

We are glad to hear the information was helpful.

At this time we do not offer a feature on our website like the one you have described but I have passed your email on to the department that handles the website for consideration when planning future updates and features. In the mean time [sic] clicking through the various films is the only way to see the information regarding Closed Captioning and Descriptive Audio.

Regards,

Customer Relations

 

Both in email and in person, I was readily informed that Call Me by My Name has CCs. This is incorrect, and I suspect a lot of venues and services, perhaps unwittingly, plug such films as accessible to the non-hearing: that film’s dialogue includes three languages, which are subtitled for marketability; it is not accessible in that it was intentionally released with non-hearing audiences in mind—that is captioning.

 

Interior photo of the auditorium of the Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image: https://hotdocscinema.ca/c/history

Hot Docs

The old Bloor Cinema seems to be typically at the mercy of producers’ inclusion (or not) of caption files. I suspect most documentarians are making their films on low budgets; however, some are backed by humanitarian organizations, and you’d think their mores would support full accessibility. (Perhaps some PhD student can do some research into how many docs are captioned…) And, frankly, I’m surprised when the theatre was renovated, some funds weren’t allocated for assistive equipment like CaptiView. Surely some doc files are captioned?

Hi Vanessa,

Thanks for your question!

Firstly, for each screening we can provide head phones that allow the viewer to increase their own listening volume independently.

For more specific hearing aid devices, such as closed captioning, the most up-to-date information would be available at our Box Office, per screening; each documentary comes with/without its own set of closed captioning and hard of hearing accessibilities.

The best option would be to call our box office the week your preferred documentary is showing and ask for the accessibility options on that specific film.

I hope this helps.

 

 

Exterior photo of the Revuew Cinema in Toronto

 

 

 

 

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revue_Cinema

The Revue

Being a very small enterprise, understandably they wrote back

Hello  Vanessa,

We currently do not have assisted listening devices available at our theatre, But we are working on it.
So sorry for the inconvenience... We will make it a priority to attain these devices during the new year and you will be contacted promptly once we have acquired a few.

Thank you for your interest,

-Revue Cinema

 

Note the apology and plan of action. Good sign! I’ve made a note to check back with them.

 

Interior photo of the Royal Cinema's auditorium in Toronto

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image: http://newsite.theroyal.to/about-the-royal/#

Royal 

Through several emails, I learned that the Royal generally does not offer access to deaf-assistive technology but does, interestingly, have two series events that feature access vehicles: Drunk Feminist Films and Screen Queens, the former having hired ASL interpretation in the past due to a small Deaf community being involved. The other reason for provided captions is that events have live comedy commentary over top of the movie through microphones, thus captions allow people to listen to the comedians talk about the movie while also watching the movie. But with general programming, like all cinemas, they are stuck with only being able to provide captioning when it is provided by movie producers.

 

Cinema Clock  https://www.cinemaclock.com/ont/toronto

I also emailed this clearinghouse of movie listings to see if the search function could not be tweaked to include a way to find only those movies with CCs.

The email envelope icon on their home page does not work, so I went to their Contact Us link on the More tab and filled out an online form there. After three weeks, I have not heard back from them.

 

 

I’m going to assume that we have it relatively good in Toronto and that access to assistance for deaf moviegoers is generally sketchy or non-existent in most smaller Canadian cities and towns. If you know otherwise, please share information in the Comments.

If you're interested in accessing more caption options (i.e. for any time slot, not just the cinema's dead day), have a polite chat with or send an informative email to the management. Eventually, feedback will work its way up the corporate ladder and maybe—one day—access to movies for the Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing will no longer be considered an extra cost or frill. It'll just be going to the movies.

 

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Accessibility in Movies and Video in 2018

...and Why I’m Not Going to Shut Up about It

 

I recently had my first experiences using hearing assistance technology (and I use the word technology with something of an eyeroll) at two movie theatres in Toronto. Here's why filmmakers have got to start putting accessibility functions and services into their budgets. The cinemas can't project captions that aren't there.

 

Amazon's photo of a Listen personal amplifier: a small black device resembling a handheld transistor radio, showing volume and battery levels in a screen near the top.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audio Assistance

At the first cinema, I was lent a Listen personal amplifier device with disposable earbuds in exchange for my driver’s license as collateral.

I was rather excited because I was seeing Interstellar, and I knew from previous viewings at home and in the cinema that Matthew McConnaughey’s voice is very difficult to hear in that movie. I thought this would help me hear more of his lines.

With the Listen brand amplifier (smaller than handheld transistor radios and thicker than a cellphone), there was a belt clip. That’s great if you’re wearing something with a waistband. Also, a little red light is visible, which I suspect may be annoying to seat neighbours, and I’m not sure there’s necessarily enough earbud-wire length to turn it upside down in your cupholder or to wear it upside down on your belt to not distract them periperhally.

If you know Interstellar, you’ll know that Hans Zimmer’s awesome soundtrack blasts through much of it—and I mean blasts, to the point of the seats and walls shaking in a non-IMAX movie: organ-lover’s delight! So, every time the action and mood was ramping up, I had to whip the earbuds out (I ended up using my own, as the provided ones were cheap) or have my eardrums practically split. Fine: hazard of the film, and amplification was not needed at that point. However, what was so disappointing was that all the hearing receiver did was create an annoying echo due to a delay in transmission, sort of like echos in cell calls or the overseas long-distance calls of yesteryear on landlines. Now I was hearing Matthew utter his tortured feelings in duplicated mumbling. I gave up on the “assistance” halfway through. This is a device retailing for about $250US or $400CA, so it’s no cheapie, and still the results were less than stellar…

How can an echo assist hearing? Do more current or more expensive models avoid this problem? Leave a comment below if you have other experiences. I retrieved my ID without comment, as I didn’t feel the box-office staff would be very invested in my feedback. They’re 20something with normal hearing, after all.

 

A CaptiView device in the foreground of a dim cinema auditorium; the green digital print gives connection instructions for that cinema.

 

Visual Assistance

My second experience was using CaptiView in a cinema; I did call ahead to make sure one would be available. Not only was it available, it was at the tickettaker’s booth, ready to go, and she knew how to set it up: good start! It conked out during previews “battery very low!!” and the manager said it was because it had just been used in a previous showing, so that indicates to me that perhaps several more are needed on hand to provide access while spent ones are recharged. Nevertheless he had another immediately available. Interestingly, they did not ask for ID or any security for the device: not that I’d want to walk out with one, but I was still pleasantly surprised not to be treated like a potential thief.

Complicating this experience was the flawed subtitles in the movie I saw when a foreign lanugage was translated, so I had two layers of imperfect access to negotiate in my attempt to be fully immersed in the story. In general, the CaptiView worked okay. But:

  1. As I’ve pointed out before, you have to place it in your cupholder, so that leave no cupholder for your pop, which is a problem if you also have popcorn to eat.
  2. Twice the device popped out of the cupholder and fell to the ground: you need to really shove it down prior to the show!
  3. The green type was a good size and clear, except when it didn’t show! Some captions were missing—as in entire or partial sentences never came up and the subsequent lines were on the second or third lines of the device, so I don’t know if that meant the problem was in the CaptiView or the digital file, but it happened about a dozen times.
  4. I felt like I was restricted to a corner of the back row: the green light is distracting to other audience members. What if I had arrived late to a filled auditorium? Would I have to ask a bunch of people to move or would they have to put up with it?
  5. Only the main feature was guaranteed to be captioned. In fact, as noted above, one trailer was captioned on the device. All the other movies that could have attracted the Deaf/hoh audience did not. (I’m assuming the Red Sparrows film itself is accessible and not just the trailer.) And all the pre-film promotional chatter, games, quizzes, interviews, etc. were not accessible. What—only hearing people want to know celebrity news and movie hype?
  6. What if a bunch of my D/deaf friends and I wanted to go to a movie? We couldn’t go spontaneously (what cinema is going to be able to guarantee six recharged devices always available?) or perhaps at all even if notice was given to a smaller company that might not have that many CaptiViews. So, in essence, we’re still facing a lack of or inadequate access. We’re still not able to participate fully in cultural content in the same way hearing folks are. Would it be okay if wheelchair ramps were only available 10% of the time?

In general, the experience wasn’t a disaster, but I certainly wasn’t enthralled with this option. Between my eyes constantly changing focus from short- to long-range, stumbling and losing story immersion when captions were missing, and missing a lot of the movie’s visual impact with the device as a distraction, I definitely did not engage with the film the way I normally would. In short, the CaptiView is sometimes available, but not always conducive to full cultural engagement, and that is a half-baked experience, not full access.

 

In December 2017, Charlie Swinbourne (UK journalist and Limping Chicken blogger about all things Deaf) started a poll to have UK cinemas dedicate one screen per multiplex to captioned movies. This was prompted after a fiasco of inaccessibility at the opening of The Last Jedi, where Deaf/deaf folks were treated shamefully. As of early January, he had 23,000 signatures and had spoken to cinema executives about relevant issues.

This  coincided with the investigation I was carrying out over the pond, which I have tweeted about, and I have been engaging in similar conversations with execs of the cinema corps I have access to in Toronto: Cineplex, Lantern/Imagine, TIFF, Hal Jackman (formerly Cinématheque at the AGO), the Revue, the Royal, and Hot Docs (formerly the Bloor Cinema). I emailed each via general contact emails to start and asked what availability they had for Deaf/deaf/hard of hearing moviegoers. The responses—some seemingly canned, some more invested—are here.

I’ve had conversations with some of these same execs to see if I can’t do some educating about hearing loss, advocating for better accessibility, and asking for meaningful follow through. Some have indicated a willingness to implement more if more products were provided with caption files. The general public tends to blame the cinemas, but they can’t project captions that aren’t on the film file. It’s the movie producers who need to step up.

I also canvassed some small film producers who are making films on (their own) shoestring budgets. Again, there is willingness to caption but not available financial resources.

This investigation has convinced me that if there is to be greater access, it must begin with the major film producers—the ones with the financial ability and the cultural clout to make it the norm to include caption-accessible prints amongst their distributions. I bet if a close relative of one of the big wigs were deaf, they’d have captions all over their product, including trailers (of which I only saw one file on CaptiView for the upcoming Red Sparrows by 20th Century Fox and Chernin Entertainment).

Finally, I don’t know why the government has paid only lip service to the large Deaf, deafened and hard of hearing communities, considering how many there are in Canada (most Western countries use the estimate of 10% of the population as having some form of hearing loss or problems). Accessibility to content for the Deaf, deaf or hard of hearing has been in the supposed forefront of accessibility changes for 30 years (really spurred on by the advent of VCRs in the 80s), but not much has changed. Currently, there's a survey about live captioning in Canadian TV, but this is duplication. The CRTC did a survey about captioning 10 years ago, and the requirement to provide captions (with various exceptions) is not enforced. You can read about its status here; while you can complain about bad captions, the independent ombudsman they promised in 2015 is still slated for the future. They've done standards policies, surveys, focus groups and pilot projects (2008, 2012, 2015). Where's the improvement? They don't seem to understand the nuances of captioning, reading, and how textual editing affects user experience. You can have the fastest captioners in the world produce CCs, but "quality control" needs to be two-stepped: technical and editorial. The latter is not taught or enforced. I know because I worked as a captioner. (I did offer to help set up a vocational school so that effective language training would be offered—in Canada, anyway. But crickets.)

VODS like Netflix* have continued to do the poorest job, just enough to stay out of regulatory trouble it seems, but my educational portfolio of hundreds of caption fails proves that the non-hearing are completely underserviced in all public services with captioning. Based on the attempts I’ve made to educate and offer improvement, the interest and will just isn’t there. And I’m not going to shut up about it until people needing excellent captioning in all aspects of life start seeing improvement to access, and therefore participation in Canadian life.

I’ve also written about 2017 being touted as the year of the deaf in the movies. Here’s what I thought about The Shape of Water, Wonderstruck and all the hype about D/deaf folks in film.

 

 

*I really don’t have a hate-on for Netflix alone; it’s just the system I have and use, not having a TV. But I do have ill regard for them: their attempts to service the non-hearing are terrible and nowhere near meet their advertised standards. This is because their system of hiring “Preferred Vendors” promotes unqualified bottom-feeders in many cases. (Not all—I have subtitling colleagues who are professional translators and titlers who are NPVs, but they are the exception to the rule.) If you’d like to send me screenshots of caption or subtitle fails from other sources, please do (info@reelwords.ca): I’ll add them to my portfolio of fails and fixes.

 

For information on booking teaching and speaking engagements, see that tab on my website.

 

Top image: from amazon.com

Bottom image: by author

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Deafness and the Movies in 2017: Sanctimonious Narratives?

 

Sally Hawkins signing "egg" to offscreen monster in the dim laboratory in The Shape of Water

 

A couple of movies with ASL and people go crazy, saying the tide has turned for Deaf/deaf actors and filmmakers. Um—not necessarily. Here’s a new-year look back at the hype and some re-examined perspective.

I loved Wonderstruck on a bunch of levels. Millicent Simmonds certainly appears to have an acting career ahead of her, but there was a lot of blowback about Julianne Moore having been cast to play a Deaf woman. The movement for equality in Hollywood often makes the point that mainstream actors should not be cast to play folks with various differences in terms of realism, employment for overlooked talent, and plain ol’ decency. Not being Deaf or deaf, I don’t feel qualified to comment on Moore’s casting or portrayal: I was too busy trying to watch the ASL by her and Tom Noonan, being a new student of signing myself.

I feel like the movie would have made more of a statement had it been distributed with open (always on) captions. It took some risks with a lot of other artistic choices but didn’t inherently provide access to all viewers and include the D/deaf/HoH except by half-assed access in some theatres with some assistance (in other words, the status quo). A petition about this went virtually nowhere.

I binged on the Call the Midwife series, which did use a deaf actress in Season 4, Episode 8.  I can’t comment much as she learned BSL for her role and I am only familiar with ASL. But I can’t believe no one has batted an eye at IMDb’s plot outline being about “a deaf-and-dumb woman”! Have we just backslid several decades? Holy moly—send their PR department a cheat sheet on current acceptable vocabulary choices!

I went to The Shape of Water knowing I wasn’t really into director Guillermo del Toro, but my friend was curious and I wanted to see the ASL by Sally Hawkins. Again, not being D/deaf, I can’t really judge her skill. However, I was uncomfortable with the implied sim com. Simultaneous communication—signing and speaking English at the same time—is generally considered oppressive and disrespectful of the Deaf community and signing as a bona fide lanugage. In the movie, there are moments when Hawkins is signing and Richard Jenkins’s character is translating into English for himself, but the signs were syllabically aligned with sign movements, so the number of signs matched the number of words. This was factually incorrect interpretation, and it bugged me that a production decision was (seemingly) made to “make it equal” for the hearing audience to supposedly access the ASL. We made the signing inclusive by ironically captioning it for the hearing to access, but didn’t make the entire movie open-captioned for the deaf to access (again). That kind of inequality and ingrained exclusion makes me really annoyed. I don’t expect every screening of every film to be OCed, but one about a signer could surely have made a statement of inclusion like this, couldn’t it? Particularly since the main theme was otherness...

Some time ago, I wrote about The Tribe or Plemya (dir. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014), an uncaptioned and unsubtitled Ukrainian sign-language film with no spoken dialogue, which was made all the more affecting by not making it accessible to the hearing with captions: it’s one of the most powerful films I’ve seen. If we want to get all warm and fuzzy about deafness entering mainstream pop culture, we need to back the production and embrace the release of art like this: made with and for (and preferably by) those being portrayed.

Four boys lead a smaller one by the ear down a dimly lit institutional hallway; a still from the movie The Tribe.

 

ABC’s Switched at Birth (exposed more broadly by Netflix) apparently drove tons of people to go sign up for ASL across North America. Once the complexity and demands of this beautiful and challenging language were encountered in the classroom, though, I wonder how many stuck it out? Marlee Matlin made sign language sexy to cinema, and her advocacy over the decades has improved attitudes towards the Deaf. ASL advocate and model Nyle DiMarco certainly turns heads "despite" being Deaf, and The ASL App has upped the cool factor. But let’s not get carried away and create a sanctimonious narrative that the movies are all over deafness and sign language. If there were sustained interest and true access, I wouldn’t be writing op eds about the need for excellence in captioning and the right to cultural access for the Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing. In fact, there wouldn’t be any commentary about #DeafTalent: it would just be there, amidst the rest of the hearing world’s projects.

 

 

Top image: http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/2017/07/19/shape-water-trailer-sally-hawkins-meets-underwater-creature-guillermo-del-toros-latest/

Second image: www.vice.com

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Captions Need Show “Bibles”

Colour photo closeup of gilded Bible pages, with gold cover, snap closure and tasselled bookbark hanging in the foreground.

 

Captions and subtitles need "bibles" just like theatre pieces or movie productions. Like their literal iterations, these collections of information are guides for all the relevant players on how to present content so that it's clear, correct, and, most of all, consistent.

When I was a captioner, some shows had 'em and some didn't. Worst was when we had to consult fan wikis for character name spellings, backstory, etc. VODS, shows, and movies need bibles templated and used, if they're going to commit to full accessibility for all users.*

Depending on where the captioner or subtitler is, there are differences in how they would normally write as a layman and how they would do their work. A Canadian captioning a show from and about the States would defer to American dictionary spellings and definitions and standard writing style guides, plus the client's house style guide. But an American subtitling an import series from Scandinavia would be wise to not only adhere to the client's wishes and that country's standard guides but also recommend other applications based on show content and branding, audience composition and an eye to future distribution potential.

Show bibles vary from artform to artform. It may well develop to have set and costume notes and samples, helpful visual ephemera, guidelines on authorized style guides, character details, notes on directorial changes and edits (updated), and all of this should be backed up—at least twice. Hard copies might also be wise should the internetalypse happen midproduction.

Here's an example of what Netflix's much (self-)touted subtitling policies did not address or succeed at (or this wouldn't have happened).

Peaky Blinders, Season 4, Episode 5 (accessed December 2017). In one scene, Cockney Jewish character Alfie Solomons is saying Good boy but the caption says Goodbye. Perhaps the non-native captioner (or one without British background or dialectic familiarity) should not be the titler for dialogue if they can't understand the accent, let alone understand that Goodbye wouldn't even make sense in the context if that were the audio. It causes errors and (although apparently not here) extra costs in QC corrections.

Screenshot of Alfie Solomons and Luca Changretta characters in Peaky Blinders show. The erroneous caption for Alfie says, Goodbye, trot on. Down there is Bonnie Street.
Image: cropped screenshot accessed Netflix, Peaky Blinders, December 31, 2017.

If a show bible is not extant or available, a good editor will do some research and preferably some subsequent consultation. The latter should be done by the most qualified expert in their professional network: moms with English degrees don't count. Having established some form of NDA, the editor should present their problem and its context, their research, and a suggested edit to the consultant. Confirmation or correction should lead to a fix, and either way the edit should be flagged with a justified query or note to the managing editor. Time is tight on titling projects, but there's no excuse for guessing. I have a time limit on how long I'll do my own research before turning to an expert; if I can't get the ME a recommended edit, I'll pass on my recommendations for next steps.

This example also points out the pitfalls of having blinders on about vendors. Perhaps your regular multilingual translator in Europe is multitalented, but this show would have required a titler who had ties to or experience with people in London and Birmingham, for instance.

Another problem with this scene was when, in the same episode,

Alfie Solomons was captioned as speaking Italian when in fact he was speaking Yiddish...

Alfie Solomons in Peaky Blinders show is captioned as "[speaking Italian]"

 

...but the captioner didn't have enough linguistic background to tell the difference between gutteral and romance language phonemes. (Note that although different, captions and subtitles are sometimes needed in the same product. Read more here.) The titler should have consulted someone (or perhaps shouldn't have been contracted in the first place). I have a whole discrete presentation I can give about foreign language subtitling inconsistencies within Netflix captions; see the Engagements tab to book similar lessons and discussions.

So a bible, shared with the captioner, would have been available to tell them that Alfie Solomons is a Jew from the East End, living in Birmingham, with the common interruptor of the area's "yeah" and that he has no known connections to the Italian language. These are two instances where Netflix would have been saved embarrassment from YGWYPF vendors. If they aren't embarrassed, simply in terms of access to content for the deaf they should be.

Bibles can be simple, and they don't have to be pretty. But they do need to be complete, proactive, shared and USED.

 

*Read here about who should be using captions and/or subtitles (and sometimes both); it's not just a "deaf problem."

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